Bureaucratic delays have left hundreds of thousands of benefit claimants struggling without income for weeks after being made jobless, forcing many to turn to food banks, according to the chair of an all-party MPs’ group on hunger.
Over the past 12 months, more than 90,000 people waited more than three weeks for their unemployment benefit applications to be processed, while 242,000 waited more than two weeks, according to Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) figures obtained by Labour MP Frank Field.
Field, who also chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, called on ministers to set a new five-day target for processing benefit claims in order to dramatically cut the numbers of people reliant on food banks.
Figures published last week by the UK’s biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, show that delays were the principal reason behind the referral of 27% of its food bank users over the six months from April.
A parliamentary inquiry last year heard evidence from charities that long waits for benefit payments – in extreme cases up to 20 weeks – forced claimants into debt and “survival crime”, such as shoplifting, as well as triggering stress, mental illness and homelessness.
The DWP’s targets are to process 90% of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claims, and 85% of employment and support allowance (ESA) claims, within 10 working days. It is close to meeting the former target and has surpassed the latter.
However, Field argues that the targets are too timid, and that too many claimants are left for too long without support. DWP figures reveal that 1.1 million people waited longer than five days to receive benefit payments between October 2015 and September 2016.
He said: “This new set of data reveals for the first time the scale of the challenge confronting the government if it is to help reduce the numbers of people relying on food banks.
“We now know that improvements are needed to speed up the processing of two-thirds of JSA claims, and a little under half of ESA claims, to ensure nobody needs to wait more than five days to establish an income during times of need.
“The government has made much progress against its current 10-day target. It now needs to set itself a new, bold target of having all claims paid within a five-day period.
“Britain’s food banks, as well as the nation’s hungry, could breathe a collective sigh of relief if this were to be made a reality.”
Poverty campaigners are concerned that the built-in 42-day delay for processing initial universal credit claims will exacerbate hunger and debt among the poorest claimants as the new benefit is rolled out across the UK.
Although DWP cash advances on benefits and hardship loans are technically available to help tide over claimants until their first payment, there are concerns that too often they are not offered to claimants.
A study published this summer by West Cheshire food bank with academics from Chester and Oxford Universities found that benefit delays, which accounted for 20% of all referrals, typically triggered a crisis that left food bank clients dependent on charity food parcels for four weeks.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The reality is that the vast majority of benefits are paid on time and we have made huge improvements to the service we provide.
“As many as nine out of 10 JSA and ESA claims are processed within 10 days, meaning benefits are now paid faster than ever before. Reasons for food bank use are complex so it’s misleading to link them to any one issue.
“We continue to spend about £90bn on working-age benefits, hardship payments and benefit advances. And budgeting loans are all available to those who need them.”