Top civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions have been tasked with investigating the link between DWP policies such as Universal Credit and the upsurge in UK food bank use, a leaked document has revealed.
Funding of £217,000 has been approved for officials to survey 600 food bank managers and 500 people who use food banks, according to a draft proposal seen by the Guardian.
One of the key objectives of the research is “to identify any areas of DWP policy or operational practice that may have contributed to a rise in demand for food bank services”, the document said.
The department has been widely criticised for its approach to Universal Credit, a programme which is merging six existing benefits into one payment and which the National Audit Office has said may never be value for money but is too late to reverse.
The Trussell Trust, a charity which coordinates foodbanks nationwide, has said long waits for payments and administrative problems introduced with the rollout of Universal Credit have forced people to turn to foodbanks for support.
The leaked DWP proposal details a year-long investigation, due to publish its findings in October next year, into the reasons why more people are seeking emergency food supplies. Two of the most senior officials at the department are overseeing it, the Guardian revealed.
A DWP spokesperson told the paper: “As we have said previously, we are currently reviewing research carried out by organisations to add to our understanding of food bank use and will consider further research to add to our evidence base, to ensure we’re providing the best possible support for vulnerable groups.”
The department hinted that such research was taking place during a Public Accounts Committee hearing last month, which discussed the NAO finding that areas where Universal Credit has been introduced have seen a bigger upsurge in foodbank use.
Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary, was asked why there had been a 52% increase in foodbank use in some areas in the 12 months after Universal Credit was introduced – a figure published by the Trussell Trust.
Schofield said he didn’t know, and that he was having conversations with the Trussell Trust and with jobcentres to try to understand the “complexity” of the situation.
The Trussell Trust said its network distributed more than 1.3m food parcels between April 2017 and March 2018, a 13% increase on the previous year and up 46% since 2013-15.
Separately, a committee of MPs this week called on DWP to recognise and act on its “moral duty” to ensure that the benefits system does not facilitate domestic abuse.
The Work and Pensions Committee warned that the way payments are made through Universal Credit – as a single payment per household – could increase the risk of harm to people living with abusive partners.
A report from the committee explained that “single payments allow perpetrators to take charge of potentially the entire household budget, leaving survivors and their children dependent on the abusive partner for all of their basic needs”.
The MPs called on the department to split Universal Credit payments by default. “The Scottish Government is already making arrangements to introduce split payments by default, but its ability to do this depends on DWP adapting Universal Credit's systems to accommodate them,” they said.
They also called for improved safeguards and services for abuse survivors in Jobcentre Plus, and for every Jobcentre plus to be required to appoint a domestic abuse specialist.
A government spokesperson said there are specialist teams in every jobcentre to support victims of domestic violence. “Staff do everything they can to make sure people fleeing domestic abuse get the help they need as quickly as possible. That includes enabling urgent payments to be made for collection within two to three hours and transferring a person’s claim to a different jobcentre,” they said.
“The vast majority of jobcentres have private interview facilities. In the small number of offices where these aren’t available we can make arrangements for people to visit other jobcentres that do have private rooms, or arrange a home visit where appropriate. We are also continuing work to look at how we can improve universal support further, to provide assistance for managing finances.
“For those who require additional support, split payments are available. However, it is important to note that previous legacy benefits were also paid to one account and as the report recognises, split payments cannot be the solution to what is a criminal act.”