WALKING through the woods in the dead of night, Nathan and his girlfriend Abbey hear a rabbit rustling in the bushes and know they’ll eat tonight.
Struggling to make ends meet on Universal Credit, the only way the couple say they can make sure they don’t go hungry is to take their dog hunting for rabbits and moles – which they later skin and serve up for dinner.
“You struggle with money, how you’ll buy your food and everything else that you need to do when you have bills to pay,” says Abbey. “So you go out with your dog, he catches the food for you.”
The shocking scene – which will be shown in the Channel 4 documentary Skint Britain: Friends Without Benefits – demonstrates the desperation of poverty-stricken Brits left penniless by changes in the benefit system.
The documentary, which airs on Wednesday, focuses on the North East town of Hartlepool where the controversial scheme – which sees people being sanctioned if they can’t prove they’ve spent 35 hours a week job hunting – was trialled before being rolled out nationwide.
But with 22 per cent of young people in the town unemployed and a clear lack of jobs available, the docking of benefits has increased tenfold, creating huge queues at local food banks and an increase in homelessness and crime.
‘We eat rabbits and moles to survive because beans are too expensive’
Malnutrition is a growing problem in the UK, with experts partially blaming this on austerity.
Nathan and his girlfriend Abbey are both under 25, which means they get 25 per cent less payments on Universal Credit than older claiments.
Although Nathan lives with his parents and 15-year-old sister Tamsyn – they are also on benefits and struggling to put food on the table.
Mum Tracey has battled cancer twice and was forced to quit her job to become a full-time carer for her husband, Trevor, who has the neurological condition multiple sclerosis.
After helping his mum with the bills, Nathan’s payments of £150 a month barely cover his food.
In a frank admission, he says: “I’d rather go back to selling drugs, swear down I had money every day.”
In order to eat, Nathan and Abbey set their dog Twister on animals such as squirrels, moles and rabbits, which the pair then skin and cook.
“Everything’s going up in price and your dole is being cut,” says Nathan. “I remember when you could get eight cans of beans for a quid, now you can only get two.”
Nathan is actively looking for work.
“I told the job centre what I was good at, they sat me down and asked me if I wanted to be an IT technician,” he explains.
“How can I do that when I can’t read or write?”
Mum Tracey adds that her son struggled with school, and ended up being kicked out.
“He took the only path he knew, which was getting into trouble,” she adds.
No help – even if you have cancer
In the show, Nathan’s family are rocked by the news that Tracey has had some abnormal test results which her doctor is 90 per cent sure is her cancer coming back.
Due to a lack of food, she’s slimmed down from a size 18 to a 10, but her doctor is concerned if things continue this way she won’t be strong enough for chemotherapy.
He advises her to go on a high-protein diet, and Tracey’s local authority advise her to call the DWP and ask if she can have extra payments.
But shockingly, she’s told she isn’t even eligible for advance payments.
“The system’s wrong, it stinks. The old system, you could have applied for a crisis loan. You have to basically do without and get on with it,” says Tracey.
Left with just £5 to live on for a whole month
Viewers also meet 40-year-old David, who has gone to his local food bank after being left with just £5 to live on for a month.
David, who hasn’t eaten in days, explains that he wants to work but his eye condition makes it hard as he has to wear special lenses, which he can only tolerate for a short time every day.
His doctor signed him off sick and he was put on disability payments, but these were stopped after he was found to be fit for work.
“With the lens out, I have about five per cent vision,” he says. “My doctor is not too pleased about it, he’s been defeated. He’s saying I can’t work but it’s the system saying I can work.”
He doesn’t have a phone or computer, and keeps asking the DWP to send him letters in the post.
But the Universal Credit system is largely online and the letters have never arrived, meaning he is misses appointments he doesn’t know about and his payments are docked.
His situation is so desperate, he borrows £2.50 from his dad to help him buy some basic food for a few days until an advance payment of £188 finally comes in to him from the DWP.
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The shocking stories from Hartlepool show that the system is broken, and clearly needs to change – before it’s too late.
Skint Britain: Friends Without Benefits is on Channel 4, 13 February, at 9pm