Opinion

Labour is yet to give much hope it will reduce poverty. We need more from the new government

Sabine Goodwin writes about how the Labour party manifesto showed such caution that it gave us little hope it will end poverty – but there is still plenty of time for change

keir starmer labour leader

Keir Starmer has been handed the keys to number 10. So what now? Image: Flickr/ Keir Starmer

Over 14 years, our social security system has been reduced to tatters, the impact of low wages and insecure work ignored, and a worsening housing crisis overlooked. As a result, more and more people have fallen into poverty and destitution, there’s been a meteoric rise in food bank use, and wider food insecurity (the inability to afford food) has soared. At long last, yesterday’s extraordinary election means policy changes are possible. This moment shouldn’t feel bittersweet.

The Labour Party’s manifesto displayed a level of caution that hasn’t given much room for hope in terms of poverty reduction. References to ending reliance on emergency food parcels and reviewing universal credit, commitments on zero-hour contracts and increasing the minimum wage, actions on fuel poverty and the introduction of universal breakfast clubs are, of course, all positive.

Labour’s commitment to establish the 2010 Equality Act’s socio-economic duty could provide a framework to reduce poverty and enact the Right to Food. However, the new government’s pledges didn’t include a strategy and concrete actions to address poverty.

Surely, Labour’s first 100 days in power should make the most difference to people who have increasingly been cast aside by a decade and a half of Tory rule. All too often, disabled people have been left to bear the brunt of cruel Department for Work and Pensions policies. For swathes of the population, often living in desperate conditions, there is no more time to lose.

A volunteer sorts food donations at a food bank
A volunteer sorts donations at a food bank, but food parcels can’t fix poverty. Image: Mary Turner/IFAN/SUFRA

Malnutrition cases, mental health problems linked to financial precarity, and the number of children turning up to school hungry have been on the rise for years. Living in one part of the UK or another will affect your life chances. Attempting to grow the economy while leaving a fifth of the population impoverished surely doesn’t make moral or fiscal sense. 4.3 million children, and a future generation of adults, are living in poverty. These are people who haven’t been able to cast a vote. Their future depends on parents or carers being able to access adequate incomes whether they’re able to work or not.

Unless swift and decisive income-focused actions are taken, food banks and pantries will go on doing their utmost to fill the gap while inadvertently institutionalising charity instead of rights. The reality is that responding to poverty with food parcels has proved to be not only unsustainable but ineffective too. Meanwhile, the food surplus redistribution myth, neatly combining the food waste dilemma with the needs of the food insecure, will inevitably be perpetuated.

It’s overburdened food bank managers and volunteers, often at the point of burnout, who can see a way out of the paradox. Ask food bank managers what Sir Keir Starmer’s cabinet, backed by an overwhelming parliamentary majority, can do to make rapid headway in lifting people out of hardship and their answers will be clear.



With yet another impending winter of hardship around the corner, Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has today published a letter to the new prime minister signed by frontline member food banks: “Your new government now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse the tide of poverty that has swept the country. We urge you to take much-needed actions as swiftly as possible.”

Independent food bank teams are collectively calling for the adoption of an Essentials Guarantee as a first step towards providing a Living Income for all. It’s obvious that universal credit is not enough to live off. They’re also adamant, alongside a legion of other charities, that the two-child limit as well as the benefit cap must be removed. Included in their list is the punitive sanctions regime. The reasons for its abolition are incontrovertible.

It’s evident that ending the five-week wait for universal credit alongside removing benefit deductions would significantly reduce the need for emergency food support as well as prevent endless cycles of debt and despair. And forcing people “subject to immigration control” into poverty through no recourse to public funds status has no place in a just and fair society.

Right from the starting line, local authority crisis support in England must be made permanent allowing people to access cash payments via their local councils. The household support fund has less than three months on the clock. Food banks and other frontline charities fear another desperate winter ahead should this lifeline be removed from council coffers.

And IFAN’s membership knows only too well that investment in advice services together with deep-rooted systemic change is vital. The latest data from Policy in Practice puts the figure for unclaimed benefits at £23bn.

Further investigations and inquiries aren’t required to prove these measures are urgent. Overwhelming evidence has already been compiled, presented, and analysed. What’s needed is the will, alongside a fairer taxation system to cover costs.

Our social security system, like our NHS, should provide a safety net for us all. Fair wages must allow people to afford essentials. And what of the damage caused by doing too little? Leaving poverty to fester comes at enormous human cost, and, as a result, drains public finances. Growing an economy requires a level playing field and the promise of change must mean just that.

Sabine Goodwin is the director of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN).

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