Top civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions have defended the Jobcentre Plus policy of referring benefits claimants to foodbanks, amid evidence of increased demand for emergency food supplies in the wake of Universal Credit rollout.
Areas where Universal Credit has been introduced have shown a bigger upsurge in foodbank use, according to a recent National Audit Office report. Many referrals come from frontline staff of the DWP itself, according to Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
MPs on the committee were told yesterday that the department could not yet explain the correlation, but that the availability of cash advances to claimants while they were waiting for their first payment should protect them from hardship. They were told that foodbanks themselves had lobbied government for referrals from DWP.
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, an NGO which coordinates foodbanks nationwide.
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. He later added that he believed that in some areas, such as Hastings, foodbank use has increased because the local foodbank is very good and has a good relationship with the local jobcentre, not because of Universal Credit.
But he was pressed by Hillier to explain why so many referrals to foodbanks come from frontline DWP staff themselves. She asked if he thought it was “acceptable for government employees in a department that’s supposed to be providing social security” to be acknowledging the necessity of foodbanks – or whether it was “a sign of a system that’s not really delivering”.
Neil Couling, director general, Universal Credit, DWP, stepped in to point out that the idea to make these referrals had not come from DWP. He said: “The foodbanks themselves lobbied government for a long time for the Department for Work and Pensions to signpost people to foodbanks”.
He added that the policy had been agreed in around 2011/12.
Universal Credit, which is merging six existing benefits into one payment and has so far been eight years in the making.
In a National Audit Office report, published 15 June, auditors found that the programme may never be value for money, but changes made across DWP mean it is too late to reverse the reforms.
Following the publication of that report, former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith described it as “a shoddy piece of work”, while his successor Esther McVey claimed it was based on outdated information.
McVey was forced to apologise last week for “inadvertently misleading” the House over the contents of the report, which she had claimed said Universal Credit reforms were working. NAO chief Amyas Morse had written to McVey to clarify that his report actually said there was no evidence of this.
Morse, in his letter to McVey, pointed out the report was fully agreed with senior DWP officials and based on the most accurate and up-to-date information provided by the department.
Schofield, asked by Hillier whether he had “full confidence in the National Audit Office report on Universal Credit”, said it was a “strange question to ask me” but eventually said that he did. He said: “Of course I have confidence in the National Audit Office … We have a very good relationship with the National Audit Office.”
He added that “thanks to the work of the NAO”, DWP was the first substantial department to get its annual report and accounts published this year.