Amber Rudd has admitted that the increase in food bank use could be linked to the introduction of Universal Credit.
The work and pensions secretary has become the first government minister to concede that delays to benefit payments may have led to a surge of people claiming emergency food parcels.
According to foodbank charity Trussell Trust, the number of food parcels being claimed by soared from 61,000 in 2010/11 to 1.3 million last year.
Ministers had resisted calls to acknowledge the link between the rise and the introduction of Universal Credit, claiming the DWP did not collect statistics proving a correlation.
But in a Commons statement today, Rudd admitted that “challenges” during the Universal Credit launch could have driven up food insecurity.
“We are committed to a strong safety net where people need it,” she said. "It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of Universal Credit
"And the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.
“We have made changes to accessing Universal Credit so that people can have advances, so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks, of housing benefit, and we believe that will help with food insecurity.”
Changes the government has made to the rollout plan include an additional two weeks of benefit payments to out of work claimants to bridge the gap before their first Universal Credit payment, and the department has also confirmed it would revise the rollout of the scheme, which will merge six existing working-age benefits into one payment. However, it has rejected a call from a parliamentary committee to delay the transfer of claimants onto the system until it has set and passed a series of readiness tests.
The work and pensions select committee said last month that the department must set out tests to complete “before a single claimant is transferred to Universal Credit via the managed migration pilot”. The department’s existing plan is to carry out tests in 2020, a year into the pilot phase but ahead of the full rollout, which the committee said was “simply not good enough” to ensure DWP was ready to ensure the transfer to its new welfare system would go smoothly.
However, following the report, DWP said readiness tests were unnecessary because it had now “put beyond doubt” that it would pilot the “managed migration” of benefit claimants from the old to the new system before transferring claimants en masse.
Responding to Rudd’s comments yesterday, the work and pensions committee chair Frank Field said the government must do more to ensure payments were made on time.
“At last, we have a secretary of state who is willing to have a much more open debate on the link that exists between Universal Credit and the need for food banks,” he said.
“Most importantly for claimants, this debate needs to result in action which eliminates the lengthy wait for benefits to be paid.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister said the government had now "made improvements" to the welfare package.
"We have long acknowledged that there were issues with the initial roll out of universal credit and that is why we have listened and made improvements, such as extending advances, removing waiting days and introducing housing benefit run on," they said.
“These changes are giving support to vulnerable people who need it most, while at the same time helping people get into work faster.”