ANOTHER report this week laid bare the reality of inequality in modern Britain and another pitiless Government response. Perhaps we have become de-sensitised to the slew of research and numbers that assault us several times a year; each revealing a segment of deprivation.

One month it will be the numbers of people using foodbanks; in another it will be the number of children living in poverty in yet another it will be mortality rates in our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Perhaps, too, we have become so impervious to the callousness of assorted Tory responses to these human catastrophes that we simply switch off. Not this time though. There was something chilling about this one.

The report, Destitution in the UK 2018, was produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and identified the number of people who were pushed into destitution during 2017 while looking at causes, solutions and context in the UK. Its top line revealed that one and a half million people were destitute last year, including 365,000 children. The UK Government’s response was this: “The Government believes that work is the best way out of poverty.”

This time it seemed they had simply given up pretending to be concerned; that any attempt at displaying humanity in the face of evil was pointless. Previously there would have been a pledge to do more or a vow to meet with agencies in the field and perhaps even a half-hearted nod to some money they had invested in a skills redevelopment scheme in Camden. Now it was just a shrug as if to say: “So, what do you expect us to do about it?”

It carried echoes of 1834 when the Poor Law was introduced as a response to growing resentment among the ruling classes that the indolent poor were getting too many handouts. Workhouses would instead be introduced and these would soon sort out the wheat from the chaff. So inhumane were the conditions inside these places that it was felt workshy loafers everywhere would be forced to find meaningful employment. This single scrap of legislation spurred Charles Dickens into a frenzy of creativity that produced works such as Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit.

In 21st century Britain we can easily process words and phrases such as unemployment or inequality or the poverty gap but "destitution" seems to belong to another era. In the time of Dickens when squalor and infant death and poverty-related disease constantly stalked the existences of society’s most wretched people destitution was a familiar term; it was all of the above and seemed to signify a state of utter hopelessness. It is not a word you would commonly expect to find in 21st century Britain, one of the richest and best-educated nations on earth and one that last year spent more than £2bn maintaining Trident.

In its report the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes destitution as being unable to afford the bare essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. “People experiencing long-term poverty,” it points out “were typically tipped into destitution by harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some migrants, extremely low levels of benefits or no eligibility for benefits at all.” It’s reasonable to suggest that Dickens might have expected most of these evils to have disappeared in the course of two centuries, not least because two years earlier the Great Reform Act had set the UK on a long course towards universal suffrage.

The figure of 1.5m destitute is down from 1.7m two years previously but if you think the numbers are heading in the right direction think again: the consequences of Universal Credit have yet to be measured. As we have seen, the Tory response to this was essentially: “Get a job.” This ignores the reality of unpaid carers being forced to give up work to care for sick relatives. It also fails to take account of the numbers of households suffering from the effects of in-work poverty. Last year research conducted by Cardiff University found that a record 60% of people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work. Families in the woefully under-regulated private rental sector were deemed most at risk. The refusal of the great majority of firms to pay the Living Wage is also a contributory factor after two decades where real wages have constantly lagged behind inflation.

Underlying the callousness of the Hard Right towards the poor is the view that benefits are handouts, free money that it pains them to disburse. They are nothing of the sort. Benefits have mainly been bought and paid for by those who receive them when they were in work or by previous generations of their families. They have been earned. In contrast, the UK loses billions each year because the hardest work ever undertaken by rich Tory donors is in finding ways to avoid paying taxes.

The Rowntree report came at the end of a week in which the taxpayer took a £2bn hit with the sell-off of part of the Royal Bank of Scotland. When the sell-off is complete we will have lost close to the £27bn we were assured we would gain by taking control of RBS. This was Alistair Darling’s great ‘triumph’. His former boss Gordon Brown was also wheeled out this week, channelling his inner Nigel Farage by railing against the migrants as he reprised his desperate British jobs for British workers theme from 2007.

In this exchange in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Ebenezer Scrooge encounters a group of charity collectors in the company of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Ebenezer: But have they no refuge, no resource?

Spirit of Christmas Present: [quoting Scrooge] Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

First Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.

Not long ago we would have dismissed the notion of food banks let alone mass destitution in 21st century Britain. How long before an enterprising Tory proposes a return of the Poor Law, secure in the knowledge that food banks and destitution flourish and no one lifts a finger in protest?