‘People haven’t woken up to the scale of this’: Gordon Brown on the UK’s child poverty scandal

<span>Gordon Brown at a multibank warehouse in Fife. Four million children in the UK are now living in relative poverty.</span><span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Gordon Brown at a multibank warehouse in Fife. Four million children in the UK are now living in relative poverty.Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Outside a warehouse squeezed between a waste recycling plant, an auto parts outlet and a scaffolding company in Lochgelly, Fife, a blur of figures in hi-vis jackets are busily ­packing boxes into headteacher Ailsa Swankie’s car. Not for the first time, she is taking delivery of household essentials, hygiene products and food from the area’s heaving “multibank” – an institution she describes as an “absolute lifeline”.

The specific items differ with each pick-up – sometimes ­toilet rolls, other times washing ­powder or hot water bottles, donated by local businesses or sourced cheaply. But the need for each trip is always the same: an increasing number of families at her school who have found themselves struggling to afford what should be basic products. “We do have a lot of working families who work very, very hard, but they’re still really struggling,” Swankie says. “If I took nappies back to school, they’d all be gone by 3pm.”

Chatting to her as the boxes are piled into the back seats is former prime minister Gordon Brown, one of the multibank’s driving forces, who has emerged as a leading campaigner against a child poverty crisis he fears is not receiving the attention it deserves. He reveals to her that a recent donation of porridge oats from a Fife factory had previously been bound for Saudi Arabia. The country is one of the ­factory’s biggest customers because it hands out tins of oats to pilgrims on the hajj, he explains. “If they get the labelling wrong, it’s cheaper for them to throw it out than to redo it, so we get the stuff.”

The acquisition of the oats is just one of a myriad of hustles agreed with local and multinational firms that Brown and others have stitched together to deal with child ­poverty, which is endemic in some local communities. Textile groups have agreed to hand over old but usable hotel linen. Hotels have been ­harried for old hair dryers, kettles, lamps and beds. A batch of ­washing-up racks are among the latest items to arrive and will soon be adorning a selection of Fife’s sinks. A few weeks ago, the two-millionth item was dispatched.

In another warehouse down the road – donated, of course, by a local business – an assortment of items that Amazon and others cannot sell are sold online at a discount to raise funds for the multibank. Laptops, boutique trainers, even lawnmowers are on the shelves. The whole enterprise is something to behold, but Brown fears even efforts as innovative as these are not enough. “We’re running to catch up with the worsening of the problem,” he says. “This is a palliative. It’s pain relief in a ­situation which is desperate.”

In the last week, Brown has co-authored a pamphlet demanding a multibillion-pound package to tackle child poverty, which he deems necessary after various attempts to hack back the welfare state since 2010. “It is the social crisis,” he says. “And I don’t think people have woken up to the scale of poverty that is affecting children. I was brought up in this area, I was at school in this area, I live in this area. I did not think we’d be back to a time when I can visit homes where you’ve got bedrooms without beds. You’ve got people who can’t afford soap, shampoo, toothpaste, cleaning materials – the very basics that for many people have become luxuries.”

Tom Clark, the co-author of Brown’s latest pamphlet, is equally explicit: “While there’s all ­manner of pressing priorities – from wars abroad to creaking hospitals at home – this stands out as one where a failure to act will cast an ­exceptionally long shadow.”

Official data bears out their ­concerns. Absolute poverty among children in the UK has risen by its highest rate for 30 years, with a quarter of all children living below that poverty line in 2022-23. Work is no longer the cure it once was. More than two-thirds of UK ­children in poverty live in families where at least one parent works. Some 4.3 million children – 30% – live in relative poverty, a slightly less severe state. Material deprivation, which measures the ability to afford basic items and services, has also risen. The two-child limit on benefits means large families are hit very hard.

Even in the last few days, more data has emerged to make the case. The Trussell Trust revealed that its ­network handed out more than 3.1m emergency food parcels in the past year, the most it has ever distributed and nearly ­double the number five years ago.

Many regard the alarming growth of food banks as a corollary to the erosion of state support since 2010. Back then, the Trussell Trust had around 35 food bank centres. It now supports more than 1,300. Brown’s multibank concept of providing items far beyond food – from furniture to clothing – is growing, too. Pioneered in Fife in 2022, it has now spread to Wigan and Swansea, and will soon reach London, Birmingham and the north-east.


Pauline Buchan, the ­manager of Kirkcaldy’s Cottage Family Centre and perhaps the one person evenmore formidable on the issue of local poverty than Brown, is damning about the concentration by ministers on supposedly workshy, “sicknote culture” benefit claimants.

“We started our Christmas appeal about 13 years ago and at that time there were probably 100 children that needed support,” she says. “Now there are 1,900. First, the ­criteria was families experiencing hardship. Seven years ago, that was changed to families experiencing significant hardship. Now it’s worse. It’s not just people that are sitting on benefits. It’s those people who sit in that middle bit between not earning enough, but not being entitled to help. So where do they go and what do they do?

