WHEN Universal Credit, the government’s new ‘catch-all’ benefits scheme, was introduced in an area of London last year, food bank use increased by 94 per cent.

And a National Audit Office report last week concluded that the scheme was not providing value for money and – worse – was causing ‘unnecessary hardship’.

Today is the day earmarked for UC to be rolled out across Darlington. Agencies and charities are as prepared as they can be for possible long waits for payments which could leave both working and jobless people hungry, struggling to pay their rent, and unable to pay crucial bills.

This month UC is also being introduced in the Chester-le-Street, Durham, Newton Aycliffe and Spennymoor areas after being rolled out elsewhere in the county.

Foodbanks are poised for increased demand – one said it is expecting‘unprecedented’ levels at a time when donations tend to drop as people fly off to sunnier climes, and when demand normally increases as parents struggle to afford to feed their children during the long summer holiday break.

People switching to UC are told to expect a wait of about five weeks before their next payment comes. In reality, it can be longer than this.

Darlington Borough Council leader Bill Dixon said the council had been planning and trying to anticipate problems before the UC roll-out.

“We have recognised that the voluntary organisations are absolutely stretched and we have put on training events for councillors so that members can act as advisors," he said.

“It is a nightmare system. The council has agreed to buy more shares in the credit union which will allow it to help people who get into trouble because their payments are late.

“We are the sixth richest nation in the world – how can we not afford to provide a proper welfare system?”

Landlords are said to be refusing to take UC tenants due to delays causing rent arrears, and homelessness is expected to increase.

Caroline Todd, of Kings Foodbank in Darlington, said while it is a concern, there are already issues with the benefits system which cause many problems, such as sanctions.

Foodbank use in the town is already increasing by 20 per cent a year –and is expected to jump again as UC comes in to play.

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman said: "I am quite worried. Delays to payments are the biggest problem – people find budgeting impossible if they are not sure how much they are going go get and not sure when."

She said the problem was that the system was difficult for people who earn different amounts each month, such as those on zero hour contracts or the self-employed.

"The reason this has been rolled out so slowly, over seven years, was so that lessons could be learned and mistakes could be rectified. However, very little has been done to make the necessary changes to avoid people being left in desperate need."

The Government has made some changes, such as an advance payments system. However, these reduce benefits further down the line, making budgeting difficult.