Universal Credit: Food Banks

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There are a range of reasons why people make use of food banks. The key for the DWP is to ensure that welfare claimants are able to access funds in a timely manner. That is why advances are available, so that no one has to wait five weeks for their first universal credit payment.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

Even before universal credit was rolled out in Hull, the use of the Hull food bank was very high because we have widescale in-work poverty, and a third of the children in Hull are living in poverty. The Trussell Trust has said that nearly half of all food bank referrals are due to a delay in benefits being paid when universal credit is rolled out, which happened in Hull before Christmas. Does the Minister now accept that, and what is he going to do about it?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We continue to provide a strong safety net through the welfare system for those who need extra support and, as I have said, people use food banks for many and varied reasons. We review research carried out by organisations, including the Trussell Trust, to add to our understanding of food bank use. I intend to work far more closely with the Trussell Trust and other food bank providers, including other stakeholders in this area. I want food bank providers and jobcentres to work far more closely together so that we can better understand the issues and then put in place the interventions to make the situation better.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

A few weeks ago, I and a colleague of mine visited a major food bank in Coventry. One of the lessons we learned from the food bank in Coventry—it has nine outlets throughout Coventry and Warwickshire—is that universal credit is forcing people to use food banks. What is the Minister going to do to sort out the problem that people have who are forced to use food banks? Surely we should have another look at universal credit and abolish it, because it is not working.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s example. If I get a chance to visit his local food bank, I will certainly do so, but I have to stress that no claimant needs to wait more than five weeks to receive their first regular universal credit payment. We have listened to feedback on how we can support our claimants and made improvements, such as extending advances, removing waiting days and introducing housing benefit run-on. I will continue to work with the Trussell Trust and others to improve our system in any way we can.

Photo of Heidi Allen Heidi Allen Independent, South Cambridgeshire

I am afraid to say to the Minister that the advance payment is missing the point. The biggest driver of people going to food banks is the five-week wait. Because of the benefit freeze, the basic amount people have to live on, particularly the very vulnerable, is not enough. We cannot then expect them to live on less by taking away their advance payment, which is a debt. There is a simple way to deal with this. Some 60% of claimants are already taking advance payment, which tells us they cannot wait. The money is already going out of the DWP’s door. Make it a grant. It should not be repayable for the most vulnerable people in society.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I respect the hon. Lady’s knowledge in this area on the Select Committee, but I would say that advances are not loans from a separate fund; they are the claimant’s benefit paid early, which is then recovered over an agreed period. So they are in place to ensure that those in genuine need are able to receive financial support and are not reliant on illegal or high-cost lenders. But if a claimant considers they are facing financial hardship because of the amount that is being deducted from their universal credit award, they can ask the Department to consider reducing their deductions. As of October this year, the maximum deduction goes down from 40% to 30%.