Frank Field MP
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A call for an annual survey of destitution in the UK

30 June 2017
Food bank

As Britain moved from the countryside into the towns a growing body of citizens wished to document the importance of this historic change. Local statistical societies sprang up, starting in Manchester but spreading soon to most other cities as the public tried to inform themselves of what appeared to be totally new developments. The Government established Royal Commissions and the Commons and Lords likewise established Select Committees to understand better the nature and fallout of an era of momentous change.

I argue that we are at a similar social and economic juncture today. Today’s driving force has not entirely been internally begot, as was the initial industrial revolution, but has been imposed upon us by what is called globalisation. It has been aided and abetted by deliberate Government actions which have fallen disproportionately on the poor as Governments have set about reducing the post-2008 budget deficit.

Likewise I also call for the production of statistics which will give reforms their marching order, as they did to our Victorian forbearers. Statistics were seen as ammunition for the war in those aspects of the new society about which citizens were appalled. That war needs to be fought again today.

This presentation is exclusively about asking both the Office for National Statistics, and the Government Statistical Service, to respond with the enthusiasm that was witnessed by those early voluntary and local statistical societies of the 1830s onwards, and the equally impressive move by the Government to match that enthusiasm. The statistical section of the Board of Trade, for example, was established as perhaps the most significant of Government responses to the demand for more, and more accurate, information to understand the scope and significance of the great economic and social changes impacting on British society.

The outlook for a positive response from these two statistical bodies looks promising. Slowly but surely, over the recent decades, both organisations have managed to tip-toe through a political minefield to establish for themselves a greater independence, both for the work that they initiate, the form in which  their data is published, when it is published and, perhaps most importantly of all, of keeping sticky ministerial fingers off pre-release publications.

On a personal level I have witnessed how creative the Office for National Statistics can be. Sensing that the rapid expansion of university places may not have been to the advantage of all university graduates – the case again of what averages can hide – the ONS has begun to collect data at my request, and to extend its database, on the earnings of the least successful graduate employees in contrast to the size of the wage and salary cheque of those who moved down the apprenticeship route. Likewise, when Feeding Britain, a charity I chair, requested that the ONS begin looking at how it might best report to the nation on the extent of hunger in this country, the ONS again responded positively.

New times

The plea for an annual report on destitution in Great Britain stems from two observations that I have made as a backbench MP. It is clear from Birkenhead, from national data, and from the reports I and Andrew Forsey have published on what is called the gig economy, that something most profound has, and continues, to happen at the bottom of the British labour market.

I have tried to sum up this change by talking in terms of the bottom simply falling away and that observation has been made by a child who grew up to maturity in the relative security of the post-war world. Full employment then reigned with an abundance of jobs paying family wages. Similarly the Attlee Government had legislated for, and American loans provided the means of, establishing what British voters have always regarded as the most superior welfare state in the world. It wasn’t then, of course, and it isn’t now.

The falling away of the pay at bottom end of the labour market has left all too many workers beyond the defence offered by a national living wage. Here is one of the forces bringing about the rise of what I have termed destitution. The other force is more homemade. Following the 2008 crash and more particularly the election of the Coalition Government in 2010, that Government disproportionately attempted to reduce the budget deficit by cutting the level of benefits paid to claimants below retirement age.

The combined impact of a proportionate decline in relatively well paid jobs, and the welfare cuts, euphemistically described as welfare reform, has resulted, I believe, in the growth in destitution for the first time in this country during the post war period.

I define destitution for an individual or family who suffers hunger, who is unable to provide heat and light for their house or who is at risk of losing their accommodation.

Each of these three factors overlap of course. But, again from observation, I would postulate that it is food and fuel that takes the strain when family budgets are inadequate so as to stave off the loss of housing.


We now have a galaxy of information on the numbers of food parcels that are handed out by the Trussell Trust. We also have the beginnings of a reporting system from those food banks that are independent of Trussell. Trussell Trust has established 420 food banks. The independent sector has a membership of 650 food banks. For reasons which have been detailed in reports by Feeding Britain the numbers of food parcels issued by food banks does not give us an accurate gauge of the extent or duration of hunger in this country other than the number of food parcels issued and the hugely important role these gifts play in immediately preventing hunger.

We know very little else about the food parcel recipients. We lack data on how many times the same families need to draw on this help. We have even less information as to how hunger affects young adolescent people and, that group who are least likely in the data to register for help, elderly citizens. We know next to nothing of whether this is because they are adequately fed or, more likely, because they are they are too frail and old to make a successful application.

