We needed long-term solutions from this budget. Instead we got sticking plasters

The government hasn’t done enough to turn back the tide on the escalating hunger crisis across the UK

March 08, 2024
Many low-income people are having to turn to foodbanks for the essentials. ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy
Many low-income people are having to turn to foodbanks for the essentials. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

In what could be the last budget before the next general election, the chancellor asserted that it would be all about taking “long-term” decisions. However, what we got were long-term decisions to support people on middle and higher incomes—large scale, permanent tax cuts—but only short-term sticking plasters for those on the lowest incomes, the people who need support the most.

While Jeremy Hunt announced a welcome extension to the Household Support Fund and reductions to the burden of debt deductions facing households on the lowest incomes, these will only provide temporary relief. They are not substitutes for long-term solutions that address the continued issues of poverty, hunger and hardship in this country. The end of cost-of-living payments means that the living standards of people on the lowest incomes are actually set to fall even further this year, with less support from social security despite benefits rising in line with inflation. 

The extension of the Household Support Fund is only for six months. When it ends, councils and charities will be left scrambling to fill an even bigger gap. More people will end up in unaffordable debt with even weaker local services and crisis support to help. That will pile even more pressure on foodbanks, who are already at breaking point. What we need is urgent action to increase long-term support for people struggling to get by, rather than existing in a state of constant crisis management.

We know politicians face competing demands, but ensuring people can afford the essentials and providing solutions to poverty, hunger and debt should be top of the agenda for any government. We aren't seeing anywhere near enough action to address the scale of the problem. And the consequences of inaction will exacerbate every other challenge facing the UK. 

An economy does not thrive while the people who have the least are trapped in poverty and forced to turn to charities, rather than receiving support from the very systems that were designed to protect them from harm. Gaining good qualifications and securing work are made much harder when people can’t afford the essentials and the associated stress, fear and shame caused by profound harm to individuals’ mental and physical well-being. These impacts on people’s health then ramp up the pressure on the NHS and other public services.

When record numbers of people are being left with no option but to use a foodbank, it’s time to reassess the systems we expect to support us all. At the Trussell Trust, we know that the biggest driver of foodbank need is the failure of our social security system to protect people from going without the essentials. Recent research has indicated that approximately five in six low-income households receiving Universal Credit are going without at least one essential like food, a warm home or toiletries.

An economy does not thrive while people are trapped in poverty

That’s why the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation are calling on the government to introduce an Essentials Guarantee in Universal Credit. This would enshrine, in law, the principle that Universal Credit always, at a minimum, provides enough to cover the cost of the essentials such as food, utilities and vital household goods. This includes establishing an independent process to annually assess and recommend the level of the Essentials Guarantee to make sure support always matches the reality of our day-to-day lives. Once this is set, reductions such as debt repayments to the government or because a claimant has reached the benefit cap could not pull support below this level. 

Recent data shows that the majority of the public think that the basic rate of Universal Credit is too low and more than 150,000 people recently signed a petition calling for the Essentials Guarantee policy to be implemented. All the evidence suggests that tackling poverty and need for foodbanks is a widely popular ambition with the public—and that social security is a central part of the solution.

Every government has the responsibility to set out what our society should look like, and it must be one where no one goes without the essentials because they can’t afford them. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet people who need the most support are being left to struggle. The government should be using the time remaining before the election to step-up and fulfil its most basic duty: to bring forward genuine long-term solutions to hunger, poverty and debt, and protect the people that need their help the most.