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Food Poverty

Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2012

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

It is a pleasure, Sir Alan, to serve under your chairmanship for the second time. I thank the Speaker’s office for the opportunity to raise this serious issue. It is less than two weeks until Christmas, which should be a time for people and their families to celebrate and relax. I want to speak on behalf of the thousands of households throughout the United Kingdom that will be worrying about whether they can feed themselves and their children.

We have seen the longest double-dip recession since records began in 1955, and we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis. We have seen an explosion in food poverty as households struggle with higher living costs, frozen wages, reduced working hours, and changes in welfare. The rising food poverty scandal is a national disgrace. I shall refer to two headline figures that I will talk about in more detail in a moment. Last year, the food redistributed by FareShare contributed to more than 8.6 million meals, and fed 36,500 people every day. The Trussell Trust, which operates a network of food banks throughout the country—I will speak about it in more detail in a moment—estimates that it will have fed 230,000 people in 2012-13. That is nearly double the number of people it fed in 2011-12, and the trust warns that Christmas is looking even bleaker for families on the breadline.

I want to speak about the extent of the problem, having given two headline statistics. What is the problem? FareShare states:

“Food poverty is suffered by people with low or no income with poor access to affordable nutritious food and who lack the knowledge, skills or equipment to ensure food is safe and prepared properly.”

We know from the latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures that 13.2 million people in the country live in poverty. A recent shocking report by Save the Children, which was released in September, just a few months ago, found that well over half of parents in poverty—61%—say that they have cut back on food. More than a quarter—26%—say that they have skipped meals in the past year.

Another serious issue that I will come to in more detail is that four in five parents in poverty say that they had to borrow money to pay for essentials, including food and clothes, in the past year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She referred to the Save the Children report, which states that one parent said:

“A year or so ago, we literally relied on any money we raised at car boot sales to pay for food for the week. Some weeks weren’t too bad, others were dire. The British weather decided how we lived that week (when it rained, the turnout at car boot sales fell).”

Is it not a tragedy in 21st century Britain that people must go to car boot sales to raise money for food to feed their family?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which I am sure is the first of many that will share personal stories about people’s experiences. I called for the debate because it is a national scandal that in the 21st century, in one of the world’s most industrialised nations, there is an explosion in food poverty and the creation of food banks. That is why I and many other hon. Members have raised the matter in Parliament, and will continue to do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It was a great pleasure to join her on a visit to a food bank that serves both our communities. Aintree fire station in my constituency has asked local people for donations because, despite there being several food banks covering our area and the amount of food coming in, it is going out just as quickly. Does she think that it is an indictment of the Government’s policies that people must rely on handouts for healthy living?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We went to that food bank together, and we have been to many others. I will speak in more detail about my concerns for the future, but I have a snapshot of where we are at the moment. We have just had the autumn statement, and reports show that the poorest 10% in our communities will be hit even harder. I worry about the future, and that the figures will become even worse.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on the excellent work she has done over several months. She is right to look to worsening times. Last week, I was told about a constituent who currently has £12 a week left with which to buy food after paying his bills. That is less than £2 a day, which is about to be wiped out by the bedroom tax, and means that he will lose £12 a week in housing benefit.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. There is so much I could have included in my speech that I did not even reflect on the bedroom tax. It is a good point. I know many constituents who are affected. The problem on Merseyside, which is replicated throughout the country, is that the Government want people to move into smaller properties, and if those properties do not exist, our constituents will be hammered every week and will struggle to put food on the table.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and on her work. On welfare reform, I draw her attention to the impending localisation of the social fund, and the impact on the very people we are talking about who, in times of crisis, have nowhere else to turn. Many of the changes facing us with the localisation of the social fund will make it more difficult for those people because the money is not ring-fenced, and a postcode lottery will develop throughout the country with different standards and approaches.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising another point that I could have included, but did not have space. The issue will disproportionately affect the councils that have the least to spend. My council in Liverpool has been hit hardest of any council in the country. We have a 52% cut in controllable spend by 2015. When there is no ring fence, the council will have less money coming in and will have to make difficult decisions, essentially doing the Government’s dirty work. The social fund will fall by the wayside, particularly in areas where it is most needed.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way to many hon. Members who are rightly identifying the causes of the problem, and it is right that she will address some of those causes. I hope that she will also talk about some of the great work by local community and voluntary organisations, such as the brilliant food bank in Corby. I was pleased to welcome her when she visited it recently. Co-operatives do great work, and have a fine tradition of trying to reduce travel miles, improve sustainability, and help to drive down food costs. For example, 30% of their healthy products are on promotion at the moment, which is brilliant. We should welcome such initiatives, and perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for raising the vital work done by many organisations in our communities. However, I do not think we should have food banks. The country has 270 under the Trussell Trust umbrella, and we know that there are many more independent initiatives, such as that at the fire station in Aintree, because food banks cannot deal with the pressure they are facing. What has happened in 2012 that we need them? I hope that the Minister will address that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Hackney has a food bank under the aegis of the Trussell Trust, as have many constituencies, and Magic Breakfast works in many of our schools. A primary and a secondary school have spoken to me recently about the problem of young people being able to afford lunch. At the secondary school, the head dips into her own pocket to help fund lunches in some cases, and in the primary school, when parents come in to say, “We cannot afford £9 a week per child for the school meals,” which are nutritiously cooked, good-quality food, often grown on site in that particular school, the head tries to find a way of funding at least one or two of the children, so that they do not lose out on those hot meals. Along with that cost, the bedroom tax is a big issue that will hit hundreds of families in my constituency. They are not all aware of that, so the case will get much harder.

