TAs the Conservative leadership election heats up, the remaining candidates are scrambling to claim moral superiority. Taking on debt is “immoral,” says Rishi Sunak. “High taxes are ‘immoral,'” counters Liz Truss. But there is nothing moral about indifferent leaders condemning millions of vulnerable and innocent children and pensioners to a winter of abject poverty.
The reality is grim and undeniable: A financial time bomb will explode for families in October as a second round of fuel price hikes in six months’ time sends shockwaves through every household and sidelines millions. A few months ago, York University’s Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung estimated that the 54% rise in fuel prices in April would plunge 27 million people in 10 million households into fuel poverty. Now, in October, 35 million people in 13 million households – an unprecedented 49.6% of the UK population – are at risk of fuel poverty.
With time running out to update the universal credit payment system ahead of October’s surge, Boris Johnson, Sunak and Truss are set to agree an emergency budget this week. If they don’t, Parliament should be recalled to force them to do so. Because if nothing is done before there are further increases in fuel prices in January, fuel poverty could rise to 39 million people in 15 million households – 54% of the country, with large regional variations ranging from 48% in London to 60 8% in Wales reach 62% in Scotland. Overall, four out of five single parents, pensioners and large families in our country will live in energy poverty. The magnitude is such that the typical fuel bill alone eats up a third of the statutory pension. At the start of the pandemic, 40% of children could not afford what Loughborough University has calculated is required for a decent standard of living. In one fell swoop in October, I estimate more than 50% of children – 7 million – will be living in families without material necessities after housing costs.
The reason the poverty problem is worsening so quickly is the resolution of the June budget, in which ministers not only underestimated next year’s average rise in energy prices by around £500, but also announced lump sum payments that do not take family size or specificities into account Needs, has done the least to compensate larger families and the disabled. So while paying £650 to Universal Credit applicants was an extra £13 a week for a single person, for a couple with three children it was only worth £2.60 a week each – not enough to cover soaring fuel bills, much less the rising cost of necessities needed by a growing family. For generations, the welfare state has existed to take the shame out of want. Now that the safety net is full of holes, food banks – not the Department of Works and Pensions – have become the lifeline and charity, not universal credit, the last line of defense. In my home county of Fife, I see scenes reminiscent of what I’ve read about the hungry 1930s – children going to school ill-dressed and malnourished, pensioners deciding whether to feed their electricity meters or themselves, nurses who having to leave their patients’ beds after long, back-breaking night shifts to queue for their meal service. Local charities are stocking up on blankets, duvets, sleeping bags and hot water bottles as they prepare for the worst winter on record. Churches tell me they will offer their warm halls as central heating systems, and doctors are asking how they can use welfare prescriptions to help malnourished children and keep pensioners from freezing. Fife operates a warehouse that is a food bank, bedding bank, clothes bank, toiletries bank, hygiene bank, baby bank and tank bank all in one. With the help of the nearby Amazon depot and 12 local businesses, 30,000 families have received 200,000 items worth £4million so far this year – from canned goods and school clothes to microwaves and beds.
But we know that charity cannot do enough. Poverty is now hitting so hard that even the broadest and most generous coalition of local charities and volunteer organizations far exceeds the means to alleviate it. And in communities like mine, where those who have little have historically given generously to those who have nothing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise funds for charity.
The situation is so dangerous that a group of more than 60 churches, faith groups, non-governmental organizations, mayors and city councilors from the city have come together today to call on the government to close the growing gap between needs and current supplies. We know the short-term consequences of rising poverty—more stunting, more family breakdown, more homelessness, and more children in institutional care, all of which, because none of their goals include poverty reduction, make “leveling” a meaningless catchphrase rather than a strategy.
But the psychological scars of poverty run deep. I meet mothers who are ashamed of not being able to do anything, let alone the best, for their children. One was forced to keep her child out of school because she couldn’t afford new school clothes and shoes for her fast-growing teenager. Another is ashamed to let her children invite friends home because her house is run down and empty. There are children who do not have the clothes or pocket money to go out with friends, who cannot participate in school sports because they do not have the equipment, and who cannot attend after-school care if there is a small fee to do so.
We’ve all had the experience of missing out – not being able to go to a trip or school event – and that may have been good for us in the long run, but if the omission isn’t a one-off or occasional event, but an everyday experience, it is not character-building, but trust-destroying and brings with it embarrassment, loneliness, and often humiliation. The wounds of exclusion are there forever—a sense of never being able to identify with neighbors as equals, a reluctance to get involved in larger groups or community activities, and a distrust of situations that unsettle you. But Britain is creating a boisterous generation of young boys and girls who don’t have the money to participate in what their friends are doing, and whose childhoods are beginning to resemble shameful scenes from a Dickensian novel.
Our agenda is not complicated: a new strategy to end family poverty that will show how a compassionate society can afford to take action and indeed cannot afford not to. When I was chancellor, our government set a goal – and changed the benefit system – to end child poverty in one generation. This winter, I will devote my energies to fighting to renew the goal of reducing child poverty, which this government has shamefully abolished. But we will also stand up for the bold action that will create a poverty-free Britain and remove an insensitivity at the heart of power that is not only incompetent and insensitive, but genuinely immoral.