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Destitution in the UK 

new report on destitution in the UK from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) finds a steep rise in the number of individuals and households experiencing destitution since 2017.  Belfast was one of 18 areas in which research to inform the report was carried out.

Destitution in the UK 2020 vividly illustrates the corrosive impacts of being unable to afford the bare essentials. JRF have called for urgent and compassionate action in response. They argue that everyone living in the UK, regardless of their immigration status, should have access to an adequate income to purchase food, shelter and other essentials. 

What is ‘destitution’?  

The study measured destitution in two ways: through lack of access to essentials and extremely low or no income. 

  • they had lacked two or more of a basket of six essential items (shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing and footwear, and basic toiletries) over the previous month, because they could not afford them (the ‘deprivation’ criterion) or  

  • their income was so low that they were unable to purchase these essentials for themselves (the ‘extremely low income’ criterion). 

Demographic findings

  • More than a million UK households experienced destitution at some point in 2019, wth higher proportions experiencing destitution on both measures when compared with 2017.  

  • One-third (32%) of all households experiencing destitution reported having no immediate source of income in the last month; this proportion rose to almost half (46%) among destitute migrant households. 

  • The number of children facing destitution increased by 52%. Lone parents, almost always women, have become more common in the destitute population. 

  • Young adults (aged 34 and under) are heavily over-represented amongst those identified as living in destitution, while it remains extremely rare for over 65s. 

  • One in seven (14%) survey respondents experiencing destitution were in paid work. Those experiencing in-work destitution tended to be in precarious forms of employment with uncertain incomes. 

  • People who have migrated to the UK are over-represented among those experiencing destitution – but UK nationals account for almost three quarters of the population identified as living in destitution.  

Problem debt, housing and COVID-19

  • Problem debt was common among UK nationals experiencing destitution and were mainly those predating the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than those triggered by it. 

  • Housing affordability was a prominent theme across the qualitative interviews, especially in London. Several interviewees had paid rent arrears with credit cards to avoid eviction, and others were expecting eviction once the protection offered by the COVID-19 moratorium had ended. 

  • COVID-19-related support measures provided some much-needed relief, but many interviewees found the pressures brought about by the pandemic exacerbated the difficulties they were already facing. Some struggled to access the support they required to meet their essential needs. 

Universal Credit

Half of all households experiencing destitution surveyed in autumn 2019 were receiving Universal Credit (UC) or had applied for it. Claimants reported having no choice but to accept a repayable advance to cover the five-week gap while they waited for their first payment. Repayment of these advances sometimes left them little to live on, particularly when claimants had to plug the gap between Local Housing Allowance and private rents, while at the same time repaying other debts.  

  • Many interviewees made a direct link between the repayment of the UC advance and their need to use food banks. 
  • The online process for claiming UC was straightforward for those who were born in the UK and were previously in employment but was problematic for those who had been self-employed and people who had migrated to the UK. 

Research fieldwork

The project included fieldwork from all over the UK, including surveys (in autumn 2019) and follow-up interviews (in spring 2020) with service users who were identified by the surveys as experiencing destitution. Housing Rights helped to coordinate the fieldwork in Belfast, which was one of 18 case study areas used in the research

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This article was written on 9 December 2020. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.