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Food bank referrals double as debt calls to major Northern Ireland charity soar


More and more people in Northern Ireland are using food banks due to the cost of living crisis (Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

More and more people in Northern Ireland are using food banks due to the cost of living crisis (Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Getty Images

More and more people in Northern Ireland are using food banks due to the cost of living crisis (Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The number of people being referred to food banks in Northern Ireland by a leading advice charity has doubled in the past two months as households spiral into debt.

Advice NI has also experienced a surge in calls from people struggling to make ends meet including the self-employed.

In 2021/22 it dealt with £3.9m in debt with the average person £13,000 in the red. 

Outstanding government backed Coronavirus Bounce Back Loans accounted for the biggest debt issue with the average borrower owing £27,512.

The independent organisation’s policy and information officer Matt Cole said confusion over government cost of living payments is also a key factor in more people picking up the phone.

“There’s definitely been a significant increase in calls coming into us,” he said.

“That’s been the case for a while now, but particularly in the past few weeks.

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“There’s a lot of uncertainty about payments generally but also issues around delays in payments and admin problems.

“Hopefully these payments have started to get into the hands of those most in need.”

Payments began being issued to some of the most vulnerable households here last month as part of a £37bn UK-wide support package.

The first £326 instalment was paid automatically to anyone in receipt of certain benefits by July 31.

A second payment of £324 is set to follow in the autumn.

Mr Cole believes more meaningful action is required to help people through the cost-of-living crisis, especially low income workers who are above the welfare threshold.

“Our debt team is giving out more advice around simple stuff about things like bills and negotiating with suppliers,” he said.

The charity has also seen a steady increase of self-employed people seeking debt advice.

Callers have been citing the rising cost of living, lack of savings, declining income and relationship breakdown as the reasons they are struggling. 

However the number of people deciding to go into debt solutions is lower with people choosing to bide their time.   

Service providers such as hairdressers, beauticians and window cleaners are among those worst affected. 

“We are certainly expecting it to get worse because inflation is going to remain high for a long time,” Mr Cole said. 

“Something needs to done to raise incomes and improve benefits.”

In June the former Chancellor Rishi Sunak defended restoring the triple lock which ensures that the state pension will always increase in line with either inflation, the average wage increase or 2.5% or whichever is the highest.

Mr Cole warned that the promise to protect the most vulnerable is “a big gamble”.

“Inflation could fall by the time the rise is set be implemented,” he said.

“But in the short to medium term this problem will continue and get worse for many people.

“We issue food bank vouchers in partnership with Trussel Trust and have seen referrals more than double in the past month or two.

“We expect that to rise again in the winter when people will have to decide whether to heat or eat.”

The policy expert pointed out that energy cost rises have not been as severe in NI compared to the rest of the UK and will likely soar higher.

“It’s a question of how much does that affect the poorest compared to those on the higher end of the spectrum,” Mr Cole said.

“The poorest will obviously be hit the hardest.

“The government will say ‘we are giving money to the most vulnerable’ but is it going to be enough or is it kicking the can down the road?”

With no sign of Stormont being restored any time soon, Mr Cole warned the absence of an Executive will limit the amount of help getting to those who need it.

He said that could include a £400 grant to help with energy costs due to be issued in the Autumn.

“Political parties need to resolve protocol crisis and restore power-sharing,” Mr Cole said.

“There needs to be some degree of intervention from Stormont.

“Finance minister Conor Murphy has said he will work with Treasury but there’s been no details.

“The reality is there’s a pot of £435m sitting to be allocated and MLAs should be in the chamber thinking of creative ways to spend it.

“This is what politicians need to be focused on.

“We really need to see progress or Westminster will have to intervene.”

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