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Farmers and the Transition to Universal Credit

Yesterday I hosted a Westminster Hall Debate on farmers and Universal Credit. Farmers have faced extreme difficulty with the transition to universal credit, which is needed to sustain them during off seasons or less profitable months, sometimes years. The fact that the state of our food supply chains mean that farmers need benefits to boost their incomes is also deeply worrying, but that is a blog post for another time. The fact is that they do, which is why I hosted this debate. I asked the Minister to design a system which works with not against farmers. 

This morning for breakfast I had oat clusters. For lunch, a cheese panini with some salad. That means that so far today, without even thinking about it, I have had produce from oat and wheat farmers, dairy farmers, and a variety of vegetable farmers. I suspect everyone could say something similar if they stopped to think about it, and this just goes to show how integral the farming industry is to our daily lives.  

North East Fife has lots of rural areas, and as a result, lots of farmers. Local farmers reaching out is how I first became aware of this issue. But even if you live in an urban area, farming is quite literally the life blood of our very being. To be blunt, without farmers we do not have food, so we must support them and the farming industry in every way we can.  

There are several obstacles which are making it difficult for farmers to get Universal Credit. For one, the timing. The Government is asking many farmers to go through the process of transitioning from Tax Credits to Universal Credit now. Which comes right in the middle of peak farming months. It is the middle of lambing season. Sheep farmers do not have time to be sorting through their accounts, to be visiting the job centre or even to be having interviews by phone.  

Farming is not a 9 to 5 job where appointments can be scheduled. The sheep three fields down having a difficult birth is not going to hold on because the job centre is due to call. And the farmer who not only cares deeply for their animals but also can’t afford to lose income if things go wrong, is not going to stay in the house. They will be down in the field with the sheep to keep an eye on things and intervene if need be. Even if there is phone signal, which is not guaranteed, a farmer can hardly talk through the viability of his business whilst elbow deep in a sheep.  

It may be a lightly comical image, but it is deeply frustrating for farmers and incredibly stressful when they are worried about losing their income. Frankly it shows a failure within the DWP system to understand how farming works at all.

Another issue is that Universal Credit does not account for variable incomes and does not allow for them to be averaged out. The very nature of farming means that farming income varies significantly through the year or even over multiple years.  

Going back to our sheep farmer, busy saving their animals and bringing new ones into the world rather than speaking to a work coach. That lamb will not be ready for sale until much later in the year. Meanwhile the sheep and the lamb will require food, shelter, water, shearing and possibly extra hands on the farm to help out in the busy months. An arable farmer might try their hardest to grow crops to be harvested in each season, but this just is not practical. Not all areas are suitable for all produce and sometimes it can be more profitable to specialise.  

This does not mean that there is no work to be done until harvest and sale time – just that that work does not get paid for many months. Meanwhile seed, fertiliser and fuel costs are all going up. And sometimes it all goes wrong. A really bad harvest. Illness amongst livestock. A year of barely breaking even.  But then suddenly – hopefully – all that hard work and waiting pays off and payment comes in. After months of very little, a significant income boost. But this boost will then write off Universal Credit for that month, even though that income boost will have to stretch over the many months until the next sale day.

Another issue is that, while Tax Credits allowed farmers to average out their income over a multiple year cycle, Universal Credit only takes a one month snapshot. Given work coaches are required to assess if self-employment is gainful, there is a significant risk of months of loss being seen as not real work. Some work coaches might understand how farming works, but others certainly won’t. This cannot be left to luck, whether a farm is considered to be a business or just a hobby in the eyes of DWP. A standard reform of how income is assessed would be a much fairer and efficient path to take.   

A related issue is the imposition of the Minimum Income Floor after the 12 month transition period, which applies a deemed minimum income when calculating universal credit works in these cases. This results in vital income support being taken away from farming families in those months where their produce is being produced rather than sold. During the debate, I urged the Minister to review this.

The final barrier is similar to the first. After the administrative burden of applying to Universal Credit, farmers must continue providing monthly income updates. Farmers are not accountants. And most importantly, they work full time doing the actual farming, so they rarely have time to provide monthly financial updates.

What farmers need, is a system which allows for averaging income over multiple months and years. Where benefits are paid during income spikes, and where there is no assumed minimum income when it is low. This needs to happen without the administrative burden of monthly appointments and paperwork. There also needs to be an understanding of how farming works, and the variety of farming set ups. 

I cannot stress enough what is at stake here. There is a Facebook support group for Farming Families. Yesterday someone anonymously posted that because their family were so busy on the farm, they could not get to the job centre and have had their benefits stopped. The writer went on to say, in their own words, that they wanted to chuck themselves off a bridge.  

Just a few days before that someone wrote that that they were able to feed their children, but they could not afford to eat that day themselves. They used to get £700 in tax credits a month but the assessment for Universal Credit does not take into account the difference between income paid to the family and income used to meet farming bills. Because of the system change, someone producing our food, cannot afford to eat. 

This just isn’t ok.  

Farmers are literally the reason why we are here with full stomachs right now. Why our children have the energy to go to school and learn. Why we can go to the supermarket and make dinner tonight. Why our restaurants are some of the best in the world.  We must support them.  

It is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do considering what is at stake.


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