Food banks warn of struggle to cope this Christmas due to universal credit

Food banks have said they will struggle to meet the soaring need for emergency food supplies from low-income families this Christmas as hardship caused by the six-week waiting period for universal credit payment starts to bite.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said demand for its parcels in areas where full service universal credit is in operation had increased by an average of 30% since April, compared with 12% in sample areas not yet covered by the new benefit system.

Releasing its mid-year figures, the trust said universal credit waits, reduced disability entitlements, the freeze on benefit increases and low pay had driven up referrals to its food banks by 13%, putting it on course to deliver record levels of food aid this year.

The trust, whose 428 food bank centres have given out 587,000 three-day emergency food packages since April, called on ministers to take urgent action to reduce the minimum 42-day waiting time for a first universal credit payment.

“The simple truth is that even with the enormous generosity of our donors and volunteers, we’re concerned food banks could struggle to meet demand this winter if critical changes to benefit delivery aren’t made now,” said Mark Ward, Trussell’s interim chief executive.

Meanwhile, research by one of the UK’s biggest social landlords estimates that the mandatory six-week wait for a first universal credit payment will put more than 23,000 low-income UK families at risk of destitution in the run-up to Christmas.

About 41,000 children live in households due to move on to universal credit from mid-November, leaving parents struggling to afford seasonal treats and gifts as well as basic living essentials, the Peabody Trusthousing association said.

Brendan Sarsfield, Peabody’s chief executive, said: “Six weeks’ minimum wait for payment is too long and is pushing the poorest into greater debt. The government should pause the rollout and reduce the waiting period to two weeks. This could ensure 40,000 households get some money in time for Christmas.”

About 118 jobcentres in areas including Birmingham, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Lambeth, Swansea, Brighton, Dundee, Newport, Gateshead, Waltham Forest, Reading and Oxfordshire are scheduled to move on to the full universal credit system over the next few weeks.

In the absence of official forecasts, Peabody used recent data on universal credit starts and family types to calculate that 39% of the estimated 60,000 households coming on to the system in November and December would contain children.

There is no official data on numbers of children for each universal credit household, so Peabody used the UK household average of 1.74 to reach the figure of 41,000 children. It added: “Our estimate may be underestimating the actual number here, as families are taking a growing proportion of the increase now that the full service is being rolled out.”

The chair of the all-party Commons work and pensions committee, Frank Field, whose Birkenhead constituency will shift on to universal credit this month told the Guardian that waits for the new benefit would push many families “to the brink of destitution” in the run-up to Christmas.

Field said in a Commons debate last month that the main food bank in Birkenhead was looking to stockpile an extra 15 tonnes of supplies to enable it to manage the expected explosion in demand following the arrival of universal credit. Ministers replied that they did not expect food bank use to increase.

The Department for Work and Pensions said there was no causal link between food bank use and welfare reform and it would be “misleading” to suggest so. It described the Peabody figures as “speculative”. A spokesperson said: “We’re clear that advance payments are widely available from the start of anyone’s universal credit claim and urgent cases are fast-tracked so no one should be without funds.”

However, a recent report by the work and pensions committee on universal credit concluded that advance loans offered only limited help because claimants were able to borrow the equivalent of up to only two weeks’ universal credit income to help them through the six-week waiting period.

The committee’s inquiry into universal credit, published last week, received copious evidence from landlords and claimants showing that the mandatory 42-day wait leaves many people struggling to pay rent and meet basic living costs. About a fifth wait longer than six weeks for a first payment, while an estimated 85% do not have a month’s worth of savings to tide them over.

There are about 600,000 people on full service universal credit, and by the time it is fully rolled out in 2022 an estimated 7 million are expected to claim it. Universal credit was designed to simplify the benefits system by bundling six existing entitlements – including unemployment benefit, housing benefit and working tax credit – into one. However, the long-delayed programme, which is five years behind schedule, has run into huge criticism as a result of huge cuts, administrative errors and complexity.

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