Stem the rising tide in food bank referrals – end the five week wait

Share this:

A blog post by
Ellie Thompson
Policy & Research Co-ordinator

The benefits system was designed to act as a safety net, providing support for any of us if we need it. But the Government’s new welfare reform, Universal Credit, pulls people into poverty, rather than helping them out of it.

In areas where Universal Credit has gone live for a year or more, food banks have seen a 52% average increase in food bank use compared to 13% in areas that have not. Increasingly we are seeing Universal Credit payment delays as a key driver of food bank referrals. Even Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, acknowledges that the delay in Universal Credit payments has led to a rise in referrals to food banks.

The five week wait that all claimants face for their first Universal Credit payment is not due to one-off errors or slow administration; this is the Government’s intended design. And it means people can be pulled into poverty and debt at the moment when they need help the most. That’s why we’re campaigning to end the five week wait.

As part of the campaign we’ve been gathering stories of people affected by the five week wait to better understand what it has meant for them.

We’re hearing from people with additional needs finding the wait particularly difficult: disabled people who have been told they are ‘fit to work’ following a recent assessment, people on insecure and temporary work contracts who just recently lost their job, and people who are experiencing a relationship breakdown.

Here’s the story of one person we spoke to:

Meet Sarah*

Sarah is a self-employed mum of two teenagers, who both live at home. A few months ago, Sarah was diagnosed with an acute form of cancer which led to her needing urgent treatment, and requiring her to spend extensive time in hospital. As Sarah cannot work, her family’s income has suddenly dropped.

The wait for the first Universal Credit payment

Sarah made a claim for Universal Credit from hospital (using a paper form). During the wait for her first payment, her family started building up debts, and had no money to buy food. Sarah called the food bank directly because her family, already coping with an extremely stressful situation, were struggling to cover the costs of essentials and were not receiving support elsewhere. She told us:

I was unable to provide money for my daughter to go food shopping, meaning that my family were not having sufficient meals. They were already affected with coming to terms with my illness and then we had money worries to add to the stress.

Not getting the support needed

Sarah hasn’t been able to get to the Jobcentre in person and has not been offered additional support from Jobcentre Plus. Her Universal Credit case worker from the Jobcentre said that because she is self-employed, she cannot apply for an Advance Payment – an interest-free loan DWP offers to help during the first payment wait, which needs to be repaid. She was also not offered any budgeting support supposedly available to claimants, despite clear signs she was struggling.

The experience of poverty, accruing debts, and the uncertainty around what will be received and when, has caused Sarah and her family untold stress and anxiety, at an already difficult time.

I now receive £73.00 per week and this is meant to cover council tax, electricity, food, gas, fuel, and parking costs when visiting me in hospital. If it wasn’t for the help from the food bank I wouldn’t like to think about the situation me and my family would be in.

And Sarah is not alone; Sarah is just one of many people telling us of the difficulties faced coping without an income for five weeks.

Crucially, the stories being shared with us show that the Government’s existing support isn’t enough. Even those who had received an Advance Payment said after paying off rent arrears they had nothing left to live on during the five week wait. Others told us repayments were too high and deductions didn’t leave enough to live on.

1.6 million people are estimated to move to Universal Credit this year alone. We don’t want anyone else to have to repeat Sarah’s experience.

That’s why we’re calling for the Government to end the wait for the first payment, because it’s #5WeeksTooLong.

We need your help in joining us to call for change. Join the campaign here.


* name changed to protect identity