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30 November 2022

Gordon Brown: Why it’s time to take the shame out of need

As the cost-of-living crisis pushes more and more people into poverty, charities have become the last line of defence.

By Gordon Brown

Christmas has been cancelled for millions of children. Nothing can now prevent them suffering the worst winter in living memory. Despite the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s welcome 10.1 per cent benefit increase, and his £900 flat rate cost-of-living payment from next April, the standards of living of Britain’s poor will fall even faster in 2023 than in 2022.

For once the Budget arithmetic is translated into actual pounds and pence; according to Donald Hirsch, a professor of social policy at Loughborough University, an out-of-work family with two children receiving Universal Credit will be £44 a week worse off next April than they were last October. Around four million children currently live in poverty, and that number is expected to rise towards five million.

[See also: The Tories’ privatisation of welfare is a catastrophe for the poorest]

Pushed into poverty

It is not difficult to see why more families will be pushed into poverty. Until April, the maximum heating help is just £24 a week for bills that are already averaging around £50 a week. Yet after next April, the gap between the bills they will pay and the support they are eligible to receive will widen dramatically. Help will peak at an estimated £18 a week just as bills rise to an average of around £60 a week.

So, families who lost £28 a week from last October – when the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit was withdrawn, and when benefits fell 7 per cent behind inflation in April – will now be down an additional £16 a week from next year: they will receive £10 less because of the additional fuel price rises (as the energy cap rises from £2,500 to £3,000 ) and £6 down from the reduction in cost-of-living support. Over two years, this average £44 a week cut represents an unprecedented 14 per cent reduction in their net income. And this is before the government’s plan to end help for heating altogether next year.

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According to the work of the academics Antonia Keung and Jonathan Bradshaw, who study the impact of fuel costs on family poverty, fuel poverty will double from just under nine million households or 24.5 million people currently, to 18 million households covering 45.5 million people from April 2023.

What’s worse is that millions of people will face unpayable bills. Three million households spend 20 per cent of their income on fuel, and after April this is expected to ­double to 7.5 million households – impacting 19.5 million residents. The number of households having to pay 30 per cent of their income on fuel will rise yet again from 1.6 million to 3.8 million households, entrapping 9.9 million people.

For millions of low-income families, essentials such as toothpaste, soap and towels are becoming unaffordable. The Joseph Rowntree Trust stated in a study in November that even heating has become a luxury too costly for many families, with many cases of unpaid bills now arising not because of purchases of electrical goods or furnishings, but because of running up debts to pay for food and fuel.

Far from relieving the suffering of the most vulnerable, Jeremy Hunt’s recent Autumn Statement has intensified the financial plight of many, and the gap between need and provision is now so wide that voluntary organisations are being called upon to do even more.

A year ago I talked of the difficult choice families faced between heating and eating. Now many no longer have that choice; they cannot afford either. As a result, the local food bank, not Universal Credit, is becoming the safety net for millions; charity, not Universal Credit, is their last line of defence.

The third sector is proving to be more creative and innovative than at any time in its venerable history. It is stepping up not just with more food banks – now numbering at around 3,000 – but with imaginative start-ups, such as pantries, community kitchens, swap shops, and now also the emergence of fuel banks, clothing banks, bedding banks, toiletries banks and baby banks. Just as we thanked our health workers during the pandemic, we should pay tribute to thousands of local heroes who every day come to the aid of millions of their fellow citizens.

Third sector creativity

The scope and scale of third-sector innovation is breathtaking, from national providers, such as In Kind Direct and FareShare, to local champions such as the Big Feed in Birmingham and Karen Mattison’s Cook for Good in London. The Scouse Kitchen, which is open to school pupils and their families in West Derby, Liverpool, is a joint initiative between Liverpool and Everton supporters, who collect food at each match under the slogan: “If you can, bring a can.” Now other football clubs such as Rangers and Celtic, and Dundee and Dundee United, are putting old rivalries aside to help people in need.

The affordable food club The Bread and Butter Thing – which began in Manchester and now runs across the north of England – redistributes each week more than 100 tonnes of surplus food from businesses and supermarkets. For £7.50 per week, Bread and Butter offers families around £35’s worth of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, and cupboard staples. These “select what you need” community food shops have also expanded into more rural areas. For example, north Dorset’s first Community Food Pantry charges its 450 recipients £4 for around £20’s worth of food, and all fruit and vegetables are free.

In Greater Manchester Emerge, 3RS, which also runs the local FareShare, produces six million meals a year for an ever-expanding network of 232 charities, schools and members of the food bank community. A similar food bank network in Bristol has plans to branch out into supplying household goods. And nothing can match the scale of London’s FareShare operation, the Felix Project, whose networks distribute goods across the city.

