Warrington Foodbank has reported an increase of 17% in the last year with 80 tonnes of food distributed- more than a third of which went to children – and as summer holidays come round – children become even more vulnerable as the safety net of a hot school meal is removed.
People experiencing a food crisis must be referred to foodbanks by medical, community or advice agencies. This is because there are usually underlying issues which have led to the situation and these can be identified and resolved by the agencies.
In my role as Money Advice Officer, I am authorised to distribute food vouchers to people in need – but also help to address the underlying issues.
I have supported tenants from all walks of life who have found themselves facing a food crisis – and have helped tenants to access support to free themselves from food poverty. There are common issues linked to benefits that can lead to a food crisis, that I have helped tenants to address:
The long wait for Universal Credit
Universal Credit is paid monthly in arrears. However, when someone first moves onto this benefit the first payment is only made one month and seven days after the date the claim is made. There is therefore a delay of over 5 weeks. Unless there is other income or savings to fall back on, this delay often leads to crisis point and the Trussell Trust reports that “half of referrals made [to Foodbanks] due to ‘moving onto a different benefit’ in the last year were related to Universal Credit”.
The solution to this is to apply for a Benefit Advance. This is an advance of up to 100% of your first Universal Credit payment to help you get through to your first payment date. However, this has to be paid back over the first 12 monthly payments, so can cause financial difficulty over a longer period of time.
Many state benefits require claimants to do certain things in return for their payments. For example, someone claiming Universal Credit while looking for a job must prove that they are spending a certain amount of time taking steps to find work, usually 35 hours per week. If they don’t do what is asked, a sanction can be imposed and their payments can be cut. There are different levels of sanctions depending on how many times the conditions have not been met, and how serious the breach is. Up to 100% of the personal allowance for a single person can be cut for up to three years in the most extreme cases. Nationally, 29% of Foodbank referrals last year were due to benefit sanctions.
All sanction decisions have a right of appeal if there is a good reason why the conditions were breached. Successfully challenging a sanction could remove it entirely, or could reduce the duration if there is more than one in place. If there are no grounds to challenge the decision, hardship payments may be available. These are reduced payments to help people subject to a sanction who have no other income. These have to be repaid after the sanction has ended which could cause ongoing financial hardship.
There have been a number of reforms of the welfare benefits system over the last few years, most notably the ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap. Both of these limit benefit entitlements below subsistence level and leave people in financial difficulty. 28% of Foodbank referrals last year were due to ‘low income’, and the vast majority of these were for people whose only income is state benefits.
There may be solutions available to people affected by these welfare reforms. For example, someone affected by the bedroom tax may be able to move to a smaller property so they are no longer affected, or they may qualify for a Discretionary Housing Payment to help with the shortfall in their benefits. Someone affected by the benefit cap may also qualify for a Discretionary Housing Payment, or may be able to become exempt from the cap.
If you are a tenant of Warrington Housing Association experiencing food crisis, please feel free to contact me for advice. Otherwise, you can contact your nearest Foodbank to find out which agencies can provide a voucher.