Benefit delays leaving families hungry, MPs say

Lady at a food bank Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Problems with benefits can leave people relying on food banks

Benefit mistakes and delays are causing families to go hungry and putting homes at risk, a group of MPs has warned.

A focus on reducing benefit overpayments has not been matched with tackling underpayments, the work and pensions select committee said.

Fraud and error in the benefits system is estimated to cost up to £4.5bn a year - about 3% of welfare spending.

The government said it had made "huge improvements" and was working to revolutionise the payments system.

Frank Field, chairman of the cross party group of MPs, said late or insufficient payments were leaving "vulnerable people in desperate situations".

The committee acknowledged "many parts of the welfare system work well" but it found evidence that benefit problems "often led claimants to face difficult decisions over whether to pay their rent or provide essentials such as food, gas and electricity for their household," with many becoming reliant on food banks as a result of underpaid benefits.

"Improve delivery now"

The Department for Work and Pensions expects its flagship welfare programme, universal credit, to simplify welfare and make it less vulnerable to mistakes.

But the MPs warned the repeatedly delayed new system presented problems.

Labour MP Mr Field said: "The government is betting the farm on universal credit but that will not be fully implemented for several years... The department must not neglect the existing system in the hope that universal credit will save the day. On the contrary, it must do more to improve delivery now."

What is universal credit?

Image copyright PA

A new system of benefits called universal credit is being rolled out across the UK with six working-age benefits being merged into one.

Those receiving income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit will receive a single universal credit payment.

Universal credit is paid once a month, rather than fortnightly or weekly, and goes directly into a bank account. If you and your partner each receive these benefits, then this will change to a single payment for the household.

If you receive help paying your rent at present, and are a council tenant, then this money goes into your rent account - meaning you do not receive the money directly. Private tenants have the money paid into their bank account, to pass on to their landlord.

Under universal credit, you will receive the money as part of your benefit payment and you will then have to pay your landlord.

It is designed to make work pay - instead of people seeing their income drop when they move off benefits and into low-paid work and also aims to simplify the system and eliminate fraud. But critics say millions of people will lose out under the new rules.

Read more about the new benefits system

The committee also said there were concerns over the "five to six-week wait" claimants have for their first universal credit payment, especially for "households who have no savings or a final pay cheque to fall back on".

A DWP spokesperson said: "The reality is that the vast majority of benefits are paid on time and we have made huge improvements to the service we provide, meaning that benefits are now paid faster than ever before. It is disappointing that the committee failed to recognise this."

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