As single mum Joanne Harrison opens her fridge to reveal its meagre contents, she explains she has been stockpiling food for weeks.
Instead of mince pies or other festive treats, the 43-year-old mum from Leeds has been putting aside basics to feed her family over the next month – packets of pasta, frozen bread, rice.
She is one of thousands of people who are being moved onto the government’s new Universal Credit benefit payment this December. And due to the highly controversial five-week delay in payments, she will be left without any benefits until the new year.
Christmas has, she says, quite literally been cancelled for her family this year. Cash is so tight she is unsure if she will be able to pay her son’s bus fare when he returns to school in January. But Joanne is determined her kids will not go hungry.
She and another dad-of-two have spoken to HuffPost UK about the financial and emotional hardship of being left without benefit payments at this time of year.
We tell their stories, as charities and campaigners continue to demand the government scraps the highly divisive five-week delay when people are moved onto Universal Credit, which rolls six working-age benefits into one monthly payment.
Many are also asking why it was necessary to rollout Universal Credit in some parts of the country in December, which has inevitably resulted in the five week delay falling over Christmas.
As we meet Joanne Harrison at the Lower Wortley foodbank in Leeds, run by the Trussell Trust, she is cashing in a voucher for a three-day emergency food parcel. She’s had the voucher for weeks, but has been saving it for when things get really tough.
The single mum has been claiming income support, tax credits and child benefit for some time, but in early December was told by the Job Centre she would have to switch to Universal Credit.
Like many in receipt of benefits, Joanne is a single mum who has found it tough to find work. She is the legal carer for her five-year-old grandson and does the school run each day. She also has a 13-year-old son. Jobs with flexible hours are in short supply, she says.
Over recent years Joanne has also spiralled into debt. When HuffPost UK first contacted her, it took us more than a week to reach her. She ignores calls when an unknown number shows up on her phone because she fears it is debt collectors hounding her.
Like many, Joanne is completely perplexed about why it was necessary for her benefit changeover to happen over the Christmas period.
“I just think it’s wrong doing it at this time of year for people with kids,” she said. “I had to sit my son down last night and tell him that things are going to get harder. I don’t want him walking to school in snow and rain, it’s miles away, and being soaking wet all day at school.
“But I’m worried I won’t have the bus fare when he goes back next year. It’s 75p, but when you’ve got no money you’ve got no money and the bus won’t take coppers. I need to prepare him that things are going to be hard.”
When asked how much debt she has, Joanne looks crestfallen and says it is a huge amount – £3,000, mainly from pay day loans. While the figure may seem relatively manageable to many, in her financial situation it is almost impossible to pay off. She is now being supported by the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), which offers a free Debt Help service to people in her situation.
In the end, Joanne has had no option but to take on more debt in order to see her through the Christmas weeks.
She has applied for a £300 advance payment through Universal Credit. This money is a loan and will be deducted over 12 months from her new monthly benefit payment when it finally comes through. Along with £150 from her last benefit money this leaves her with roughly £11.50 a day to feed her family of three until January 17. She is unsure how she will manage.
“I’m so frightened about being made homeless,” Joanne says. “If the Universal Credit application goes wrong, and it can totally not be your fault, the end of all this is homelessness.
“But the kids don’t go without. So long as those kids have got everything they need and they’re happy, they’re warm, they’re loved. They’re getting into school in the morning with breakfast in their belly, they’re having their school dinner and they’re getting an education, that’s all I care about.”
She and her boys will spend Christmas Day with her older daughter, so they will at least have a Christmas dinner, Joanne says. Otherwise she is budgeting for every penny until her Universal Credit payments kick in.
Lower Wortley foodbank area manager Tricia Ryder says demand has been soaring since Universal Credit was rolled out in Leeds in October. And she says the delay in payments can be even longer than five weeks, sometimes up to seven weeks, based on their experience of people going through the system.
”Obviously everybody knows all about Universal Credit and that is what’s having the biggest impact on us at the moment,” she says.
“For some people that are going onto it in December they’re getting no benefit at all before Christmas. More and more people literally are left with nothing.”
Eleven miles in away in Bradford, dad-of-two Paul, whose real name HuffPost UK has agreed to withhold, has dropped in to his local foodbank.
The 24-year-old is in good spirits and the foodbank is buzzing with activity as volunteers sort donated food ready to be given out.
Explaining his circumstances, the 24-year-old says he has been living for five weeks on a £40 advance as he waits for his first Universal Credit cash to come through. If this is delayed, he will not be able to buy Christmas presents for his two young kids.
“Once I know how much I’m getting, I’m going to work out my money and see what bills are going out,” he says. “Take that away and what I’ve got remaining will be shopping and presents. My daughter is into the Hatchimals animals, the eggs that you put into water and they hatch, she’s obsessed. My little boy is fine with anything, he likes all toys.”
In the meantime he is surviving on leftover out-of-date donations from the foodbank where he is a volunteer.
The 24-year-old has been claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance since 2015 and was moved onto Universal Credit when he recently moved to a new bedsit. He says he can see the advantages of receiving a monthly payment, which will result in less change when he eventually finds work and a monthly salary.
But the five week wait is toughest on the people who are already in the most need, Gareth Thompson, a CAP centre manager in Bradford, explains.
“What they’ve tried to do, and this is how I try and explain it to people, is they’ve moved everything on a month,” he says. "So once you’re on Universal Credit and you’re working towards finding work, it should in theory mean that you have a payment left to come when you get a new job.
“But the way they’ve messed it up is they’re moving people from very little benefit income, being paid in quite short periods, onto a five week waiting period and that’s the thing that’s stinging people. In that time period they’re getting into debt, they’re going hungry.”
Gareth, 31, who runs job clubs to help people find work as part of his role with CAP, has been up for hours the night before making 20 Christmas hampers from donated food.
He tells Paul he has been nominated to receive one of the hampers and the young father’s face lights up. But, despite Paul’s circumstances, he is acutely aware that others are worse off than he is.
“There’s loads that are struggling more than me,” he says. “There are quite a few people that are going homeless in Bradford because of Universal Credit.”
Why is there a 5-week delay for first payments?
So why is there a need for a five week delay in making the first Universal Credit payment?
The government says the delay is necessary in order to verify and check information provided in Universal Credit applications. But people calling for this to be abolished argue that many who are being moved onto Universal Credit are already claiming legacy benefits, so the information should already be checked and verified on DWP systems.
Others suggest the five week delay is simply a device worked into the system to save the government money. The DWP did not respond to HuffPost UK’s question about why this delay is a feature of the system.
But the department told HuffPost UK 84% of new claims to Universal Credit are paid in full and on time, which it says is an increase of 10% compared to last year.
It says when claims are not paid on time, it is estimated in two thirds of cases this is because there is an outstanding verification issue, such as providing bank statements, evidence of childcare costs, or proof of rent.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Universal Credit is a force for good for the majority and Job Centre staff are committed to ensuring people get the right support this Christmas. People can claim up to 100% advance payments from day one and budgeting support is also available.”