Opinion

Britain’s charities have done all they can to help desperate people. What will Liz Truss do?

Not only are the country’s poor people now stretched beyond their limits, but so too are the country’s charities. Just as many breadwinners are finding it difficult to pay for bread, so there are now food banks fearful of running out of food.

Preparing for a winter wave of unprecedented need, our voluntary sector is having to be innovative – and fast. Faced with rising deprivation in the local community where I was brought up, the family centre I volunteer at has pioneered the bank of banks: a food bank, bedding bank, clothes bank, toiletries bank, home furnishings bank, hygiene bank and baby bank, all rolled into one. In just eight months, it has grown from being one of the county’s smallest charities, with a turnover of £500,000 a year and 30 staff, to among the largest, with a £5m turnover in goods. Benefiting from a unique agreement to receive surplus items donated by the local Amazon warehouse and backed up by the Co-op, Scotmid and 12 local firms, it is now working with 500 nearby organisations – charities, food banks, schools, health centres and social work teams – which have been able to provide 35,000 Fife families with 230,000 goods, from tinned food, nappies, toilet rolls and children’s clothes to duvets, kettles, microwaves and beds.

Now stocks are being built up to prepare for the biggest demand surge of all – for blankets, sleeping bags and hot-water bottles as families give up on heating their homes and concentrate on heating themselves. But this central warehouse does more than hand out goods. In addition to delivering paint, wallpaper, carpets and home furnishings to families who can no longer afford basic household maintenance, a local team of volunteer painters, plumbers and electricians is now being assembled to help refurbish and improve homes. Plans are now under discussion for a shop that will lend electrical and mechanical tools free of charge for do-it-yourself repairs, while help is being extended from house to gardens and the planting of allotments.

With its breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and mothers and toddlers groups now complemented by a pioneering dads’ club, grannies’ club, and its own team of mental health counsellors, the family centre is like so many charities I know – endlessly creative in helping families to do more with less, and I am constantly impressed by the selfless support offered by local business, from the struggling one-man electrical outfit to the biggest superstore.

Yet the caregivers and social workers at the family centre know that no matter how inventive and extensive these already herculean efforts become, they will not be enough to prevent destitution this winter. At best, all this charitable assistance that has been brought together locally can bring an additional £10m to Fife’s poorest families this year. But those extra millions cannot compensate for the £76m that the very same families are short of compared with last year.

This is because 35,000 Fife families lost in excess of £30m after the £20 a week cut in universal credit last October, and are another £46m short because benefits have risen only 3% while inflation is pushing up their weekly bills by more than 10%. And this shortfall from one year to the next is only a fraction of the £200m that Fife council estimates has been lost to 35,000 families through benefit cuts since 2010.

For 75 years, the British welfare state, in sharp contrast to the US, has stepped up and in where and when the need is greatest. But now, as a result of austerity economics, it is not the social security system but food banks that have become the lifeline for families in need. And it is no longer universal credit but charity that is their last resort.

That is why Keir Starmer has demanded an energy price freeze and extra discounts for low-income families, including reduced charges on prepayment meters.

What we already know of the multibillion energy package from our new prime minister, Liz Truss, suggests it is unlikely to do enough to prevent dire poverty this winter unless there is additional provision for low-income families. It will not undo the failure to uprate universal credit in line with prices, nor address the limitations of Rishi Sunak’s summer flat-rate payment of £650, which worked out at only £2.60 a week each for a couple with three children, leaving little after paying fuel bills for food, mobiles, TV licence, travel, children’s clothes, toiletries and cleaning materials. Indeed, our threadbare official safety net has been so violently ripped apart over the past 12 years that research from Loughborough University shows that family benefits this year will cover only half of essential living costs. Small wonder that my local food bank has already run up a deficit of £28,000 this year, as appeals for help have risen 50%.

With these last lines of defence now breached and charities about to hit a breaking point, only the government has the resources to end the unspeakable suffering caused by unpayable bills and unmet needs. On Tuesday Truss travelled the length of the country to Balmoral and back. There is despair in the communities she flew over but is unlikely to ever visit. There is fear in the eyes of people she and her ministers will never meet. For across our country there is suffering they do not see, hardship they do not hear and pain – and yet they pass on by.

From Covid to conflicts, we have always relied on some of the lowest-income earners – caregivers, nurses, ambulance workers, our armed services – to show up in an emergency. Now it’s time for the government to show up for them. Only action to resurrect our national mission to end child and pensioner poverty can reunite an ever more divided and despairing country. As is often the case, doing the right thing is a matter of political will, and no one doubts Truss’s determination. In the worst of times, she now needs to deliver for the best and most urgent of causes. And if, instead, she is resolved to be irresolute in the fight against mounting poverty, decent people will devote their energies to assembling an unprecedented national coalition of churches and faith groups, charities and anti-poverty campaigners, local councillors and mayors to change her mind. Change is coming. This is a moment for it to replace desolation with hope.

  • Gordon Brown was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010

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