Given the New Year hype from the Prime Minister about better times to come, it may seem counter-intuitive but already 2024 is threatening to be the worst year in living memory for already hard-pressed families – worse than even 2023 or 2022. More so than the last two winters, when anxiety about heating and food costs was at its height, all-round rises in the costs of telecoms, housing (whether rent or mortgages), toiletries, clothing and transport are pushing families over the edge.
Nine out of every ten low-income households on Universal Credit are going without basics and, as reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one million children out of a total of almost four million fellow citizens have either no home, no heating, adequate food or toiletries to ensure proper hygiene, and are deemed destitute. And so the crises of the past years, starting with austerity itself, have all left their mark on family resilience and brought matters to a head.
The gap between needs and payments is now wider than ever, as documented in the forthcoming report by Donald Hirsch for the Financial Fairness Trust. The £120 a week deemed necessary for a single person’s essentials (and remember this is assuming no special costs or loan repayments are involved) is £34 more than the £86 per week currently available to adults over 25 on Universal Credit, and fully £52 more than the mere £68 available to those of 24 and below.
For a couple with two children, benefits of £308 a week only just covers the £300 needed for food, home energy, clothing and bus fares – with just £8 for everything else. Worse, the two-child limit in Universal Credit cuts funds for larger families arbitrarily short. Thus, for a couple with three children, benefits of £324 fall £35 a week short of covering those four essential needs. And so, we have to ask our fellow citizens: what would they say if week in, week out, year in, year out, they had to survive with only £4.50 a day each for all your food, and nothing left over for basic toiletries or clothes or bedding.
Two basic recommendations should have all-party support. First, a Universal Credit system that includes a bedroom tax, a two-child rule, the low (and often under-indexed) local housing allowance limits and the regularly frozen total benefit cap is in urgent need of root-and-branch review. And because of the additional damage done by deductions as well as benefit freezes, we now need an essentials guarantee that ensures the basic rate of benefit at least covers life’s basic minimum costs.
The poor cannot wait; we need emergency action this winter. Community larders, kitchens, pantries and all kinds of banks – from food and hygiene banks to baby banks – are doing what they can to bridge the poverty gap. Many companies are also doing a great deal, putting trolleys at supermarket doors for customer donations, and indeed making their own donations, including in some cases gifting to charities one good for every one sold.
But this is not enough: a greater collaboration between companies who have the goods people need and charities who know the people who need them could make a big and immediate difference this winter. More than £2bn excess products are estimated to be destroyed or wasted in the UK every year. As the national charity In Kind Direct and local food, hygiene and bedding banks have been proving, many of the unmet needs of low-income families can be met by putting these unused resources to use in what is not just an anti-poverty initiative but an anti-waste initiative, too. Already companies from the largest in the land, such as Amazon, to the local, like the Purvis Group in my own former constituency, are leading the way.
[See also: How to reform the House of Lords]