Britain is facing ‘perfect storm of awfulness’ warns welfare expert

Louise Casey calls on the government for more help for the vulnerable as hunger and homelessness rise

The country is on course for a “perfect storm of awfulness” that will see rising homelessness, hungry children and poor families unable to cope unless the government rethinks its support for the most vulnerable, its former homelessness adviser has warned.

Dame Louise Casey, who led the government’s emergency programme to tackle rough sleeping earlier this year, warned that a series of economic pressures were now in danger of colliding. She said that while the campaign led by England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford had provided hope, and she urged ministers to act.

“What we are facing here is a perfect storm of awfulness,” she told the Observer. “Everyone has been affected by Covid, millions have seen their income drop and even those who can weather that, are thinking twice. Rashford has pulled everyone together on the key and compassionate issue of making sure kids don’t go hungry or their parents don’t have to go hungry to feed them. The spirit of the Thursday clapping to show our support to the NHS and care workers lives on in his kind, honest leadership.

“The British public do really care. The rising levels of homelessness and [with] the reduction of universal credit on the horizon, it’s hard not to feel bleak about this winter. Rashford and those supporting his campaign give me hope. Now is not the time for political division and tribal loyalty – it’s the time to bring us all together again. The government needs to heed the mood of the country and take action now. Kids should not go hungry, people should not be on the streets and the elderly deserve only the best of care that we can give.”

Her intervention came as the head of the CBI called for the government not to ditch the £1,000 increase in the basic universal credit allowance due to be axed in April. In a rare move, Carolyn Fairbairn said “having a strong safety net is going to be absolutely vital” in the months ahead.

Marcus Rashford
Footballer Marcus Rashford, whose campaign to feed hungry children inspired the country. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“A period of impoverishment in our country is unthinkable,” she said. “I think the idea that the £1,000 supplement would run out in March is something that should really be rethought. It’s also about fairness. There are going to be some people who have been kept in work through variations of the job support scheme, and others who are not so lucky. The gap between those two positions should not be so great.”

Fairbairn is also calling for a new National Commission for Economic Recovery, involving business, unions, government and civil society, to plan how to revive the economy in the aftermath of the virus.

Official figures last week revealed that there had been an increase in 16- to 25-year-olds sleeping rough in London between July and September, from 250 last year to 368. The previous quarter saw a similar 48% increase.

Pressure is still mounting on the government over child hunger. A coalition of more than 50 public health directors, healthcare professionals, charities and local government figures have signed a letter to chancellor Rishi Sunak in support of a key element of Rashford’s child poverty campaign. They demand a major expansion of the Healthy Start scheme, which gives young pregnant women and low-income families with young children free vitamins and food vouchers to purchase vegetables, fruit, pulses and milk.

They want the scheme to be enhanced and offered to more people, an increase in the value of vouchers and a publicity campaign to ensure it reaches those in need. “We are ready to help in whatever way we can,” they write. “We know that the nutrition and health of mothers and young children will have profound and life-long consequences for children’s futures. A fair start in life should be a key tenet of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. Now is the time to act.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We are wholly committed to supporting the lowest paid families, boosting welfare support by £9.3bn in response to the pandemic as well as introducing income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters and constantly keep these measures under review.”

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