I thank my hon. Friend for that example of the vital work done by Magic Breakfast. The fact that schoolchildren in our country are coming to school having not eaten any food, and are therefore less able to concentrate, is a very worrying and difficult state of affairs. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

Before the fantastic contributions of my hon. Friends, I was talking about the extent of the problem. It is worth expanding on that, because it is important that the Minister hears about many of the different studies that have been made. A recent report by Netmums found that one in five mums is regularly skipping meals to feed her children. Tesco did research recently, finding that 10% of people interviewed have suffered from some form of food poverty in the last 12 months. Tesco had some interesting and startling figures:

“Almost one in ten people in the UK have skipped meals, gone without food to feed their family or relied on family or friends for food in the last year.”

Nearly half of those who said they had skipped meals—48%—said they had done so

“for the first time this year.”

I would like the Minister to reflect on that in his response. More than 51% of people who had skipped meals said that they

“were forced to go without food for two days or more.”

I remind Members that we are in 21st-century Britain.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Alan, and I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on a crucial subject. She was speaking about the impact of missing meals, but I am sure that she is also aware of the effect of families downgrading what they are eating. She may be familiar with the statistic that low-income families are eating 30% less fresh fruit and veg than they were in 2006. In his comments, I am sure that the Minister will want to address the hidden health costs to the whole population and to individual families.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention about the quality of food that people are able to purchase. One reason for that is food inflation, which I will talk about in a moment. We need to acknowledge that it is a contributing factor. It is restrictive, particularly when the cost of fruit and veg has gone up significantly, and it means that people have less access to healthier food.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that although it is wonderful that we are able to stand up and give examples of what is happening in individual constituencies, it is sad that organisations have to undertake those roles. In my constituency, the Moses Project has two food banks, one of which targets hungry, homeless young men who have no hope for the future at all. Another organisation, A Way Out, is working to open several more food banks in the constituency. Charities and Churches seem to understand the problem. Can my hon. Friend explain why the Government do not seem to?

I hope that we will hear from the Minister in his response that he understands the extent of the problem. I will refer later to a debate that we held in January, when it is fair to say that the responses were pretty weak. I was able to ask the Chancellor about it yesterday and his response, which I will come to in a moment, was not very strong either. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the responsibility of the Government to deal with this growing and exploding problem.

