On the phone, Lucy Akdemir is in tears. Thousands of families like hers are facing a Christmas cancelled by Universal Credit.
But for the past year, her severely disabled dad Alan Oakman has been paying to buy a hamper for her young family so they don’t have to spend the festive season at the food bank.
“My dad’s amazing,” Lucy says. “It means unlike so many others we’ll have something in the cupboards.”
This week the Mirror received a moving letter from Alan, who lives in Swansea.
“I am writing to you on my daughter’s behalf,” it said.
“She was put on Universal Credit. This month she got a payment of £550, half last month’s amount.
"Her rent is £500 a month. That leaves £50 for her to pay bills and buy food for her and her baby.”
Alan added: “I am severely disabled, in a wheelchair, unable to walk and nearly blind.
"It is very upsetting what this Government is doing to people. The way things are going, I really worry for her safety.”
When I call Lucy, she is fighting back tears. “I’ve never been in this situation in my life, it’s degrading,” she says. “We waited seven weeks for Universal Credit.
"What were we supposed to live on? Now, since I’ve been moved over, they’ve been taking more money off me and wanting more back.
“You hear all these stories in the news of people taking their own lives. You can totally believe it.
"And you can see how people end up at the food bank. My son is two.
"I need to buy nappies, pay the household bills, pay the rent first to make sure we aren’t evicted. Where does the money come from for food?”
While the political classes agonise over Brexit, the misery machine of Universal Credit rolls on into another festive season.
The built-in five-week waiting period means anyone transferred to the hated new benefit after November 20 faces Christmas Day with empty cupboards.
This week the Mirror revealed food banks are braced for their busiest Christmas ever because of the five-week wait and UC’s other deep problems.
The Trussell Trust alone – which runs about half of the UK’s food banks – says it is expecting to feed 1.5 million meals to starving families, including a shocking 590,598 children.
It’s not just the five-week wait. “My husband works as a barber,” says Lucy, 35.
“I’ve always worked. But at the moment I’ve got a young child and I’m trying to get an Open University degree to better myself.”
Her husband is Turkish and not classed as resident in the UK so he doesn’t qualify for UC.
His earnings as a self-employed barber are taken into account, though, in Lucy’s payments.
So, he is invisible for help, and visible when it comes to taking money away.
The result has been a significant loss in help since transferring from child tax credits and housing benefit.
The DWP says that “Universal Credit payments reflect the earnings and circumstances of the entire household. No one needs to wait for their first payment as up to 100% advance payments are available from day one”.
But, of course, fear of debt prevents many people from borrowing what must be then paid back every month.
Meanwhile, this week a group of single mums on Universal Credit challenged the scheme in the High Court for being “irrational”.
Under UC, working parents are entitled to keep the first £198 they earn within a one-month assessment period.
But a problem happens when people get paid twice within the same calendar month – for example when there’s a bank holiday or over Christmas when wages may be paid early.
When this happens, they look as though they are on double pay in the first month, so get little or no help, often due to the Benefit Cap.
And in the second month it will look as if they earned nothing.
So there’s no protected amount. Families also find the fluctuating payments impossible to budget for.
In three cases brought by the Child Poverty Action Group, care assistant Erin Barrett has had to use food banks and twice tried to take her own life.
Katie Stewart had to leave her job to find one with a pay date which suits the new system, and Claire Woods was left to rely on a food bank and forced to turn down a promotion at work.
Meanwhile, Danielle Johnson’s lawyer, Tessa Gregory from Leigh Day, said the system left Danielle £500 a year poorer. Danielle told the court: “I have never been this financially unstable before.”
In interviews to mark her new job, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd claims that Universal Credit “really has transformed lives” in her constituency in Hastings and Rye.
This is true.
A National Audit Office report recently revealed that since Universal Credit had been rolled out in Hastings, food bank use has risen by 80%.
On Saturday, Unite Community is holding a #StopUniversalCredit day of action with over 100 events being held across the country. Click here for further details.
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