State of Hunger 2019: what’s driving hunger in the UK?

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Dr Filip Sosenko from Heriot-Watt University explains how the team conducted the landmark report, State of Hunger 2019.

Commissioned by the Trussell Trust and building on the earlier work of Dr Rachel Loopstra and colleagues, the State of Hunger research project delivered its first annual report today.[1] Methodologically the most wide-ranging and robust inquiry into drivers of hunger in the country so far, this 3-year study is being carried out by a team from Heriot-Watt University who specialise in researching severe poverty.

From the start, the study has been designed to be about hunger rather than only about food bank use. We know that there are individuals and families who go hungry but who do not use food banks. Findings from year 1 of the project measured the size of the gap: between food insecurity and food bank use. Around 8-10% of households in the UK are estimated to have been as moderately or severely food insecure in recent years,[2] while 1-2% used a food bank in 2018/19.

The study found that people at risk of being food insecure – people who are on a low income, unemployed, living alone or as lone parents, renting, and in poor health – are also over-represented among food bank users. Importantly, while we found that being younger is a risk factor for food insecurity, young people are not over-represented among food bank users, suggesting that many young people do not access help from food banks even when they are short of food. As for households with children, around 11% of children under 16 live in food insecure households (that’s 1.4 million children) and around 36% of food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks go to children.

The study has found that people at food banks have extremely low incomes, with average equivalised household income of just £7 per day after paying rent, and nearly all being destitute on a nationally recognised definition. This evidence counters claims by some public figures that people at food banks can manage perfectly well financially and choose to use food banks in order to take advantage of freely available food.

Crucially, the study has found evidence that food bank use is driven by the interaction of three factors: the structure of the benefit system, challenging life experiences (such as eviction or divorce) and lack of informal support. While the contribution of the benefit system in driving food bank use has already received much coverage, the study also provides more detail on the other two factors.

A comprehensive survey of over 1,100 people referred to Trussell Trust food banks revealed however that the vast majority of them experienced a challenging life event in the year prior to the survey, and/or lived in households affected by ill health. Both the statistical analysis of the survey results and qualitative interviews further showed that adverse life events and ill health have a potential to compromise one’s ability to do paid work, to claim benefits, or to increase living costs. The survey also found that the vast majority of people referred to food banks have either exhausted help from family or friends, had a resource-poor social network or were socially isolated.

The State of Hunger team’s statistical modelling indicated that the increased supply of food banks only partly explains the dramatic rise in the number of food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust in the past eight years. Five benefit-related factors in particular have also been driving this demand: PIP assessments, ‘bedroom tax’, benefit sanctions, the roll-out of Universal Credit and the benefit freeze. In subsequent years of the study further insights on the specific factors driving demand may be gained as another year of data become available.

The study will continue to investigate the scale and nature of hunger in the UK for two more years, with the next major report scheduled for Autumn 2020.

You can read more about the findings at



[1] For details of the pilot study see Loopstra, R. & Lalor D. (2017) Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability, Online: The Trussell Trust.

[2] I.e. they reported not being able to afford a balanced diet, skipping meals, under-eating or going hungry in the 12 months before being asked. See Chapter 2 of the report.

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The five-week wait for Universal Credit is not fit for purpose in the private rented sector

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A blog post by
Jake McKey
Policy & Public Affairs Officer

As part of its campaign to reform Universal Credit, the National Landlords Association (NLA) is now working with the Trussell Trust to end the five-week wait.

Together, we’re issuing a stark warning to the Government that the policy is an unnecessary feature of a system pushing more and more families into debt and hunger, further damaging their chances of having a stable tenancy in the private rented sector (PRS).

Figures from the NLA highlight that arrears and debt are becoming part of the grim reality of private renting for Universal Credit tenants as 86 percent of landlords letting to tenants on Universal Credit experienced rent arrears in the last 12 months.

Not only is the frequency of rent arrears high, but our research has found that with such a high incidence, the average amount of rent arrears for tenants has progressively increased.

The average amount owed is now £2,105, but this increases dramatically for Universal Credit claimants, to £3,842.

When contrasted with the latest HomeLet rental index, which found the average UK rent now stands at £941, this means that Universal Credit tenants now owe on average over 4 months’ worth of rent arrears.

