The minimum five-week wait for an initial Universal Credit payment is pushing people to food banks and leaving them at risk of losing their home, the UK’s largest food bank network Trussell Trust warns in a damning new report.
Trussell Trust says its food bank network has seen a 30% jump in demand in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out. This rises to 48% in areas where the new benefit system has been in operation for more than two years.
While claimants can apply for an advance to tide them over until they receive their first payment, the report says these repayable government loans can trap vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of debt, forced to choose between “hardship now or hardship later”.
The charity has called on the UK government to end the five-week wait, claiming that it is responsible for pushing an ever-increasing number of households into poverty – a claim rejected by the government.
The Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie said: “Universal Credit should be there to anchor any of us against the tides of poverty. But the five week wait fatally undermines this principle, pushing people into debt, homelessness and destitution.
“In a society that believes in justice and compassion, this isn’t right. But it is something that can be fixed. Universal Credit was designed to have a wait. Now it’s clear that wait is five weeks too long, and we must change that design.
“The recent Spending Review was a lost opportunity to protect people on the lowest incomes. Our Prime Minister must take action to end this wait, and help prevent thousands more of us being swept away by poverty.
“With the nation at a crossroads, now is the time to loosen the grip of poverty and make sure Universal Credit is able to protect people from needing a food bank, instead of pushing them to one.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions rejected the report’s findings. “It categorically does not prove that universal credit is the reason behind increased food bank usage,” the spokesperson said.
The report also draws on evidence from the Riverside Group, a large provider of social housing and homelessness services, whose research found a 42% increase in rent arrears since the Universal Credit rollout began in 2015.
This is in stark contrast to people who had yet to be moved to Universal Credit and were still claiming Housing Benefit. According to the report, households in receipt of Housing Benefit experienced a 20% decrease in rent arrears.
Hugh Owen, Director of Strategy and Public Affairs at Riverside said: “Riverside is calling on the government to end the five week wait for Universal Credit because increasing numbers of our tenants are experiencing hardship while waiting for their first payment.
“Our data clearly shows that the wait is causing many of our tenants to get into rent arrears which can take months or even years to clear.
“A recent survey of many of our tenants told us that they are struggling to keep afloat when they move onto Universal Credit; the long wait means that many people are going without food or heating and they are forced to use foodbanks in order to feed their families.
“We welcome the simplicity that moving to an integrated benefit is intended to bring, but the way Universal Credit is being implemented means that instead of acting as a safety net, it is dragging people into debt.”
Commenting on the report’s findings, Iain Porter, policy & partnerships manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Universal Credit has the potential to be a force for good in our society, but the current design of the system is stifling its ability to provide the support families need.
“For millions of people, every day feels like they are constantly swimming against the tide, at risk of being pulled under by the powerful currents of low pay, high rents or an unexpected bill.
“The Trussell Trust is right that there is nothing compassionate or just about the initial five week wait for Universal Credit. Nor can we stand by while the system is forcing families to turn to foodbanks when it should be helping to end the need for them.
“We estimate that 2 in 5 families yet to move onto Universal Credit will be unable to meet basic living costs during the five week wait. That’s 2 million families, of which around 700,000 will continue to face a shortfall during the following year as they repay their Advances.
“The Government has a responsibility to go beyond sticking plaster solutions to this problem by ending the immoral five week wait.
“Ministers have shown a willingness to take action before to correct flaws in the system, they must do so again if Universal Credit is to provide a reliable lifeline to families when they hit hard times.”