Thousands of people could be forced to rely on food parcels because of benefit delays, as the Government's plan to slash the country's welfare bill is put into effect.
Charities that run foodbanks warned this weekend that the prospect of people having to rely on Third World-style food aid – despite Britain being among the richest nations in the world – is a real possibility for 1.5 million people who will be moved off incapacity benefit (IB).
The number of people who are turning to foodbanks as they can't afford to feed their families has soared, rising from 26,000 in 2008-09 to 41,000 in 2009-10 – 37 per cent of whom were referred to foodbanks because of delays with their benefits.
"For people to be pushed into poverty and forced to rely on food parcels to eat – something we all think of as a basic human right – is disgusting," said Neil Coyle, director of policy for the charity Disability Alliance.
While foodbanks may be an alien concept to many living in Britain today, the number of these centres helping the needy has grown rapidly in the past few years. The Trussell Trust, which runs most of the UK's foodbanks, says the number of its centres has risen from 20 in 2008 to 65 today.
Disability experts believe that being forced to rely on charitable food handouts will seriously damage the health of people already battling chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and ME. They warn that some may even turn to crime, such as shoplifting, to make ends meet.
Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust, said: "What worries us is the amount of people who come to us because their benefits status is being reassessed and they've had their benefits stopped; if hundreds of thousands of people are being reassessed, we fear there will be huge problems."
The Government recently announced that everyone on incapacity benefit will have to go through tests known as Work Capability Assessments to see if they are fit for work. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that, of the 1.5 million people currently on IB, 750,000 will move on to jobseeker's allowance (JSA), 300,000 will move on to other benefits, and 450,000 will come off benefits entirely.
"We've seen a massive increase in the past 18 months of people who are being referred to us due to benefit delays; we see literally thousands of people around the country who are definitely not getting paid on time," Mr Mould said.
People visiting foodbanks run by the Trussell Trust are given a three-day supply of food, which includes tinned goods, fruit, meat and fish, as well as pasta, tea bags and UHT milk. A parcel for a family of four weighs roughly 20kg, and is worth around £19. Foodbanks, which are staffed by volunteers, rely entirely on donations from local schools, businesses and individuals.
Most foodbanks are community-run, in conjunction with local churches, and there is concern that many parts of the country have no foodbank provision at all.
"We need to have a national network of foodbanks," said Phillip Blond, of the think tank ResPublica. "We know there are going to be changes in the welfare system, and we know that when people transfer over, there will be delays. So we need to understand that people are going to fall through the cracks."
Clients are usually referred to foodbanks by frontline care professionals, who give them a voucher entitling them to emergency food. Job centres were initially one of the major distributors of foodbank vouchers, but in December 2008, the Government banned them, stating that delays were not an issue, as all those entitled to benefits received them on the day they needed them if they were in crisis. Last week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, said the Government will now consider lifting the ban.
Trial reassessments of IB claimants will begin in Aberdeen and Burnley in October. It is estimated the entire reassessment process will take three years to complete. A total of 2.6 million Britons receive benefits of some kind, including incapacity benefit, employment and support allowance – which was introduced in 2008 to replace IB – and disability living allowance, at a cost to the taxpayer of £12.5bn a year.
Disability experts expressed concerns about the impact any delays in receiving benefits may have on the health of the disabled.
"If you have a long-term health condition, the anxiety caused by delays in getting benefits inevitably impacts on your health and well-being," Mr Coyle said. "This can cause you to use the NHS more, or even impact on the justice system. If you don't provide support for people, they'll find it somewhere else."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions insisted that people being reassessed would not have benefits stopped or experience delays in receiving new benefits. She stated: "There will be no gap in provision."
However, answers to a parliamentary question posed by Andrew Selous MP revealed that in January this year 37,046 people waited 17 days or more for their JSA, with 20,068 waiting 22 days or more.
Experts fear that the people most likely to be adversely affected are those living in the poorest areas. Some have argued that moving people off IB on to JSA won't actually stop them relying on benefits, as the areas with the highest number of people on IB usually also have low levels of job opportunity. In Wales, four of the six boroughs with the highest number of IB claimants are also in the top six boroughs when it comes to numbers of applicants per job.
Christina Beatty, principal research fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, said: "In some senses it is true that you need to change the system and help people get back into work at an earlier stage. But for people who have been on it for a while – people with health problems, skills problems, living in areas where you have low employability – it is going to be very difficult."
Cheryl Jones, 56
Tredegar, South Wales
"I'd been on incapacity benefit for about two years because of severe depression and diabetes, when I received a letter saying that I was being reassessed. I went and about two weeks later I got a letter saying I hadn't got enough points for IB. There was a gap with getting my money and I completely lost it at that point; I had bills flooding in and I couldn't pay them. There had been a couple of days when I couldn't buy food. I had to rely on the foodbank for six weeks; I had to keep myself healthy, and my blood sugar stable. My health got worse, I got more and more infections. I couldn't believe I had come to this. Until I was unwell, I'd done lots of different jobs: childminding, working in factories and cleaning. Living in Britain in 2010 and having no money to buy food is awful. Six months later, I won my appeal and was put back on IB."
Andy Davis, 44
"I had been unemployed and on jobseeker's allowance for two years when I told the job centre I was feeling depressed. They said I should be on employment and support allowance (ESA). In the period when I was being moved from JSA to ESA, there were big delays, the money wasn't coming through and I got emergency loans. I had no food left in the cupboard and went to the foodbank about once a week. The food's good, with plenty to make healthy meals, but it doesn't feel good to have to ask for it. I felt like the Government didn't give a monkey's. I was on ESA for six months before I had an appointment with a government doctor, who said there was nothing wrong with me and put me back on JSA. I then had all the same problems again."