Heidi Allen and I met a man who has to survive on £40 a month. We want Parliament to face up the hunger and misery affecting so many

The i - 25 Jan 2019

The idea that Britain has a safety net to protect its most vulnerable citizens from destitution is fast disappearing. That is one of the many troubling findings emerging from the series of visits that Heidi Allen and I are conducting, to gauge the extent, causes and effects of chronic poverty in our country.

During our first three visits – to Poplar, Waterloo, and Leicester – we have begun to expose the myriad forces that are now riding roughshod over the vulnerable human underbelly of British society. The hunger, misery and sheer desperation afflicting all too many people – akin to the injustice that Robert Kennedy found in ‘the other America’ half a century ago – has been overwhelming.

We met a man this week who has to survive on £40 a month. His hunger has left him so weak that when he arrives at the food bank, he cannot physically pick up the food parcel to take it home. Volunteers make him a meal and a hot drink to ensure he has sufficient energy to carry it back.

How has he, like so many other vulnerable people, been cast this far adrift by the state? Mainly because he has no access to the digital technology that is now required to make and manage a claim for Universal Credit. Nor does he have the skills, or the offer of support to obtain them, to use this technology.

Heidi and I have spoken with a graduate trained in chemistry and an electrical engineer, both of whom experienced depression and hunger after they lost their jobs. They simply couldn’t navigate a way through the Universal Credit system to establish an adequate income.

Like all too many of our fellow citizens at the moment, the people we have met during our first three visits are giving way under the weight of the risk that is being shunted onto the weakest shoulders by the state, and other collective institutions, which once took on the role of pooling the risks we face as a society.

Hence the transformation that Heidi and I have seen, for example, in the role of local advice agencies. They are not only doing their utmost to meet the growing need for guidance and advocacy around benefits and debt, but are also having to supplement these more traditional services with emergency supplies of food, gas and electricity. “How are we going to cope if this human suffering goes on much longer?” is one of the desperate concerns we are hearing from volunteers at one food bank after another.

Part of our mission is to magnify these local experiences in Parliament and build a cross-party campaign that achieves change. That is what agencies have been telling us is the value of the Feeding Britain network which a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, including Heidi and me, have set up.

We want to implement programmes that meet immediate need and draw lessons from these programmes to help address the root causes of the injustice that gives rise to such need.

This is what we have done to date with programmes, and subsequent reforms, around ‘holiday hunger’, school breakfasts, rip-off energy costs, and the administration of tax credits.

But it has become increasingly clear from our initial visits that two further reforms need to be pursued immediately: overhauling the design and delivery of Universal Credit and lifting the various freezes and caps on benefits that are leaving so many families and individuals barely able to scrape by from one week to the next.

The need for their plight to be magnified is urgent, and that is what Heidi and I will continue doing on our next visits to Morecambe, Newcastle, Frome, and Glasgow. This is how we will build up the head of steam in Parliament that is so vital to win changes for the poor.

But in a sign of what we are up against, take the example of another man we met at a food bank this week who was ordered by a court to repay all essential bills, including Council Tax, in one go. He has been left with £5 a week to live on.

This is the face of ‘the other England’ that exists in our midst.