Huge built-in delays in the processing of universal credit benefit claims have turned the government’s flagship welfare reform into a “recruiting sergeant for food banks”, according to Labour MP Frank Field.
Field, the chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said the minimum six-week payment period faced by new UC claimants led to reliance on emergency food parcels, triggered debt and rent arrears, and caused health problems.
Field has written to the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, asking him to cut the lengthy and stressful wait for payments faced by penniless claimants.
“This is an unbelievably long time for people at the bottom to survive with no money, and I have received evidence to suggest people have been exposed to hunger and homelessness during this 42-day period,” he wrote.
The lengthy wait for UC payments was reported as the main cause of referral for one in nine of the 79 cases presenting at a food bank in his local Birkenhead, Merseyside, constituency in recent weeks, the veteran poverty campaigner said.
The Department for Work and Pensions responded that it was misleading of Field to draw wider conclusions “from the anecdotal evidence of just eight people”. It said: “The reasons people use food banks are complex.”
However, Chris Mould, the chair of the Trussell trust food bank network, said the charity’s local managers were reporting UC payment delays as a big cause of hardship for claimants: “For someone with no income the lengthy 42-day wait will leave them struggling to afford to eat and, for those without friends, family or other support networks to help, it can leave them desperate.
“We wholeheartedly support the recommendation that this waiting time be reduced.”
A DWP spokesman added: “Universal credit is designed to mirror the world of work and give people control over their own finances. The vast majority of UC claimants are confident in managing their money and we provide budgeting support as well as benefit advances for people waiting for their first payment.”
The DWP has in the past argued that a 42-day wait is fair because people who lose their job can normally expect a final month’s salary to fall back on. However Field said research by the House of Commons library showed 40% of claimants did not get a month’s salary when they left employment.
He called on Green to shorten the wait for benefits faced by new claimants, award the first month’s claim up front, or make it easier for people to get an advance payment on reasonable repayment terms.
In the letter seen by the Guardian, Field says problems brought to his attention which relate to the lengthy UC processing period include:
• A 56-year old man in Oxfordshire who needed three charity food parcels and ran up rent arrears of £529 while waiting for his first UC payment;
• A mother of four young children who was forced to live on £1.50 a day while her UC claim was processed. Health issues attributed by Field to her not eating properly and failing to heat her home caused her to be hospitalised with lung and chest problems.
Field said the waits were compounded by administrative delays caused by the failure of the DWP to swiftly notify local authorities of new UC claims. Until councils are notified, claimants cannot access locally administered benefits such as free school meals or council tax relief. In Liverpool, claim notifications lagged three to four weeks behind the official target, Field said.
Although some UC claimants received benefit advances to help tide them over the 42-day wait, in some cases this merely deferred hardship because hefty deductions were made from the first few UC payments. In one instance cited by Field a claimant resorted to money lenders to help her through the four-month repayment period.
“I am much concerned that the combination of these issues … is turning universal credit into a recruiting sergeant for food banks,” Field said in the letter.
The UC wait comprises a regular assessment period of one month (which determines how much the claimant should be paid), followed by a further week (or longer if there are administrative problems) for the payment to go through. In 2013 the former chancellor George Osborne extended the wait even further by introducing an additional seven-day period before a claim could be made.
The all-party work and pensions select committee concluded in a report on benefit delivery published last December that it was too early to assess the impact of the 42-day wait, but added that it was “concerned the DWP has not properly considered households who have no savings or a final paycheque to fall back on”.
Since then, food banks, housing associations and welfare advisers have reported that as universal credit is rolled out across the country, they are seeing growing evidence of claimants hit detrimentally by payment delays.
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