I want to extract one more point from the work done by Tesco. It looked at why people said they were skipping meals. The main reasons given—they are replicated by other organisations—were the rising cost of living or low income; 56% of people said that. Twenty per cent of people said it was because of an “unexpected bill or expense.” People just do not have the cushion if something comes up, perhaps damage to their property or if a landlord does not make some urgently needed repair; they have to fill in and they do not have the funds to pay for food. I am sure Members have anecdotal evidence from their visits to food banks, when they encounter people who have to access emergency food aid.

Other reasons were “paying off debts.” That was 15% of people. One thing that struck me was that 12% of people were skipping meals because of

“a reduction in working hours.”

What conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the changing profile of work in this country? We know that people are increasingly moving to part-time work or they are on zero-hour contracts. From week to week, they cannot budget or plan. People are really struggling. From speaking to a trade union representative, I know that in one Tesco store alone, there have been 30 requests for an increase in hours, specifically as a result of the change in working tax credits. Those extra hours do not exist, so people are really struggling to get by.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Trussell Trust said that less than 5% of its clients are homeless—on the absolute breadline; in fact the vast majority are working families who are struggling to make ends meet.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, as I was about to make the same point. It is not the profile of people that we would expect; as he said, only 5% of the people accessing emergency food aid are homeless. It is the 95% that people just do not know about, and the Government need seriously to address that problem, as well as those who are homeless.

The problem has grown and exploded; I use the word “exploded” because the Trussell Trust’s figures show that the problem has increased tenfold since 2008-09. As I mentioned, close to a quarter of a million people are expected to have accessed food aid through a Trussell Trust food bank by the end of this financial year. FareShare, which is an organisation that I will explain more about in a moment, distributes food to what they call community food members, which are not only food banks, but hostels, old people’s homes, and breakfast clubs. It reports an average increase of 59% in demand for its services this year alone. At some of its depots, the increase in demand was as much as 90% or 100%, which builds on a 40% increase in the previous year. The Salvation Army has doubled the number of food parcels that it is giving out from food centres over the last two years, and Magic Breakfast, which I will talk about in more detail, has delivered more than 1 million free breakfasts. It reports a sharp rise in pupil hunger, and that working families are running out of food.

A number of Opposition Members have come to contribute to the debate, and I acknowledge that there are two Government Members. The issue does not just affect “poor areas.” It is a national scandal, as we have seen from the number of food banks across the country. It is a national problem. An article in The Guardian said:

“Foodbanks are thriving not just in Britain’s most deprived areas but in some of its wealthiest areas, like Poole in Dorset. The seaside town boasts some of Britain’s most expensive property but in April its local foodbank supplied food parcels to nearly 300 people—more than twice as many as in April 2010.”

We know that there are many food banks in counties such as Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, where people would never normally expect food banks. I hope we shall hear contributions from Members on both sides.

The food banks around the country were initially set up in 2002, because the issue arose at that time. According to stats provided by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, food prices have risen in real terms by 12% over the last five years. This is not simply about now; it was going on under the previous Government as well.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I use the word “explosion” again to reinforce the point. If we look at the figures, which I have in front of me too, there is an explosion in the numbers that have been created. I am not proud of the fact that 26,000 people accessed emergency food aid under a Labour Government—don’t get me wrong—but if we look at the figures now, it is 10 times as many in two and a half years. The Government need to take some responsibility for that and acknowledge that this is an explosion of the problem, and it is only set to get worse.

I endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. There has certainly been an explosion in the use of the provision in my constituency. We would not expect there to be a 100% increase in the use of food banks month on month in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales.

