The UK in 2018: a submerged nation of the poor made destitute by design


Devastating new report reveals the true face of extreme poverty in the UK - and the policy decisions which drive it

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8th June 2018 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

A toxic brew of benefit cuts, sanctions and high rental costs has pushed masses of people into destitution.

In a shocking indictment of rising inequality, a major new study shows that one and a half million people in the UK – one of the wealthiest nations on earth – have been left without the bare essentials to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.

This figure represents a vast, submerged nation of the poor – with the number of those in destitution throughout the UK larger than the populations of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen combined.

Of the 1,550,000 found to be destitute last year, 365,000 were children.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh compiled the figures which, while they have not been broken down to localities and the UK’s constituent nations, show that Glasgow has the ninth highest levels of destitution in the country.

Report authors said that most of this extreme poverty is unnecessary – and amounts to “destitution by design”, and is ideologically enshrined in the Tory government’s pursuit of austerity.

People were defined as destitute if they or their children, during the period of a month last year, lacked two or more of essential, life sustaining items.

These were: shelter (whether they had slept rough for one or more nights), food (whether they had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days), warmth (if they had been unable to heat their home for five or more days), light (if they were unable to light their home for a similar period), or clothing (if they lacked appropriate clothing and footwear).

The drivers of this extreme poverty were low benefit levels, delays in receiving benefits, sanctions, harsh and uncoordinated debt recovery practices by public authorities and utility companies, pressures caused by poor health or disability and high costs of housing and other essentials.

People largely become destitute following longer-term experiences of poverty, with single, younger men at highest risk. Three quarters of those in destitution were born in the UK and rates are highest in northern English and Scottish cities and some London boroughs.

Among the outcomes were huge levels of depression, severe stress and anxiety.

The JRF made a series of recommendations, not least the complete redesign of the punitive UK welfare system.

Angela Constance

Angela Constance

The solution to this crisis rests with the UK government and further strengthens the case for them to urgently and drastically change course

It wants to see an end to the freeze on working-age benefits so they at least keep up with the cost of essentials, a change to the use of sanctions within Universal Credit, which is currently being rolled out in Scotland, so that people are not left destitute by design, and a review of the total amount of debt that can be clawed back from people receiving benefits, so they can keep their heads above water.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of the JRF, said: “Many of us rely on public services such as social security when hit with unexpected circumstances like job loss, relationship breakdown or ill health. Yet actions by government, local authorities and utility companies are leading to destitution by design, forcing people into a corner when they are penniless and have nowhere to turn. This is shameful.

“Social security should be an anchor holding people steady against powerful currents such as rising costs, insecure housing and jobs, and low pay, but people are instead becoming destitute with no clear way out.

“To be destitute doesn’t just mean getting by on very little, it’s losing the ability to keep a roof over your head, eat often enough, or afford warm clothes when it’s cold. You can’t keep yourself clean or put the lights on. This shouldn’t happen to anybody, let alone over one and a half million people in the UK.”

Scotland, thanks to the post-independence referendum devolution of powers, is in the process of creating its own welfare system.

Communities secretary Angela Constance told TFN that this will allow for the cushioning of some of the worst aspects of UK, Tory-driven austerity – but given the split of powers, with many aspects of welfare remaining reserved to Westminster, either a change of tack at a UK level or the devolution of more powers is needed.

She said: “This further exposes the damaging impact of UK government cuts and the devastating impact it is having, with money being taken from the pockets of low income households, pushing them into crisis, debt, and poverty. Rightly, it highlights the real risk of increasing destitution as a result of the chaotic introduction and fundamental flaws of Universal Credit, and the use of sanctions – which we have repeatedly called for to be halted.

“We have worked with partners such as JRF to ensure we’re doing everything we can with the powers we have. We are spending over £125 million annually to protect people from the worst impact of UK government cuts and support low income households – money that could be better spent on preventing poverty – and building a social security system with dignity and respect at its heart.

“Ultimately, this report makes clear that the solution to this crisis rests with the UK government and further strengthens the case for it to urgently and drastically change course. If they won’t, then they must deliver the necessary powers and financial levers to Scotland so we can do things differently and actually lift people out of poverty as opposed to only being able to mitigate their cuts.”

Peter Kelly

Peter Kelly

Campaigners in Scotland need to increase pressure on the UK government to end the damaging and unnecessary freeze on working age benefits

This was echoed by John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said: "There is no question that far too many families are still being left without even the bare essentials, and this report's recommendations that the UK government needs to end the benefit freeze and fix Universal Credit are absolutely right.

“In the meantime here in Scotland local and national government, and the third sector, can also do more to ensure people facing income crises are supported to access crisis grants from the Scottish Welfare Fund."

Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, added: "This new report reminds us of the crucial importance of the social security system in preventing destitution, and in helping loosen the grip that poverty has on many people. The fact that more than 1.5 million do not have the ability to afford basic essentials – toiletries, heat and light, appropriate clothing and footwear – is clearly unacceptable. 

"The resounding message from the report is that it is changes to our social security system that will make the difference. Campaigners in Scotland and across the UK need to increase the pressure on the UK government to end the damaging and unnecessary freeze on working age benefits."