This far surpasses the minimum 2-month arrears for which tenants could be evicted under a section 8 notice for breach of contract. This is a situation in need of urgent change.

But the five-week wait and arrears are not the only factors for many landlords in the private rented sector.

Additional administrative failures and delays within the system compound the already lengthy five week wait, with the NLA having found some members dealing with tenants who have had to wait up to 12 weeks to receive payment.

In circumstances such as this, many claimants have no choice but to take out advances in order to support themselves, which leaves both landlords and tenants with no choice but to take on additional debt in order to cover their costs, resulting in a situation that works for no one.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting and enduring difficulties faced by both landlords and tenants have created a particularly negative culture change in the sector towards tenants receiving benefits.

With recent NLA research finding that only two in ten landlords would house tenants on Universal Credit, down from 35 percent in early 2013, and debt and poverty continuing a downward trajectory, the Government must take decisive action.

As well as the negative impact in a business sense, the five week wait and growing debt has the tangible human consequence of increased food bank usage and hunger.

Trussell Trust research shows a 52 percent average increase in food bank use in areas that have had Universal Credit for 12 months compared to 13percent in areas that have not. If hunger is to be ended in the UK, families must have enough money year-round and a vital component of this is resolving the longstanding issues within Universal Credit.

Together with the Trussell Trust, we’re calling on the Government to take action to create a system that works for tenants and landlords, including:

Ending the freeze on Housing Benefit rates. The lack of availability of social housing has meant many of the most vulnerable in society are seeking homes in the private rented sector, leaving them vulnerable to rising market rents with the level of benefits paid for housing frozen since 2016. This longstanding freeze has meant the housing element of Universal Credit is simply insufficient for many tenants to cover their rent, eating into costs for other essentials.

Tackling both intentional and unintentional delays and gaps in benefits. Alongside the built-in five-week wait, many administrative delays with processing claims further compound families’ ability to afford essentials. This has still not been treated as a priority by the Government and an inquiry into the internal workings of Universal Credit needs to be made in order to prevent further administrative delay.

This is why the NLA is joining the Trussell Trust and more than 40 other leading charities and organisations in supporting the #5WeeksTooLong campaign.

If the Government is serious about making Universal Credit a success and reversing the continuing negative trends born of poor policymaking and implementation, then it needs to take action and provide immediate relief for thousands of people and families across the UK by ending the five week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, the main driver of increased hunger and foodbank usage.

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Universal Credit: “It’s been a nightmare – I’m £2,000 in debt. I can’t get any more loans.”

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A blog post by
Emma Revie
Chief Executive  

Recently, the Trussell Trust partnered with single-parent charity Gingerbread as part of the #5WeeksTooLong campaign.

This campaign has been highlighting the changes Universal Credit needs to ensure proper support is in place for families with children.

The Government needs to fix issues with Universal Credit. There are a number of problems that must be addressed – the first priority must be to end the wait for a first benefit payment.

We’ve spoken to two mums working with Gingerbread to highlight the issues single parents can face – both are in work but need some support from our benefits system to keep their families afloat.

Instead, the problems they’ve encountered with Universal Credit have left them struggling to keep their heads above water.

Ayo, 29, London

Ayo is a single mum-of-one who works full-time in communications. When she came off maternity leave she had to apply for Universal Credit to help with childcare costs.

“I have to cover nursey fees which must be paid in advance and ended up paying three months fees without and being reimbursed by universal credit

“There were so many human errors. I was even told I wasn’t entitled to the childcare element of universal credit.

“After I eventually got a local MP involved, they addressed it, but I had endured several stressful calls – had to use food banks and was going to friend’s homes for food

“I kept being told staff were too busy to deal with my case and felt completely stressed out and unsupported. I have worked since I was young and paid my taxes which I thought was used to help the people who need it in society.

“Why should I pay taxes when I am not entitled to the help they’re meant to provide for people like me?”

Since Ayo’s case was looked into she gets a contribution of just £100 a month towards nursery fees.

“Because I make a fairly good wage I cannot be helped by any other charities, but nursery fees and rent costs are so high I have been left without money to afford food – I’ve been skipping breakfast and dinner so my daughter can eat. I’ve been in my overdraft and getting in debt.

“It’s pulled my confidence down. I feel scruffy at work as I cannot afford to keep up my maintenance.”

