Why Labour must introduce a statutory responsibility to prevent destitution

If the welfare state is to function as the frontline against destitution once again, the Department for Work and Pensions must be given a statutory responsibility to prevent destitution – including a duty to seek out those at risk and provide appropriate support. Below is the text of the Labour Hunger Campaign’s submission to the Labour Party on this topic.

Submission to the Labour Party from the Labour Hunger Campaign, November 2019: statutory responsibility to prevent destitution


This submission concerns the creation of a statutory duty to prevent destitution. It argues that that duty must be placed on a single national body, namely the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than on local authorities.


The Labour Hunger Campaign, was set up in 2019 to urge the Labour Party to include in its next manifesto a comprehensive programme to eradicate food poverty in the UK. To this end, it produced a Charter on Hunger. One of the key points in the Charter is to: 

‘Ensure that the welfare state functions as the frontline against destitution once more by giving the Department for Work and Pensions a statutory responsibility to prevent destitution, including a duty to seek out those at risk and provide appropriate support.’[1]

We welcome the Labour Party’s proposed welfare reforms and note its plan to replace the Department for Work and Pensions with a Department for Social Security – ‘marking a radical shift from a system that “punishes and polices people” to one where social security will support people in finding work and treat them with “dignity and respect”’[2]. We believe that dignity is a key concept in the provision of the welfare state. It underlies all human rights, and in particular the socio-economic rights defined in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the UK is a signatory.[3] In order to fulfil people’s right to live with dignity, a statutory responsibility to prevent destitution must be enshrined in UK law – as it was when the welfare state was created.


A responsibility for preventing destitution was placed on the National Assistance Board by the National Assistance Act 1948, which stated:

‘It shall be the duty of the Board … to assist persons in Great Britain who are without resources to meet their requirements, or whose resources (including benefits receivable under the National Insurances Acts, 1946) must be supplemented in order to meet their requirements.’[4]

This responsibility was carried over to the Supplementary Benefits Commission in 1966, with a system of Single Payments that had no budget limits and paid grants outright to people in crisis[5]. In 1988, however, the Thatcher government imposed an annual cash limit and switched most payments from grants to loans[6]. Up to this point, the requirement to prevent destitution had functioned fairly effectively.

In 2013, in a highly regressive move, the Coalition government abolished the national scheme and passed responsibility for crisis provision to local authorities, without ring-fenced funding. Local councils were expected to set up Local Welfare Assistance Schemes; in practice, these ended up relying heavily on food banks. By 2017, the system was ‘in meltdown’[7], with two-thirds of councils in England offering no service or a vastly reduced one.

The ‘localisation’ of the social fund has reduced the visibility of crisis provision, with official statistics scrapped and obvious difficulty tracing the activity of hundreds of local authorities. The current situation, with its patchwork local provision, has echoes of the notorious Poor Laws, whose principle since Tudor times was that each parish must look after its own poor. Even under the Poor Laws, however, there was a duty of care: Guardians could be prosecuted if someone died because of lack of assistance. That duty of care no longer exists.

Definitions of destitution

• The only explicit definition in UK law is in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, with reference to asylum seekers. This states that:

‘A person is destitute if—

(a) he does not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it (whether or not his other essential living needs are met); or

(b) he has adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, but cannot meet his other essential living needs.’[8]

• There is an implicit definition in the regulations governing hardship payments (actually loans) for sanctioned benefits. In order to be eligible to claim a hardship payment, they must prove that they cannot fulfil basic needs such as accommodation, heating, food and hygiene.[9]

• A 2016 report on destitution, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, defines people as destitute either if they or their children have gone without two or more of six essentials (shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing, toiletries) over the course of a month because they cannot afford them, or if their income is so low that they are unable to purchase those essentials for themselves or their children.[10]

The state’s current obligations on destitution

The UK government has no obligations to prevent destitution other than those stemming from EU legislation and from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

• Research carried out in 2018 by McKeever, Simpson and Fitzpatrick points out that:

‘Although the state ‘has various powers to alleviate or prevent destitution, it is not always subject to a duty to support a destitute individual or one at risk of destitution. The courts have acknowledged the possible existence of a common law obligation on the state to prevent destitution, but this cannot prevent Parliament passing legislation that imposes destitution on certain people.’[11]

• There is a duty, under EU legislation, to protect asylum seekers from destitution as soon as they register their claim in the UK. There is no equivalent duty for other individuals, although breaches of individual rights are justiciable under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).[12] This is not an accessible form of justice for people at risk of destitution.

• Article 11 of the ICESCR recognises ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right.’[13] Article 11 has been key to the campaign for the right to food – a right that the Labour Party now plans to embed in law, upheld by a National Food Commission.

Why a statutory responsibility to seek out and prevent destitution is necessary

• It clarifies the state’s position as rights duty-bearer.

• It enshrines the provisions of Article 11 of the ICESCR in UK law so that it cannot, as is currently the case, be overridden by primary legislation.

• The duty to seek out those at risk of destitution and offer support will combat poor take-up of means-tested benefits.

• Although a radically reformed welfare state will address many of the causes of destitution, it will rely on active participation by claimants. Placing an onus on the state to prevent destitution will help reach vulnerable individuals unable to seek support themselves.

Why the duty to prevent destitution should lie with the DWP, not local authorities

Destitution is the result of severe financial hardship; the solution is usually money. It is vital that a sole body has responsibility for giving money (or in some cases, assistance in kind) to people who are destitute or at risk of destitution, since it will prevent them being shunted around from one organisation to another. Giving local authorities responsibility for supporting people in crisis has not been a success. Although this failure is linked to the cuts to council funding, there are strong arguments for ensuring that the responsibility should return to national level and be held by the DWP (under a Labour government, the Department for Social Security). These arguments are as follows:

• The DWP is already in contact with far more people who are destitute or at risk of destitution than local authorities are, since it is responsible for the payment of benefits. If it is not in touch with those people, then it needs to be, because it will have to move them on to mainstream benefits after providing emergency help. Local authorities, by contrast, are only in contact with those at risk of destitution if they come to the attention of particular services such as social work or housing.

• If responsibility for preventing destitution is given to local authorities, it will create a far greater burden on those in poorer areas than in wealthy ones (something George Lansbury and the Poplar councillors campaigned against in the 1920s). The principle of the Poor Law that each parish should be responsible for its own poor had the effect of reinforcing inequalities, becoming unsustainable in the face of mass unemployment in the 1920s, which was highly concentrated in specific areas. 

• If responsibility rests at local level, the question then arises of which local authority a particular person ‘belongs’ to – with the unedifying possibility of them being returned to another local authority rather than given meaningful assistance.

• Giving responsibility for preventing destitution to the DWP will help to create the culture change in that department that an incoming Labour government would require – from a mindset fixed on getting people off benefits to one where its role is actively to seek out vulnerable people and support them.

[1] Labour Hunger Campaign, Charter on Hunger, https://labourhunger.wordpress.com/charter-on-hunger/

[2] ‘Corbyn: Labour will scrap Universal Credit’, Labour Party press, 27 September 2019, https://labour.org.uk/press/corbyn-labour-will-scrap-universal-credit-immediately-lift-300000-children-poverty/

[3] Mark Simpson, ‘”Designed to reduce people to complete destitution”: human dignity in the active welfare state’, School of Law, Ulster University, 2015, http://uir.ulster.ac.uk/34866/1/Dignity%20paper%20MSimpson%20OA.pdf

[4] Legislation.gov.uk, National Assistance Act 1948, Provision, 4, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/11-12/29/section/4/enacted

[5] Legislation.gov.uk, Supplementary Benefits Act 1966, Part I, i, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1976/71/pdfs/ukpga_19760071_en.pdf

[6] Legislation.gov.uk, The Social Fund (Applications) Regulations 1988, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1988/524/regulation/2/made

[7] Patrick Butler, ‘English councils’ local welfare schemes “in meltdown”, 13 September 2017, Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/13/english-councils-local-welfare-schemes-meltdown

[8] Legislation.gov.uk, Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, Part VI, i, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1999/33/part/VI/enacted

[9] Citizen’s Advice, ‘Get a hardship payment if you’ve been sanctioned’, https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/benefits/universal-credit/sanctions/hardship-payment/

[10] Ciara Fitzpatrick et al, ‘Destitution in the UK’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 27 April 2016, https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/destitution-uk

[11] Gráinne McKeever, Mark Simpson and Ciara Fitzpatrick, ‘Destitution and Paths to Justice’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Legal Education Foundation, June 2018, https://research.thelegaleducationfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Destitution-Report-Final-Full-.pdf

[12] McKeever, Simpson and Fitzpatrick

[13] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx