Britain is in the throes of a hidden poverty “epidemic”, with the worst-affected households living in squalor and going without food, heating and everyday basics such as clean clothes and toothpaste, the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has said.
Brown accused the government of creating a wall of silence around “obscene” levels of destitution in the UK and criticised ministers for “systematically shredding” a social security system that had once provided a safety net for the poorest.
He said it was a “moral outrage” that the government was unwilling to tackle a social emergency that had created millions of forgotten and voiceless victims, one he compared in an article for the Guardian with the Post Office scandal in terms of the scale of ministerial neglect.
“In years to come, I believe people will be asking how it was that government walked by on the other side when thousands of children were suffering abject deprivation, and failed to support them in their hours of need,” he said.
He described the poverty he had witnessed in his home town of Kirkcaldy, where 70% of children were in poverty in some neighbourhoods, as the worst he had seen in his lifetime.
“In 2010, we were helping 100 children at Christmas [through charity schemes]. Last Christmas, it was 1,800,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.
He described Britain as “haunted by poverty we thought had been consigned to history”. The situation was deteriorating for destitute families whose children lacked proper clothing, or had to share beds, whose parents felt shame because they could not provide and feared their children would be taken into care as a result, he said.
Brown challenged the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to use his March budget to address the suffering of families for whom 2024 was shaping up to be, financially, the worst year in living memory. “In an advanced economy, understanding these privations shouldn’t be a question of ideology but a question of decency,” he said.
He called on Hunt to undertake a root-and-branch review of universal credit, and extend the government’s £900m cost of living crisis household support fund, currently at risk of being axed from April. The fund provides emergency help, such as food vouchers, beds and cookers to struggling families.
Brown’s comments came as he published a review of UK hardship on behalf of his Multibank project, a network of local charities developed out of the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown, which sources and distributes millions of surplus goods to families in need, from soap and shampoo to beds, nappies and toilet rolls.
The review predicts the current crisis – “the ‘cost of living crisis’ is the phrase, but ‘the cost of staying alive crisis’ might be a better description” – will continue for many households because food and fuel prices remain high and universal credit levels are far too low to meet rising bills.
As a chancellor and then prime minister in Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, Brown oversaw ambitious plans that significantly reduced levels of UK poverty through spending on tax credits and social programmes such as the minimum wage and Sure Start.
The subsequent huge cuts to welfare spending under coalition and Tory governments from 2010 led to a collapse in benefit levels and an explosion in severe poverty.
In 2022, an estimated 1 million children experienced destitution, meaning their families were unable to afford to properly feed, clothe or clean them, or keep them warm.
Brown told the Guardian an urgent overhaul of the main low income benefit, universal credit, was needed. It was currently inadequate to meet basic living costs and, for many families, was further weakened by cash deductions made through the two-child limit, benefit cap and bedroom tax.
However, he declined to say how much would be needed to upgrade universal credit. Brown has not been an MP since 2015, and said it was “not his role to write policy”.
Last year, the party was engulfed by a heated internal debate over whether to scrap the two-child limit, a move the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, subsequently ruled out.
A government spokesperson said: “There are 1.7 million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared to 2010, including 400,000 children, but we know people continue to struggle so are providing record cost of living support to those most vulnerable, worth an average £3,700 per household, and are raising benefits this April.
“But we know work is the best way to financial security, which is why we are investing billions through our Back to Work Plan, expected to help over a million people into jobs, as well as extending our childcare offer while curbing inflation and cutting taxes so people get more of the money they earn.”