It is now more common for people using food banks to be in debt to the government than to family and friends or payday loan companies, the Trussell Trust has said.
The UK’s biggest food bank network said half of all households visiting food banks struggled to afford essential goods such as food and clothes because they were repaying universal credit debts.
The organisation said monthly deductions taken from claimants’ payments – in most cases to pay back a universal credit advance loan – could reduce household incomes by up to a third.
The trust has called on ministers to freeze all universal credit deductions to give struggling families a financial breathing space. It argues it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to repay debts when they cannot afford basic essentials.
The most common deduction made by the Department for Work and Pensions is made in repayment of advance loans issued to tide claimants over during the minimum five-week wait for a first universal credit payment. Deductions are also made for benefit overpayment errors.
A record 5.7 million people were supported by universal credit in October – a near doubling since March, when lockdown began to take its toll on the economy. About 1.3 million new claimants were issued with advances between March and June.
“Our welfare system should increase people’s security, not suffering. But right now the government is taking money from the benefit payments of many people using food banks,” said the trust’s chief executive, Emma Revie. “Taking money off payments to repay these debts makes it much harder for people to afford the essentials and can impact on people’s mental health – this isn’t OK.
“With the pandemic continuing to hit people’s incomes, the government must pause taking money from benefit payments over the winter months until a more responsible and just system that offers security and support is in place. This would help people on the lowest incomes to keep every penny of their benefits to help afford the absolute essentials, instead of needing to turn to a food bank for help.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have announced a £400m package of support for this winter and beyond, including £170m to help families stay warm and well fed, millions in support for food aid charities and £220m to help children through the holiday activities and food programme.”