Niall Cooper, Church Action on Poverty, Food Foundation, the Independent Food Aid Network, Nourish Scotland, Oxfam GB and Sustain: the alliance for food and farming – Written evidence (FPO0031)
1. This submission responds to the first question in the call for evidence: What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges persisted over a number of years?
2. End Hunger UK brings together a diverse range of charities, faith groups, frontline organizations, academics and individuals working to tackle food poverty. Our vision is of a UK in which everyone can afford to buy good food, and no one has to go to bed hungry. This is the basis of a truly compassionate society. If civil society, business and government pull together we can realise this vision, and end UK poverty, destitution and hunger. This would mean:
3. The UK Government committed in the Sustainable Development Goals[i] to end hunger by 2030, including within the UK. In order that this goal can be met, we call on the Government to commit to developing a cross-departmental plan to halve household food insecurity by 2025, by addressing the underlying causes. Our recommendation to this committee is that Government makes this commitment and acts in accordance with that.
4. In this submission we suggest six underlying causes of UK household food insecurity:
5. Charitable emergency food provision has proliferated in the UK since 2000 and has expanded particularly quickly since 2010.[ii] The formalisation and national coordination of food aid are unprecedented in the UK. This raises urgent questions about the causes of household food insecurity and appropriate responses, so we welcome the committee’s focus on the issue.
6. It is clear from our work that when a person goes hungry, the root cause is not a lack of food but a lack of money. Food insecurity is principally caused by the inadequacy of incomes across working and non-working households alike, and has been exacerbated further in the past decade by the removal of many lifelines and safety mechanisms, which once provided vital contingency support.
7. Incomes have fallen in real terms for people in work and for people out of work. Successive social security reforms have left millions of families worse off, and those who were nearest the financial cliff-edge have been swept over it. Welfare reforms and low or stagnant wage growth have squeezed low-income budgets, trapping people in poverty and debt. From 2004 to 2013, the real disposable income of the poorest fifth of households fell by £20 a week.[iii] This trend has continued, without being adequately recognised or addressed.
8. We may be seeing low unemployment in the UK, but we also see a large increase in in-work poverty. Six in every ten people in poverty in the UK is in a working household[iv], demonstrating that work is not yet a route out of poverty. Income from work has become unpredictable and insufficient for many, prompting significant and long-lasting concerns. Many employment practices can lead to poverty, including:
9. Zero hours contracts: In 2015 the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty reported that the number of zero-hours contracts had more than trebled since 2010 to 1.4 million. More recent figures suggest a possible plateau, but there are now more than 1.8 million such contracts in the UK.[v] These trap people in uncertainty and poverty. A nursery worker in north east England told Church Action on Poverty, after using a food bank: “It is not giving people the stability to be able to contribute to the economy, because you cannot say ‘I am going to buy this, or do this’…. I have not had a permanent job in seven years, just zero-hours contracts. I am in in-work poverty, definitely. What I would like to see is a law that if you have been somewhere for six months, then they have to offer you contracted hours or get rid of you. People should be valued and they should be forced to offer you contracted hours.”
10. Flexible working: Parents and carers who care for more than 20 hours a week are significantly more likely than other people to be in poverty. They deserve better. Parents and carers are less likely to be in work and are likely to have additional expenses, such as childcare costs, which have been rising. Most jobs do not offer the necessary flexibility – for example to drop off and pick up children from childcare or school - or are structured in ways that require carers to work fewer hours than they would like. This pushes people into poverty, jeopardising their ability to afford basics. Greater availability of affordable childcare and of secure, flexible jobs is vital in ensuring parents and carers who want to work, can do so.
Rising prices and the Poverty Premium
11. Falling incomes coupled with rising prices have made food increasingly expensive in real terms for low-income households. In 2018, food was 20 percent less affordable for those in the lowest income decile than in 2003.[vi] Research for Joseph Rowntree Foundation this year found that while CPI inflation for the year to April 2019 was 2.1%, costs that stretch minimum household budgets increased more steeply (domestic fuel by 10.4%, bus travel by 8.9%, council tax by 4.7% and childcare by 3% to 4%). The net result was for the minimum cost of living to rise faster than the headline inflation rate. [vii]
12. People on low incomes pay more for many essential products and services. This is the Poverty Premium - the extra cost of being poor, and a driver of poverty. The amount households spend on everyday essentials (food, rent and housing costs, utilities, transport, telecommunications, insurance, debt repayments and savings) varies considerably between income groups. Households with average disposable annual incomes of £10,088 or less spend around 55% of their expenditure on essentials.[viii] For people already struggling, paying over the odds for other essentials can be the difference between being able to afford good food on a regular basis or not. The Poverty Premium has knock-on effects on people who are already struggling. It means having less money for basics, having to go without to avoid premiums, more need for state support and increased reliance on crisis services such as food banks.
