It has been a difficult year for families across the country. Despite the best efforts of the government, the pandemic has thrown many families newly into sudden financial hardship and tipped many of those already suffering into despair.
Nowhere has the hardship of this difficult year been clearer than in the levels of need for emergency food parcels – as new data from the Trussell Trust shows, more than 1.2 million emergency food parcels were given to people struggling to afford essentials by food banks in their network between April and September 2020. This represents the busiest ever half-year period for food banks in the Trussell Trust network, and may be just the tip of the iceberg, as many people will have been helped by other community groups during the crisis.
It is now impossible to dismiss needing a food bank as a relatively marginal experience, as may have happened in the past. The campaign led by Marcus Rashford has energised the whole debate and brought the issues of food banks and poverty into the political centre stage. As a Conservative MP, I welcome this desperately needed national conversation.
But words will only get us so far when people are suffering serious financial hardship every day. It was thus very welcome this last weekend to see the Government take clear action. In announcing a Covid Winter Grant Scheme, which provides a major and much needed £170 million funding boost for councils in England to provide local welfare, the government has taken a clear step towards the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring ‘no child goes hungry this Christmas’. What’s more this is just the start – the Department for Work and Pensions have said this is part of a long-term plan to tackle poor health, hunger and education in the UK.
But while this new package will undoubtedly help, we cannot rest on our laurels when financial hardship remains so high. I know first hand from my own constituency of Waveney that further action is needed. This local support must be complemented by a UK-wide social security system that is strong enough to ensure those most at risk of suffering during this crisis have enough money for essentials. This needs to include extending the £20 uplift to Universal Credit beyond next spring and extending to legacy benefits.
It also means taking action on the high levels of government debt being repaid by those on the lowest incomes. It cannot be right that almost three quarters of people arriving at food banks on Universal Credit are repaying advance payments. We need to see a long-term plan to tackle the five week wait and create a fairer approach for repaying debts – but in the meantime we need to see a temporary suspension to these benefit debt deductions which are pushing too many into hardship.