Tackling destitution and child poverty – what can the Liberal Democrats offer?

The first sentence of the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution, oft quoted, sets out the sort of society we want to see:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

No-one – that’s a high bar, and it’s not qualified by national boundaries. Tackling poverty is a central part of what we are about.

In December, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its third report into destitution in the UK. Updated to include the impact of the pandemic on already high vulnerable people, it makes horrifying reading. Why, in one of the richest countries in the world, do too many people not have the ability to access the basics of food, shelter and clothing? Why do we tolerate it? And what can we do to change things?

Let’s look at some of those conclusions from the JRF Report, which should make every single government minister feel utterly ashamed.

With more than a half (54%) of the whole destitute population being sick or disabled according to our quantitative survey, COVID-19-associated delays in the processing of DLA renewals and PIP claims and appeals had a detrimental effect on the mental health and material wellbeing of people in receipt of or applying for these benefits. The loss of face-to-face contact with health and other services often hit participants with mental health or drug or alcohol problems especially hard, as they felt much less benefit from online or telephone-based support. The difficulties of contacting local authorities on unaffordable telephone lines was a particular problem during lockdown when council offices were closed.

A household’s ability to manage relationships well through the COVID-19 crisis depended very much on space they had at their disposal. Overcrowding and lack of access to outside space affected many of those we spoke to, and parents who were interviewed reported that the effect of lockdown on their children was overwhelmingly negative. Some participants lived in inadequate or shared forms of accommodation, which made social distancing requirements challenging to fulfil. Several interviewees had paid rent arrears with credit cards to stave off eviction, and others were awaiting eviction once the protection offered by the eviction moratorium had ended.

Some things helped, though. The extra £20 per week on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit, along with increased working hours for some key workers, helped take some people out of destitution. Only into poverty, though, which is just as unacceptable. The removal of conditionality elements for Universal Credit – the suspension of the requirement to prove that you are spending all your time looking for work – had a beneficial impact on stress levels and mental health too. The ban on evictions helped remove the threat of homelessness, although they didn’t stop arrears accumulatingBut these are the things that the Government is stopping.

JRF calls for a number of things to help alleviate people’s struggles, including a reinstatement of the extra money and targeted grants to help clear rent arrears. These are things that we are or should support.

We have thousands of words of policy on housing, social security, employment that would help strengthen and secure people’s rights and ensure that they can provide for the basics. We are currently developing our policy on Universal Basic Income and we need to make sure that it is ambitious enough to fulfil our mission to alleviate poverty. The opportunity to win that argument exists now that so many people have found themselves struggling without government support. We need to wear our hearts on our sleeve, though, and show that this is a key element of who we are, that we care and we have the ideas to make things easier for those who are really struggling.

We need to make sure that we heed the warnings of the Children’s Commissioner for England on New Year’s Day. She said that a generation of children in poverty were at risk of having their whole lives blighted.

“The risk is that in five years time, 10 years time, we look back and we see a group of children – a generation of children – who just drop from view and will live their lifetime without reaching the potential they could have if we hadn’t had COVID,” Ms Longfield said.

“If we don’t really get behind those children, if we don’t really stand alongside them and give them the boost and just enable them to get on in life, there will be a group of children who will remain left behind, throughout their whole lives.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • As a former Chair of a Food Bank and Cabinet Member for Social Care in Scotland, I’m very sorry to have to amend Caron’s article…. to read,

    “which should make every single government minister (including Liberal Democrats between 2010-15) feel utterly ashamed”.

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Jan '21 - 5:34pm

    Thank you for an important article!
    Might we highlight and adopt the recommendations of the Alston Report?

    These include:
    * the introduction of a clear and comprehensive poverty measure
    * systematic and frequent measurement of food poverty
    * reports on consequences of tax and spend decisions on the vulnerable
    * calculate and implement what is needed to restore the socio-economic “safety net”
    * reverse the two child limit etc.
    * restore local government funding for social protection and poverty management
    * re-evaluate privatisations for functional effectiveness rather than profit
    * review infrastructure functions and address the vital ones, such as public transport, as essential services
    * review and remedy the systematic disadvantages of current legislation on children, women, the disabled, the poor and ethnic minorities

    “A nation can only prosper when its young flourish”

  • Good positive post by Steve Trevethan which I hope my friend Katharine Pindar will pick up when she prepares her motion for Conference.

  • Peter Davies 3rd Jan '21 - 7:30pm

    We have voted in principle to introduce a universal basic income. There is a lot of fleshing out to do and we need to come out with a more specific policy that shows how it can achieve the target in our constitution that none shall be enslaved by poverty.

    Any UBI tackles four of the major causes of destitution.
    People would never be left with no income while their entitlement is recalculated when their circumstances change.
    There would be no conditionality on an arbitrary test of availability.
    Nobody would be left with a very low income by fitting none of the standard patterns of unemployment/self employment/employment
    No adult would be left destitute because somebody else is assumed to be looking after them.

