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Destitution as the Natural Consequence of The UK’s Austerity Project

by Dr Luke D. Graham 


Recently, I highlighted that empirical evidence demonstrates rising levels of destitution in the United Kingdom (UK). Long essays could be written on each of the many individual policies which have contributed to this rising destitution. However, here I argue that when viewed through the lens of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) the austerity project as a whole was – in its design – destitution inducing. Put simply, the natural consequence of the way in which austerity was implemented in the UK was to increase destitution by undermining the ability of individuals to realise their right to an adequate standard of living (including their rights to food, clothing, housing, water, and/or sanitation) without reliance on charitable provision.

Austerity in the UK

The scaling back of the state which occurred in the UK under austerity was supplemented by the idea of the ‘big society’. As part of the Conservative Party’s election platform in 2010, the ‘big society’ became a ‘central plank’ and ‘guiding principle’ of the coalition government’s policies following that election. This may be attributed to the implicit idea ‘that the state is bad and almost anything else—the free market, charities, volunteers—is better’.

Consequently, in the UK a key feature of austerity has been to foster a reliance on charitable provision in order to meet the needs required to avoid destitution. For example, as Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Alston reported that ‘Food bank use increased almost fourfold between 2012–2013 and 2017–2018, and there are now over 2,000 food banks in the United Kingdom, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis’. In fact, as – I would argue a – consequence of austerity ‘Food banks are becoming institutionalised in the UK’.

Reliance on charity and destitution

I have highlighted that the statutory definition of destitution is broader than the traditional and JRF definitions in terms of the needs which must be met in order to avoid destitution. However, with regard to how the needs must be met, the traditional and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) definitions of destitution are broader than the statutory definition. This is because the UK’s statutory definition of destitution and the destitution case law brought under the European Convention of Human Rights exclude, from their protection, those who are able to meet their essential living needs through a reliance on charitable assistance. As such, these existing legal ‘protections’ pay less attention to the way in which individuals meet their needs.

This is a key point upon which the statutory definition differs from both the traditional and the JRF definitions of destitution. Traditionally, being forced to rely on charitable assistance to meet essential needs has been a central feature of understandings of destitution and the JRF definition echoes this. This is because the JRF regard an individual to be destitute if ‘their income is so extremely low that they are unable to purchase these essentials for themselves’. As such, those who rely on charity to meet their essential needs are considered destitute under both the traditional and the JRF definitions.

Reliance on charity to realise Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

It is this latter approach which must be supported when destitution is understood as the non-realisation of various ESCRs. When destitution is viewed as a ESCRs issue, those who are only able to meet their essential needs through a reliance on charity must be considered destitute. This is because ‘Human rights are not a matter of charity’ and charitable provision is an inadequate mechanism for realising ESCRs. Given that charity ‘involves neither a right of the individual nor a duty imposed on the state’, unlike legally guaranteed entitlements such as adequate social security, those reliant on charitable provision are unlikely to have any means for enforcing any claim, nor in fact have any claim, to charitable assistance. Thus, if the donor becomes unable or unwilling to continue in their provision of these basic necessities the recipient will lose this source of access. Not only does it follow that charity is an inadequate mechanism for realising ESCRs and as such tackling destitution but, it also follows that, those who can only meet essential needs on account of charitable provision are destitute.

When individuals are forced to rely on charity to realise their rights to food, clothing, housing, water, and/or sanitation this is indicative of structural and policy failings likely in relation to the right to social security. The current debate concerning the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit is indicative of this.

Austerity in the UK as destitution inducing

When understood using the traditional, the JRF, or a Human Rights-Based definition, a reliance on charity is central to the experience of destitution. As such, even before the effects of individual policies are examined, it follows that the natural and logical consequence of an austerity project underpinned by a promotion of charity – of the ‘Big Society’ – to meet essential needs has been to increase destitution. Given the role envisioned for charity, austerity as designed and implemented in the UK from 2010 onwards has been inherently destitution inducing.

The state not charity

This criticism rests on the prominence given to the role of charitable provision. It follows that in order to tackle destitution the state must be the one to take responsibility for ensuring that individuals are able to meet their essential needs; that is adequately realise their ESCRs. Thus, for example, when individuals cannot afford food, they should not have to turn to a food bank charity because this is a deferral – by the state – of its own obligations. Rather, the state should implement policies designed to stop the need for foodbanks in the first place: for example, ensuring that social security payments are adequate.

22 January 2021

Author profile

Dr Luke D. Graham is a Lecturer in Law at Coventry University. His ESRC Funded PhD undertaken at Lancaster University Law School was titled ‘Destitution as A Denial of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Addressing Destitution in The UK Through a Human Rights Framework’. @lukedgraham


Dr Luke D. Graham, “Destitution as the Natural Consequence of The UK’s Austerity Project”, (Just Fair Guest Blog, January 2021), <>, [Date of access].

The views expressed in any and all articles posted on the Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Just Fair.