I thank the Member for her question. My Department has a range of initiatives to support people facing financial hardship over the Christmas period. In my answer to Karen Mullan, I gave a breakdown of the supports that are in place, including the winter fuel payment; the cold weather payment, if there are prolonged cold spells; a Christmas bonus payment of £10; an increase in discretionary support; and access to food and other supports that my Department funds through the councils. I hope to announce other additional supports very soon.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, and I noted her earlier answer. At this stage, I am asking particularly about food banks and the people who use them. In East Belfast, we have Manna and the Larder, which are both run by churches and are doing sterling work, but, regrettably, they provide a vital service. The Minister will know that, as more people struggle, there are more desperate people in need and fewer people who can give, and the food banks are running short of supplies. Is there anything that her Department can do directly with food banks, or can she advise how food banks can tie in with FareShare?
Both. FareShare has received money from my Department, and most community food banks, if not them all, work very closely with FareShare. In the Member's constituency, money has been coming to food banks from my Department through allocations made by Belfast City Council. I am looking at additional supports.
I want to put on record that, ideally, there should not be food banks. That is the bottom line: there should not be food banks. We need to put more money into people's pockets so they can make their own choices. However, while we are in this situation, I am sure that the Member will agree that, from right across the Executive, substantial support for bids has been provided through my Department for me to help people with food support and other essential items.
I thank the Minister for her answers so far. If someone should need to claim universal credit in December, given that there is usually a wait of six weeks for a payment, will her Department take any steps to ensure that people receive the payment more quickly so that no one will be left penniless at Christmas?
Absolutely, and the contingency fund is available. People should not wait five weeks for their UC payment, and they should not be offered loans either. There is the contingency fund, and there is also discretionary support so that people can get a payment. No one should be sitting like that over Christmas. I remind people that, while a wait of a few weeks for universal credit is in the legislation, people should not be offered a loan first; they should be offered money from the contingency fund, and, if that does not suit, they should be offered money from the discretionary fund.
I thank the Minister for her answer. On the back of Ms Hunter's question, as you pointed out, the discretionary support fund is a vital support mechanism. However, I am aware that applications are taking over seven days in some instances. Will the Minister advise what steps she will take to reduce the time taken to process applications this side of Christmas?
I am genuinely sorry to hear that. I was, and am, keeping a close eye on the average payment time. It worked out at about four days, and I still felt that we should try to get a payment out as quickly as we could. I assure the Member that staffing and training have been increased, and the staff are dedicated and committed to ensuring that no one is left without food or money, particularly in these very cold days and in the run-up to Christmas.
I will give Advice NI a plug and say that it has been very good at publicising benefit take-up campaigns and publicising what is available. I know that anyone who is involved in the independent advice sector will be letting people know, as will Age NI, NICVA and many other organisations. The difficulty is that you will always find people who do not have access to social media and who may not be connected to those groups. The Department publishes information. If the Member or anybody else knows of groups or individuals who have found out about a benefit after the fact, they should come back to me so that we can close the gaps. I do not want anybody to be left sitting destitute or without.