The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the return of Victorian poverty.
Destitution. Just think about that word. Over the past decade, we have moved on from talking about social exclusion, or inequality, or even just poverty. Now, such is the impoverishment of whole communities, buckling after a decade of deep public spending cuts, that we are using the language of the Victorian era.
More than 1.5m people experienced ‘destitution’ in the UK at some point during 2017. Not my words, but the description given by a team of academics in a major new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Destitution in the UK 2018,’ which provides a benchmark for what the term means in the modern era.
They conclude that destitution refers to experiencing at least two of six indicators in a ghastly basket of measures of extreme poverty. Has someone slept rough for more than a day? Or had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days? Have they been unable to heat their home for five or more days? Or light it? Do they have appropriate clothing and footwear? Basic toiletries? And is their income so low they might lack these basic essentials in the immediate future?
The problem of destitution is clustered in many post-industrial urban centres. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool comes second after Manchester, with some of the poorer parts of London, the North East and West Midlands also included.
The legacy issues that remain from the 1980s – including ingrained, inter-generational poverty and high unemployment – are hard to resolve, when eight years of swingeing central government spending cuts have reduced the council’s budget by two-thirds, some £444m.
Nevertheless, Liverpool has made it a priority to support people and families who face dire personal circumstances. Our Citizens Support Scheme and other hardship funds provided crisis payments for more than 10,000 last year – and helped more than 3,000 people and families pay for home essentials.
We have also invested an extra £1mto prevent hardship and homelessness through discretionary housing payments. Last year we made 11,000 such payments, supporting residents who are suffering due to a shortfall in state benefits caused by government welfare reforms.
Our approach has been to deal with crisis situations, in order to stave off calamities. In many cases, we are one of the few councils in the country to provide this range of support, investing £23.2m last year in preventing our poorest citizens sliding into destitution.
This isn’t just because we are committed to social justice – or because I myself grew up in grinding poverty and know exactly how life-limiting it is. No: we have an additional motive for supporting the very poorest citizens in our city.
If we allow people to sink to the very depths of despair it costs more in the long run to pull them back up again into mainstream society, transferring the pressure onto other frontline services, particularly the NHS. Destitution is cruel and brutal – but it is also an inefficient way to run a society. Our approach sees social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand.
But the most galling aspect of the Rowntree report is how bad government policy is conspiring to make the situation worse:
‘People were pulled into destitution by a combination of factors: benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some groups – including young people – even lower levels of benefits than for others, and for some migrants, no eligibility at all.’
A large part of the rough sleeping problem we face in Liverpool involves failed asylum seekers who are designated as having no recourse to public funds. They are left to fall through the cracks – which is why I have instructed my officers to ignore this heartless government diktat.
Remember David Cameron’s boasts about the “big society,” and claims that “We’re all in this together?” The destitute are those failed by his empty rhetoric and the grinding effects of austerity.
Although we don’t have the resources we need to fix all the problems of destitution – mostly driven by factors outside of my control – when we can prevent someone shivering in a doorway, we will, regardless of the rules.
Similarly, we were the first city in the country to bring forward compulsory landlord registration in order to tackle tenant exploitation and drive up standards in the private rented sector.
All too often, serious-minded reports like this come along and cause consternation for those of us on the political left, but barely skim the surface when it comes to shifting government policy.
Let this damning report – exposing the reality of destitution in our country, caused by a decade of austerity – be the moment when even the stony-hearted in Whitehall say, “Enough is enough.”
Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.