The Five Week Wait For Universal Credit Is Too Long, And Forcing Many To Turn To Foodbanks

Our staff, volunteers and data tell us people are being swept into poverty or pushed further under – we need real, concrete change
Colin McPherson via Getty Images

A lot has happened in British politics since the start of the year. But on the ground in our country’s food banks, things continue as before, with more and more people being forced to food bank doors after having to wait at least five weeks for a first Universal Credit payment.

So tomorrow afternoon, when MPs sit down to debate Department for Work and Pensions spending, I’m hoping they take a break from their warring factions and instead start to lay the groundwork for real, concrete change.

It was encouraging to at last hear a work and pensions secretary acknowledge the role that Universal Credit plays in the ever-increasing number of food bank referrals seen in our network and beyond. It’s a welcome step to move on from arguing about the evidence, and focus on solutions.

Because this doesn’t stop here. The wait for Universal Credit is still forcing people to food banks.

This isn’t right. And the government can change it.

We know the government has looked at fixes. Payment timeliness has improved. Advance Payments, which mean people can get some or all of their first payment early, were made more accessible and more generous. People with a housing benefit claim who move over to Universal Credit now get two weeks’ additional payment to reduce the risk of rent arrears when waiting for a first payment.

Emerging evidence suggests these changes have made some difference – but not enough. At the Trussell Trust, we also know people are still coming to food banks due to the five week wait. It’s clear from what staff and volunteers tell us from our network of food banks up and down the country. It’s clear from our data. And it’s clear from the comments from the 9,000-strong group who’ve already signed up to our new #5WeeksTooLong campaign.

The DWP announced in the last Budget that they would continue to pay old DWP benefits for two weeks. But this is only from July 2020, and leaves out people moving from tax credits and those who weren’t claiming any benefits before. In the next year alone, 1.6million people are expected to start claiming Universal Credit – they won’t see any of this support. And once old benefit systems end, no-one else will benefit.

For the moment, Advance Payments are the main ‘solution’. But these must be repaid. However small the DWP makes these repayments, people will still be expected to go without money to cover the basics. For people just about making ends meet, this risks sweeping them into poverty. For the many households already slipping under, the system will push them further.

Our benefits system can be changed to help people stay afloat when they need support. The Trussell Trust is looking at solutions, such as a transitional payment for those who need it during the five week wait or changing the rules to allow Universal Credit payments to start sooner.

In the meantime, we need support to make sure the government hears us.

The work and pensions secretary has set out a clear goal for Universal Credit – a fair and compassionate system that works for everyone. We’ve seen some encouraging signs. But now is the time for the government – from the DWP to the Treasury – to back this bold vision with bold action. The first step should be to end the five week wait. We hope MPs join our call, and you can help make that happen by emailing yours now.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is head of policy and research at The Trussell Trust


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