Shavishta, 26, Dorset

Shavishta is a single mum to a 4-year-old. Last November she got part-time work. The change meant she had to apply for Universal Credit.

Moving from the old benefits system to the new means she is left with far less than before –  just £120 a month after rent is paid.

In March she lost her job but she has been studying a science degree and is due to start work next week.

“I feel hopeless and have been put on anxiety medication. I’ve been surviving off just £120 a month, but then having to cover nursery too. It’s been a nightmare – I’m £2,000 in debt. I can’t get any more loans.

“When I first started Universal Credit I thought I’d be able to get more support but they don’t view further education as a means to progress.

“I want to work and get a good job but as a single parent it’s so tricky covering child care. I feel they (the system) don’t want me to succeed to get back into society. I’m just another statistic. I don’t feel supported at all.”

Women like Ayo and Shavishta are being trapped in poverty. If we want to help free people instead of locking them into further poverty, debt and hardship, we need to make sure Universal Credit can properly support people.

The first thing the Government’s must do is end the five week wait. It’s #5WeeksTooLong.

Agree this can change? Join us.


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Will the new government promise a ‘golden age’ for Universal Credit?

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A blog post by
Sumi Rabindrakumar
Head of Policy & Research 

Look closely, and there was a rare glimpse of continuity amongst the political upheaval of the past few days. In a break from the recent past, the Department for Work and Pensions managed to hold onto its Secretary of State as the new Prime Minister formed his Cabinet.

This presents a real opportunity for the future of our benefits system. We have a new Prime Minister who, on the campaign trail, declared that “the poorest come first” in his tax and spend priorities. We also have a Work and Pensions Secretary of State who has declared her commitment to making our new benefits system, Universal Credit, “work for everyone”.

Any vision for our future must include systems which protect us from hardship. Key to this will be Universal Credit, yet we know that problems with its implementation and design are still pulling people into hardship and debt.

The most urgent issue to address is the five week (minimum) wait for a first payment. The Trussell Trust has found a steadily increasing share of referrals due to benefit delays is driven by Universal Credit: the problem has not gone away. That’s why food banks across the country, a range of respected partners from across the charity and housing sectors, and around 15,000 public campaigners – many with direct experience of Universal Credit – have already joined together to call for change.

Encouragingly, there are emerging signs that the Secretary of State seems to agree. Amber Rudd has stated she wants people to get their payments sooner. When quizzed by the cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee, it was positive to hear some of the work being done to review the waiting period.

But the fact remains that the wait persists.

Much has been made of future improvements such as further run-ons of DWP legacy benefits to shorten the wait. But this won’t be seen for another year (July 2020), doesn’t help people not receiving DWP benefits before moving onto UC and is a short-term fix – once legacy benefits end, there will be no further support.

This once again leaves Advance Payments  – effectively loans – as the only way to bridge the five week gap in income. It’s a policy that looks on increasingly shaky ground, with clear evidence of the hardship that repayments create for households already under strain. It can’t be right that the only alternative to having no income is to take on a debt.

In uncertain times, it’s difficult to say what will happen next on Universal Credit. But what is clear is that after months of people and organisations joining together and building pressure, there is some movement.

And with a raft of possible spending decisions on the horizon – whether it’s a 2019 Budget, emergency budget, future Spending Review, or general election – there are opportunities to get the investment needed to translate positive words into action.

The new Prime Minister has promised the “beginning of a new golden age”. Any new vision for our nation must include tackling the issues which pull so many of our families into poverty – a benefit system that is fit for purpose, work that is fair and pays and affordable living costs. Without this, people will continue to struggle to put food on the table and cover the rent.

Too often leaders have promised but failed to deliver. With the nation at a crossroads, now is the time for action; the five week wait for Universal Credit is a good place to start.

We know we won’t see change without continuing to build pressure. That’s why we want you to add your voice to tell our new Government that the Universal Credit wait is #5WeeksTooLong.

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Universal Credit Uncovered: 9 weeks that show we must end the wait

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A blog post by
Tom Say
Campaigns Manager

Over the past nine weeks we’ve been working with a wide range of charities and organisations on #UniversalCreditUncovered, shining a spotlight on the reality of living under Universal Credit.

The support and unity we have experienced has been nothing short of staggering.

