Ministers refuse to investigate evidence that Universal Credit delays send people to foodbanks

Stance condemned for ignoring ‘financial dread for many families’ - forced to wait five weeks for payments

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 12 January 2021 12:58
Amber Rudd admits Universal Credit failings for first time

Ministers have refused to investigate evidence that long waits for Universal Credit payments are forcing people to turn to foodbanks – or to speed up help for claimants.

An inquiry by MPs found the five-week delay – which the government pledged to abolish in 2018 – is also hiking rent arrears and causing mental harm, as Covid-19 increases unemployment.

But, in its response, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said it “will not be conducting nor commissioning any research”.

The stance was condemned by the chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, who warned of the “financial dread for many families” as the pandemic drags on.

“Ministers are refusing point blank even to do any research that might help them to understand the impact that the five-week wait is having on people,” said Stephen Timms, a Labour MP.

“Our inquiry heard that the wait may be linked to rising reliance on foodbanks, spiralling rent arrears and even increased psychological distress.

“It’s astounding that the government won’t even look closely at those findings, let alone do anything about them.”

The DWP also failed to lift the threat of a £20-a-week cut in Universal Credit in April, when a temporary increase runs out.

In October, the committee called for a “starter payment” to give claimants enough money to pay for food and heating during the five-week wait for a first payment.

It should range from £287 for a single person aged over 25, to £416 for a couple, at an initial cost of £1bn a year, its report said.

As long ago as February 2019, then-Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd accepted that problems with Universal Credit are likely to be the main cause of the explosion in food bank use.

It emerged the DWP had commissioned research into the causes, which should have been published in 2019 but is still being kept under wraps.

Front line organisations including Citizens Advice and the Trussell Trust told the MPs’ inquiry of the hardship caused by waits for benefits, which has also been highlighted by the National Audit Office.

In its response, the DWP gave no explanation for why its first study is still buried – while refusing to examine, specifically, the apparent link with long Universal Credit waits.

It said it had met “an unprecedented increase” in demand for payments, adding: “Timeliness has remained high at above 90 per cent for the duration of the pandemic despite there now being 5.7m individual claims.

“No one has to wait five weeks for a payment. Advances – which allow thirteen UC payments to be spread over twelve months - are available for those claimants who require funds urgently, with most people receiving funds within 72 hours of requesting one.”

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