Jobcentre staff have been ordered not to refer universal credit claimants to food banks, in a move campaigners have said is preventing vulnerable people from getting vital help and “hiding” those who are in need.
Food bank volunteers in Lewes in East Sussex have told The Independent people in need of support were “slipping through the net” after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issued the local jobcentre with a national directive stating they were no longer able to refer people.
A leaked email from staff at Lewes Jobcentre, published on neighbourhood watch site Lewes Eye, said the DWP policy “does not permit” foodbank referrals and that the local jobcentre had been advised to “verbally signpost” people to charities who can formally refer them instead.
But volunteers said many who needed support would not approach charities because of the additional stress and the embarrassment of asking for help for a second time.
More than 1,000 people in Lewes have been moved on to universal credit, the government’s flagship welfare benefit, despite warnings the new scheme is driving people with disabilities and others with vulnerabilities into severe hardship and causing anxiety.
Debbie Twitchen, from Landport Foodbank in Lewes, said she was “very unhappy” about the alleged policy because the food bank requires a written referral for anyone receiving a food parcel.
She said she believed it was a way for the DWP to “hide that people are going hungry and needing food banks” due to “failures in the system”, and added: “I know that it’s an obvious ploy – if you can’t show figures for something then it’s not happening is it?
“Lots of people have been waiting for money since the rollout [of universal credit] in September, and the jobcentre was the place people have been sanctioned to go.”
In comments made on the community Facebook group Lewes Present, local MP Maria Caulfield dismissed the claims. She said: “This is not true... Not all of the food banks locally need referrals but if they do I can refer them. Please be assured that there are no changes to access.”
But a caller to the centre requesting a referral to food banks was advised to visit a Citizens’ Advice Bureau branch and told: “We’re no longer able to refer people to the food bank.”
Ms Twitchen said she was concerned that people wouldn’t want to put themselves in the “humiliating” situation of getting referred to a different agency. “I fear that people are going to be slipping through the net because of it,” she said.
“I have people coming in in tears who are absolutely embarrassed and angry with themselves for the situation they are in – people are proud and they don’t want to admit they can’t cope. I’m really concerned that by taking away that easy option of going down to the jobcentre, people won’t come.”
Helen Chiasson, coordinator of another food bank in Lewes called Fitzjohn’s, which serves between 35 and 40 households – or around 130 children and adults – said they hadn’t received any referrals from the jobcentre since the alleged changes were implemented.
“People can’t just walk in [to the food bank] – we absolutely require people to have a referral. I don’t see what the sense is in people saying we’re not going to give you a referral. [The jobcentre] people are best placed to make one because they know the financial circumstances,” she said.
“People are in a really bad state mentally but some of them are having to go to yet another place and explain their set of circumstances to another set of people. I’m worried that people will be put off using our service. The DWP have shown themselves to be a provider of a service that is inadequate.”
A second leaked email from a food bank in Eastbourne, also in East Sussex, suggests that more than one jobcentre is following the no-referral advice, although it’s not clear how widespread the issue is.
In one of the emails, the jobcentre worker wrote: “While we at Lewes Jobcentre have been adopting a locally agreed process, we have been advised that DWP policy does not permit Jobcentres to refer customers to foodbanks by issuing vouchers or referral forms.
“We are allowed to verbally signpost them to your service and would be happy to do this, but unsure if this meets your needs.”
A DWP spokesperson said their policy on food bank referrals had not changed. “Jobcentres will signpost people to food banks and other services according to their individual circumstances, as part of their support to help people manage their finances and get into work,” the spokesperson added.
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