The number of residents seeking debt advice and food donations in Luton has soared by a fifth since the introduction of Universal Credit, it has been revealed.
The findings were discussed during a meeting of Luton Borough Council's children’s services review group this week.
“We have a 22% increase in foodbank usage in Luton, since Universal Credit was rolled out last November,” said the council’s revenues and commercial services manager Clive Jones.
“And we have a 20% increase at Citizens Advice in people seeking debt advice.
“Without doubt there is an impact on our communities in general on their financial health.
“When Universal Credit was rolled out in the town, we thought it might have a significant impact on the number of people eligible to claim free school meals.
“I am pleased to say the government rapidly introduced one of those many changes, transitional protection for free school meals.
“As a result of that, anyone who was under the old legacy benefits that moved up to Universal Credit is protected."
Under the legacy benefits system, children remain entitled to free school meals though their parents' net earned income is above the new Universal Credit threshold of £7,400 a year. The old threshold under legacy benefits was £16,190.
There were 472 cases of claiming free school meals under Universal Credit as of August 8. About ten per cent of the 4,332 people claiming Universal Credit, who have children, qualify for free school meals.
Mr Jones said: “It’s actually an increase in free school meals where we initially thought there would be a significant decrease.
“Transitional protection is working. For the first time, in a number of years, the amount of people entitled to free school meals has gone up.
“The impact of Universal Credit on free school meals has not really happened. It’s more likely to occur on March 31, 2022 when the period of transitional protection ends.
“That could be extended, but it has not been confirmed yet,” he added.
“We had the highest ever council tax collection at 97%, so we’re still managing to collect council tax.
“This year, although we are currently on track for 97%, half way through the financial year, it is proving a little difficult to collect council tax.
"The principle of Universal Credit is it’s getting you ready for life off benefits. That was the ethos behind it.
“You have to have a bank account. You have to manage your affairs. Unfortunately a lot of these people are very vulnerable and don’t have that capability.”
Labour Limbury councillor Rob Roche said: “Not everyone who can have pupil premium applies for it, so the issue schools have is encouraging those who are eligible to apply.”
The council’s corporate director people Amanda Lewis called on everyone to publicise the importance of claiming free school meals.
“People are proud and quite rightly,” she said. “But there is also something about how important it is to encourage.”
The group asked for a further Universal Credit update next summer.