The Ugly Spectre of Poverty, Destitution and Food Insecurity in the UK
By Martin Kerin
AS I write, news has come in that, for the first time in history, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will help feed children in the UK. For the first time in its 70 year history, UNICEF will respond to a UK ‘domestic emergency.’ Given recent events and following the Food Foundation’s findings that 2.4 million (17%) children are living in ‘food insecure households’, it was only a matter of time before an international agency was forced to step in.
2020 will down as a terrible year for our country and for the world. The pandemic has had an impact on all of our lives, but it has impacted the poorest of our society disproportionately worse. The simple reason for this is that rising poverty and inequality was already a major issue before the pandemic. The pandemic has simply turned the crisis of poverty and inequality into a catastrophe.
In October of this year, I was shaken by the comments of Louise Casey, a former ‘homelessness tsar’ who said that the UK faces a ‘period of destitution’ in which families ‘can’t put shoes on’ children and where some may have to prostitute themselves to put food on the table. This language is Dickensian and highlights the looming catastrophe. She even went as far as to say: ‘I have never worked in a situation where I am so concerned about what’s going to happen.’ I wholeheartedly share these concerns.
The warning signs have been there for a long time. In fact, they rose to the fore before the pandemic struck. At the end of 2019/beginning of 2020, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that about a fifth of the population, 14 million people, live in poverty, and 1.5 million people are classed as ‘destitute’ – that word, ‘destitute’ again. Fast forward to the end of 2020, and the most recent JRF report states that ‘even before the Covid-19 outbreak destitution was rapidly growing in scale and intensity.’ It goes further, and says:
‘The UK should be a country where everyone has the chance of a healthy, decent and secure life regardless of where they live. Instead, too many people are experiencing destitution. This means not being able to afford the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. This is simply not right.’
In February of this year, the Marmot report reported on a decline in life expectancy since 2011. In the words of Professor Marmot, ‘England has lost a decade.’ This decade coincides with the Conservative decade. The decade of Cameron, May and Johnson. The decade of austerity.
To rub salt in the wounds, the proportion of people living in poverty who are in a working family has reached a record high (56%). When work is no longer a route out of poverty, you know that something has gone terribly wrong in the country. It is also dangerous for the country. Massive inequality is not sustainable – either for the poor people stifled by it, or for the country looking on and allowing it to happen.
For change to happen, there has to be the political will. Unfortunately, this is in very short supply. You only have to see the knots that Rishi Sunak and the rest of the Conservative government tied itself in over Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign. It was telling that the first week of Eat Out to Help Out cost almost as much as the Covid Summer Food Fund. It was telling that someone eating breakfast, lunch and dinner could cost £90 under Eat Out to Help Out whereas the funding for a parent over the entire six weeks of the Covid Summer Food Fund was also £90. It was telling that the Tory government, under pressure, put aside £120m for free school meals, but £500m for Eat Out to Help Out.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It is a political choice to not address rising poverty, increased destitution and the ugly spectre of the oxymoronic ‘working poor.’
The new Marmot December report, entitled Build Back Fairer, links pre-existing inequality to the record UK Covid death rate. In one damming passage, it states:
‘Before the pandemic, life-expectancy increase stalled, inequalities were increasing, and life expectancy for the poorest people was going down. That was a measure that society wasn’t doing well. And the high excess mortality during the pandemic is simply a measure of society not doing well.’
Labour’s Shadow Work & Pensions Minister, Jonathan Reynolds, has unveiled a £3bn plan to lift 360,000 children out of poverty. These measures include:
Ending the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments;
Scrapping the £16,000 savings limit which disqualifies individuals from accessing Universal Credit (UC);
Suspending the benefit cap;
Axing the two-child limit for UC and Tax Credits.
These are measures which could, if the political will was there, be enacted immediately.
The Build Back Fairer report is clear that repaying the cost of Covid must not fall on the shoulders of the poorest: ‘We have to reverse the reduction in spending on public services…We were unhealthy coming in to the pandemic. [This] means that we have to put the distribution of health and wellbeing at the heart of all government policy.’
Looking longer term, work must be secure, it must be dignified and it must be made to pay. This is shown in the earlier Marmot recommendation to ‘reduce low-paid and insecure work’ and the JRF recommendation to ‘use the upcoming employment bill to reduce insecurity for low-paid workers by extending employment rights and investing in strong and effective enforcement.’
The ‘gigification’ of the economy, the increase in chronically low-paid and insecure work, and cripplingly expensive housing costs, has led to the emergence of a ‘precariat’ who really are one missed wage payment away from destitution. That fact that UNICEF is having to intervene in the UK as a result of a ‘domestic emergency’ is as shameful as it is heart-breaking.
It is possible to remedy this with the right political will. However, judging by the last Conservative decade (the decade of austerity; the decade of Cameron, May and Johnson) and the recent emergence of Rishi Sunak, I am not holding my breath.