13. The Poverty Premium costs the average low-income household £490 a year, but for more than one in ten of these households it costs at least £780.[ix] It affects people on benefits and those on low incomes struggling to make ends meet. This can seriously adversely affect some people in poverty who have physical and mental health issues.
“I am a single mum and a teacher. My son died last year. He is buried in our local cemetery, but we couldn’t afford a headstone for him. We ended up getting a loan and now the collectors won’t leave us alone, banging on the door all hours and telling us if we don’t pay up it will just cost more and more. This loan is like being punished for my loss when all I needed was a place to go to remember him.” Paulette, Croydon
14. Data from the Trussell Trust shows that people are increasingly being referred to food banks because their income is not covering their essential costs.[x] The cost of living has been rising, but earnings and social security have not kept pace. To take one example, child benefit has lost 23 per cent of its value in just 10 years (2010-2020) because it has not increased in line with inflation. Furthermore, changes to social security, such as the benefit cap and the two-child limit, have broken the fundamental link between what families are assessed to need and the financial support they get.
15. The four-year benefit freeze began in 2016. Before then, benefits had often been increased at a below-inflation rate. The End Child Poverty Coalition found that a lone-parent family with two children, on benefits, would be almost £2,800 a year worse off by 2020 than in 2010 due to the benefit freeze.[xi] The increasing cost of essentials without a corresponding increase in support is putting real pressure on households. People who may have been just about managing a few years ago can no longer afford essentials, so are going without, with severe consequences. In 9 out of 10 areas Local Housing Allowance rates don’t cover the rents they were designed to, causing people to have to cut back on food and other essentials and/or go into debt.
16. Changes to tax credits, the freeze on working-age benefits, the extent of in-work conditionality, the two-child cap on many benefits, and severe flaws in Universal Credit have cumulatively overwhelmed low-income households at a time of rising living costs. Analysis in 2017 by the Child Poverty Action Group on the impact of child tax credits and Universal Credit found that families would lose an average of £960 a year by 2020. For lone-parent families, the figure was £2,380 and for families with three children it was £2,540).[xii]
17. Donald Hirsch, writing for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has commented that: “As the freeze in working-age benefits continues, increases in costs have not been matched by income rises for the poorest households. For working-age singles, benefits now provide less than 32% of what they require for a minimum acceptable living standard, down from 42% in 2008. For a couple with two children it is 56% in 2019 compared to 62% in 2008, and for a lone parent with two children, it is 58%, down from 68%. Thus, out-of-work families with children are trying to keep afloat on just over half of what they need.”[xiii]
18. This echoes earlier research by the IFS, which found in 2015 that low-income households had lost a higher percentage of their income than any other income group, as a result of tax and social security changes between 2010 and 2015.[xiv]
19. The two-child limit in particular denies families the support they need in tough times, by restricting support to two children in a household. The Church of England and CPAG surveyed 430 families affected. Of those, 95 per cent said the policy had reduced their ability to pay for basic living costs. 88 per cent said it had affected their ability to pay for food and clothing.[xv] The policy will push 300,000 children into poverty by 2023, and a million into deeper poverty.
20. The two-child limit mainly affects working families. One stated aim of the benefit cap (an arbitrary limit on the amount of support a family can receive, regardless of their need) is to incentivise people to move into work. But only a small proportion of people affected by the cap are expected to be actively trying to get a job. The vast majority are not expected to work, because of disability or ill-health or because they have very young children. The benefit cap leaves families very vulnerable to rent arrears, debt and worse.
Ability to access benefits
21. Our benefits system was designed to unlock the constraints of poverty and hardship, but its design and delivery can sometimes do the opposite. Benefit delays, losses of entitlements, and a lack of available support can leave people struggling to put food on the table.
22. People who suddenly find themselves out of work or unable to work must now wait longer for benefit payments. In 2014, the ‘waiting period’ before which anyone can claim was extended from three to seven days. This inbuilt delay led to difficulties under the legacy benefits, but when applied to Universal Credit it has prolonged even further the waiting period facing claimants. At a time when people most need rapid and efficient support, they are left in limbo.
