Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty and chair of the End Hunger UK campaign until 2019, writes exclusively for The Northern Echo on the latest food insecurity data.

WHAT should be different once the pandemic is behind us?

We’ve all endured difficulty, fear, uncertainty and tragedy in the past 13 months. But we’ve also all had cause to re-evaluate what we should value and prioritise.

What has happened in your community that should influence our next steps? If I may kick-off: I want the UK to say, once and for all, that nobody in this country will go hungry. We can do that by repairing our ailing benefit system.

One way community spirit has shone in the past year is through the informal redistribution of food. Countless support projects emerged because, quite simply, we all believe everyone should have access to good food. We saw that again in the support for Marcus Rashford’s campaign on children’s food, and in the number of businesses that offered help when the situation looked critical.

Going forward, however, we don’t want to have to respond well to crisis; we want to prevent crisis happening.

Last week, the Government released its annual Family Resources Survey. For the first time, thanks to lobbying by the End Hunger UK campaign and work by South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, it included questions on household food insecurity.

The data isn’t perfect. Interviewees were asked about the previous 30 days, rather than the past year, and interviews were conducted pre-pandemic, so the stats will have since worsened. But they give a useful and alarming starting point.

Overall, one in 12 UK households (eight per cent, or around 2.25 million) were food insecure in the previous 30 days. Regional inequalities meant the figure rose to 11 per cent in the North-East (around 132,000 households). For black households and households with at least one disabled adult, the figure was 19 per cent.

The starkest finding, however, was that all working-age benefits are cutting people adrift rather than keeping us all afloat. In particular, a shameful 43 per cent of households receiving Universal Credit reported food insecurity.

Lest this sound like jargon, let’s be clear: ‘household food insecurity’ means respondents confirming very specific statements, namely: “We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more” or “the food that we bought just didn’t last” or “we didn’t have money to get more, and we couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals”.

There are a few lessons here. Firstly, the data confirms that cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week, as the Government plans to in September, would sweep countless households into severe crisis. That is not something any decent society should inflict on its poorest members.

Penny Walters, a community activist in Newcastle, told my colleague this week: “That £20 a week is the difference between having enough food and some fresh fruit and veg, or not. You can buy a lot for £20 and losing that would hurt people.”

Secondly, informed by this data, the Government should commit to a comprehensive strategy to end poverty. No department has a firm grip on this issue. Clear leadership and vision are needed.

Thirdly, as we plan our route out of the pandemic, we must ensure Universal Credit is roadworthy, which means raising it. We need a national MOT Test for this vital system.

Successive Governments have neglected social security, but let’s now restore it, so it provides all of us with the most basic safeguard: not going hungry. Let’s build back at least as well as we did in the mid-20th century, emulating William Beveridge’s aspiration of a national system that could end want.

That is the bedrock of a decent society and reflects the compassion we’ve seen in the past year. Anything less would be a betrayal of our national standards of decency.