The government has been urged to act on “shocking” figures which show a link between how long Universal Credit has been in place in an area and a rise in foodbank use.
Research by The Trussell Trust found that where the benefits scheme has been in place for at least a year, foodbanks in its network had seen a 30% increase in demand.
It also showed the figure rose to 40% over 18 months and then to 48% in areas with Universal Credit for at least two years.
The charity called on ministers to end the five-week wait applicants face before receiving their first payment from the system, which was designed to combine six working-age benefits into one but is yet to be rolled out in full.
It said the stretch would see more claimants "plunged into poverty" and said that government loans provided as a stopgap were “pushing more people into debt”.
The Trussell Trust’s chief executive, Emma Revie, said: “Universal Credit should be there to anchor any of us against the tides of poverty. But the five-week wait fatally undermines this principle, pushing people into debt, homelessness and destitution.
“Universal Credit was designed to have a wait. Now it’s clear that wait is five weeks too long, and we must change that design.
“The recent Spending Review was a lost opportunity to protect people on the lowest incomes. Our prime minister must take action to end this wait, and help prevent thousands more of us being swept away by poverty."
Although former work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd admitted when she was at the department that the increase in food bank use could be linked to the introduction of Universal Credit, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said that Trussell’s data “categorically does not prove that Universal Credit is the reason behind increased food bank usage”.
In a statement, the spokesperson said the report “uses unrepresentative data to reach an entirely unsubstantiated conclusion”.
“With Universal Credit, people can get paid urgently if they need it and we’ve changed the system so people can receive even more money in the first two weeks than under the old system.”
In a Commons statement in February, Rudd acknowledged that “challenges” during the Universal Credit launch may 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.”
The government made changes to Universal Credit rollout in 2018, including an additional two weeks of benefit payments to out of work claimants to bridge the gap before their first Universal Credit payment, but Trussell’s data is based on the rollout since 2015.
The charity later condemned the government’s latest response, insisting that its “food bank referral data is trusted and the best available data on food bank use in the UK”.
It added: “It is very disappointing to see the Department for Work and Pensions’ response to this research. The experiences of people on Universal Credit cannot be denied.
“While the system may work well for many, it’s clear from the evidence of food banks and countless organisations there are also many people being failed.”