Other Britain: Frank Field and Heidi Allen on the shocking extent of hunger, homelessness and insecurity in 2019

The House - 11 Jul 2019

A little over a century ago, the cry among social reformers concerned about the plight of the poor was for a safety net to be stitched together by the state, to catch any of our fellow citizens who were falling into the clutches of destitution. 

Had those same reformers witnessed what we have picked up during the past six months during visits to food banks in Poplar, Waterloo, Leicester, Morecambe, Chester, and Glasgow, they would be appalled by the extent of hunger, homelessness, and insecurity afflicting so many families and vulnerable individuals in our country. 

Here we were introduced to an ‘Other Britain’ where entire communities are not only bypassed by economic growth but are also being pushed through gaping holes in the safety net. One support worker in Chester, for example, told us that, “I don’t meet a single person now who isn’t cold and hungry.”

The safety net that began to be pulled over the abyss during the first half of the twentieth century, and was then strengthened in the post-war period, held the promise of a national minimum of standard of living that could be guaranteed by the state. However, that guarantee has been undermined in recent years by a series of caps, cuts, freezes, and sanctions on the benefits and tax credits claimed by disabled people and families with children. 

Around five years ago, food banks and social supermarkets stepped in to help this group of people who were being failed by the benefits system. But now, the phenomenal volunteers and support workers who run these schemes are themselves at breaking point. 

At each of our visits, the question of risk – specifically where the balance should lie between the state, individuals, and charities in safeguarding the wellbeing of our fellow citizens – was posed. 

Although staff and volunteers at many of the organisations we visited said they were determined to persevere with supporting those who have been left vulnerable through difficult personal challenges and the withdrawal of state support, they feared for their ability to meet these growing needs in the long term. The safety net is in need of urgent repair.

Today, we have set out the beginnings of a reform programme which would take the axe to destitution. In particular, we recommend to the new prime minister that:

- Universal Credit payments should begin within a week of registering for the benefit. Greater flexibility is also required in their calculation and payment to prevent working households’ budgets being thrown into chaos by substantial fluctuations in income. 
- The freeze on family benefits and tax credits should end immediately. In future, these benefits should be uprated at least in line with the cost of living. Ideally, benefit payments should be calculated so that they allow households to heat their home and purchase food that would satisfy the government’s nutritional guidelines. 
- 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. This could also allow time to provide additional information demonstrating 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.  

The adoption of these reforms would ensure that everybody in our country can afford basic essentials and live without the fear of losing their home, being cold, or being hungry. 

Heidi Allen is Independent MP for South Cambridgeshire and Frank Field is Independent MP for Birkenhead and chair of the Work and Pensions Committee