“The game changer for me as well was when I started having conversations with managers at other multibanks. I just thought this is a Fife problem. Then when I went to Dundee, I thought it was a Scotland problem. Then I went to Wigan, the same problem; Swansea, the same. It’s the whole country.”

It is easy to find further ­examples around the country of work no longer being a guaranteed route out of poverty. Lily, a qualified careers adviser living in Wales, whose name has been changed, said that she and her husband both worked, but still struggled. They desperately try to provide anything beyond the basics for their nine-year-old son, who has additional needs. “The last couple of months, I’ve thought about using a food bank more and more,” she says. “But I know from the job I do that there are people worse off than us, so I’d be taking from somebody else who perhaps deserves it more than I do. We’ve got the same dreams and goals as everybody, we’d like to afford maybe a holiday because we’re professional working people. We’d like to be able to treat our son.”

Amelie, whose name has also been changed, was ­widowed seven years ago. She works in addition to supporting her two boys, aged 10 and 13. She now works in the care sector, but remains on the minimum wage and also receives universal credit. “I live in London and we rent privately,” she says. “At one point, our rent was almost as much as our benefit.

“My younger son can’t ride a bicycle and we don’t have a bicycle. So he might not ever be able to ride one. And things like swimming lessons, I’ve always thought they were quite important. We can’t afford those, either. There are just things we can’t afford to do.” Both women are now involved in a campaign that launches this week, Hope Starts Here, designed by the Changing Realities group to draw more attention to the impacts of child poverty.

Brown’s prescription is a multibillion-pound poverty relief programme. He backs an overhaul of universal credit and the return of New Labour’s Sure Start centres which were a one-stop shop for new parents in poor areas in need of advice and help. But even with a former PM sounding the alarm, is anyone in power listening just months before a general election?

It is certainly true that Brown’s intervention is welcomed by many Labour MPs, with some ­desperate for the party to commit to at least abolishing the two-child limit on benefits. Some are hoping Brown will emerge as the party’s social conscience and push the leadership. However, his passion for tackling child poverty is matched by a desperation not to be seen as making trouble for Keir Starmer.

Instead, he attempts to aim squarely at chancellor Jeremy Hunt and a call for action in his pre-­election autumn statement. In reality, of course, an emergency budget by an incoming Labour government could come just a few months later. While Brown’s desire not to rock the Labour boat is entirely genuine, it is impossible to avoid the fact that, as it currently stands, his demands are far more radical than Labour’s proposals in this area. While Brown has denounced the two-child benefits limit, his criticisms of the current system go much deeper. “I don’t accept that universal credit in its other iterations is working, either,” he says. “So you’ve got the two-child rule, you’ve got the benefit cap, you’ve got the housing benefit limit. You’ve got deductions [automatically taken off to pay certain debts].”

I live here. You’ve got people who can’t afford soap, shampoo, toothpaste, cleaning materials – the basics

Gordon Brown

He says Labour has set out some policies that would alleviate poverty, before adding more generally: “I think the cut and thrust of politics at Westminster is sort of obscuring some of the social problems.”

Related: Archbishop of Canterbury urges Starmer to ditch ‘cruel’ two-child benefit cap

As a former chancellor, however, Brown has found a way of funding an overhaul. He says it could be paid for via a technical but lucrative change to the way interest is paid to commercial banks for deposits to the Bank of England. Changing this could raise £1.3bn or more, he says. He also wants a privately funded £1bn bond to pay for a new cadre of Sure Start centres, which the government would then fund based on results. It is a way of finding upfront cash when money is tight.

While Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves are not committing to any such grand projects – no commitment to tackle child poverty was present on the party’s six-point pledge card last week – many in the party are hopeful that it will be an early priority for a Labour government. Alison McGovern, the acting shadow work and pensions secretary, also said earlier this year that the party will have “a child poverty strategy that will overhaul universal credit”. Beyond that, the party is non-­committal. Some insiders also fear that while Brown had Starmer’s ear earlier on in his leadership, it is now Tony Blair and his allies who hold greater sway.

Back in Kirkcaldy, Brown talks jovially with a local man who has been refurbishing children’s bikes to be handed out at the family centre. Earlier, he chatted to a couple about the “scandalous” mark-up applied to toothpaste prices (“the biggest cause of hospital admission in Britain today, among five- to nine-year-olds, is dental decay”). In other circumstances, he would be the obvious candidate to be the area’s MP.

Related: The Observer view on child poverty: Labour must tackle this scourge as soon as possible

In fact, there had been reports over the past week that he considered applying for the two seats that cover his local patch. If he were ever tempted, however, he doesn’t let on. “I loved being an MP here because I wanted to help this community and I do miss it, but I won’t go back to it,” he says. “It’s not something I’m going to do.

Yet in his drive to push child poverty to the forefront of the debate for the second time in a political career, the former premier could yet have a significant impact from outside parliament.