23. Universal Credit implementation in particular has exacerbated income shortfalls. Some initial problems have been partially addressed, but the long wait for initial payments still means many people are pushed into debt from day one. They can either endure the wait and experience severe hardship now, or take an advance loan leading to prolonged hardship down the line. Administrative errors, incorrect payments, difficulty accessing computers, unexpected delays and the long wait all cause more poverty.
24. Where Universal Credit has been introduced, food bank demand increased four times as steeply as elsewhere.[xvi] One food bank worker said: “Every single client who has been put on UC stated they are now in more debt than they were before… Most are in debt to family or friends and know that even when they do get paid, their payment won’t be enough to repay their debt.”
25. One of the biggest design problems with Universal Credit is the fact that everyone has to wait at least five weeks for a full payment – and some are left waiting longer. This is leaving many people without enough money to cover the basics, forcing them to food banks. Ending the five week wait should be the Government’s first priority to help create a future without food banks.
26. At the same time, conditionality and sanctioning have caused considerable hardship. For many people on low incomes, a sanction is the final blow that tips them into a spiral of crisis. At a food bank in Sheffield, one man told us: “I’ve no idea when I will get any money again. I’ve been sleeping in the park at times and I’m just to-ing and fro-ing now, sofa-surfing. For me not to need this place, I would have needed them not to have sanctioned me.” A food bank volunteer near Sunderland told us: “Again and again, it’s sanctions that have put people into debt and often debt leads them to unscrupulous loans where they never stand a chance of getting out of it.”[xvii] And yet, research has shown that sanctioning does not enhance people’s motivation to seek or enter paid work. Instead, people were pushed into destitution, survival crime and ill health; sanctions routinely triggered profoundly negative personal, financial and health outcomes; and the mandatory training and support was often too generic, poor quality and largely ineffective.[xviii]
Lack of financial support in times of crisis
27. It is a hallmark of a compassionate society that it supports its people in times of crisis. For many years, the UK had robust systems to alleviate or avert hardship, and prevent people from being swept into debt or destitution. These systems have been eroded to a dangerous extent.
28. Since 2013 crisis welfare support has disintegrated. In 2013, the Government closed the Social Fund and instructed top-tier English local authorities to set up Local Welfare Assistance Schemes (LWAS). These were to provide localised support for individuals facing crisis, such as through a personal tragedy or disaster, or whose circumstances suddenly changed, such as after the breakdown of a relationship or the possible loss of a home. The Government initially funded these schemes, then in 2015 it stopped doing so. Almost all councils have since scaled down their schemes, and more than 25 councils have closed them completely,[xix] leaving people in crisis with no lifeline to reach for. Many schemes, such as in Plymouth and Poole, now signpost people to food banks or elsewhere. This is inadequate. A food bank voucher is not the answer to a broken boiler or cooker.
29. In 2010/11, the Social Fund provided £330 million of support. After the change to localised schemes, the Government provided councils with £178 million in 2013/14. In 2017/18, English councils’ combined LWAS budgets totalled an estimated £46.6 million, a reduction of 73% in five years.[xx] Lifelines are threadbare or missing and the impact is striking. Exeter City Council, for example, was able to help 2,399 people in 2013/14 but only 467 in 2017/18. Bristol has cut £1 million from its local welfare budget and now refuses more applications.[xxi] LWAS represents a very small proportion of the public budget but is a vital resource that is proven to work. A study for North Yorkshire County Council described its fund as “the only viable, short term and speedy response” to people’s emergencies and said: “Without this somewhat hidden emergency fund it is difficult to know how many of the people could have retained their home or their family, or allow the home to be heated or hard won food to be cooked.”[xxii]
Access to healthy and nutritious food
30. Addressing food insecurity requires focus on the quality of food as well as the quantity. In the UK, unhealthy calories are three times less expensive than healthier ones.[xxiii] People on a low income eat, on average, half a portion less vegetables per day than those on a higher income,[xxiv] and hot food takeaways are more densely concentrated in areas of deprivation.[xxv] It is therefore no surprise that being food insecure can increase dependence on inexpensive but unhealthy foods, with knock-on health-related consequences.[xxvi]
31. The Government’s Healthy Start scheme supports young and low-income pregnant women, and children under the age of four. It provides free vitamins for pregnant or breastfeeding women, and vouchers for milk, fruit or vegetables for young children. In 2006, it was forecast that the scheme would cost £140 million a year, but in 2015/16 only around £60 million was spent.[xxvii] The number of people eligible for vouchers has reduced by 30% since 2011, with less than half of children in poverty meeting the criteria, and many others having difficulty registering[xxviii]. The value of vouchers has also been restricted at £3.10 for the past decade. Improving the scheme requires expanding eligibility criteria, starting with those on Universal Credit, increasing the voucher value, and introducing a programme to ensure all those who are eligible benefit.[xxix] Scotland has recently made steps towards these improvements with the introduction of its revised scheme, called Best Start.
