Published: 10:17, 31 August 2018
| Updated: 15:18, 31 August 2018
A high-ranking bishop in the county has called on the Government to "fix" its controversial Universal Credit benefit system, amid reports of a surge in demand at food banks in areas where it has been introduced.
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Rev Trevor Willmott, has signed a petition from the End Hunger UK campaign which calls for a review of the state benefit so it can be more flexible.
It comes as the Canterbury Diocese, which the Bishop of Dover serves, has reported a 23% increase in the number of people receiving emergency food supplies in its area compared to last year.
The Trussell Trust, a charity that co-ordinates food banks, said it has seen a 52% increase in food bank use in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out, as well as rising debt, destitution and hunger.
The campaign is calling for improvements to the design of Universal Credit and a long-term commitment to ensure it provides people with an adequate income to afford decent food regularly.
The Bishop said: “I have signed the End Hunger UK petition, calling on the Government to fix Universal Credit to prevent more people going hungry.
"I would like to encourage parishes and churchgoers across the diocese to do the same.
“More and more people are finding that they have had to turn to food banks following the introduction of Universal Credit.
"They’re reporting unintended delays, lack of digital support, poor administration, and a lack of flexibility in the system.
"All of these problems can and must be resolved.
“In our diocese alone (Canterbury), there are five Trussell Trust food banks, which last year distributed more than 9,000 emergency food parcels to people in crisis – more than 3,500 of those went to children.
"There are also at least 31 independent food banks, which are quietly making huge difference to people, helping them to put food on their tables and avoid hunger for one more day.
"Our churches are doing remarkable work, helping to meet the need in their neighbourhoods – but this will only ever address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.
“We need urgent action to improve the flexibility and support for people on Universal Credit, and a long-term commitment that the social security system will provide enough income to afford good food on a regular basis.
"Without such action, we can expect to see more and more people turning to food banks and becoming trapped in poverty, as Universal Credit continues to roll out across our nation.”
Bishop Trevor has called on churches and churchgoers in the area to consider signing the petition and to collect further signatures, as well as liaising with neighbouring churches to raise awareness of food poverty in their area.
The End Hunger UK campaign is supported by the Trussell Trust and organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group, Church Action on Poverty, and the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty.
The petition will be delivered to the Prime Minister in the lead-up to the Budget in November.
The Canterbury Diocese covers, wholly or partly, the district council areas of Dover, Folkestone and Hythe, Thanet, Ashford, Canterbury, Swale and Maidstone.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.
“Universal Credit is working for the vast majority who claim it. We’ve already made significant improvements, such as 100% advances which support people before their first payment, removing the seven waiting days, and two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving onto Universal Credit.
"We continue to spend around £90 billion a year supporting people who need it, including those who are out of work or on a low income.
"Work is the best means of providing people with financial security, and with our welfare reforms people are moving into employment faster and staying there longer than under the old system."
The petition can be viewed on the web page http://endhungeruk.org/ucpetition