‘We’ve got a plan for the worst’ – Stretched foodbanks’ Christmas warning amid Universal Credit rollout

Maureen Reynel at FINDs Ipswich foodbank Picture: JAMES FLETCHER

Maureen Reynel at FINDs Ipswich foodbank Picture: JAMES FLETCHER - Credit: Archant

Foodbanks across the region are preparing for a “record-breaking” holiday season – with volunteers warning Universal Credit has sparked a leap in demand from people living below the breadline.

Michael Beckett, CEO of Colchester Foodbank, said demand was increasing Picture: GREGG BROWN

Michael Beckett, CEO of Colchester Foodbank, said demand was increasing Picture: GREGG BROWN

Bosses at Ipswich-based charity FIND (Families in Need) claimed the new benefit is “definitely having an effect” on the number of referrals, with the holiday season expected to be a “real struggle”.

Meanwhile, one Colchester foodbank said it was formulating “a plan for the worst” as it anticipated demand to increase by at least a third over the Christmas period. According to research by the Trussell Trust, the average foodbank sees a significant hike in people seeking help up to a year after Universal Credit has been introduced – with demand found to be 52% higher 12 months after the scheme is rolled out.

The FIND founder, Maureen Reynel, said demand had increased since the introduction of the new benefit in April.

“Many of my referrals coming through now [are people] awaiting first payment for Universal Credit, or they have the Universal Credit with high deductions being taken from those credits,” she said.

Gatehouse chief executive Amanda Bloomfield (far left) fears demand will be high this Christmas Pict

Gatehouse chief executive Amanda Bloomfield (far left) fears demand will be high this Christmas Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

“There are people who are in desperate need. The agencies really must refer those people – they have to do the referrals, as tough as it is, and not hope the issues are going to resolve themselves.”

With at least 1,000 boxes to pack this Christmas, Mrs Reynel said the charity was in desperate need of volunteers who could commit to working regular shifts.

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“The people that need help at Christmas are not necessarily those that are in need during the year,” she said.

“Because of the high profile of products in the shops, people panic. They feel that they should give their children what they are asking for, so they will probably use what they have got to buy Christmas gear. Our boxes will put some stock back in their pantries.”

Michael Beckett, CEO of Colchester Foodbank, said the next few months would be an “upward slope” – with conditions around Christmas expected to be exceptionally busy even without the new benefits scheme factored in.

“For us it is early days still but this time of year we are usually over 50% busier than any other months,” he said.

With Universal Credit rolled out in Colchester in July, the foodbank said it would expect to see demand increase by 30% in December – six months down the line.

However Mr Beckett said his team would likely experience even greater pressures.

“We have tended to be above average – we have needed to be ahead of the curve,” he said.

“We are expecting it to be exceptionally busy this Christmas; we are the busiest food bank in Essex.

“It is a danger that some people won’t receive the help that they will need. We have got a plan for the worst.”

He added that the foodbank would do everything in its power to serve all those in need over the holiday season.

“We aren’t going to leave people in the lurch – we won’t turn people away,” he said.

“We are just trying to make everything work. It is putting a lot of pressure on the staff.”

In Bury St Edmunds, Gatehouse Foodbank is also anticipating a tough holiday season.

Chief executive Amanda Bloomfield said demand had doubled over the past six months – with things only expected to get busier during the countdown to Christmas.

“Previously we were doing 10 to 15 parcels, now 20 to 30 parcels a week,” she said.

“We do an extra 400 parcels in the first week of December. That has also been going up year on year – [it] could be more in the region of 500 this year.

“The change with Universal Credit, with food prices going up, we are expecting demand to increase.”

In nearby Stowmarket, another local foodbank said it has seen demand soar.

A spokesperson for Stowmarket Churches Together, which is located at Hillside Community Centre, said: “Every month [demand] is consistently on the increase.

“Definitely it is going to be a difficult year. I think we can see from the government figures, Universal Credit is not working like it was planned to.

“Every change in the system is always tricky. When there is a transition period between old and new, people can’t live on fresh air for six weeks.

“It is massive demand like never before.”

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said the reasons why people use food banks are complex, adding it would be “wrong to link a rise to any one cause”.

“We’ve already made significant improvements to UC, such as 100% advances which support people before their first payment, removing the seven waiting days, and two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving onto UC,” they said.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a new benefit, slowly being rolled out by the Government, which replaces six legacy benefits and merges them into one payment.

It includes income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credits, and working tax credits.

The plan was to roll it out by 2017, but a series of management failures meant the Government has put off the completion until 2023.