32. Free school meals (FSM) are vital in protecting children from low-income families who may be food insecure, however eligibility criteria beyond age 7 excludes many children in poverty. The recent Children’s Future Food Inquiry found that 23% of children who were ineligible for FSM had nonetheless gone without lunch because they couldn’t afford it.[xxx] Children who have No Recourse to Public Funds are often some of the poorest in the country yet cannot claim FSM. We also know the daily allowance of £2.30 is frequently insufficient. The existing system also neglects children’s health outside term time, meaning holiday hunger affects around 3 million children. Evidence dating back more than a century[xxxi] shows that children gain nutritionally and academically when food security is safeguarded during the holidays. The Young People’s #Right2Food charter, which came out of the inquiry, recommends policy actions including increasing the eligibility criteria of FSM and expanding holiday provision.[xxxii]
33. Food insecurity in the UK is caused by inadequacy of incomes across working and non-working households. A combination of static wages and rising prices in the past decade have squeezed household incomes, with those in the lowest income groups hit hardest. Simultaneously, support systems that once cushioned the threat of poverty have been eroded, and reforms to the social security system have made it harder for people to access income they need. The cumulative impact of these decisions is that household food insecurity has been allowed to rise.
34. It can come as no surprise, therefore, that people who were in poverty or close to it have suffered severely, and that food aid has proliferated rapidly. Nobody is happy seeing their fellow citizens going hungry. The remarkable charitable work across the country reflects the public’s compassion and resolve. Charity is no substitute for justice, however, and the public’s compassion must be reflected in national decision making.
35. What is urgently needed is a broad and preferably cross-party commitment to action, based on a refusal to accept the continued existence of hunger in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. The Sustainable Development Goal of ending UK hunger by 2030 must be given significantly higher prominence in public policy making. To realise this goal, we propose an intermediate target of halving the numbers of people in household food insecurity by 2025, combined with a cross-departmental action plan to address the underlying causes of household food insecurity outlined in this submission. Only with such a commitment and resolve will we have a realistic chance of ending household food insecurity in the UK.
Author: Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty and Chair of End Hunger UK
11 September 2019
[i] Sustainable Development Goal 2: By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.
[iii] Fabian Commission: Hungry For Change (2015): http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Hungry-for-Change-web-27.10.pdf
[iv] In-work poverty in the UK, Cardiff University, 2017
[vi] Food statistics pocket book (Defra, 2017) www.gov.uk/government/publications/food-statistics-pocketbook-2017/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-2017-prices-and-expenditure
[x] https://www.trusselltrust.org/2018/04/24/benefit-levels-must-keep-pace-rising-cost-essentials-record-increase-foodbank-figures-revealed/ and https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/
[xiv] Browne, J and Elming, W. The Effect of the Coalition’s Tax and Benefit Changes on Household Incomes and Work Incentives, Institute for Fiscal Studies (2015) www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN159.pdf
[xv] All Kids Count (2019) https://cpag.e-activist.com/page/43566/action/1
[xxiii] Jones, N. R., Tong, T. Y. and Monsivais, P. (2018) ‘Meeting UK dietary recommendations is associated with higher estimated consumer food costs: an analysis using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey and consumer expenditure data, 2008-2012.’, Public health nutrition. England, 21(5), pp. 948–956. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017003275.
[xxiv] Maguire, E. R. and Monsivais, P. (2015) ‘Socio-economic dietary inequalities in UK adults: an updated picture of key food groups and nutrients from national surveillance data’, The British Journal of Nutrition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 113(1), pp. 181–189. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514002621
[xxvi] http://www.scirp.org/(S(vtj3fa45qm1ean45vvffcz55))/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=2276884 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24021456 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29108687
[xxix] The Food Foundation (2019a) Children’s Future Food Inquiry. Available at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Childrens-Future-Food-Inquiry-report.pdf