Food banks are complemented by fuel banks, which offer emergency help to reconnect gas and electricity meters. Fuel banks are supported by the Fuel Bank Foundation, and a Welsh operation is now financed by the Welsh government.

The organisation Warm Welcome – led by churches, libraries, synagogues and mosques – has identified 2,700 community heating hubs at which people receive not only the warmth of a heated space, but companionship too. In Wolverhampton, which has the highest rate of fuel poverty of any local authority in England, there is a dedicated shuttle bus that offers free lifts to local heating hubs. Rural warm hubs projects, such as those run by Warwickshire Rural Community Council, address both fuel poverty and social isolation.

[See also: Gordon Brown: How to mend a failing world]

Schoolchildren in need

Now that winter is upon us, the fastest growing demand is for bedding, blankets, warm clothes, sleeping bags and hot water bottles. Families who can’t afford to top up their gas and electricity meters have been forced to stop heating their homes and focus on heating themselves. Beds, too, are needed because thousands of children sleep on bare floorboards under just one sheet, or take it in turns with their siblings to share a sofa.

A schoolteacher working in Leeds was so shocked by how sleep-deprived her pupils were that she started a charity called Zarach, which offers a “Bed Bundle” – including a bed, mattress, duvet, pillow and sheets – to those in need. Now pressure is being put on the government to create a National Sleep Strategy that will end bed poverty.

The Freedom Project, run in Manchester by the charity Mustard Tree, collects furniture for those without permanent housing and offers recipients opportunities to learn DIY, customer service and catering skills to help them secure jobs in the future. And from three locations in Wigan and Leigh the Brick charity provides accommodation, a hot meal and a shower for people who are homeless, as well as courses during the day in workplace skills.

In the UK 350,000 tonnes of wearable clothing worth £140m ends up in landfill each year, while a further £30bn of clothes hangs in wardrobes unused. The Waste and Resources Action Programme estimates that the average household’s annual footprint caused by new clothes and washing is the equivalent of the emissions from driving 6,000 miles. So there are good environmental as well as welfare reasons behind the increasing number of clothes banks.

The organisation “Wrap Up Cardiff” recycles high-quality winter clothing, and Nottingham’s innovative Sharewear Clothing Scheme provides shoes, school clothes and nappies to parents who cannot afford them.

[See also: By protecting private schools, Rishi Sunak is chasing voters who don’t exist]

A circular economy

Step forward the latest innovation: the multi-bank, which offers families free of charge everything from food, toilet rolls, toothpaste, nappies and soap, to microwaves, duvets, beds and home furnishings. The scheme is currently being piloted in Fife, an area in Scotland where around 375,000 people live.

The Cottage Family Centre, which I work with, has distributed 350,000 goods through 500 local organisations such as food banks, schools, social work teams, health centres and charities. Service users can receive items on a click-and-collect basis from a local warehouse, which is stocked from the surplus goods of multinational companies, such as Amazon and PepsiCo, and national companies such as Morrisons, Scotmid, Fishers Laundry Services and Purvis, as well as local companies.

The idea is simple: to meet unmet needs by using unused resources. Companies have surplus goods that people need, and charities know the people who need them. Also, as the multi-bank is stopping the destruction of goods – for example, it’s helping to reduce the £19bn of food wasted annually in the UK – this is an anti-pollution as well as anti-poverty project, creating a route to a circular economy.

Charity is not enough

Charities know that however hard they try, and even when they stretch their creativity to its limits, they cannot do enough. Raising Gift Aid from 25 per cent to 30 per cent could help charities do more. The Fife multi-bank will provide £10m’s worth of goods this year to 40,000 low-income families, but it cannot compensate for the £70m these same families have lost through reductions in the real value of benefits.

Food banks take the right approach: they do not want to exist in perpetuity. They are emergency providers, the last resort for the desperate, not a permanent solution. They want to put themselves out of business. They know that by their very nature charities cannot be comprehensive in their coverage of need, or – as food banks run out of food and supporters run out of funds – guarantee their donations will be always be there.

Britain now needs more than charity. Fortunately, today’s third sector is also a catalyst for change, identifying the scale of the problems that needs to be addressed and showing us what needs to be done. A crisis that is not the fault of the poor cannot be resolved by blaming the poor, or turning a blind eye to the despair in communities that ministers fly over but never visit. It is time to take the shame out of need, and for that we require a government that does not just talk about being compassionate while the suffering increases, but that re-commits to what the welfare state was supposed to deliver: a decent minimum standard below which no one should fall.

Gordon Brown was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010

[See also: The Tories’ privatisation of welfare is a catastrophe for the poorest]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince