New report highlights high levels of destitution

More than one and a half million people in the UK were in destitution at some point in 2017, a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found.

Totalling more people than the populations of Birmingham and Liverpool combined, the 1,550,000 figure includes 365,000 children, who lacked shelter, food, heating or lighting in their home, appropriate clothing and footwear and basic toiletries over the past month because they cannot afford them, or their income is so low that they have been unable to purchase them for themselves.

The main factors tipping people into destitution are: low benefit levels and delays in receiving benefits and sanctions; uncoordinated debt recovery practices by public authorities and utility companies; pressures caused by poor health or disability; and high costs for housing and other essentials.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has identified that social security policies and practice can in many cases directly lead to destitution ‘by design’, meaning that people are being left without support when they most need it because of gaps, flaws and choices within the social security system. Therefore, the organisation is calling for the redesign of the social security system to ensure that nobody in the UK is left without the bare essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.

It is urging the government to end the freeze on working-age benefits so they at least keep up with the cost of essentials and change the use of sanctions within Universal Credit so that people are not left destitute by design. Moreover, the government should review 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 Foundation, said: “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.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. The reduction in benefit sanction rates has meant that some welcome headway has been made, but there is a real risk that once Universal Credit is embedded across the country, more people could again be at risk unless we make changes. We all want to live in a society where we protect each other from harm, and we need to put things right to protect people from this degrading experience. We can start by redesigning our social security system so that it provides the basic protection people need.”

Nick Forbes, senior vice-chair of the Local Government Association, said: “This reports highlights some of the significant pressures being faced by low-income households up and down the country. The government needs to restore funding to councils for welfare assistance schemes so they can provide the local safety net to help those struggling to cope with welfare reforms, including the roll out of Universal Credit.

“Councils also need be able to do more to support low income households to increase their income from employment and access genuinely suitable and affordable housing. This can be achieved through a more devolved and integrated approach to employment and skills, and for closer partnership working between job centres and councils. The LGA is working with councils, the Centre for Responsible Credit and Money Advice Service to help improve local commissioning of financial support and debt advice and, alongside the Citizens Advice Bureau, has developed a joint Council Tax Protocol to support good practice in debt collection.”

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