Works and pensions secretary David Gauke said he cannot promise there will not be a “foodbank surge” as a result of benefit claimants being left out of pocket as Universal Credit is rolled out.
The minister told MPs he was “loath to guarantee anything” after DWP select committee chairman Frank Field said foodbanks in his constituency were stockpiling 15 tonnes of extra provisions to prepare for the implementation of the controversial policy.
He told Field, whose Birkenhead seat is one of those currently seeing the six main benefit payments replaced with Universal Credit - with a transitional period which will include Christmas: “You are much more experienced than me and I daresay as a minister you were loathed to guarantee anything.”
Gauke admitted there had been cases of hardship - including 1 in 25 claimants having to wait up to 10 weeks for their first payment - but said improvements to the “timeliness” of payments would help alleviate problems.
Benefit claimants have reported delays to initial payments have left them with no money to buy food and pay rent or bills - leading to spikes in foodbank use and loan shark incidents.
Universal Credit, first developed by Iain Duncan Smith, combines several benefits into one unified payment. It will replace Job Seeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit and working tax credits in some areas.
Gauke also told MPs the helpline for Universal Credit claimants would become a freephone number within the next month - along with all other DWP helplines - following pressure from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams, who is leading calls for the roll-out of the policy to be paused, said: “The Conservatives have finally listened to Labour and scrapped the premium phone helpline for claimants, now they need to listen to the calls of charities and councils and back Labour’s motion today to immediately pause and fix the roll out of Universal Credit, before more people are pushed into rent arrears, poverty and homelessness.”