Even before coronavirus hit, we had a crisis of hunger in the UK, with the government’s own welfare policies the biggest contributory factor. For ten long years of austerity, government relied on food banks to pick up the pieces as it slashed support and systematically impoverished millions of people. Using charities in place of a functioning social security system was never sustainable. And now, with many unable to work and 950,000 applications for Universal Credit in less than two weeks, food banks are buckling under the pressure. Volunteer numbers are decimated, donations are down and the number of people who cannot afford food has risen dramatically. We are seeing need on a scale hitherto unimagined.
No one should have to worry about how they are going to feed themselves and their family. Not now, not ever. Whether you have lost your job because of coronavirus or were already trying to get by on Universal Credit, you should receive enough income to be able to live with dignity – and that means never having to rely on a food bank.
Government must act now to put money in people’s pockets. The Chancellor’s support measures for employees and the self-employed are welcome but not enough. Millions of workers are not covered by these schemes. And for those already on benefits or in the process of applying for them, Rishi Sunak’s increase of £19 a week in the standard allowance of Universal Credit will leave a family of four 20 per cent below the poverty line, while the five-week wait for a payment means they will be forced into debt.
This Conservative government is spending unprecedented sums of money. But its priorities haven’t changed. It is still failing to protect people who are forced to rely on benefits. Rishi Sunak rightly said that now is not the time for ideology – but he is refusing to abandon the cruel ideology behind Universal Credit, which pushes vulnerable people into debt and gives them no option but to turn to food banks. Coronavirus has shown us how closely we all depend on each other. It has taught us that the workers we need the most are often those who are paid the least – nurses, cleaners, carers, drivers, porters, so many of whom rely on benefits to supplement their income. It’s time to value everyone equally.
So let’s mend the holes in the safety net. Let’s build a welfare state that works.
We know that this government is prepared to take radical financial measures to tackle the economic fallout of coronavirus. That financial support should be extended to everyone at risk of hunger, including those who are already living in food insecurity. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and they will become more so without financial help. We are therefore campaigning for the urgent implementation of the following measures.
• Convert the annual tax allowance into a cash grant paid via the HMRC
Using the existing tax mechanism is a simple, rapid way of putting money in people’s pockets. The tax allowance of £12,500 (or whatever sum is deemed necessary) should be converted into a cash grant, paid via the HMRC, for those who have missed out on the Chancellor’s schemes This would reach everyone registered for tax, including the self-employed. Any overpayments could be adjusted later via the tax system. An advantage of this schemes is that it would take the pressure off Universal Credit, since all those who were registered for tax would be eligible to apply.
• Increase child benefit
Increasing child benefit to £50 per child is an immediate, practical measure that would help families bear the extra costs now schools are closed. It would give all families the financial support they need, including those who are now newly eligible for free school meals or just above the threshold. It would also enable schools to drop the stigmatising voucher system that is temporarily replacing free school meals.
• Raise Universal Credit payments and end the five-week wait
Food banks have been used as an unofficial support system for Universal Credit for too long. Universal Credit is currently worth just 17 per cent of average weekly pay. Increasing the basic level to £260 a week, as recommended by the TUC, would represent 47 per cent of average earnings and 80 per cent of the National Living Wage. At the same time, the five-week wait for a payment must be abolished, with ‘advance payments’ (currently deducted from future payments) converted into grants. This would put money in people’s pockets very rapidly, without pushing them into debt.
• Remove the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the bedroom tax
These measures have punished families and individuals for too long, with the benefit cap and the two-child limit having a particularly adverse impact on children. They are pushing people into destitution and have no place in a civilised society.
• Take proactive measures to identify and support all vulnerable people
Government-sponsored food parcels, many of poor nutritional value, are being provided for 1.5 million people whose health makes them especially vulnerable to coronavirus. Yet the Food Foundation estimates that approximately 17 million people are at heightened risk, with almost 900,000 of those already living in food insecurity, while 4–7 million people in lower risk categories are severely food insecure and/or socially isolated. The £500 million hardship fund made available to local councils must be increased, so councils can seek out and offer appropriate support to all those at risk in their communities – whether through ill-health, old age, low income, social isolation, homelessness or domestic violence.
• Guarantee that no one will be left out
The ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy has for too long excluded certain categories of migrants from claiming social security – even to the extent of denying their children free school meals. This disproportionately affects single mothers, disabled people and BME British children. If they need to self isolate, or if they lose their jobs, it is essential that they have the same access to financial support as everyone else.
• Appoint a minister to oversee a national food strategy
We urgently need a coordinated government response to ensure the security of our food supply and to guarantee everyone access to nutritious food. This must include people who can’t afford food as well as those who can afford it but cannot leave home to buy it. A national strategy must also ensure the security of our food supply.