“I don’t meet a single person now who isn’t cold and hungry” – MPs publish interim report on destitution in Britain

11 Jul 2019

MPs Heidi Allen and Frank Field set out today the beginnings of a reform programme which will take an axe to the root causes of destitution in this country.

Their interim report, ‘The Other Britain and the failure of the welfare state’, follows a series of visits to food banks and community projects in Poplar, Waterloo, Leicester, Morecambe, Glasgow, and Chester – where one support worker told them, “I don’t meet a single person now who isn’t cold and hungry”.

The interim report is being published during their latest visit, to Newcastle, which begins the second half of their inquiry. It recommends that: 

- Universal Credit payments should begin within a week of registering for the benefit. Greater flexibility is also required in the calculation and payment of Universal Credit, to prevent working households’ budgets being thrown into chaos by substantial fluctuations in wages and benefits.
- The freeze on family benefits and tax credits should end immediately and, in future, these benefits should be uprated at least in line with the cost of living. Ideally, to help reverse the cuts that have been made since 2010, benefit payments should be calculated so that they allow households to purchase food that would satisfy the Government’s nutritional guidelines and heat a home.
- A National Fuel Fund should be established to support households who struggle to afford gas and electricity. The Department for Work and Pensions could kick-start this fund by referencing the scheme in their letter to recipients of the winter fuel allowance and giving them the option of donating their allowance if they do not have a need for it.
- A Yellow Card system should be rolled out nationally to allow people at risk of sanctions a second chance in case of genuine mistakes or unavoidable missed opportunities, or time to provide additional information that demonstrates the reason for an infraction before a sanction is applied. Sanctions should be banned for particularly vulnerable people where they could lead to homelessness, worsening health outcomes, or where children or dependents are involved.

People undergoing assessments for sickness and disability benefits should be seen, wherever possible, by health care professionals with specific knowledge or expertise on their medical condition. Mandatory reconsiderations should be beefed up and function as an actual check rather than an administrative hurdle before an appeals process, as many very vulnerable people do not have the income or the capacity to handle the more onerous appeals process.  

Heidi comments: ‘For the most vulnerable people in our society, any reduction, delay, or loss of income from work or benefits brings into play food banks, rising debt, high risk loans and the risk of destitution. The phenomenal volunteers and community workers who care for this group have made it clear that the state is failing in its obligation to guarantee a national minimum standard of living. We agree with them. Voluntary organisations are at risk of sinking under the sheer weight of responsibility vacated by the state without the necessary funds. A new balance must be struck between the state and the charitable sector to ensure that all people can access basic essentials and good quality, nutritious food in a way that is dignified.’ 

Frank adds: ‘Hunger was described to us as an injustice which extends well beyond the individual and has lasting impacts on children, extended families, entire communities and across generations. While there were countless harrowing stories of painful decisions that people made just to get by, we also encountered uplifting stories of communities and individuals developing resilience in the face of destitution. While this community response undoubtedly represents the better nature of human beings, an emergency response adopted by the general public and voluntary organisations must never be confused with a properly functioning welfare safety net. Given that they have borne the brunt of the cuts made by successive governments since 2010, families on low incomes must be at the front of the queue for any new monies being made available in the spending review. ’

Heidi and Frank will start putting their reform programme into action next week by presenting legislation which would offer greater financial security to workers on zero-hours contracts.