In Penarth, the more affluent part of my constituency, I visited a food bank collection point in the local Tesco and asked whether the parcels were going to other, more deprived areas of Cardiff; in fact they were for the Penarth area. That is deeply shocking. I am concerned that the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) appears to be muddying the picture somewhat.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. One of my largest local landlords has 250 families who will be hit by the bedroom tax. People are doing their best to help such people to get jobs and so on, but there will be a number of families with a shortfall. That is just one landlord in one constituency. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on any analysis that she has done, or thinks should be done, to assess the impact of that Government policy, which will have a direct effect on people’s ability to pay for food?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I share her concerns—concerns that have been raised since the start of the debate—about the bedroom tax. I reiterate that the Government want people to move into smaller properties, but in many places across the country such properties do not exist and people will be penalised as a result.

I am very concerned about the cumulative impact of people having to pay the bedroom tax and everything else. I will talk in more detail about the impact of the autumn statement—the cumulative impact of everything. Many hon. Members have called on the Government to make a proper assessment of the impacts that their changes to taxes and benefits will have on the poorest in our society and on child poverty. It is very disappointing that the Government have refused to do that.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the debate and on the fantastic YouTube video that she made—it is a must-watch, particularly for those on the Government Benches.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), in my constituency there was a clothing bank that did some food provision. The circumstances of people using that provision before 2010 were incredibly different from those in which people are now using it. Yes, food banks, clothing banks and other provisions were in place before 2010, but through the recession, people did not need to access it. It is as a direct result of this Government’s policies on things such as cuts to local authorities that 260,000-plus people need these food banks.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that intervention. I concur with all the points that he made.

I have talked in depth about the scale of the problem; now it is important to examine the causes. Many hon. Members have intervened to allude to the relevant points. I will reflect on a number of the causes. As I mentioned, rising food prices are a contributory factor. In the past five years, food prices have gone up by 12% in real terms, with the cost of essentials such as fruit, milk, cheese and eggs rising by as much as 30%. Last year, food inflation in the UK was the highest in the EU outside Hungary, putting an average of £233 a year on the average household food bill.

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Does she agree that food price fluctuation is almost as difficult and dangerous to deal with as a steady rise in food prices? We have been subject to great fluctuations in food prices—certainly over the past five years, if not longer.

I acknowledge that food prices are a problem. I have given the figures: they have gone up by 12% in real terms. That obviously has an impact on household budgets and on the choices that people can make about the food that they eat.

The issue of food prices is important. Sometimes in government, especially from this privileged seat in Westminster, it is possible to forget what the real choices are for families on the ground. In my constituency, four pints of milk cost £1.35 in the Co-op, because it gives farmers a fair deal, £1.08 in Tesco and £1 in Iceland. There are people who will step across the road to save 8p on four pints of milk, because that is the margin that they are working on.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I can also share a story with the House; this may be something that other hon. Members have experienced. A number of us travel back to our constituencies on a Thursday, and I often do my shopping in my local Asda on a Thursday night. I am sometimes there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night if I have been to an evening engagement and I see people waiting for the knock-down-price milk. They wait there for the price of the milk to go down to 11p. People know what times to come in for the different items, and I have seen people fighting over items in the knock-down-price section. That breaks my heart, and there are other such examples. More Ministers need to see what that is like and why people have to make those choices.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but I have one final point. The issue is not just the financial hardship, but the humiliation—the degradation. People feel demeaned by the fact that they are forced either to accept handouts or to buy low-priced, cut-price, poorer-quality food. They do not have the dignity of participating in the way the rest of us can.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The knock-down-price items are not necessarily things that I would like to eat, but for some people that is the only choice that they have.

When a food bank voucher is issued, people have to tick a box to explain why they are going to that food bank. I will talk more in a moment about the vouchers, but there were two main reasons why people were referred to food banks in 2011-12. The biggest reason was benefit delay: 30% of people nationally gave that reason when the Trussell Trust aggregated the reasons why people were going to food banks. It is higher in my own constituency; I will come to those figures in a moment. Low income was the second main reason, at 20%.

