“Eye-watering” deductions from Universal Credit payments are responsible for the huge rises in people using food banks in the region, according to a charity.
A total of £9.2m was deducted from Universal Credit payments in Yorkshire in just one month last year, the figures from Feeding Britain showed.
People in the region claimed nearly £111m in Universal Credit in August last year, however, more than 8p in every pound was clawed back from claimants due to fines, loans and overpayments.
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The biggest reason for deductions was to repay advance payments, which accounted for more than half of the deductions, a total of £4.9m.
Advance payments tend to be handed out during the five-week wait between approval for Universal Credit and getting the first payment and need to be paid back. Advance payments come through within three working days of being approved.
Overpayments and other loans made up a large percentage, as did fines, with more than half a million pounds retained by the Department of Work and Pensions because of fines. Claimants can be fined for missing appointments, failing to apply for specific jobs they were told to apply for or being unavailable to go to a job interview.
Deductions should make up no more than 30 per cent of a person’s standard allowance, except for situations where it is thought to be a person’s “best interest” - for example, to pay rent arrears is they are in danger of losing their home.
Andrew Forsey, national director of the food bank charity, said: “The Government is said to be looking at the evidence behind the increasing need for food banks. These figures, which are the result of the appalling policy of pushing people into debt while asking them to wait at least five weeks for their first Universal Credit payment, should represent a key piece of evidence.
“Food banks in Yorkshire, and across the Feeding Britain network, report that the deduction of such eye-watering sums is behind a growing number of referrals for food parcels.”
Dave Paterson, coordinator at Unity in Poverty Action which runs Leeds Food Aid Network, agreed. He said: “One of the biggest issues with Universal Credit is it’s putting people into debt. I would say 40 to 50 per cent of people who use our food banks are doing so because of the delay to their Universal Credit payments. It’s causing huge damage across the board.
“The five-week delay and deductions are obviously a problem but also the fact you need to apply online is a problem too.”
He said food banks were meant as an emergency measure but they were being used more regularly as people struggled to cope.
“We’re seeing more and more recurring use.
He added: “The culture of sanctions and delays we had with the previous system now seems to be officially built into Universal Credit because it saves the DWP money. We need to see more action.”
Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, said concerns had already been raised about the rollout of Universal Credit, after it emerged the pilot project in Harrogate had moved only 13 households across from other benefits to Universal Credit since last July.
He said:“The benefits system should provide people struggling to make ends meet with a degree of financial security. With literally millions of people’s livelihoods at risk of being thrown into chaos by the system of ‘managed migration’ over the next four years, sadly Universal Credit is doing the precise opposite.
“The Government urgently needs to get a grip of the problem and fix it once and for all.”
A Department of Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Nobody needs to wait five weeks to receive a Universal Credit payment as people can get paid urgently if they need it.
“Safeguards are in place to ensure repayments are affordable and we recently announced a reduction in the maximum amount that can be deducted from someone’s Universal Credit claim.
“The UK Government spends over £95 billion a year on welfare and also offers support with budgeting.
“People can find out more about how to apply for Universal Credit support online.”