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Food bank demand soars as newly unemployed wait weeks for benefits

Charities say they are being ‘abandoned’ by central government as food poverty ‘spirals out of control’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 26 April 2020 00:47 BST
Volunteers hand out supplies at a centre in Leytonstone
Volunteers hand out supplies at a centre in Leytonstone (AFP/Getty)

Five weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, charities providing food parcels to those in need say they have been “abandoned” by central government as they are grappling to meet growing need, with many people appealing for help who have never used a food bank before.

Local food banks told The Independent demand had surged since the lockdown started, in some cases more than sevenfold, with much of this need driven by people who have lost their jobs and are unable to sustain themselves while they wait to receive their first universal credit payment.

In the six weeks up to 12 April, 1.5 million people applied for universal credit, after around 18 per cent of the workforce had their hours cut or were made redundant due to the Covid-19 outbreak. New applicants are required to wait about five weeks for the funds to start being paid.

While claimants can apply for an advance loan to help them through this period with no income, many choose not to do this because it places them in debt to the government and means money will be deducted off future payments – and instead need to appeal to food banks for support.

The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign has been highlighting how you can help the vulnerable who are struggling to get food by volunteering, giving cash or buying produce.

Robin Burgess, who runs the Hope Centre in Northampton, told The independent that where previously the charity was seeing about 150-160 people per week, the figure now stood at around 420.

“The numbers have tripled. A good chunk of these are people who have been laid off because their work has collapsed, and a lot of them are awaiting their universal credit payments. They’re the new poor,” he said.

Mr Burgess explained that while people have the option to apply for advance loans from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), many refrain from doing so because they want to avoid getting into debt. “If you’re on a low income you don’t want a debt built into that,” he said.

He warned that even when new claimants do eventually receive their universal credit payment, it may not be enough to meet their needs.

“The fact is that universal credit doesn’t pay sufficiently to cope with people’s needs financially. It’s never been enough. That’s why food banks exist. We’ve been saying this for years and nothing’s changed, and now the number of people on benefits has suddenly massively increased because of this,” he said.

“The government just assumes that food banks can pick it up, because that’s been built into its policy. Food banks are now part of the welfare state. We’re being abandoned to do this as a sector.”

Daphine Aikens, founder and chief executive of the Trussell Trust-affiliated Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, said that while the charity had previously provided food to around 250 people per week, now it was distributing more than 350 each day – and that demand was continuing to rise.

She said most of the new beneficiaries were people who had lost their jobs and didn’t benefit from any of the government schemes, with many waiting on universal credit payments.

“It’s making it very real for people who didn’t know about universal credit and how long the waiting time is,” Ms Aikens added.

Sabine Goodwin, coordinator for the Independent Food Aid Network, said food banks in the network were reporting as much as a 300 per cent increase in need compared with last year.

She added: “Predominantly our members are supporting newly unemployed people waiting for universal credit, people who were already living in poverty before coronavirus, families affected by school closures and unable to access vouchers, and people with no recourse to public funds.

“While the government seems to think that relying on charitable food aid providers is a workable option, the poverty behind food bank use is spiralling out of control.”

It comes after analysis by Action for Children revealed more than 8.5 million children live in households with savings valued at less than the average monthly income before the crisis hit.

Frank Field, former chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, cautioned last week that many of those who have claimed universal credit during the coronavirus pandemic were likely to face delays in their first payment.

He said existing problems with the flagship benefit – such as delays in payment and cuts to support – would become acutely apparent during the pandemic as many more people are forced to apply.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit is providing a vital safety net to those affected by the pandemic and we’ve taken action by injecting over £6.5bn to support people on the welfare system.

“No one has to wait five weeks for their money as urgent advances are available – and more than half a million people have requested and received one since 16 March.

“Advance repayments are made gradually over 12 months, and deductions are capped at 30 per cent of claimants’ standard allowance. For claimants who find themselves in unexpected hardship, advance repayments can be deferred for up to three months in certain cases.”

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