    In addition almost all UBI systems greatly benefit single earner couples who make up a large proportion of those in in-work poverty.

    Child poverty is more problematic. It is possible for a child to be neglected even if an adult has the money to look after them. Removing the two child limit would be a useful start though. Benefits in kind are probably the most effective way of tackling child deprivation. That’s education, school meals play facilities and other facilities free to children.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Jan '21 - 7:35pm

    I think fuel poverty is another. There are still many Social Housing properties that lack affordable heating. How many homes never reached the “Decent Home’s” status?
    The constant pressure, that’s being put on those who have lost their income in these frequent lock downs. Ministers can’t inflict job loss on those who were working, then place the blame on them.
    Johnson wouldn’t listen, as it was suggested, that more restrictions were placed on visitors coming through airports, and those returning from foreign travel. A short isolation could have been a benefit.
    I would also suggest, in housing, what’s the recommendations on bedroom space for children.
    Still, the empty properties that are not used are a good idea.
    As the unrest progresses, Johnson, has created a problem of his own making. Mistrust, shutting down everything.
    I can’t see a way forward, there are questions on how the vaccines will or will not work, again, creating confusion.

  • David Evans 3rd Jan '21 - 11:21pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with David Raw on this. Poverty is something that too many Lib Dems (and sadly particularly those who who call themselves Progressives and Liberal) have ignored with a few kind words rather than real actions for far too long. Poverty, the first, the biggest, and the most fundamental of the three ‘evils’ we mention, too often comes a poor second or even third to conformity and an obsession with personal rights centred on not having to face conformity.

    The right to a square meal every day is something that is much, much more important to so many people – just ask members of the public what they think about Marcus Rashford and compare it to what they think about about the Lib Dems.

    Over the last few years, if you listen to many so called activists, we seem to obsess endlessly on those rights, but say little and do much less on poverty as it corrodes our entire political system.

    We should have faced up to this long ago. But right now is a good time to start to put that right.

  • neil sandison 3rd Jan '21 - 11:57pm

    Helen Dudden Agree with your comments and for those of us who were motivated by Cathy Come Home a fundamental right to a decent home is a precursor to curing the ills of poverty and social isolation drifting from private rented property to private rented property is no foundation to build a secure future ,never able to save enough and always on the breadline living a hand to mouth existence inhibits your ability to develop.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Jan '21 - 7:38am

    Neil Sandison. What can we do practically. Children need a dry, warm home. Anyone who watched Cathy Come Home will remember the total sadness of lost hope of Cathy. It wasn’t just a tv programme, it’s reality for many.
    At present, so much is simply ignored.

  • Peter Martin 4th Jan '21 - 11:05am

    A good start might be to read the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists written by Robert Tressell. Incidentally we had a Liberal Government at the time!

    ‘Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population”. It’s caused by Private Monopoly…….’


  • David Garlick 4th Jan '21 - 11:59am

    Given that the growth in international GDP is slowing and will continue to do so the normal routes out of the national debt will be challenging together with Brexit as an additional unknown.

    The current Government will not address poverty adequately and I doubt that a Labour Government would do much better.

    A strong and coherent policy from the Liberal Democrats would push other parties to go further than they otherwise would and it would also build a strong social wellbeing platform when viewed alongside the Carers Policy. Many Carers are in destitution or poverty and to challenge that from two angles of attack can only be good.
    Thanks for the article now lets see some action on Policy.

  • Rif Winfield 4th Jan '21 - 2:28pm

    It is ironic, in view of her death on Christmas Eve, to mention that much of “Cathy Come Home” was filmed in the terrible slum conditions in the terrace in which Ann Winfield (neé Spriggs) was borne and raised. It shows that, while such deprivation incapacitates many who are raised in such conditions, it is not always the case.

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Jan '21 - 4:43pm

    “If trickle-down economics worked, we would not have four food banks in Kensington and Chelsea” (E. Dent Coad)

    Poverty is an index of the purposes and practices of an economic theory.

    The purpose and consequence of Neo-Liberal economics is to transfer wealth to the very wealthy from the not very wealthy, especially the poor, as they are the weakest in a society.

    Would that our party were to expose the wealth embezzling nature of Neo-Liberal economics and attack it with skill and style!

  • Katharine Pindar 7th Jan '21 - 1:24am

    This article and the comments on it are really worthwhile. Sadly, I have only just caught up with them owing to late drafting advice received on a proposed motion for the next Conference on Beveridge-2 and the Social Contract. Drafting advice on Sunday, motion submission required on Wednesday morning, consequent major absorption on repeated consultations with emails flying!The authors of the motion, Michael Berwick-Gooding and myself, just managed to dispatch the motion from our respective constituency parties and ten individual members in time.

    I particularly appreciate Stever Trevethan’s listing on January 3rd of the suggestions of the Alston Report, published in April 2019 and not well enough followed up by our party. There is much that needs to be done, as Caron and posters all too plainly show.

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