It’s not right that more than one and a half million people were destitute in the UK in 2017, 365,000 of them children. That’s the equivalent of the populations of Birmingham and Liverpool combined.
I spoke recently at the Trussell Trust annual conference. Last year, they issued over a million emergency food supplies. I described them as the fourth emergency service, thankful that they were there to provide for people left hungry and with nowhere else to turn.
But we know that poverty in the UK isn’t just about lacking food. Our report today looks at the wider set of essentials the public agree we all need to survive. Destitution is the most severe form of poverty and means that people have: slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, or been without weather-appropriate clothes or basic toiletries in the last month.
At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we have examined the trends and challenges facing people in poverty for over 100 years. Seebohm Rowntree literally counted the number of people in poverty in York in 1899. His report was read by Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP, who said the findings ‘fairly made my hair stand on end’. Today’s report should face prompt a similar response on Whitehall. It is alarming that people are still locked in poverty – unable to reach a decent standard of living and build a better life for themselves and their families.
But what’s most troubling about our new report is how many people are being made destitute by design - from gaps, flaws and choices within the social security system - forcing people into a corner when they are penniless and have nowhere to turn.
We all rely on public services such as social security when hit with unexpected circumstances such as job losses or ill health. Social security should be anchor against powerful currents such as rising costs and low pay. But more people are being swept into destitution thanks to choices made by the state.
Sanctions and delays in the benefits system are causing people to become destitute by design - a trend that will continue unless changes are made to Universal Credit. It’s shameful that the system that is supposed to protect people from harm is in fact making life very much harder.
With too little money coming in and even more going out, many people in poverty are in debt to central government and their local council. Arrears and commitments on council tax, benefit advances and utilities including water, gas and electricity are leading to destitution. The DWP and local authorities claw back debts at source – often pushing people over the precipice, unable to pay and face being pursued by bailiffs and the courts.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The reduction in benefit sanction rates has meant that some welcome headway has been made, but there is a real risk that once Universal Credit is embedded across the country, more people could again be at risk unless we make changes.
There are three things the UK government could now to help loosen the grip poverty is placing on families across the country.
First, end the freeze on working-age benefits so they keep up with the cost of essentials and do not create destitution.
Second, change the use of sanctions within Universal Credit so that people are not left destitute by design.
And third, review the total amount of debt that can be clawed back from people receiving benefits, so they can keep their heads above water.
We all want to live in a society where we protect each other from harm, and we need to put things right to protect people from this degrading experience. We can start by redesigning our social security system so that it provides the basic protection people need and prevent more people facing the degrading experience of destitution.
Campbell Robb is chief executive of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). He tweets at @campbell_robb