The more the Conservative leadership election heats up, the more the remaining candidates have resorted to claiming the moral high ground. Raising debt is “immoral”, Rishi Sunak is saying. “High taxes are ‘immoral’,” retorts Liz Truss. But there is nothing moral about indifferent leaders condemning millions of vulnerable and blameless children and pensioners to a winter of dire poverty.
The reality is grim and undeniable: a financial timebomb will explode for families in October as a second round of fuel price rises in six months sends shockwaves through every household and pushes millions over the edge. A few months ago, Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung at York University estimated that April’s 54% increase in fuel prices would trap 27 million people in 10m households in fuel poverty. Now, 35 million people in 13m households – an unprecedented 49.6% of the population of the United Kingdom – are under threat of fuel poverty in October.
With time running out to update the universal credit payments system before the October rise, Boris Johnson, Sunak and Truss must this week agree an emergency budget. If they do not, parliament should be recalled to force them to do so. For if nothing is done before yet another fuel price rise hits in January, the fuel poor could rise to 39 million people in 15m households – 54% of the country, with big regional variations ranging from 48% in London to 60.8% in Wales and 62% in Scotland. In all, four in every five of our country’s lone parents, pensioners and large families will be in fuel poverty. The scale is such that the typical fuel bill alone will eat up one-third of the statutory pension. At the start of the pandemic, 40% of children could not afford what Loughborough University has calculated is needed for a decent standard of living. At a stroke in October, more than 50% of children – 7 million – will, I estimate, be in families that have to forgo material necessities.For the poorest 10% of families, food and fuel could take up the majority of weekly outlays after housing costs.
The reason the poverty problem is worsening so fast is the unravelling of the June budget, where ministers not only underestimated the coming year’s average energy price rise by around £500, but announced flat rate payments that, by taking no account of family size or special needs, did least to compensate larger families and the disabled. So, while the £650 payment to universal credit claimants amounted to an extra £13 a week for a single person, it was worth only £2.60 a week each for a couple with three children – not enough to cover soaring fuel bills, far less the rising costs of essentials needed by a growing family. For generations, the welfare state has been there to take the shame out of need. Now, with the safety net full of holes, food banks – not the Department for Work and Pensions – have become the lifeline and charity, not universal credit, the last line of defence. In my home county of Fife, I’m seeing scenes reminiscent of what I have read of the hungry 1930s – children going to school ill-clad and undernourished, pensioners choosing whether to feed their electricity meters or themselves, nurses having to leave their patients’ beds after long, back-breaking overnight shifts to queue up at their food bank. Local charities are stocking up on blankets, duvets, sleeping bags and hot water bottles as they prepare for the worst winter in living memory. Churches tell me they will be offering their warm halls as heating hubs and doctors are asking how they can use social prescribing to help malnourished children and keep pensioners from freezing. Fife runs a warehouse that is a food bank, bedding bank, clothes bank, toiletries bank, hygiene bank, baby bank and fuel bank all rolled into one.With the help of Amazon’s nearby depot and 12 local companies, 30,000 families have received 200,000 goods, worth £4m so far this year – from tinned food and school clothes to microwaves and beds.
But we know charity cannot do enough. Poverty is now hitting so hard that it is far beyond the capacity of even the broadest and most generous coalition of local philanthropy and voluntary organisations to alleviate . And in communities like mine, where those with only a little have until now generously given to people who have nothing, raising funds for charity is becoming more difficult.
The situation is so perilous that a group of more than 60 churches, faith groups, NGOs, metro mayors, and councillors has today come together to call on the government to make good the growing gap between need and current provision. We know the short-term consequences of rising poverty – more stunting, more family breakups, more homelessness and more children in care, all of which, because none of its targets include the reduction of poverty, make “levelling up” a meaningless soundbite rather than a strategy.
But the psychological scars of poverty run very deep. I meet mothers who feel ashamed they cannot do the least, let alone the best, for their children. One has been forced to keep her child off school because she could not 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 bare. There are kids who don’t have the clothes or pocket money to go out with friends, who cannot participate in school sports because they don’t have the kit and who cannot attend after-school clubs if there is a small charge to cover the costs.
We all have experience of missing out – unable to go on a trip or to a school event – and that may have been good for us in the long run, but when being left out is not a one-off or occasional event but an everyday experience, it is not character-building but confidence-destroying, carrying with it embarrassment, loneliness and often humiliation. The wounds caused by exclusion are there forever – a feeling that you can never identify with neighbours on equal terms, a reticence about involving yourself in larger groups or community activities and a suspicion of situations that leave you insecure. Yet Britain is creating a left-out generation of young boys and girls, without the cash to participate in what their friends are doing and whose childhoods are starting to resemble shameful scenes from a Dickens 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 target – and changed the benefits system – to abolish child poverty in a generation. This winter, I will devote my energies to fighting to renew the child poverty reduction target this government shamefully abolished. But also we will argue for the bold measures that will deliver a poverty-free Britain and redress a callousness at the centre of power that is not only incompetent and insensitive but truly immoral.