We have seen thousands of people come together as part of #5WeeksTooLong campaign, along with more than 40 organisations and food banks across the UK, to say enough is enough.

We will not accept the five week wait – and often longer – for a first payment under the  new benefits system. The Government’s ‘Advance Payments’ are supposed to help people through those five weeks but these loans are not the solution as paying them back causes more hardship later on.

#UniversalCreditUncovered started as a reaction to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launching newspaper advertorials to “myth-bust common inaccuracies” about Universal Credit. Front and back page ads appeared in the Metro newspaper, alongside features inside.

But as the weeks of the DWP ads wore on, the charity sector came together to ensure the voices of the thousands of people affected every day were heard.

People told us of the stress they have endured trying to keep their heads above water when they should have instead been anchored from poverty. We heard from people facing terminal illness, disabled people, homeless people, single mums and people with mental health issues. We heard how the wait has plunged people already on tight budgets, into debt and how so many had been driven to use food banks.

This is not right – but it can change.

Charities that have now called on the Government to end the five week wait as part of our #5WeeksTooLong campaign, include single parent charity Gingerbread, mental health charities Mind, homelessness charities like Centrepoint, housing associations like the Riverside Group.

More than 80 charities in the Disability Benefits Consortium, as well as Scope, MNDA Society and MS Society, have joined the campaign to talk about the impact on disabled people.

Women’s Aid, Refuge and the Women’s Budget Group have told us about how the wait affects domestic abuse survivors.

While debt charity StepChange explained why ‘advance payments’ lock people in debt and aren’t a solution to waiting for payments.

Of course our own network of food banks has also come together to highlight the issues people at food banks face.  As a result, we’ve seen countless news stories, opinion pieces and social media conversations about the five week wait. The cohesion we’ve seen and felt right across the sector has been phenomenal.

And it seems to be working. On Monday Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt vowed to scrap the five week wait if he becomes prime minister.

The Conservative leadership hopeful said Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd had “persuaded him” that change is needed to stop people falling into debt at the beginning of their swap to the new system.

This signifies that a shift could come soon, and shows the power and positivity of working together to create change. It has built the pressure needed if we are to see the long-term changes needed to help keep people afloat when they move onto Universal Credit.

But we cannot become complacent.

We must continue to hold the Government to account and ask them to listen to the many organisations and people that have joined #5WeeksTooLong. They must tackle the reasons why so many people waiting for Universal Credit are being forced to food banks.

Universal Credit is not the poverty-fighting benefit reform it was promised to be and we know the five-week wait for a first payment is one of the biggest issues people face when moving onto it.

This wait is five weeks too long – ending it must be the Government’s first priority. Agree? Join us.

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Guest blog: “Universal Credit has made me hit rock bottom”

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A blog post by
Jenny Luckett
Public Affairs Adviser Riverside housing association

“I am in so much debt with my family. I’m in arrears with my rent. Arrears with my council tax I feel I just can’t get straight with everything. Going on Universal Credit it has made me hit rock bottom

Susan* is just one of many of our tenants who have found themselves struggling and in debt when they applied for Universal Credit (UC).

Over the past three years, Riverside has conducted an in-depth survey with our tenants on UC to find out what their experiences have been like.

This year’s findings showed that for tenants claiming UC, the situation has got worse.

While Riverside is supportive of the simplicity that an integrated benefit like Universal Credit could bring, we are seriously concerned that the way it is being implemented means it is causing increased debt and arrears for our tenants.

Indeed, arrears for our tenants on UC are three and a half times higher than those in receipt of Housing Benefit or paying their own rent

Since moving onto UC, almost two thirds of our tenants surveyed (63%) have seen an increase in debt since moving on to Universal Credit and almost three-quarters (71%) said they find it more difficult to keep up with household bills.

In order to make ends meet, more than three-quarters (78%) said they have to rely on loans from family, friends or from a private loans provider.

Shockingly, two-fifths (41%) of our tenants have had to rely on foodbanks in order to feed themselves and their family after moving on to UC – this is 10% increase from last year.

Tenants also reported going without food, heating and showers in order to get by. Anne*, a tenant in her 40s, said “We don’t have enough money to support us so we are having to visit the food bank more regularly.

“[We are] having the odd meal at a friend’s house but we go days without eating or showering because I can’t afford to put enough gas on to last through; I’ve had to sell most of my things to try and get us by”

For over 80% of our tenants, the 5 week wait caused them financial hardship.

