Wed, 28 Nov 2018
UNIVERSAL credit has sent foodbanks across West Berkshire into overdrive since the controversial welfare benefit was rolled out across the district last winter.
Damning figures have revealed West Berks Foodbank has nearly surpassed the number of people it fed during the whole of last year – in just 34 weeks.
The foodbank fed 2,791 clients over a 12-month period from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018.
Since April 1 this year, it has fed more than 2,890 people.
West Berks Foodbank chairman Andrew Bruce this week told the Newbury Weekly News with “absolute certainty” that, with figures from this week’s sessions yet to be entered on to the centre’s database, the foodbank will surpass last year’s figure by the end of the week.
In light of the huge increase, Mr Bruce has predicted the charity will feed around 5,360 people by March 1, 2019 – which would mean an increase of 92 per cent on last year.
Burghfield and Mortimer Foodbank, which joined West Berks Foodbank in June and now feeds 18 per cent of all West Berks Foodbank clients, is also behind part of the increase.
There has been a 57.5 per cent growth in demand in West Berks Foodbank’s four other foodbank centres this financial year, mainly due to supporting clients who are transferring on to universal credit.
The rollout of the flagship benefits system – the largest welfare reform in a generation – has been identified as the main driver behind the rise in foodbank usage across the district, which switched to a ‘full service’ universal credit area on December 6, 2017.
Universal credit merges six benefits – income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit – into one.
The monthly sum, which is paid to millions of people across the country, is intended to make claiming benefits simpler.
Clients who access one of the district’s six foodbanks are only entitled to food parcels if they present a food voucher.
To determine whether a client is in genuine need of a voucher, the charity operates a referral system whereby people’s needs are screened against certain criteria, which also identifies ‘crisis’ types.
While universal credit is not specifically identified a crisis cause by The Trussell Trust, West Berks Foodbank has recorded significant increases foodbank usage in certain crisis categories.
These include ‘other’, ‘benefit changes’ and ‘benefit delays’ – all three of which, Mr Bruce says, account for clients accessing or being moved on to universal credit.
In ‘other’ and ‘benefit changes’, the number of people affected has soared by 150 per cent and 45 per cent since last year.
Last month alone, the charity recorded a 104 per cent increase in the number of food vouchers it handed out on a like-for-like basis since October 2017, while the number of people with three or more food vouchers has increased by more than half since the same month last year.
Speaking about the impact of universal credit, Mr Bruce said: “It certainly has made a huge difference in the amount of food that we put out.
“We recognise that there are people in distress and it’s very genuine distress.
“When you listen to people who’ve come in, a lot of them are there purely and simply because they’ve got into universal credit, they have little funds of their own and they haven’t got any income for a period of time.”
Last month, the Chancellor announced in his autumn budget that universal credit was here to stay, despite injecting £5bn into the Department for Work and Pensions to help ease the transition to the system.
Mr Bruce added: “There is a lot of grief and hardship out there.
“We are conscious of the fact that the Government says it’s going to try and improve the situation, but we’ll see.
“We’ll try to respond appropriately.”