Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd has called on the next Prime Minister to end the benefits freeze even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Her call coincides with the release of a new report revealing destitution is on the rise – with families routinely unable to afford regular meals, wash clothes or provide their children with basic items such as beds and sheets.
Rudd wants to see a thaw in the benefits freeze by 2020 up for review next year regardless of whether or not the UK has left the European Union with a deal.
A report released by the poverty grants charity Buttle UK sampled support professionals such as health visitors and social workers with three-quarters of respondents saying they had seen an increase in the numbers of families they regularly worked with who experienced destitution and were in need of basic financial support.
Despite more families facing greater difficulties, official support was harder to come by, with the survey identifying the only substantive increase in support over the last year as the increase in the number of families support workers have seen using food banks.
The Government rejected calls to end the freeze in this year’s Spring Statement, and expectations that ministers could end the freeze next year have been thrown into doubt after Chancellor Philip Hammond warned that a no-deal Brexit could blow a £90bn black hole in the UK’s public finances.
Rudd said she would make a “strong case” for the next government to find the estimated £1.5bn needed to lift working age benefits in line with inflation.
“I’ve already had conversations with the Chancellor and I would expect to do so with any future government. It is essential we take that freeze off,” she said.
The Buttle survey took in 1,290 frontline family support workers from 616 organisations across the UK as a “thermometer reading” of the lives of some the UK’s most vulnerable families.
It comes amid rising concern that alongside headline increases in relative poverty over recent years – more than 4 million children in the UK live below the breadline – the very poorest families experience destitution.
Destitution is defined by at least two of six measures over the previous month, including eating fewer than two meals a day for two or more days; or as a weekly income after housing costs of £70 for a single adult or £140 for a couple with children – an amount below which people “cannot meet their core material needs for basic physiological functioning from their own resources”.
Last week, the MPs Frank Field and Heidi Allen warned that austerity cuts meant that the poorest communities were now “blighted by the constant spectre of destitution”.
An estimated 1.5m people UK wide – including 350,00 children – experienced destitution in 2017.
Buttle chief executive Joseph Howes said the charity had been shocked by the scale and extent of the deprivation.
“Make no mistake, this report shows that there are real individuals behind the statistics who are struggling on a day-to-day basis in the UK,” he said.
Commonly seen examples of poverty reported in the survey included food insecurity, inability to afford basic needs such as heating and bedding, no internet access, and the absence of family breaks, holidays and free activities.
Often families do not even have the bus fare to travel to the food bank.
Half of those surveyed said they regularly worked with families where one or even two adults were in insecure or low-paid employment and still did not earn enough to make ends meet.
Practically all respondents (99%) said they sometimes or often worked with families who had run up personal debts and struggled financially because of Universal Credit payment delays or other benefit cuts.
About 40% said state-funded crisis support through local welfare schemes had declined.
Violence was a presence in the lives of the poorest families, with 85% of respondents saying they worked with families who witnessed violent crime.
Nearly all said they worked with families affected by domestic violence.