I will say a little about DWP figures. I know that this matter is not directly under the Minister’s control, but it is particularly relevant to this debate. The DWP has something called the AACT—average actual clearance time—target. It says that it aims to ensure that people get income support within nine days, jobseeker’s allowance within 11 days and employment and support allowance within 14 days.

If someone has no money and suddenly finds themselves in a desperate situation, those waiting times are difficult enough, but we know that 45% of professionals referring families and adults for food packages cited troubles and delays with benefits, that that figure was up from about 40% the year before and that it had more than doubled since the recession began.

The DWP has issued a response to the figures; this was in The Guardian on 16 October 2012. It stated:

“In response to the figures, a DWP spokesperson cited the fact that 80% of benefit claims were turned around in 16 days,”

so it is not even meeting its targets.

Could I finish? Forgive me.

I asked the question: what about the 20% of people who do not get their benefits within the 16 days? Those are the very people having to access emergency food aid. I know from speaking to many of the volunteers who run the food banks, not just in my own constituency but in other places, that their anecdotal evidence is that when the food banks opened a few years ago, people had to wait two weeks for their benefits, but now it is up to six to eight weeks. I reiterate the point that if someone has no money for six to eight weeks, they have no money. How on earth are they expected to live?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me again—and feel chastised as well. To be serious, that tremendous delay in people receiving their money is a tragedy, and of course it drives people into the arms of the loan sharks, both legal and illegal, which sucks even more money out of their purses and wallets when they want to be feeding their children. Does my hon. Friend agree that the work done by our hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) is essential as we go forward to protect people who are hungry?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that intervention. I will come to the point about the amounts that people have to spend on emergency finance. I mentioned before that four out of five people who were struggling to eat also took out a short-term loan. That is adding to their costs, which means that they cannot spend money on food.

My hon. Friend is being most generous with her time. I am thoroughly enjoying her speech. Before she moves on from the delays in getting benefits, I want to mention the growing problem of people who have been on employment support allowance and are told, “Sorry, you no longer qualify.” Their higher level of benefit suddenly drops and they can be waiting not months, but a year or more for the decision to be reversed, which most of the time it is.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. A number of hon. Members here will have had constituents come to see them in clear need of employment support allowance. They have to go through the whole tribunal process to get the result they were expecting in the first place. While all that is happening, months go by and they have literally nothing. If they have no support structures, family or friends, they will struggle to eat.

I reinforce the point about delays in benefit payments because people say that it is the main reason why they struggle to eat, but the issue is also about income. The incomes of low and middle-income families declined by 4.2% between 2010 and 2011 and, according to the autumn statement, people are expected to face a 1.2% reduction in their post-tax income in 2015-16. There is a cumulative effect and a negative impact on people’s income, the choices they can make and the food they can buy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned payday loans and their cost. The number of payday loans has grown by 300% in the past two years, according to figures from the debt counselling charity, StepChange Debt Charity. About 5 million people now have to rely on legal loan sharks to make ends meet. I find that staggering. Legal loan sharks make huge profits off the back of lending to people at excessive interest rates of up to 16,000%. We have all heard of Wonga. This year, it made £45 million in pure profit and its main director took home a salary of £1.6 million.

I shall give just one story: a constituent got themselves into trouble trying to make ends meet and their repayments are now more than their take-home salary. That is a tragic state of affairs. Research last month from R3, the insolvency organisation, found that 8% of consumers said that they expected to take on a short-term loan to meet their costs over the coming weeks, which is particularly significant in the run-up to Christmas. Its research also shows that over the past six months, one in 10 had prioritised paying back a payday loan over paying for food.

I spoke a little about the extent of the problem and why people are affected, and other Members have mentioned it too. I return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth made about the kinds of people who have to access food banks; it is not only the homeless or the out-of-work, as we might expect. I am sure we all have stories about when we went to food banks and heard first hand from those who have to access emergency food aid—there are as many in work as out of work. For many, food poverty is the product of a toxic combination of low wages, austerity economics, spiralling food prices, lengthy delays to benefit payments and cuts to working tax credit.

