The country’s largest food bank network, the Trussell Trust gave out a record 1.3m food parcels last year, up 13 per cent on the previous year, as people struggled with the roll out of Universal Credit and other welfare reforms.
Food parcels were given to an estimated 666,000 people in 2017/18, with 484,000 parcels going to children. In the past five years the number of food parcels given out by the Trust has risen by almost 50 per cent, up from 913,138 in 2013/14. In their latest annual report, the Trust identified a growing proportion of referrals to them for support was because benefit levels are not covering the cost of everyday essentials. The problem is worse for those people who have been on the new benefit system for longer. Food banks in areas where the full Universal Credit service has been in place for 12 months or more were four times as busy, recording an average 52 per cent increase in the number of three-day emergency food packages distributed. The Trust says many UC claimants came to food banks after long waits for benefit payments and administrative problems pushed them into debt, ill health and rent arrears. It is calling for an urgent inquiry into the administration of UC and an end to the benefits freeze, as well as more practical help for the poorest claimants.
The highest reason for referrals to the Trust was low income (28 per cent), followed by benefit delays (24 per cent) and changes in benefits, including sanctions (18 per cent). Debts run up in order to meet housing costs and energy bills accounted for an increasing percentage of food bank referrals. “This is completely unacceptable. We need to move towards being a country where no one needs a food bank’s help, not a country where charity provision is the only defence from utter destitution,” said Emma Revie, the Trust’s Chief Executive. Research into the experiences of food bank users published by the Trust found a “significant scale” of poor benefits administration. Claimants reported they found the digital-only UC service hard to navigate, with little or no official support or financial assistance to help them cope or tide them over the six-week wait for their first payment. A lack of money meant some had been forced to give up a home internet connection or smartphone, making it harder for them to access the benefit.
The report says: “Rather than acting as a service to ensure people do not face destitution, the evidence suggests that for people on the very lowest incomes … the poor functioning of universal credit can actually push people into a tide of bills, debts and, ultimately, lead them to a food bank. “People are falling through the cracks in a system not made to hold them. What little support available is primarily offered by the third sector, whose work is laudable, but cannot be a substitute for a real, nationwide safety net.” The Trust surveyed 284 users of 30 food banks in England, Scotland and Wales during February and March. Disabled people, claimants affected by chronic health conditions and families with dependent children were especially vulnerable to problems arising from the design or operation of UC. A Government spokesperson dismissed the findings due to the small survey size.
By Patrick Mooney, editor