“14 million are living in poverty and recent analysis shows that nearly four million have experienced destitution.”
By John McDonnell MP
In the recent Parliamentary debate on the King’s Speech – which concluded this Wednesday – I highlighted that nowhere in Rishi Sunak’s address was there any reference to the huge scale of poverty in our country. It will be a complete disgrace – but not a surprise – if it is not mentioned again in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday.
The Tories’ lack of words, let alone action, are even more disgraceful in a context where 14 million are living in poverty in the UK, and recent analysis shows that nearly four million have experienced destitution.
4.2 million of those 14 million people in poverty are children, and two thirds of those children are living in households where someone is at work, showing the extend of the low-pay crisis in our society.
Additionally, unemployment is rising steadily which could make the situation even worse. We now have up to 1.5 million unemployed. Unemployment benefit is only 13% of the average wage, effectively forcing people who are unemployed into a life of poverty.
Yet incredibly in press previews of the Spring Statement it is being trailed that the Chancellor plans to further ‘crackdown’ on benefit claimants , could see those sanctioned denied access not just to welfare payments but associated benefits such as free prescriptions or help with energy bills.
The number of people certified as unfit to work is also rising rapidly, partly because many of them are on the 7.9 million-long NHS waiting list for operations and treatments which may enable them back into work. Austerity hasn’t just directly forced people into poverty and despair, its broader effects have also made it harder to get people out of poverty.
When in 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said that our social security system – as ‘reformed’ and starved of resources more and more as the austerity years went by – meant “the systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population” there was a level of shock in that by using the word ‘destitution’ he had used a word that we had not used for generations: “destitution.”
Yet recently his successor Olivier de Schutter reported that the situation was getting significantly worse, saying that the government is violating international law and that “It’s simply not acceptable that we have more than a fifth of the population in a rich country such as the UK at risk of poverty today.”
It is a real indictment of both the Tory Government and our political system more generally that there hasn’t been more coverage of this, and any determination at all to even start to enact policy changes to address it.
Recent findings from the well-respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirm these warnings from the UN rapporteur. They report that 3.8 million are now living in destitution, increasing by 148% since 2017, and these figures include 1 million children. Destitution is defined as “when people cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed”.
As Gordon Brown said this week, “it’s not just the safety net that is being shredded; our social fabric is being ripped apart.”
That is not a society any of us wants to live in. It simply can’t be right and the reality is it could be addressed, with the Chancellor’s autumn statement being an opportunity to do this.
During the pandemic, it was recognised by the Government that the “safety net” was not working, so they added an extra £20 a week to Universal Credit to see people through, but then later reversed this policy despite the warnings of experts, campaigners and community groups that it would immediately and dramatically deepen poverty levels.
The return of the uplift must be done now and is easily affordable. The cost would be between £5.5 billion and £6 billion, and given the overall weight of Government spending and the impact it could have on lifting children out of poverty, it would be a targeted investment, especially when research shows that 9 in 10 low-income households on Universal Credit were going without the essentials of everyday life.
A massive difference could also be made scrapping the two-child limit, which would lift 250,000 children out of poverty. And if we care about children not going hungry, then free school meals for all pupils must be the way to go.
The autumn statement could also tackle poverty and destitution by tackling many of the other crises deepening across our society due to austerity.
Many people, for example, are living in poverty because they cannot afford the rent due to the deep housing crisis.
The Government need to now consider ending the housing allowance freeze and restoring it to the 2015 level of 50% of market rents. Rent controls, as supported by many Labour Mayors across the country, could also make a real difference.
As already mentioned, more funding to address the crises in the NHS and social care could also help get people into the economy again and therefore help tackle poverty.
And, of course, ultimately a different approach to economic policy – based on investment in our future rather than never-ending cuts – would finally see people’s living standards and public services put at the forefront of government policy.
Our message then is clear – this week’s autumn statement must do something to lift our children out of poverty and destitution. It could be done if the political will was there, and if it is not, it is yet another indication that the Tories need to go.
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