More action is needed to stop families going hungry during the coronavirus crisis
Detail of a label on a box containing food for a couple with one child at the Bromley Borough Foodbank in Orpington, part of The Trussell Trust | PA Images
Administrative problems with Government schemes and gaps in coverage mean the poorest children are at risk of hunger and malnutrition.
A report earlier this month from the Food Foundation, showing that 1.5 million people have gone a whole day without eating since the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect, and 7.1 million people say someone in their household has had to reduce or skip meals because they could not access or afford sufficient food, starkly demonstrates the hardship families are experiencing during the emergency.
While Government measures – including additional support through universal credit and tax credits, along with the Job Retention Scheme which enables bosses to furlough workers, the support package for business, and help for the self-employed – are welcome, it’s clear they’re failing to provide nearly enough protection.
The elderly, sick and disabled people and, crucially, families with children are particularly vulnerable. So it’s surprising that the more generous support being offered through the benefits system hasn’t been designed specifically to reach them. Even where more targeted support has been made available – such as the provision of vouchers for children entitled to free school meals, including during the Easter holidays – it’s been beset by administrative problems. Last week the BBC reported delays in processing the scheme, long telephone queues, and the temporary closure of the website had meant that schools had been unable to issue vouchers promptly to families who were entitled to them. Meanwhile, those with no recourse to public funds may be in a particularly desperate position. While free school meals were extended on 6 April to some families subject to no recourse to public funds, providing welcome support to thousands of children, undocumented families who are not in receipt of support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 or section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 remain unable to access free school meals. These families are likely to be experiencing exceptionally high levels of food insecurity.
These administrative problems and gaps in coverage need to be resolved swiftly by the Government if the poorest children are to avoid hunger and malnutrition. Alongside that, more can be delivered through the benefits system. The increase in the standard allowance in universal credit and tax credits, while welcome, is not the most effective way to target support to families with children. Increases in child tax credit and the child element of universal credit, and most simply of all, removing the two-child limit would immediately benefit the poorest children and help ensure they receive an adequate and nourishing diet.
It would of course be perverse if increases in benefits (including those already announced) led to families breaching the household benefit cap. Measures to increase benefits should therefore be matched by lifting the cap, to ensure families benefit fully from the more generous support provided.
Finally, Labour has argued from the outset that the 5-week wait for universal credit is a disaster for families faced with the sudden and total loss of income, most of whom have no savings to fall back on. While we appreciate the difficulties in changing IT systems quickly, as a quick fix, DWP should ensure that all claimants for universal credit are proactively offered an immediate advance payment at the start of their claim, and that any advance payments made during the crisis will not be recoverable.
Taking these steps would provide immediate relief to some of the most desperate families during the crisis, and protect children from the dire effects of hunger and poverty. Of course, had adequacy been a governing principle of our benefits system over the past 10 years, protection against poverty would already have been baked into the system. But the time to act is surely now to do all we can to protect our children from the scarring effects of this terrible crisis.
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and shadow child poverty strategy minister.