Universal credit fuels rise in foodbank use

New figures show the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest operator of food banks, provided record levels of emergency food supplies last year, driven by benefits not covering the costs of essentials.

Between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, the Trussell Trust’s foodbank network distributed 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, 484,016 of these went to children. The figures represent a 13 per cent increase on the previous year.

According to the Trussell Trust, the biggest single and fastest growing reason for referral to a foodbank was due to low-income benefits. As such, the charity is calling for benefits to be uprated in line with inflation to ensure payments keep pace with the cost of living.

The roll-out of universal credit (UC) was a significant factor in many areas. New analysis by the charity of foodbanks that have been in UC roll-out areas for a year or more show that these foodbanks experienced an average increase of 52 per cent in the 12 months after the full roll-out of the new benefits system in the area. In comparison, foodbanks in areas either not in full UC areas, or where the new system had been rolled out for three months, showed an average increase of 13 per cent in referrals.

The analysis, Left Behind: Is Universal Credit Truly Universal? is based on a survey of 284 people on universal credit that were referred to foodbanks.

Other reasons why people were referred to foodbanks between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018 include delays to benefits, benefit changes and debt, mainly housing and utility bill debt.

The Trussell Trust found that while referrals due to benefit sanction have declined over the last year, those due to reduction in benefit value have grown along with those due to moving to a different benefit.

In light of the research, the charity is calling for:

  • Benefit levels to be uprated in line with inflation to ensure payments keep pace with the cost of living, specifically for disabled people and families with dependent children who are at particularly at risk of needing a foodbank.
  • A requirement to be placed on local authorities to deliver a true universal support service to everyone who starts a universal credit claim.
  • An urgent inquiry into poor administration within universal credit so errors such as incorrect payments along with poor communication issues can be tackled.

Emma Revie, chief executive of The Trussell Trust, said, ‘As a nation we expect no-one should be left hungry or destitute – illness, disability, family breakdown or the loss of a job could happen to any of us, and we owe it to each other to make sure sufficient financial support is in place when we need it most.  

‘It’s hard to break free from hunger if there isn’t enough money coming in to cover the rising cost of absolute essentials like food and housing. For too many people staying above water is a daily struggle. It’s completely unacceptable that anyone is forced to turn to a foodbank as a result. 

‘Universal Credit is the future of our benefits system. It’s vital we get it right and ensure levels of payment keep pace with the rising cost of essentials, particularly for groups of people we know are already more likely to need a foodbank – disabled people, people dealing with an illness, families with children and single parents.’

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.

‘This research is based on anecdotal evidence from a small, self-selecting sample of less than 0.04 per cent of current universal credit claimants, whereas universal credit is working for the vast majority who claim it. It was also carried out before our significant improvements to universal credit came into effect at the Budget; such as 100 per cent 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.

‘Since 2020, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty and employment is at a record high with 3.2 million more people in work – equating to an extra 1,000 people employed every day. Meanwhile we continue to spend £90 billion a year on welfare to support those who need it most. The best way to help people improve their lives is through employment, with people on universal credit moving into work faster and staying in work longer.’

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