Is Universal Credit driving people to food banks?

6 July 2018
What was claimed

Trussell Trust food bank use has increased by 52% in a year in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.

Our verdict

Correct according to the Trust’s own research. It’s difficult to measure the extent that one is causing the other. There’s wider evidence that people have had problems during the rollout of Universal Credit and that some have been going to food banks as a result.

“The Trussell Trust have told us that in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out over a 12 month period that food bank use has increased by 52%.”

Ian Blackford MP, 5 July 2018

This is correct according to the Trust’s own research.

This doesn’t prove that Universal Credit has caused an increase on this scale, and the Trussell Trust itself says it isn’t the only benefit people at food banks are experiencing issues with. There’s wider evidence that people have had problems during the rollout of Universal Credit and that some have been going to food banks as a result.

Universal Credit is a new working-age benefit that is replacing a lot of existing social security benefits like income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit. It’s currently being rolled out in stages across different parts of the UK, and all existing claimants of the old benefits are expected to be moved to the new system by 2022.

Concerns have been raised that delays in moving claimants over to Universal Credit or administration problems may be causing some people to use food banks. The Trussell Trust is the UK’s largest network of food banks.

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Research shows a correlation between increased food bank use and early rollout areas for Universal Credit

The Trussell Trust confirmed to us from its own research that: “analysis of 38 foodbanks in our network that have been in full Universal Credit rollout areas for a year or more shows that these projects experienced an increase of 52% in the twelve months following the full rollout date in their area.”

The Trust said it added up data from individual food banks in areas of the UK where Universal Credit had been rolled out and compared the change in usage after a year. The average increase was 52%.

Meanwhile using a random sample of 247 food banks in areas without Universal Credit, or those where the rollout had only just started (for at most three months) the average increase was 13% over equivalent periods. We don’t know how these averages vary across different food banks.

The National Audit Office has observed separately steeper increases in food bank use in three of the four areas it looked at where Universal Credit is being introduced.

As we’ve looked into before, it’s as important to know what food bank figures don’t tell us as what they do.

The Trussell Trust doesn’t run all food banks in the UK, for instance, so these findings are specific to the cases they’ve been able to measure.

This is also still early days. We know that—by definition—the rollout areas covered in the study are among the earliest to receive Universal Credit. The benefit is currently claimed by an estimated 920,000 claimants and is expected to reach over eight million in total.

We don’t know exactly how much of an impact Universal Credit is having on food bank use, but it isn’t the only factor

The research showing a 52% increase can’t on its own prove that Universal Credit is the main driver of increased food bank use, though it’s still likely to be a major factor.

The Trussell Trust has done wider work asking some of its users about their experience of Universal Credit and why it led them to use a food bank. This gives an insight into the problems some people are facing, and why they went to a food bank. But it isn’t necessarily a representative sample of Trussell Trust food bank users as a whole, which the Department for Work and Pensions has drawn attention to.

The evidence from its referral agencies suggests in 2017/18 a growing proportion of referrals to food banks are because benefit payments aren’t seen to be covering the costs of essentials.

28% of referrals for which the Trust has data were due to ‘low income’—for which benefits were a significant factor—followed by benefit delays (24%) and benefit changes (18%).

As the Trussell Trust also points out: “Universal Credit is not the only benefit people at food banks are experiencing issues with”. Research has also suggested people on disability benefits are more likely to visit food banks.

These figures won’t reflect the full impact of recent changes

The Department for Work and Pensions told us: “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause”. It went on to say “Universal Credit is working for the vast majority who claim it”.

The DWP also points out that the research, covering 2017/18, won’t reflect the impact of all of the changes introduced earlier this year to provide extra support to claimants and allowing access to a full month’s advance payment while waiting for an award. We won’t know what effect these have had until more research has been done and those changes have had time to bed down.

The DWP’s own research shows that significant numbers of claimants report experiencing financial difficulties.

It told us that 83% of claimants are satisfied with the service they receive, which is correct for people on the ‘live service’—a temporary part of the rollout in some areas that has more restrictions on who can claim, as opposed to the ‘full service’. 

But as the National Audit Office drew attention to this week in an argument with the Secretary of State, it’s also the case from the DWP’s research that 40% of claimants on the ‘full service’ surveyed report experiencing significant financial difficulties eight to nine months into their claim.

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