I became aware that there was real destitution in modern Britain five years ago. Destitution, as I see it, arises when a family or individual is hungry, unable to afford gas and electricity, and on the brink of homelessness. It was apparent to me then that too many people at the bottom of the pile who fall on hard times are slipping through holes in the nation’s safety net — some are even forced through those holes by the modern welfare state.
The model of how society worked, which I had picked up as a child of the 1945 Attlee Government, survived my decade at the Child Poverty Action Group and many of the years I have spent as Birkenhead’s MP. It is the model that most voters held — a great story of British progress. It was as though the country was on a wonderful train journey, where the engine was driven by Clement Attlee and its destination was towards a welfare state.
Our train continued on through the postwar period, sometimes with a new driver. For much of that time, the train travelled against a backdrop of fuel, housing and food costs falling as a proportion of household income.
More recently, however, the staff of the train have been instructed to throw some people off. These are not benefit cheats. These are the truly needy. I’ve heard some shocking stories in recent years. One mother in my constituency was so desperate that she was found lowering her child into the bins behind the local supermarket to scavenge for food. I heard this at a meeting of the Feeding Birkenhead programme, which I set up to counter hunger in my constituency.
Likewise, the overall proportion of household income required to meet essential costs has risen steadily for the first time in half a century — with the greatest strain felt by those people who are most likely to be thrown off the train. It is this group that forms the core of Britain’s destitute. How big is the problem? We’re still trying to find out. The current poverty data does not delve much deeper than general household income: no attempts are being made to tell us how many people are actually facing ruin.
What we are able to gauge is that for the first time in postwar history, the state has become a generator of destitution. People may be sanctioned for periods of anything from four weeks to three years. They are left without an income, or with a heavily reduced one, for this entire period. Yet their ‘offence’ may have consisted only of failing to attend an appointment because they were receiving emergency treatment in hospital at the time they were supposed to be at the Jobcentre.
Other people are asked to wait six weeks for their first benefit payment. And that’s if the system pays on time, which it often doesn’t — payment can take three months. Absurdly, universal credit was designed not to pay claimants their money for the first six weeks, while the claim is being processed. Its Berlin Wall system of online applications sometimes brings those three-month waiting times into play. Yet we know that most households with a weekly income below £300 have no savings: so what are they to do?
When people are excluded from full access to the welfare state, three budgets take the strain: rent, fuel and food. Here, paradoxically, we are introduced to the biggest public concern about food: obesity. The very poorest are forced onto an impoverished diet consisting only of the very cheapest, stodgiest items.
In the early days of Feeding Birkenhead, we found families needed to take home candles to light their homes. To counter the lack of power to their homes we have piloted in Birkenhead npower’s voucher programme, offering destitute households two weeks’ supply of free fuel. The other main suppliers have yet to step up to the plate and equal npower’s imaginative scheme.
Lack of food and fuel, often against a backdrop of debt, is so endemic amongst families that Feeding Birkenhead is in the process of establishing a Citizens’ Supermarket, which will give families access to good food that would otherwise be wasted, but at a fraction of the normal price. It will also help to ensure families receive their correct benefits, find a route back into work, get their debt under control, and help them improve their household budgetary and cooking skills.
Herein lie the bones of a fightback against destitution in modern Britain. But the government has to be equally imaginative in rewinding policies that are destitution’s chief recruiter.