Brent food bank stockpiling food in anticipation of Universal Credit ‘chaos’

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LONDON: Brent food bank, Sufra NW London, is stockpiling food in anticipation of Universal Credit being rolled out in the borough on Wednesday 21 November, which Sufra’s director believes will spell chaos, hardship and acute stress for many of those affected.

Universal Credit, a new benefit system, is being rolled out in stages across Britain and it will be introduced to Harlesden job centre in Brent on Wednesday.

Mohammed Mamdani, Director of Sufra NW London, supported by Islamic Relief UK, said: “There has been very little public awareness of what Universal Credit is and how people will be affected by it, so a lot of vulnerable people will be in for a big shock. Many people affected don’t read newspapers and don’t have a television, so we are expecting chaos.

“Research has shown that in other boroughs that have rolled out Universal Credit, there has been a 52 per cent increase in food banks, so we are getting prepared and are stockpiling as much food as we can.”

Universal Credit will be paid monthly in arrears, so people will have to wait for a month before their first payment is made.

Mohammed Mamdani added: “People who come to our food bank are living hand-to-mouth and being forced to wait for benefit payments could be devastating for them. They could be plunged into debt and unable to pay for essential food and fuel bills. And at this time of the year, as the cold weather sets in, this could be very dangerous. People are entitled to apply for an advance to cover the gap, but we have found that other people who have already been moved onto Universal Credit are then trapped into a lower income in order to pay back the advance. So this is something we are not advising people to apply for.

“One of our clients who moved to the area from Islington applied for Universal Credit six weeks ago and she has been coming to the food bank every day, dishevelled and forlorn.  She struggled to apply as she doesn’t have a computer and doesn’t know how to use one. But the application is online only.

“We work with some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the borough, including Syrian refugees. Many do not have computers or are not able to speak English. In Brent alone, people speak 170 different languages.

“I have serious concerns for the mental health of many people who will be moving onto this new system. The existing benefits system is already very stressful to navigate but I fear that Universal Credit will send people over the edge. We only have one advice worker for 4,000 people at the centre and we are expecting absolute chaos!”

Sufra is based in the St. Raphael’s Estate which has some of the lowest poverty indicators in London. For example, 38 per cent of children are living in poverty in St Raphael’s compared with 19% across England and 27 per cent are in full time employment compared with 39% across England, 40% in London and 36% in Brent.

Islamic Relief has supported Sufra NW London since April 2018. Sufra also has a garden that supplies fresh fruit, vegetables, free range eggs, jam and honey for the food bank and opportunities for local people in horticulture training and other outdoor activities.

Islamic Relief’s UK Programmes Coordinator, Sara Caggiati, said: “Islamic Relief supports some of the most vulnerable people in the country and the roll-out of Universal Credit is a huge concern. It is very clear when we speak to our partners, like Sufra – who are working on the frontline of poverty – that many people will become destitute and severely distressed. The concerns that Mohammed is addressing should be a wakeup call and must be dealt with immediately.”