FOOD banks in County Durham are stockpiling supplies as they prepare for a spike in demand this autumn as new welfare benefits are rolled out.

The number of food packages handed out by Durham Food Bank rose last year and organisers expect another increase in demand as the new universal credit is introduced later this year.

It follows the first research in the country which reveals that delays in benefit payments are the single biggest reason for people turning to food banks for help.

Loading article content

Universal credit, which merges six separate benefits – income support, jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, working tax credit and employment and support allowance – into one monthly payment is being rolled out across the county and is being introduced across County Durham from October.

However, it is facing criticism that it is resulting in some people receiving less benefit while long delays in payments are forcing low income claimants into rent arrears.

Dr Dennis Philip, a reader at Durham University, has carried out the country's first analysis of food bank usage.

Data from Durham Food Bank, which has 29 distribution centres and fed more than 24,000 people in 2015-16, reveals benefit payment delays, low income and benefit changes are the main reasons people used the service in 2015-16.

Dr Philip, who predicts a spike in demand this autumn, said: "Benefit delays is the main issue - problems with the welfare system is what puts people into crisis. Food banks are there to plug a gap."

In Darlington, where the benefit has already been introduced over the last year, the food bank says it has seen a 50 per cent rise in the number of new registrations since the start of the year.

Last year it distributed around 4,000 emergency food packages. In May, it handed out 437 bags of food - providing more than 1,000 meals and expects to exceed that this month.

Caroline Todd. manager of the Food Store at King's Church said the rise in demand was steady and ongoing.

"Some people can wait four to eight weeks for the benefit. You would expect in this day and age that these things could be done at the touch of a button but it just isn't the case. There are those waiting weeks while the money is actually put in, which is where food banks have to pick up the slack."

Peter MacLellan, chief executive of Durham Christian Partnership which runs the county's food banks, says increasing numbers of working people are also seeking help.

He said: "The rise of zero hour contracts and part-time working is definitely being reflected in the number of people coming to us.

"We are expecting demand to go up as universal credit rolls out in the autumn. That has been the experience elsewhere. We are looking at how we can support people better while they are put in universal credit and we are trying to make sure we have enough food stocks to cope with an increase."

Universal credit will be introduced in Peterlee and Seaham from October, in Bishop Auckland, Consett, Crook and Stanley from December and in Chester-le-Street, Durham, Newton Aycliffe and Spennymoor in March 2018.

The Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The reasons for food bank use are complex, so it’s misleading to link them to any one issue.

“Employment is the best route out of poverty, and there are now record numbers of people in work. Under Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system."