Families must be rescued from destitution

10 May 19

A responsible government cannot balance its books on the backs of its poorest, most vulnerable citizens with little or no regard for them, says MP Frank Field. 


A head of this year’s spring Budget statement, we called on the chancellor to end the benefit freeze – predicted to “increase poverty more than any other policy” – a year early, and so lift 200,000 people out of poverty at a stroke. The freeze was originally designed to save £3bn. The Treasury would still have made in-year savings of £2.5bn in 2019/20, even if the chancellor had answered that call. The most recent monthly public borrowing figures show a budget surplus of £14.9bn in January 2019 – £5.6bn more than the surplus in January 2018, and the largest January budget surplus on record.

Most of the cuts that have occurred in public expenditure to rid us of the budget deficit have taken aim at families, and particularly those in receipt of benefits. We argued they should be the first to feel the relaxation of the whip of austerity; that those families so badly hit by the cuts, who paid so much to bring the budget deficit down, should be first in the queue for financial relief.

But this is not a story now of poverty but of people, including many in work, struggling with all their might to maintain a roof over their heads. A family of four with both parents working full-time on the national living wage and receiving universal credit will be over £800 a year worse off by the time the freeze ends in 2020. A couple with two children, with one parent working 35 hours a week, will be £1,845 worse off. Stretching family finances to breaking point and beyond like this can make it impossible to make ends meet, let alone find or get on at work. They go without food, they go without heat, they go without basic necessities. We as MPs now see our poorest constituents not facing poverty but destitution.

A responsible government cannot balance its books on the backs of its poorest, most vulnerable citizens with little or no regard for the impact on them – and so, inevitably, on wider society.

This circular process of transferring public money from one budget to another to cover the hardship that government acknowledges its reforms cause – as in discretionary housing payments – is a straightforward administrative exercise for the department, if a rather dishonest one. But it, like all these ‘cost-saving’ measures, fails to consider the huge impact on families, who are left relying on less stable, and often non-existent, support. The department does not even include these costs in its figures, nor consider the increased costs to local authorities of temporary accommodation, nor the wider costs this hardship places on other public services and on our society.

The result is people left with nothing, because their incomes have been ‘reformed’, frozen, cut, sanctioned and capped below a liveable level. The government has ploughed ahead with massive, often untried reforms, making huge budget savings on the backs of the poorest, without ever stopping to find out if they actually work. Welfare reform has taken the UK back to the 1930s.

Now, 1.5 million people, including 365,000 children, live in destitution, unable to afford even basic necessities. We see people all across the country, even outside parliament, sleeping rough. People are dying on the streets in the freezing cold, even in homes they can’t afford to heat. We see families queuing up for foodbanks and disabled people left isolated without the care they need, and no hope of getting into the work they want. Seventy years after the welfare state was set up to slay the five giants – want, disease, ignorance, idleness, squalor – in the wake of the second world war, we are seeing something that looks instead more like the Depression.

Enough is enough. Balancing our national books means doing it from family and household level up, not the other way around.

  • Frank Field

    Rt Hon Frank Field MP is chair of the House of Commons work and pensions select committee

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