Universal Credit Frequently Asked Questions

We’re a country that prides itself on making sure proper support is in place for each other when help is most needed – that’s why we created our fire service, our health service, and our benefits system.

Universal Credit will see six different types of benefit payment rolled into one, so many of us are likely to need its invaluable support at some point in our lives: if we ever need help with making ends meet through what previously would have been child tax credits, housing benefit, or working tax credits; or to make sure we have enough money while we’re looking for a job or living with a health condition or disability.

Universal Credit has been rolling out to different parts of the country at different times. Only people making a new application for benefits can apply – this includes anyone on the old benefits system who has had a change of circumstances (like moving house or having a baby).

At the Trussell Trust we’ve been working closely with our network of food banks across the UK to monitor what happens on the frontline when people apply for Universal Credit in an area. We had hoped to see a drop in referrals to food banks for emergency food in areas as it rolled out, but instead we have seen an average increase.

Our analysis in 2018 showed a 52% average increase in food bank use twelve months after Universal Credit rolled out in an area. Food banks not in Universal Credit areas, or that had only had the system for up to three months, showed an average increase of 13%.

People supported by Universal Credit shouldn’t need a food bank. But from the very start, the government makes everyone who applies wait at least five weeks for a full payment – with some people left waiting longer.

This is leaving many people without enough money to cover the basics. Food banks see first-hand the impact on people when there’s an issue with the new system: families facing eviction, parents skipping meals and people in insecure work struggling to afford the bus fare to work.

Even when an application is paid “on time” after five weeks, many people are still referred to food banks struggling with debt, rent arrears and issues with mental health.

There are a number of problems with Universal Credit (read more here), but the five week wait is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a rise in people needing food banks where it has been rolled out. A five week wait is too long – it needs to end.

Our evidence is clear – people across our country have been forced to food banks following a problem with Universal Credit. Our research, Left Behind, highlighted some of the key issues. We know these aren’t one-offs; food banks continue to report similar concerns.

Our analysis in 2018 showed a 52% average increase in food bank use twelve months after Universal Credit rolled out in an area. Food banks not in Universal Credit areas, or that had only had the system for up to three months, showed an average increase of 13%.

In 2019, two new groups of people will move onto Universal Credit:

  1. 10,000 people currently receiving support from the old benefits system will be part of a pilot to test the move over onto Universal Credit. This is the government’s scaled back plan following the campaigning of charities like the Trussell Trust – read more about our work on this here.
  2. While that test is underway, 1.6 million other people are still expected to make a new Universal Credit application over the course of 2019 because their circumstances have changed – for example, if someone falls ill or is made redundant and needs support from our benefits system.

3 million people were due to move from the old benefits system onto Universal Credit from 2019, but the government scaled back its plan following the campaigning of charities like the Trussell Trust. Instead, 10,000 people currently receiving support will be moved over, and the process will be assessed and new regulations needed before every other person currently receiving payments under the old system is moved over.

We welcomed the news that the next stage of Universal Credit will be scaled back and monitored, but this will come too late for the thousands of people making new Universal Credit applications during 2019 – and 1.6 million people are expected to move to Universal Credit in this way over the next 12 months.

Everyone who applies is expected to wait at least five weeks for a first payment. We know people are being forced to food banks because the wait for Universal Credit is five weeks too long – the government needs to end the five week wait.

We’re a country that prides itself on making sure proper support is in place for each other when help is most needed – that’s why we created our fire service, our health service, and our benefits system.

But the new benefits system, Universal Credit, isn’t the poverty-fighting reform that was promised. Fundamental questions are being asked how and whether it can be fixed.

But designing a welfare state is not something you can do overnight – we need change now. A new system could take a decade or more to design, test, and roll-out.

And as the debate rumbles on, more and more people are referred to food banks.

That’s why we need changes to Universal Credit, and we need them urgently – there are things that can and must be done right now to make a difference.

The government needs to end the five week wait for Universal Credit. We’re a country that prides itself on making sure proper support is in place for each other when help is most needed – our benefits system was created to do exactly this. But Universal Credit isn’t the poverty-fighting reform that was promised.

More and more people are moving onto it, having to wait for a first payment, and being forced to food banks because that wait is five weeks too long. The government knows the wait is too long but the changes they’ve made won’t stop people needing food banks. The wait for Universal Credit is five weeks too long.

The government has a number of options – including making ‘advance payments’ a grant ahead of the first Universal Credit payment (instead of stretching the same amount of Universal Credit over a longer period, which is what currently happens), or by simply starting payments sooner.

Whatever the approach, Universal Credit should be accessible to anyone who needs it, and it should be available as soon as possible.

We understand that there is a lag between someone making an application for our benefits system and receiving a first payment – but that gap should never be so long that it leaves people without enough money to cover the basics and forces them to food banks. A five week wait is too long.

We’re not alone in thinking this. The government knows the wait is too long, and has done two things to try and help people struggling with the wait – but these changes won’t stop people needing a food bank:

  1. While you’re waiting for a first payment, you can apply for some or all of it to be paid early – this is then taken from your payments when they come through. The government calls this an ‘advance payment’. But this put people between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or not enough money later?
  2. If you’re already supported by some benefits under the old system, the government has said these will carry on being paid for two weeks. But this is only for some people from July 2020, and it still leaves a three week gap. 1.6 million people are expected to move to Universal Credit over the next 12 months alone, and will not get this support.

The best way to make sure no one needs a food bank while waiting for a first full payment is to end the five week wait.

No. We’ve been working with food banks in our network for several years to gather evidence on the Universal Credit issues faced by people referred to food banks – the lack of available support to apply online, the inability of payments to cover the cost of living for people who need it most, and poor administration are some of the problems people face. You can read about this in more detail here.

So there are other problems with Universal Credit. But the five week wait is one of the biggest reasons why we’ve seen a rise in people needing food banks where it has been rolled out. And it’s one that can be fixed. If food banks, the people we support, and the public come together to show how damaging the five week wait is, then the government has no choice but to end it.

The government has made some changes because it knows the five week wait for Universal Credit is too long – but the two changes they’ve made won’t stop people needing food banks:

  1. While you’re waiting for a first payment, you can apply for some or all of it to be paid early – this is then taken from your payments when they come through. The government calls this an ‘advance payment’. But this put people between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or not enough money later?
  2. If you’re already supported by some benefits under the old system, the government has said these will carry on being paid for two weeks. But this is only for some people from July 2020, and it still leaves a three week gap. 1.6 million people are expected to move to Universal Credit over the next 12 months alone, and will not get this support.

The best way to make sure no one needs a food bank while waiting for a first full payment is to end the five week wait.

While you’re waiting for a first Universal Credit, you can apply for some or all of it to be paid early – this is then taken from your payments when they come through. The government calls this an ‘advance payment’.

An ‘advance payment’ does not provide people with more money to cover the five week wait – it stretches a first Universal Credit payment over an even longer period of time than the month it has been calculated to cover.

Our evidence shows people have needed a food bank because an advance payment meant their following Universal Credit payments were too small to cover the cost of essentials.

Advance payments do not solve the problem of waiting at least five weeks for Universal Credit – they put people between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or not enough money later?

Universal Credit is not the only type of benefit payment people referred to food banks are experiencing problems with.

In the past we’ve spoken out about the issues people face when a benefit payment is sanctioned, or when there is a problem with benefits for people with disabilities. We’ll be continuing to do this – in fact, we’re currently working on a wide-ranging three-year research project which will shed a lot more light on the issues people face.

While this is underway, we’ll be continuing to work with partners in coalitions like End Hunger UK and Lift the Ban, to highlight the other benefits issues people at food banks are facing.

This is about what kind of country we are. We’re rightly proud in the UK of the systems we’ve created to protect each other when help is most needed – our benefits system was created to do exactly this. But Universal Credit isn’t the poverty-fighting reform that was promised.

More and more people are moving onto it, having to wait for a first payment, and being forced to food banks because that wait is five weeks too long.

This isn’t right. And it’s not inevitable. We can stop people needing a food bank while waiting for Universal Credit by ending the five week wait.

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