The test of a ‘One Nation’ budget

The government has to work harder to help people living on the edge if they are to have the security and opportunity that David Cameron suggests we can all aspire to.

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Volunteer looks at packs of biscuits

A country of security and opportunity for everyone, at every stage of life; these were the words David Cameron used to set out his bold One Nation vision in the Queen’s Speech this May.

As we digest the results of the budget today, the words seem as good a test to judge it by as any. To be true to the One Nation ideal the budget must answer a simple question those of us in the foodbanks movement ponder every day. What can be done to reduce the number of people in poverty and hunger?

The number of people fed by foodbanks presently shows no sign of abating after a prolonged period of living cost rises, a wage squeeze and problems caused by the implementation of welfare reforms. The result: the number of people in poverty in the UK is simply too large. To meet the One Nation ambition, all people in poverty need to be offered a basic level of security and have the opportunity to bring themselves out of poverty. Now that the economy is recovering we hope more can be done to achieve this common goal.

Part of the answer is tackling low pay and we welcome the growing campaign from inside and outside of Government to act now to ensure wages at the lower end of the spectrum catch up with the rest. Low incomes and week to week uncertainty about actual earnings mean a large number of people live on a knife edge and often simply don’t know whether they can make ends meet or not. There is a direct link between this precariousness and the number of people who end up needing temporary help from Trussell Trust foodbanks. To meet its One Nation test the budget must act fast to address both these major causes of food poverty. All the evidence suggests this will only be achieved if the minimum wage is raised to a level that allows people to live in dignity and free from poverty and that more firms adopt a living wage.

But this can only be part of the answer as action on low pay only helps those already working. A further test is to ensure vulnerable people who suffer from health problems and people going through trauma, bereavement or life shocks are not left to rely on charity alone. Given how preventative our foodbanks are, it is a desperate shame that we find hundreds of thousands of people each year come to a Trussell Trust foodbank simply because the government services provided by DWP either responded too slowly or made avoidable, preventable mistakes. This budget can meet our test if it ensures that the services to those both in work and out of work are improved and that relevant resourcing is not overstretched.

The final test for meeting One Nation principles is for the Government to renew its embrace of the ideals of the Big Society and not turn its back on charities helping those in need. Whilst the name Big Society is maligned by some, the idea of national volunteering and popular community action should be celebrated. Our foodbanks prevent crime, housing loss, family breakdown and worsening mental and physical health. All these things cost the taxpayer if they are not addressed quickly, which is why Trussell Trust foodbanks make such an important contribution to the health and well-being of local communities.

Beyond the budget, much more could be achieved if a more collaborative approach could be developed between the Government and organisations such as the Trussell Trust and our foodbank network. Our experience in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is of being given an opportunity by the devolved governments to sit round the table to input into the necessary anti-poverty strategies. This is starting to pay dividends in these nations. We hope for England too that the new Government adopt a similar approach in the spirit of this shared One Nation ideal.

This piece was originally published on on 8 July 2015.