This is why Riverside is proud to back the Trussell Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign – our tenants cannot wait 5 weeks for their first payment.

The DWP has said that the answer to the 5 week wait is to take up an advance and then repay this over 12 month period.

However, the repayments are taken at fixed rate so 40% of the Universal Credit standard allowance is deducted (though this will reduce to 30% from October, it still won’t take affordability into account).

We asked our tenants about advances and found there is a high take up with 77% of our tenants requesting one. But the advance repayment process is causing financial hardship for two-thirds of those who accepted an advance.

This leaves our tenants stuck between a rock and a hard place: if they accept the advance they face financial hardship because of the ongoing deductions from their UC but if they don’t take up an advance, many have no way of meeting their basic needs during the 5 week wait.

And it was clear that our tenants felt they had very little choice because most do not have savings that they can rely on – and whilst there is a minimum wait for 5 weeks for a payment, many waited much longer. Indeed, a third of those surveyed waited over 6 weeks and 13% waited over 8 weeks.

Mike* another of our tenants said: “I knew and accepted paying it [the advance] back but it only pushes you into hardship over a longer period. I do regret having advance payment but I had no other option.”

What’s the answer?

Riverside would like the Government to take three key steps.

Increased data sharing

Firstly, increase data sharing between housing associations, local authorities and DWP.

Informing housing associations when tenants are notified of their need to claim Universal Credit allows housing associations to plan in support for residents before, and during, the claim process which could help to alleviate the hardship caused by five week wait.

If housing associations only find out when they get a rent verification notice, it is often too late to help their tenants avoid getting into debt.

Extending Universal Support funding

Secondly, extend Universal Support funding to those social housing landlords who provide welfare advice and support services.

Housing associations know their residents well and are often best placed to support them. Providing this funding to housing associations could provide additional resilience to the Universal Support programme.

End the 5 week wait

Finally, and most crucially, listen to growing list of organisations putting their name to the #5WeeksTooLong campaign and end the 5 week wait immediately.

Until these changes are made, instead of acting as a safety net, Universal Credit will continue to drag people into debt and despair.

*names have been changed to protect identies

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GUEST BLOG: “Universal Credit is creating nightmare situations for survivors of domestic abuse”

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Elaine is a welfare worker supporting survivors in a Women’s Aid member service. Women’s Aid supports the Trussell Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign to end the wait for a first Universal Credit payment. 

For survivors of domestic abuse, life is inevitably balanced on a knife’s edge. In our service we constantly adjust the ways we work to ensure those we support are helped as much as possible.

We would be doing thousands of women and children a disservice if we did not make it absolutely clear how systemic changes and problems with those new systems can affect those we work with, already facing precariously dangerous and stressful situations.

In May, more than 120 MPs called for an independent inquiry into the way the family courts in England and Wales treat survivors of rape and domestic abuse and their children.

Prime Minister Theresa May responded by saying the family court system should never be used to coerce or to re-victimise those who have been abused.

Unfortunately, what we are witnessing are life threatening situations involving domestic abuse further exacerbated by issues with the Government’s new benefits system. The lengthy period of time between making a Universal Credit claim and receiving the benefit impacts not only on women’s ability to support themselves and their children, but also on the legal process they are often going through when escaping domestic abuse.

Most of our residents will need a solicitor through Legal Aid. Legal Aid is a means tested benefit, and applications to get it require a benefit award letter dated within the last four weeks. Let’s say a resident moves in to our refuge, we claim Universal Credit – and two weeks later she gets a letter from her abuser’s solicitor about child contact, with a court date in two weeks’ time.

As a claim for Universal Credit takes at least five weeks, we don’t yet have the required evidence for Legal Aid. The resident has to attend court with no representation. We support her, but we are not allowed to speak on her behalf. Due to the time that Legal Aid applications take to process, she may have to attend court without representation again, even after her claim goes through.

This creates a nightmare situation for survivors, who, having taken the terrifying step of escaping their abuser, are then expected to fight for their children’s safety alone in the family courts.

This is so scary for the women we work with – and it allows continued abuse by the perpetrator. Child contact is a common way for a perpetrator to continue to try and abuse and control women, and in these cases it is working for him. It has caused and is causing so much worry and concern, and it has a really detrimental impact on women’s recovery and mental health.

We have tried several different strategies to help those we are working with, but we are feeling increasingly disheartened that the system does not recognise the dangerous and distressing situations that survivors and their children are being put in.

We have tried requesting locally if judges and magistrates will allow Women’s Aid staff to talk on behalf of residents but we have been told no.

I have also contacted the local Universal Credit team at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to see if they will write a letter once Universal Credit has been awarded so we can use it to claim Legal Aid, rather than waiting weeks for the first statement, but have got nowhere with this as yet.

I have asked solicitors to work for free, but again hit a dead end. This is happening more and more due to everyone going over to Universal Credit and is not acceptable. As someone supporting victims I am starting to feel hopeless as all avenues I go down seem to be dead ends.

We have mums and children with us at the moment who are currently on the old benefits system. They will be moving out to suitable housing soon but they will have to claim Universal Credit due to their change in circumstances.

The problem we now have is families moving from our furnished refuge accommodation to an empty house with only Child Benefit as their income for five weeks as they wait for their first payment to come through. We will continue to support the family as best we can, but if they are on meters for utilities, if they need to use buses, how will they cope?

As we are working with the family we are able to intervene, but what if the family has no one, what do they do then?

In the short-term, DWP should replace advances with grants, at a minimum for those who are experiencing hardship. It should also be possible to obtain proof of a Universal Credit claim being made, that will be accepted in order to access Legal Aid. In the longer term, there are a number of options to bring forward the first Universal Credit payment, like backdating the first assessment period.


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The State of Hunger: can we end the need for food banks in the UK?

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A blog post by
Emma Revie
Chief Executive  

‘I was receiving one type of disability benefit and got on OK with that, but then I was told I had to apply for a new kind. I struggled to get the medical evidence I needed in time because I had a new doctor, and then it was decided I didn’t qualify – even though my condition itself hasn’t changed at all. I usually have to choose between buying food and having heating, but until I got my food bank voucher today I didn’t have either.’

This person should never have needed to come to a food bank. Getting the right support to someone changing disability benefits, long before they’re anywhere near needing a food bank, is absolutely within our power as a country.

In fact, getting the right support to anyone, long before they’re anywhere near needing a food bank, is absolutely within our power as a country.

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Locked into poverty: the impact of the five week wait for Universal Credit on domestic abuse survivors

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A blog post by
Abby Jitendra 
Policy & Research Manager 

No-one should face having to choose between staying with an abusive partner or facing financial hardship. But our benefits system often fails to support survivors of domestic abuse – and this has been worsened by cuts and changes to the system, which have slashed benefits and crisis support.

That’s the verdict from the Women’s Budget Group, Surviving Economic Abuse and the End Violence Against Women Coalition today, in their powerful report into how to make social security work for survivors of violence and abuse across the UK’s four nations.

We’re pleased to have the Women’s Budget Group standing alongside us in the #5WeeksTooLong campaign, so thought today we’d delve into their new report and look at what it has to say about Universal Credit, and in particular, the impact of having to wait at least five weeks for a first payment.

It doesn’t make for easy reading. The report details a number of ways in which Universal Credit, in its current form, narrows women’s choices and can fail survivors – right at the point when help is most critical.

One of the key things for us is how the structure of Universal Credit payments can make leaving an abusive partner even more difficult.

We already know, from research done by Women’s Aid and the Trades Union Congress, more than half of domestic abuse survivors said they couldn’t afford to leave their abusive partner.  Having to wait at least five weeks for a first payment can increase the already severe financial barriers women face when leaving an abusive relationship. This isn’t right.

And domestic abuse survivors can be waiting for much longer than five weeks. If someone has moved into a refuge, the five-week wait can be extended for up to ten weeks – especially if they had to flee without their documents, or their partner is disputing their entitlement to parts of a Universal Credit payment, like the child payments.

Chris’ story, in the report, lays out exactly how this wait can lock someone into poverty:

Chris fled her abusive partner and made a new claim for Universal Credit. She claims Universal Credit in her own right but she has no documents with her so it takes a long time for the claim to be verified, plus she has a five-week wait before payment is due. The refuge service helps her claim for an advance but this has to be repaid.

Her partner Jim is disputing her entitlement to Child Benefit and Universal Credit child elements, which holds things up.

Chris shouldn’t be trapped in poverty because she left an abusive partner. This is the exact time when our benefits system needs to be ready to support people.

These issues are in our power to change.

Women like Chris don’t have time to waste. And as we’ll be seeing over the course of the coming weeks in #UniversalCreditUncovered, they’re not alone in facing problems – lots of different groups of people are being affected by the wait for Universal Credit.

If we want to help free people instead of locking them into further poverty, debt and hardship, the Government’s first priority must be to end the five week wait. It’s #5WeeksTooLong.

Agree this can change? Join us.

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‘I’m desperate’: why Universal Credit advances are not the answer to the five week wait

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A blog post by
Adam Butler
Senior Public Policy Advocate at StepChange

‘Imposing deductions on an income that was already the bare minimum to live on made me feel desperate and less than human.’

This is what Chris*, who had been forced to pawn his possessions, told StepChange when people who have sought debt advice with the charity were asked about their experiences of deductions from benefits. He’d been forced to pawn his possessions because deductions – fixed repayments of outstanding debts – reduced the support he received so dramatically.

There is now strong evidence the five week wait for Universal Credit, created because the first payment is made one month after application in arrears (plus one payment processing week), is causing hardship and for emergency food parcels.

The current fix doesn’t work

As the consequences of the wait have become clear, the government has sought to mitigate the issue – reducing the waiting period from six to five weeks and introducing a two-week ‘run-on’ of Housing Benefit.

But the government has highlighted particularly the availability of advance payments. Advances allow people applying for Universal Credit to get a quick payment, up to the full amount of their expected monthly award, which must be repaid from subsequent monthly payments.

The problem with advances is that they create debt that must be repaid through subsequent deductions from payments, often simply replacing short-term with long-term hardship.

Repayments are often unaffordable

The current system of deducting money from Universal Credit to repay debts like advances operates largely automatically: repayments are taken at a fixed rate regardless of affordability, up to 40% of the Universal Credit standard allowance (this will be reduced to 30% from October this year).

That means someone may have up to £160 (depending on their household) taken from their award each month. Applying for help is often a signal that someone has exhausted their own financial resources as well as other avenues of support. For those in financial hardship, amounts much less than £160 are more than they can afford.

In StepChange’s research, over two-thirds of those who had a deduction in place said that it had caused them hardship. But the real impact of deductions comes across in people’s experiences.

Helpless, hopeless, forced to use a food bank

 Clients were forced to ask for help from family and friends and request food vouchers from local crisis services. One person said that the system had made them scared to buy food. People were budgeting down to pennies and still not able to afford essentials like being able to eat or buy warm clothing.

The horrendous impact of hardship linked to deductions on people’s mental and physical health was clear. People referred to depression, panic attacks and struggling with suicidal thoughts. Others said they felt trapped, worthless and like a criminal. Words like ‘helpless’ and ‘hopeless’ recurred. Anxiety was common and people were ashamed at having to ask for help or not being able to provide for their children.

Automatic deductions to repay debts can be justified in a minority of cases as a last resort, for example to help people stay in their home or to prevent disconnections of essential utilities. Most deductions are not made for this reason, however, and much more flexibility could be shown in repayment.

What’s the solution?

The Department for Work and Pensions can do much better at giving people sufficient notice of deductions (at least 28 days), referring them to free debt advice and giving them the opportunity to negotiate affordable repayments rather than setting fixed rates. The Department should also incorporate industry standard affordability assessments, drawing on best practice in the debt advice sector, so that debts are collected in a sustainable way.

But these problems ultimately show why advances cannot be the answer to the five-week wait. Creating debt carries with it problems that cannot be avoided entirely.

That’s why StepChange supports the Trussell Trust’s #5weekstoolong campaign to end the five-week wait. There are a few ways this could be achieved. In the short-term, the Department for Work and Pensions should replace advances with grants, at a minimum for those who are experiencing hardship. In the longer term, there are a number of options to bring forward the first Universal Credit payment, like backdating the first assessment period.

Ending the five-week wait would substantively address an unnecessary driver of financial problems and hardship. It would also be a first step in revisiting values and assumptions that have underpinned a series of poor design decisions in Universal Credit. Whatever else the social safety net is designed to be, it should be a source of help, not a driver of debt and hardship.

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