New study warns 1.5 million people left destitute by social security policies

The Government is being urged to reform the social security system after a new study revealed that 1.5 million people are “destitute”.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that people classed as destitute often went without food, heating or lighting in their home and had sometimes slept rough.

The charity said social security policies often led to destitution “by design”, leaving people without support when they most needed it.

Low benefit levels, delays in receiving benefits, harsh debt recovery practices and high housing costs were blamed for tipping people into destitution.

JRF chief executive Campbell Robb (pictured) said: “Many of us rely on public services such as social security when hit with unexpected circumstances like job loss, relationship breakdown or ill-health. Yet actions by Government, local authorities and utility companies are leading to ‘destitution by design’, forcing people into a corner when they are penniless and have nowhere to turn. This is shameful.

“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.

“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.”

JRF called for reforms including changes to the use of Universal Credit sanctions.

Levels of destitution fell by 25% between 2015 and 2017, mainly because of a reduction in benefit sanctions, said the report.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, of Heriot-Watt University, which carried out the study, said: “The apparent higher levels of sanctions in Universal Credit are a sharp warning that destitution could increase again as the new benefit expands in the coming years.”

People were defined as destitute if they lacked essentials such as shelter and food or had an income of less than £10 a day for a single person, excluding housing costs.

Nick Forbes, senior vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Councils target services to help those in need of support and prevent them reaching crisis point but this is becoming increasingly challenging against a backdrop of welfare reforms and an overall funding gap that will exceed £5 billion by 2020.

“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 rollout of Universal Credit.”

Margaret Greenwood, shadow work and pensions secretary, said the findings of the report were “shocking”, adding: “After eight years of Conservative austerity, we are seeing destitution re-appearing on our streets.

“People with so little that they cannot afford the basics of life that most people take for granted are being forced to rely on charity and foodbanks.

“A chronic shortage of affordable housing coupled with the freeze in housing benefit means that many people are struggling to cope with rapidly rising rents.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Work is the best route out of poverty and our welfare reforms incentivise employment while having the right support in place for those that need it.

“Universal Credit lies at the heart of our commitment to improve lives, and it is seeing people move into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system. This report fails to take this into account, nor the recent improvements we have made to Universal Credit, including continuing to pay two weeks’ housing costs for claimants moving onto UC, removing the seven waiting days, increasing advance payments to 100% and extending repayment times to 12 months.

“Since 2010, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty and employment is at a record high, with 1,000 people moving into work every day. Meanwhile, we continue to spend £90 billion a year on welfare to support those who need it most.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) JRF.