The Face of Destitution in Britain
I don’t meet a single person now who isn’t cold and hungry”
Advice Worker in Chester
Testimonies from people living in extreme poverty and support workers, published in a new report "The 'Other Britain' and the failure of the welfare state", highlight the hardship that many people in Britain are currently facing. These have been gathered by MPs Frank Field and Heidi Allen in the first half of their inquiry into the extent and causes of extreme poverty in Britain,
The MPs found that all too many people face significant barriers when trying to get support from the government at times of extreme hardship or personal difficulties. This held true for all the locations they visited - rural, urban, coastal, inland, north or south.
At the same time, members of communities where many people were destitute were trying hard to put together a new 'safety net', through initiatives such as foodbanks and community projects, to help their neighbours who were living in extreme poverty.
The main objective of their inquiry is to:
Gain evidence on how and why the face of poverty is changing in communities in Britain
Gauge the severity of destitution in each area
Seek ideas for a reform programme to protect people from hunger and homelessness.
Their report is based on visits they made to foodbanks and community projects in Poplar, Waterloo, Leicester, Morecambe, Glasgow and Chester.
This has been written with the hope that it will adequately communicate the experience of people in extreme poverty and their support workers as well as their calls for actions.
The report includes case studies from people using the benefits system, like Kevin and Sue, whose stories are quoted below:
"Kevin in Leicester was receiving just £5 in benefits for four months due to sanctions from a missed appointment. He did not understand why his payments were so low and sought help from a local community organisation.
"His case worker approached the Job Centre Plus to understand why his payments were so low and was told that he had not been maintaining his online journal and needed to ‘re-engage’ with the system to have full payments restored.
"Kevin was not taught how to use the online system and had very low technical literacy and no access to internet. Re-engagement with the system would be impossible for him without consistent support from his case worker."
"As a result of sanctioning, Sue was made homeless in London just before Christmas in 2018. Pecan Southwark foodbank supported her in pursuing a mandatory reconsideration which was rejected and then in making an appeal. The decision to sanction her was later reversed at the appeal stage but the entire process took several months and left Sue in rent arrears which resulted in her eviction."
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."
Frank Field MP
Calls to action
Frank Field's and Heidi Allen's recommendations, outlined in the report, are:
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.
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."
Heidi Allen MP
Heidi Allen's comments
Heidi Allen said: "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 Field's comments
Frank Field said: ‘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 Allen and Frank Field will start putting their reform programme into action next week (beginning 14th July) by presenting legislation which would offer financial security to workers who are on zero-hours contracts.
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