Food bank use has soared at a higher rate than ever in the past year as welfare benefits fail to cover basic living costs, the UK’s national food bank provider has warned.
Figures from the Trussel Trust show that in the year to March 2018, 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies were delivered to people in crisis across the UK – a 13 per cent increase on last year. This marks a considerably higher increase than the previous financial year, when it rose by 6 per cent.
Low income is the biggest single – and fastest growing – reason for referral to food banks, accounting for 28 per cent of referrals compared to 26 per cent in the previous year. Analysis of trends over time demonstrates it has significantly increased since April 2016.
Being in debt also accounted for an increasing percentage of referrals – at 9 per cent of referrals up from 8 per cent in the past year. The cost of housing and utility bills are increasingly driving food bank referrals for this reason, with the proportion of referrals due to housing debt and utility bill debt increasing significantly since April 2016.
The other main primary referral reasons in the past year were benefit delays (24 per cent) and benefit changes (18 per cent). "Reduction in benefit value” have the fastest growth rate of all referrals made due to a benefit change, while those due to “moving to a different benefit” have also grown significantly.
It comes amid growing concerns over the rollout of universal credit, which has been identified as a significant factor in the rise in food bank use.
Analysis by the Trussell Trust of food banks that have been in full universal credit rollout areas for a year or more shows they saw an average increase of 52 per cent in the twelve months after the full rollout date in their area, compared to twelve months before.
Food banks that are either not in full universal credit areas, or only in full rollout areas for up to three months, meanwhile showed an average increase of 13 per cent.
In light of the findings, the Trussell Trust is calling for benefit levels to be uprated in line with inflation to ensure payments keep pace with the cost of living, particularly for disabled people and families with dependent children who are particularly at risk of needing a food bank.
It is also recommending that a requirement is placed on local authorities to deliver a “Universal Support service” to everyone who starts a universal credit claim, and asking for an urgent inquiry into poor administration within Universal Credit, so errors can be quickly resolved.
Emma Revie, chief executive of the charity, said: “It’s hard to break free from hunger if there isn’t enough money coming in to cover the rising cost of absolute essentials like food and housing. For too many people staying above water is a daily struggle. It’s completely unacceptable that anyone is forced to turn to a foodbank as a result.
“Universal credit is the future of our benefits system. It’s vital we get it right, and ensure levels of payment keep pace with the rising cost of essentials, particularly for groups of people we know are already more likely to need a foodbank - disabled people, people dealing with an illness, families with children and single parents."
Tess Lanning, director of the Living Wage Foundation, highlighted the impact of low earnings on food bank use, saying: “Many of those who are going hungry are also working, with one-in-six households referred to foodbanks in work.
"Our own research found over a third of parents working full-time and earning less than the real Living Wage are now regularly skipping meals. That’s why we need to see more businesses step up, go beyond the government minimum, and commit to pay a Living Wage based on the cost of living.”
A spokesperson for the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) meanwhile said: "The Trussell Trust’s latest annual data return make for difficult but crucial reading.
"This situation cannot continue, and IFAN support the Trussell Trust’s call for benefit levels to be uprated in line with inflation to ensure payments keep pace with the cost of living; for the current cap on the proportion of income at which advance payments of universal credit must be repaid to be lowered; and for an urgent inquiry into the administration of universal credit to tackle payment errors and delays."
A DWP spokesman said: “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.
“This research is based on anecdotal evidence from a small, self-selecting sample of less than 0.04 per cent of current universal credit claimants, whereas universal credit is working for the vast majority who claim it.
"It was also carried out before our significant improvements to universal credit came into effect at the Budget; such as 100 per cent advances, which support people before their first payment, removing the seven waiting days and two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving onto universal credit.
“Since 2010, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty and employment is at a record high with over 3.2 million more people in work – equating to an extra 1,000 people employed a day, every day.
"Meanwhile we continue to spend £90 billion a year on welfare to support those who need it most. The best way to help people improve their lives is through employment, with people on universal credit moving into work faster and staying in work longer.”
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