The hope is that the Office for National Statistics’ work on hunger in Britain will begin to lay the basis of what I’m calling for as an annual report on destitution.


I’ve always maintained that had that single mother in Salisbury told the Christian gentleman, who was appealing for food to send to hungry families abroad, that she needed fuel rather than food we would now have a national network of fuel banks. But that young mother didn’t. She asked for food and here in this exchange in Salisbury was the wonderful birth of the Trussell Trust.

We lack any comprehensive data on the numbers of households who lack money to be able to buy warmth and lighting for their homes. Thanks to an initiative pioneered by npower, and which Feeding Britain asked to cover Birkenhead from the very beginning, we know that, over the last 18 months, 58,461 people were covered by npower’s charitable initiative of administering fuel tokens. The tokens were offered at food banks for people who were unable to afford the energy they required to cook the food they were gaining from food bank and sometimes light to guide their easing of eating it.

Feeding Britain has also picked up reports from charitable bodies providing Christmas food parcels being asked for candles so that families would have some light over Christmas. What is the extent of households lacking access to this basic utility? Again my hope is that answering this question will form part of the reporting on the extent of destitution in Britain

How does this lack of basic necessities reinforce each other?

One aim, I would hope, of an annual census on destitution would be to show how families blighted by a lack of food are similarly struck down by the inability to provide enough power to their homes. Half the families relying on food parcels in the Rock Ferry and Tranmere part of Birkenhead reported that they couldn’t afford gas and electricity required to cook food at home. How reflective is that figure nationally? And to what extent do other findings from Feeding Britain, that most people experiencing difficulty in paying for gas and electricity are using a prepayment meter, transfer nationally? Likewise how many families seeking food report that their homes contain no cooking or storage facilities?

Equally important is to try and understand the overlap between a lack of food and of fuel with the type of housing accommodation such fellow citizens have to endure. I suspect that we will find such people in the worst form of private accommodation- that they have to move most often from these damp, if not squalid, forms of accommodation and that as a consequence their children are the ones that move incessantly from class to class and from school to school. And is the thesis that I hold, that families will do almost anything in cutting down on food and fuel to prevent homelessness, one that stands up to a statistical searchlight on the data?

Similarly how might an annual census on destitution add to the existing data we have on homelessness? Official data is collected on the numbers of families with children who move into temporary accommodation who would otherwise be homeless. We have begun to collect some data officially on those sleeping rough. Both sets of data leave much to be desired. But they are superior, of course, to the total lack of data on the numbers of young people who are homeless but who sofa surf -i.e. move from lodging with friends and sleeping on their friends’ sofas. And if such data is collected am I right in assuming that this is a phenomena limited only to younger people or is it one which is spreading to older people as well?


I very much welcome the opportunity to speak at this conference of government statisticians organised by the GSS and the ONS. While my plea is a simple one I know that its implementation will present a huge challenge to you. But it is one, on your past record, that I would expect you to surmount.

I’m making a plea for the collection of new data that will shine light on what is happening at the bottom end of our society. Changes in the job market that have already occurred, and those that are promised, are leaving a significant proportion of the population exposed to inadequate employment. What is the size of this group and is it growing, has it peaked, is it declining as a proportion of the total workforce? Likewise as this growing flexibility, so euphemistically called, at the bottom end of the labour market exposes individuals and families to a most precarious of livings, to what extent has that precariousness been reinforced by the welfare cuts working households have experienced since 2010?

More importantly, to what extent do these two driving forces account for what I believe are a growing number of fellow citizens who are now exposed to destitution of the like and of a scale unknown since the Second World War? What is the extent of hunger in modern Britain and how long is hunger endured? Is it combined with the lack of fuel and light? And am I right in assuming that families and individuals, including children, are forced to embrace hunger, the cold and the lack of light, in order to prevent these fellow citizens also being engulfed in homelessness?

What would a snapshot census provide us on destitution? And once this annual census is established, we need to be bold enough to move to a second stage where these snapshots are turned into a record so that we can see for how many families, and for what period of time, destitution is endured in any one year and matched in subsequent years.

When Britain moved from the countryside into the towns our Victorian forbearers began to marshal data so that public debate could be more informed, and that by these means political reform movements could more safely secure their goals.

Change, big change, is the order of the day. As we now move into the changed world from which I grew up, and which I believe could be as decisive as the move from countryside to the town, we should equally match that Victorian resolve better to understand Thomas Carlyle’s cry on the Condition of England. Answering that question requires a big first step in establishing an annual census on destitution.


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