Welfare failures and cuts fuelling extreme poverty, MPs say
The failure of the welfare state over the past decade has left families in Britain’s poorest neighbourhoods “blighted by the constant spectre of destitution” and reliant on charity handouts, according to an inquiry by two independent MPs.
Heidi Allen and Frank Field said botched social security policies such as universal credit and disability benefit assessments, together with cuts to local services, had fuelled extreme poverty and left the welfare safety net malfunctioning.
Massive cuts to the value of benefits in recent years, together with the rise of low-paid and insecure zero-hours work, had put many low-income families at permanent risk of being unable to meet their basic food and housing needs, they said in an interim report.
“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,” Allen said.
The report called for changes including scrapping the five week wait for payment of universal credit and lifting a four-year freeze on the level of working-age benefits. The pair are to bring forward a parliamentary bill aimed at tackling insecurity caused by zero-hours work.
Some of the harrowing stories cited by the report include a man who sold drugs to feed his younger siblings, and a claimant left with benefits of just £5 a month after being sanctioned. It quoted an advice worker in Chester who told the inquiry: “I don’t meet a single person now who isn’t cold and hungry.”
It praised charities for effectively subsidising a depleted social safety net but noted that they were “sinking under the weight” of their responsibilities as more people came to them for help. Volunteers were “anxious and exhausted with the stress and looming sense of powerlessness,” the report said.
It said the UK now had more than 2,000 charity food banks, which were increasingly seen as a normal part of society. Morecambe Bay foodbank, which the inquiry visited in February, gave out three tonnes of food in 2011; by the end of last year it was distributing four tonnes a month.
“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,” Field said.
The report contrasted charities’ caring approach with the “harsh and uncaring” culture too often found in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and in jobcentres. There was an urgent need to “reform the ethos and approach of jobcentres and work coaches so that empathy and compassion are the norm”.
Field and Allen, who are respectively chair and vice-chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, wrote the report after visits to food banks and community groups in London, Leicester, Morecambe, Chester and Glasgow as part of an ongoing project to gauge the changing face of poverty.
Allen told the Guardian in January, before she quit the Conservatives, that the idea for the mini-tour of the “other Britain” stemmed from impatience with the party’s complacency over the impact of austerity. “Unless we blow the lid off it [the rise in poverty and destitution], my lot are not going to listen,” she said.
Allen resigned from the Conservative party in February to become a founder of the Independent Group, later called Change UK. She left that party in June to sit as an independent.
Field, who left the Labour party last year over its handling of antisemitism, has tracked the austerity-era rise in destitution, an extreme form of poverty that is experienced by about 1.5 million people in the UK, according to research. He noted in 2017 that for “the first time in postwar history, the state has become a generator of destitution”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this government and we have already said the benefit freeze is coming to an end. But we know some families need more support which is why we spend £95bn a year on working-age benefits and have made 100% universal credit advances available from day one.”
Patrick Butler, The Guardian