Sunak and Starmer urged to set out plans to tackle poverty in first TV debate

Political leaders have been urged to be “specific and ambitious” about tackling hardship, as analysis suggested almost two million people in the UK are just £20 a week from the poverty line.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer must use the first head-to-head TV debate of the election campaign on Tuesday evening to lay out their plans to address high levels of poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said.

The social change organisation described current levels as “a stain on the moral conscience of our nation”.

Official statistics released earlier this year showed the estimated total number of people in relative low income was at 14.35 million in the year to March 2023, with some 4.33 million of those being children.

The latest figure for children was the highest since comparable records for the UK began in 2002/03 and prompted campaigners at the time to say young people are being failed and forgotten.

A household is considered to be in relative poverty if it is below 60% of the median income after housing costs.

JRF said its recent further analysis of the raw data suggested there are 1.7 million people across the UK who are just £20 a week away from the poverty line, some 400,000 of whom are children and half a million of whom are pensioners.

An estimated 900,000 people are just £10 a week from the poverty line, including around 200,000 children and 300,000 pensioners, the analysis suggested.

Paul Kissack, chief executive of JRF, said: “Such high levels of hardship – with millions experiencing poverty and millions more teetering on the edge of it – are a stain on the moral conscience of our nation. ”

He said the person elected prime minister after July 4 “must make reversing this dismal trend (of rising poverty) a priority”.

He said: “Our political leaders must be specific and ambitious about how they will tackle poverty. But so far there hasn’t been anything like the level of urgency from either Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer that we need to see. Pointing to future growth as a panacea just won’t cut it.

“Tonight’s debate is a chance for both leaders to set out their plans and demonstrate they are serious about addressing hardship. Failure to act is a political and moral choice – and one they should expect to be judged on.”

Charities and campaigners have long called for the two-child benefit cap – introduced under the Conservative Government in 2017 and restricting Child Tax Credit and Universal Credit to the first two children in most households – to be scrapped, saying doing so would lift many children out of poverty.

Last month, Sir Keir said he would scrap the cap “in an ideal world” but added that “we haven’t got the resources to do it at the moment”.