Stortford food bank struggles to deal with demand as benefit delays drive families to the brink
The number of families relying on Bishop’s Stortford Food Bank has risen dramatically as benefit delays push people to the brink.
The town’s MP, Mark Prisk, said he had lobbied Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd about the hardship faced by some of his constituents.
Mione Goldspink, chairwoman of Stortford's food bank based at the Methodist Church in South Street, said pleas for help have become increasingly urgent over the past six months.
“Whereas we previously helped about 45 to 50 people per month, we are now helping about 77," she said. "The surge in demand began last autumn, with 55 people in October, followed by 68 in November and 76 in December, 75 in January and 77 in February. We also gave out an extra 114 boxes over the Christmas period.”
She was clear about the cause: “One of the reasons for this increase in need is benefit delay. There are more and more problems with administration of the benefits system, and people who are legitimately entitled to support are having to wait many weeks before their payments come through.
“There are also problems with some of the PIPs (Personal Independence Payments), and appeals over these can last many weeks, with no payment at all during the interim. Low wages are another cause of families suddenly finding themselves with no money to buy food.
"These are real crisis situations which are acutely distressing, especially when children are involved.”
Her view was echoed by the town’s Citizens Advice branch in South Street, often the first port of call for those facing hardship.
It is one of the organisations authorised to refer people to the food bank. A spokeswoman said that it had seen a 25% year-on-year increase in the dispersal of food bank vouchers.
“The reasons for this vary, but in most cases it relates to problems with benefit delays/changes," she said.
"Universal Credit, a new scheme which replaces six 'legacy benefits', was introduced in East Herts in October 2018. From this point, anyone of working age applying for benefits for the first time or with a change of circumstances must apply for Universal Credit.
“It has generated a number of challenges, most notably with the minimum five-week delay in receiving first payment, and Citizens Advice has been lobbying government to ensure people receive the support they need.”
Mr Prisk said: “Clearly it's concerning to hear about the rise in cases seen by the food bank. Having checked my records over the last six months, I have received no cases referred to me by the food bank, but three people did come to me about the delays in assessment and payments. I am working on their cases.”
The Conservative conceded: “Almost all of the problem stems from the delays, either in assessment or between assessment and payment. I lobbied Amber Rudd personally on her appointment a few weeks ago and last month she set out some helpful changes to reduce delays.
“The Government is now making changes to accessing Universal Credit so that people can have advances and so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks of housing benefit. However, I have also written to Hertford JobCentre about the issue of delays following a conversation I had with their food bank.
“Obviously, in introducing a complex change there will be some problems, but it’s clear the system is still creating too many delays for people.”
He added: “I think it’s worth pointing out that having introduced the National Living Wage, incomes have risen and are set to rise further. I appreciate that there are some households who are struggling, but it’s important to see the overall picture.”
Figures from the Office of National Statistics illustrate the growing pressure. The latest statistics show 705 people in East Herts were claiming out-of-work benefits in January, up 12.8% from 625 in December and 585 in November. The last time the total was over 700 was in April 2015 with 730.
The claimant count is measured by combining the number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and National Insurance credits with the number of people receiving Universal Credit principally because they are unemployed.
* The food bank is appealing for all types of non-perishable food, especially tinned solid meat, like corned beef and ham, tinned tomatoes and vegetables, tinned rice pudding, long-life milk, fruit juice in cartons, squash and sugar. Donations can be placed in drop-boxes at supermarkets or taken directly to the food bank on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday mornings.
Citizens Advice Bishop's Stortford is open Monday to Thursday for anyone who needs free confidential advice on benefits or other issues.