Nearly 4 million adults in the UK have been forced to use food banks due to ”shocking” levels of deprivation, figures have revealed for the first time.
An exclusive poll commissioned by The Independent reveals one in 14 Britons has had to use a food bank, with similar numbers also forced to skip meals and borrow money as austerity measures leave them “penniless with nowhere to turn”.
The findings come as a major report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows more than 1.5 million people were destitute in the UK last year alone, a figure higher than the populations of Liverpool and Birmingham combined.
This includes 365,000 children, with experts warning that social security policy changes under the Tory government were leading to “destitution by design”. Destitution is defined as people lacking two “essential needs”, such as food or housing.
The polling on food poverty, from a representative sample of 1,050 UK adults carried out for The Independent by D-CYFOR, suggests that 7 per cent of the adult population – or 3.7 million people – have used a food bank to receive a meal.
A million people have decreased the portion size of their child’s meal due to financial constraints, the survey says.
The results come after it emerged in April that the number of emergency meals handed out at food banks had risen at a higher rate than ever, soaring by 13 per cent in a year, with more than 1.3 million three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis in the 12 months to March.
The JRF report, carried out by Heriot-Watt University, found that among the tens of thousands of people who were recorded as being destitute last year, food was the most commonly lacked item, with 62 per cent within the group reporting that they had gone without over the past month.
Nearly half (47 per cent) had lacked basic toiletries, with 46 per cent lacking suitable clothing and 42 per cent having to go without heating. One in five destitute people reported lacking lighting at home, and 16 per cent had recently slept rough.
Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “These figures are shocking. After eight years of Conservative austerity, we are seeing destitution reappearing on our streets.
“Benefit delays and sanctions are among key reasons why people are forced into destitution. The sanctions rate in universal credit is well over 10 times higher than for jobseeker’s allowance, yet the government is rapidly accelerating the roll out of universal credit with the risk that increasing numbers of people will be left with no alternative but to turn to food banks.”
Garry Lemon, director of policy and research at the Trussell Trust, said: “These figures are deeply concerning, especially when we know that not everyone facing hunger or skipping meals goes to a food bank.
“Last year our network alone provided 1.3 million supplies to people across the UK – this is just not right. If we’re to end hunger we need to go to the root of why people are struggling to stay above water, and ensure that adequate financial support is in place whenever its most needed.”
The JRF report highlighted that a reduction in benefit sanctions between 2015 and 2017 saw levels of destitution decline by around 25 per cent over this period, but warned of a “real risk” that this would unravel as universal credit is embedded across the country, prompting another spike in sanctions.
Benefit sanctions, which take the form of docking a portion of benefit payments for a period of time, can be imposed for breaching benefit conditions like not attending a work placement, or for being minutes late for a jobcentre appointment.
They have been widely criticised in recent years after it emerged claimants had been docked hundreds of pounds and pitched into financial crisis for often trivial breaches of benefit conditions, or for administrative errors beyond their control.
Recent government figures show that almost half (49 per cent) of all universal credit decisions resulted in a benefit sanction – up 12 percentage points from August 2017 to October 2017.
Campbell Robb, chief executive of JRF, 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.”
Mr Campbell said the reduction in benefit sanction rates had meant some headway has been made, but warned there was a “real risk” that once universal credit is embedded across the country, more people could again be at risk unless changes are made.
A DWP spokesperson 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 per cent per cent 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 £90bn a year on welfare to support those who need it most.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies