UC topping up low wages says community worker as Foyle Foodbank becomes Foyle Network Foundation

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Community worker Karen Mullan says the level of financial need in Derry remains acute with thousands of people relying on Universal Credit to supplement their incomes because of low wages.

Ms. Mullan made the observation as the Foyle Foodbank was officially rebranded under the Foyle Network Foundation banner on Monday.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ at the foodbank’s final Annual General Meeting under the old brand Ms. Mullan spoke of how thousands of working people locally rely on Universal Credit to top up their incomes because salaries are too low.

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"The level of need is very high. We saw it recently when over the winter we had a voucher scheme in partnership with the Council and others. It was for people who were working and were on the threshold.

Staff, volunteers, members and representatives of partner organisations at the Foyle Foodbank AGM on Monday when the organisation rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation.Staff, volunteers, members and representatives of partner organisations at the Foyle Foodbank AGM on Monday when the organisation rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation.
Staff, volunteers, members and representatives of partner organisations at the Foyle Foodbank AGM on Monday when the organisation rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation.

"When we went out to contact most of those people they were being topped up with Universal Credit. The salaries are so low in this town. We have a benefits system that is not fit for purpose.

"We've had two years of high costs - rents, mortgages, food, clothes - everything has gone up. Home energy, we haven't seen that come down. So we have continued to see that need be there and there is so much unmet need because we know people haven't come forward,” she said.

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The rebrand as the Foyle Network Foundation has been undertaken with funding from The Trussell Trust and delivered in partnership with Grays Communications.

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Karen Mullan, manager of the Foyle Foodbank, which rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation at its AGM on Monday.Karen Mullan, manager of the Foyle Foodbank, which rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation at its AGM on Monday.
Karen Mullan, manager of the Foyle Foodbank, which rebranded as the Foyle Network Foundation at its AGM on Monday.

It has been taken as a result of the foodbank’s expanding role that has seen it move beyond the provision of food assistance to a broader range of measures to assist families and individuals during challenging periods, she explained.

"This has been something we have worked on over the past two years. We've listened to people. We've listened to people who use our service, people who refer into our service and, for some, ‘foodbank’ can be seen as a barrier to using our service but also we are so much more than a foodbank now. We provide so much, many more services. We work in partnership with others to be able to do that,” she said.

Eight members of the Foyle Network Foundation who have used the foodbank service personally have been working through a participation forum to look at ways to make it easier for people to avail of support.

Ms. Mullan said low wages, compounded by eye-watering inflation over the past number of years, have meant staff and volunteers have been extremely busy and that the provision of food parcels has often marked the start of a journey with the people they have supported.

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The final Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Foyle Foodbank under the old brand took place on Monday. Manager Karen Mullan spoke of how thousands of working people locally rely on Universal Credit to top up their incomes because salaries are too low as the Foyle Network Foundation was established to tackle high levels of financial need in Derry.The final Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Foyle Foodbank under the old brand took place on Monday. Manager Karen Mullan spoke of how thousands of working people locally rely on Universal Credit to top up their incomes because salaries are too low as the Foyle Network Foundation was established to tackle high levels of financial need in Derry.
The final Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Foyle Foodbank under the old brand took place on Monday. Manager Karen Mullan spoke of how thousands of working people locally rely on Universal Credit to top up their incomes because salaries are too low as the Foyle Network Foundation was established to tackle high levels of financial need in Derry.

"We provide more than food. Even at our centre, in terms of practical support, we provide toiletries, household cleaning items, pet food, along with the food package.

"Alongside that we have a financial inclusion project and everyone that comes to our service will meet with one of our team and they will look at what is going on for the person, what has brought them to that point.

"We can provide other financial help or support around the person but then what we do is make referrals out.

“We refer, particularly, to the four advice services in the city and we work with the three Credit Unions. Then we can also bring in grants, electricity, fuel, energy for people so it is that full wraparound support.

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"We work with other charities such as St. Vincent de Paul who will help us if someone needs furniture. We will work with some of the groups around clothes and things like that so it is a whole package. We don't do it all ourselves. They key to this is working in partnership with others and bringing that support to the person.”

Figures recently released by the Department for Communities show that the number of out-of-work Universal Credit claimants in Foyle rose from 7,740 in September 2022 to 8,620 in July 2023.

The number of in-work claimants rose from 3,840 to 4,080 over the same period. Of 12,700 UC claimants in Derry last July, 32 per cent were classed as being in-work.

Ms. Mullan said this is something that has become obvious at the foodbank as it moved towards the rebrand.

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“It is something we have spoken to our other partners about that we need to look at going forward. That the wages are so low in this city. Too many people are being topped up by Universal Credit and that needs to be addressed,” she insisted.

In order to tackle food and fuel poverty the Foyle Foodbank has worked with the various local advice centres over the past year to increase the incomes of people who are both employed and out-of-work. This was outlined at the AGM in the Waterside Shared Village centre on Monday.

"It's not always about food. Today we are sharing some of our successes over the last year. We have maximised people's incomes in the last six to eight months by over £100,000. That was in partnership with the advice services,” said Ms. Mullan.

Going forward the Foyle Network Foundation hopes to continue signposting people to services so that they are able to benefit from all the entitlements available to them.

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“That was people coming in to us who were entitled to benefits and who didn't know or didn't know about it. We made the referral out to the advice service and they supported them through that process. That's what we can do as well so it is more than food,” she said.