AS Universal Credit is rolled out in Bolton, food banks are bracing themselves for an increase in demand for their services. JOSEPH TIMAN reports on how organisations in the borough are preparing for the impact of the new benefit system.

VOLUNTARY organisations are expecting a demanding winter as Bolton became a full-service Universal Credit area on Wednesday.

The single monthly payment, which combines six different working-age benefits into one, was intended to simplify the benefit system and provide incentives for claimants to work.

However, problems with the roll-out of the new system have driven an increase in the number of emergency supplies handed out at food banks according to figures revealed by The Trussell Trust this week.

Farnworth and Kearsley Foodbank, a member of The Trussell Trust network, reported an 8.5 per cent increase in people using the service compared to last year.

READ MORE: Food bank use rises in Farnworth and Kearsley

READ MORE: What does Universal Credit mean for Bolton?

The Rev John Bradbury, minister of Farnworth Baptist Church where one of the local food banks is based, said they alway need to be stocked up for this time of year, but the transition to Universal Credit could raise demand further.

He said: “We are worried about Christmas. If anything goes wrong with the system, it’s going to happen before Christmas.”

A key concern about the transition is the waiting time for the first payment which has recently been cut from five to three weeks.

Previously, benefits were paid in weekly instalments, but under the new system, claimants will receive monthly payments.

As well as food banks, Farnworth Baptist Church offers pastoral and budgeting support with two specialist advisers available to those in need of help.

Mr Bradbury said: “People have difficulty budgeting. Because you’ve got nothing then you suddenly have a big balance of money. They are not used to planning for weeks. These are skills that people don’t have.”

He said that food banks use did not increase significantly when Universal Credit was partially rolled out in Bolton, despite going up.

But he said that there may be a delay to the overall impact of the roll-out adding that the cycles of demand may change immediately because of the new monthly system.

He said: “We have been prepared for the last couple of months making sure that our staff are trained on the budgeting service and work club. All of them have been trained with the Universal Credit website. We have been working with the job centre making sure that they know we’re here.”

Mr Bradbury also raised concerns about vulnerable people “slipping through the net” as the new benefit system is entirely digital.

He said that a lot of people are not tech savvy and in Farnworth in particular, a high proportion of the population have a low level of English.

One new claimant, Bernadette, found the new digital system too complex and went to the Bolton Unemployed Advice Centre on two occasions to seek help.

She said: “I could not have filled that out because I’m dyslexic. That’s been a problem for me. I spend two days here not working so I’ve lost money.”

The hairdresser from Bolton applied for Working Tax Credit three weeks ago but has now been told that she must apply for Universal Credit.

After 11 years of running her own business, she is now struggling to make ends meet and wanted to find a second job.

But she was told that she would not receive the new benefit if she had two jobs.

She said: “I would get more money from Universal Credit because I can’t take a second job.”

Bernadette was the twelfth person to come into the advice centre needing help with Universal Credit since it rolled out the day before.

Denise Lonsdale who runs the centre in Deansgate said that by her calculations, everyone she has helped so far will be worse off under the new system.

She said: “Up to now, I can’t see it working for anybody. The food banks are going to soar up. A lot of people are scared. I’ve never seen anything like this Universal Credit. I have to say, it’s just horrendous. This Universal Credit is set up to fail people and put them into poverty.”

New claimants applying online can use the computers in any Bolton library or alternatively, they can use kiosks at the One Stop Shop in the town hall where staff will be walking the floor to help.

The council also runs a personal budget service offering advice on budgeting and financial planning.