THOUSANDS of emergency food packages were handed out to people in East Lancashire last year as bosses reveal food bank use has soared.

A record near-1.6 million emergency supplies have been handed out by food banks across the UK in the past year, with a third going to children, figures reveal.

The Trussell Trust said the number of three-day supplies given out had risen by 73 per cent in the past five years.

The main reasons for people turning to a food bank were benefits not covering the cost of living, or delays in payment of benefits, said the trust.

Half of food bank referrals were because of delays linked to Universal Credit, according to the charity.

It said the Government should end the five-week wait for a first UC payment to help reduce reliance on food banks.

Trussell Trust operates two foodbanks in East Lancashire - Blackburn and Ribble Valley.

Latest available figures for both show at Blackburn Foodbank, 8,642 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis over the course of a year.

And Ribble Valley Foodbank gave out 1,308 emergency packages from its bases in Clitheroe and Longridge.

Cllr Phil Riley, trustee of Blackburn Foodbank, said: "The demand is continuing to increase and that is largely down to people enduring long waits before they get their benefits.

"There is absolutely no question there's a link between the increasing number of guests and the introduction of Universal Credit.

"When we first started the foodbank, there was an aspiration that it would be a temporary measure and it quite clearly has become part of government policy to rely on them.

"That simply can't be right.

"However well meaning volunteers are, it's an unfair burden on them."

The number of food parcels handed out at the trust's 1,200 sites totalled 1,583,668 in the year to March, a near-20% increase on the previous 12 months, and the most since the charity opened 20 years ago.

The trust's chief executive, Emma Revie, said: "What we are seeing year upon year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right.

"We know this situation can be fixed - that's why we're campaigning to create a future where no-one needs a food bank.

"Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five-week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics."

"As a priority, we're urging the Government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households.

"Ultimately, it's unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place.

"No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That's why, in the long term, we're urging the Government to ensure benefit payments reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real living wage, to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "It is not true to say that people need to wait five weeks for their first payment. Universal Credit is available to claimants on day one.

"It also cannot be claimed that Universal Credit is driving the overall use of food banks or that benefit changes and delays are driving growth.

"The Trust's own analysis shows a substantial fall in the share of parcels being issued due to benefit payment delays.

"The best route out of poverty is to help people into sustainable employment which, with record employment, we are doing.

"For those who need a safety net we have invested £10 billion into Universal Credit since 2016 alone, confirmed the benefits freeze will end next year and made changes to make Universal Credit fairer for women and families."