Thousands of families miss out on healthy food benefit due to IT failures | Food poverty
Tens of thousands of low-income families are missing out on up to £442 a year of government help to pay for healthy food amid major IT failures, Guardian analysis has found.
Campaigners are urging the government to fix the NHS Healthy Start scheme as the cost of living crisis bites and food price inflation hits household budgets.
The benefit, which helps low-income parents and pregnant women pay for fruit, vegetables, milk and formula, has been plagued with glitches since it switched from paper vouchers to a digital card last year.
Eligible families are being told they are not entitled to the support, prepaid cards are being declined at checkouts, and it is too difficult to get through to the helpline, charities say.
About 52,000 families who previously used the scheme have not successfully signed up for the cards, according to official figures. On top of those, many more eligible households have never made a claim.
The Healthy Start Facebook page has been flooded with complaints from frustrated parents.
The government’s food strategy white paper has ignored the digitisation problems and calls for the scheme to be expanded, instead boasting that it has “made it easier for young families to apply for and use the Healthy Start Scheme”.
Jonathan Pauling, the chief executive of the Alexandra Rose Charity, which runs a separate voucher scheme in London, Liverpool, Barnsley and Glasgow, said: “No family should have to go without food. This is not just a cost of living crisis but a health crisis that could have a lifelong impact.
“It’s critical that the issues with the digitisation of the Healthy Start scheme are addressed as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of families are going without the fruit and veg and formula that they need for their children.”
Chloe MacKean, business engagement manager at the Food Foundation, said the delays to resolving the digitisation issues were “simply cruel”.
“The government needs to do more to help the unprecedented number of families not getting essential nutrients because of the cost of living crisis,” she said.
Healthy Start, which was launched in 2006, is available to universal credit claimants who earn £408 or less a month and child tax credit claimants with an annual income of £16,190 or less.
People on legacy benefits including income support, jobseeker’s allowance, pension credit and working tax credit can also claim.
It is worth £4.25 for each week of pregnancy from 10 weeks, then £8.50 a week for children up to one year old, and £4.25 a week up for children up to four years old.
The value of the benefit was last increased in April 2021 for the first time since 2009 after experiencing pressure from campaigners including Marcus Rashford, but it has not been boosted again this year despite the rising cost of many of the things it is designed to pay for.
The money was previously handed out as paper vouchers that could be redeemed at supermarkets, but these were phased out by 31 March and replaced by a prepay card, which is topped up every four weeks.
However the rollout, which started in autumn last year, has been hit with problems, leaving struggling households not getting the support they are eligible for.
According to figures from the NHS Business Services Authority, the arms-length body of the Department of Health and Social Care, 547,662 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were eligible for the scheme in March, with 392,694 claimants getting the benefit.
As of 29 April there were 288,963 households getting the benefit. It is not possible to make a like-for-like comparison as NHSBSA has started to record households rather than individual beneficiaries.
However, it confirmed that by 19 May, 52,000 households who had previously received paper vouchers had not successfully applied for the new payments.
Sofia Parente, the policy and campaigns coordinator at food charity Sustain, said: “There is still a huge number of families – mainly women – who really need the scheme and are not receiving the payments.”
Jade Martin, 25, went six months without receiving the money for her daughter, and said she was told by a Healthy Start adviser to go to a food bank while she was waiting for payment.
The single mum of two, who is on universal credit, said: “Every time I call them they just keep referring me to the local food bank but my daughter needs a specific kind of formula.
“I’ve told them, ‘I’ve got no milk, so what should I do?’ They’ve got all the evidence that they need for my claim.”
A mother of two, who was owed almost £100 before receiving the back pay in May, said the problems began when she was switched on to the digital card.
“I’m quite frugal in general, I still work part-time but I don’t earn much. I spend it all on the boys and their clothes and activities. I’ve never taken them on holiday, we shop at Lidl, Poundland, Wilko, we try to manage our finances tightly,” she said.
“But with the cost of living rising, it’s all adding up and I’ve just had to make sacrifices and put the children first.”
NHSBSA admitted in April that there had been a technical issue meaning applications were being declined.
It said the problem had been fixed quickly and had only affected a small number of claimants.
The Guardian understands the system was automatically rejecting anyone with a pending universal credit payment, although this has not been confirmed by NHSBSA.
Families on legacy benefits are still unable to apply online and have to either make a claim on the phone or over email.
Current issues with online applications are being caused by a mis-match between the details families are providing on Healthy Start claims and their DWP benefit records, NHSBSA said.
Meanwhile, back pay will only be granted if people can prove they tried to apply, such as providing a screenshot.
Parents and pregnant women have reported struggling to get through to the Healthy Start helpline and having their payment cards rejected in stores.
A NHSBSA spokesperson said: “We appreciate that the phone lines are extremely busy.
“The NHSBSA delivers several essential services supporting people in need. All NHSBSA contact centre agents are multi-skilled in the services we offer, and support is provided over the phone and via email and social media, as well as through a number of automated self-serve options that customers can use without having to speak to an agent.”
They added: “There are several reasons why a card may be declined in store.
“Anyone having issues with their card is encouraged to check our frequently asked questions to see if any of these reasons apply to them before getting in touch.”