UK charities have done all they can to help desperate people. What is Trus going to do? | Gordon Brown

NOTnot only are the country’s poor now being pushed beyond their limits, but so are the country’s charities. Just as many breadwinners are struggling to afford their bread, there are now food banks worried about running out of food.

Preparing for an unprecedented winter wave of need, our voluntary sector must be innovative – and fast. In the face of increasing deprivation in the local community where I grew up, the family center I volunteer at pioneered the bank of banks: a food bank, bedding bank, clothing bank, toiletries bank, furniture bank, hygiene bank, and a baby bank, all rolled into one. In just eight months it has grown from one of the smallest charities in the county, with a turnover of £500,000 a year and 30 staff, to one of the largest, with a turnover of business of £5 million in goods. Benefiting from a unique agreement to receive surplus items donated by Amazon’s local warehouse and supported by the Co-op, Scotmid and 12 local businesses, it now works with 500 organizations nearby – charities, food banks, schools, centers health and social work teams – who were able to supply 35,000 Fife families with 230,000 goods, ranging from tinned food, nappies, toilet paper and children’s clothing to quilts, kettles, microwaves and beds.

Now stocks are being built up to prepare for the biggest surge in demand of all – for blankets, sleeping bags and hot water bottles, as families forego heating their homes and focus on their own heating. But this central warehouse does more than distribute goods. In addition to delivering paint, wallpaper, rugs and furnishings to families who can no longer afford basic housekeeping, a local team of volunteer painters, plumbers and electricians is now incorporated to help renovate and improve homes. Plans are currently being discussed for a shop that will lend free power and mechanical tools for do-it-yourself repairs, while help is extended from home to gardens and planting vegetable gardens.

With its breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and mothers and toddler groups now complemented by a pioneering dads club, grannies club and its own team of mental health counsellors, the family center is like so many other charities I know – endlessly creative in helping families do more with less, and I’m constantly impressed by the selfless support offered by local businesses, from the struggling individual electric company to the largest supermarket.

Yet caregivers and social workers at the family center know that, however inventive and expansive, these already Herculean efforts will not be enough to prevent misery this winter. At best, all this charitable aid that has been pulled together locally can bring an extra £10m to Fife’s poorest families this year. But those extra millions cannot make up for the £76m the same families are missing out on compared to last year.

Indeed 35,000 Fife families lost over £30m after Universal Credit was cut by £20 a week last October, and are still short of £46m because benefits have only risen by 3 per cent while inflation drives up their weekly bills by more than 10%. And that year-on-year shortfall is just a fraction of the £200million that Fife Council estimates has been lost to 35,000 families due to cuts in benefits since 2010.

For 75 years the British welfare state, unlike the United States, has stepped up where and when the need is greatest. But now, due to economic austerity, it is not the social security system but the food banks that have become the lifeline for families in need. And it is no longer universal credit but charity that is their last resort.

This is why Keir Starmer requested a energy price freeze and additional discounts for low-income families, including reduced charges on prepaid meters.

What we already know about our new Prime Minister Liz Truss’ multi-billion energy package suggests he is unlikely to do enough to prevent extreme poverty this winter unless there is additional provisions for low-income families. This will not undo the failure of the price-based Universal Credit increase, nor will it solve the limitations of Rishi Sunak’s summer lump sum payment of £650, which was only £2.60 per week each for a couple with three children, leaving shortly after paying fuel bills for food, cell phones, TV license, travel, children’s clothes, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Indeed, our threadbare official safety net has been so violently torn apart over the past 12 years that to research from Loughborough University shows child benefits this year will only cover half of essential living costs. It’s no wonder my local food bank has already run a £28,000 deficit this year as calls for help have increased by 50%.

With these last lines of defense now shattered and charities on the brink of breaking point, only government has the resources to end the untold suffering caused by unpaid bills and unmet needs. On Tuesday, Truss traveled the country to Balmoral and back. There is desperation in the communities she has flown over but is unlikely to ever visit. There is fear in the eyes of people she and her ministers will never meet. For throughout our country there is suffering they do not see, difficulties they do not hear and pain – and yet they are missing out.

From Covid to conflict, we have always relied on some of the lowest earners – caregivers, nurses, paramedics, our armed forces – to show up in an emergency. Now is the time for the government to show up for them. Only action to resuscitate our national mission to end child and pensioner poverty can bring together a country that is increasingly divided and desperate. As is often the case, doing the right thing is a matter of political will, and no one doubts Truss’ determination. In the worst of times, she must now deliver for the best and most urgent causes. And if instead it is determined to be irresolute in the fight against growing poverty, honest people will devote their energies to assembling an unprecedented national coalition of churches and religious groups, charities and activists anti-poverty, local elected officials and mayors to change it bothers. Change is coming. It’s time for her to replace desolation with hope.

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