Government figures show that lower-income households are being hit hardest by price rises. They now spend about 15.8% of their income on food, which is nearly 3% more than the average household. Jobseeker’s allowance for a single adult is currently no more than £71 a week, leaving little over £1.50 a day for food. What happens if there is an emergency and someone has to pay for something? It leaves them with little or nothing to pay for food.

The picture is not much better for those in work. Apply the same calculation to a full-time worker on the minimum wage, and, after tax, they are left with just £4.66 a day for food. It is very difficult to eat healthily and properly on such small amounts.

Hon. Members have mentioned Magic Breakfast. I want to labour this point because food poverty is hitting children at school—children are going to school without food in their stomachs. Magic Breakfast is the largest provider of free healthy breakfasts in England. Last year alone, it provided more than 1 million healthy breakfasts, in 205 schools, to children who would otherwise have started the school day hungry.

With The Guardian, Magic Breakfast surveyed 600 teachers in June on their experience of pupil hunger. The figures are so distressing: 83% of teachers said that they saw evidence of pupil hunger in their classes in the mornings and 55% of them said that they had seen an increase in hungry children in their classes. When asked why more children were arriving at school hungry, they said that they believed that the biggest factors were general poverty, pressure from the cost of living and a lack of cookery skills and nutritional knowledge.

I shall reflect a little on my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made some points about the food bank we went to in north Liverpool. I shall look at the scale of the problem in my locality; other hon. Members will talk about areas and communities that they represent. North Liverpool food bank serves my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend. Until 11 December—not even the whole year—it had issued 1,644 vouchers and fed 3,470 people, 1,272 of whom were children. The most common reasons for going to the centre were delays in benefits, 32.1%, and the refusal of a crisis loan.

I have not talked about the refusal of crisis loans yet, and other hon. Members may have stories of their constituents trying to access a crisis loan because they found themselves in crisis. I have heard stories from constituents who have spent all day on the phone trying to get through to the crisis loan number—they can no longer apply at the job centre—but they could not get through, so they had no money and could not eat.

Central Liverpool food bank, in my constituency, issued 2,051 vouchers and fed 3,900 people, 1,307 of whom were children. Comparing November 2011 with November 2012, the bank has seen a 114% increase in the number of vouchers given out a month. It is striking.

This has proven to be an excellent debate so far. In Bristol, the police are giving out vouchers to people caught shoplifting. Some might criticise that as being soft on crime, but I think it is an excellent initiative. They realise that people are shoplifting because they simply cannot afford to feed their families any other way. It is terribly sad that we are in a country and a society where such things have to happen, but does my hon. Friend agree that the police should be commended for that scheme?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We all have stories about the increase in shoplifting for food. The police in Bristol are running that initiative and I wonder whether other hon. Friends have examples of the police doing that in other cities. I do not know whether they are doing it in Merseyside. I will ask my chief constable.

I reflected on food banks in my area; I have used a lot of statistics and I will talk in a moment about the stories. I am conscious of the time. My speech is taking quite a while. No one walks into a food bank with their head held high. If anyone has heard their stories, they will know that people go to food banks feeling ashamed. We must acknowledge and recognise that.

I have been to the Merseyside depot of FareShare, which I mentioned. FareShare is a fantastic organisation that collects food at the point of production if it is a bit damaged or there is surplus. It distributes it to a network of not only food banks but other organisations, such as Churches, community groups and homeless shelters. FareShare Merseyside alone is redistributing 18.5 tonnes of food every month. It has seen a 50% increase in demand for food since July. I have seen it for myself. I have seen the board; it has a very long list of groups waiting to sign up, but it does not have the food to provide them with.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, because I know she is under time pressure. One initiative, piloted in Bristol, worked with organisations such as FareShare and FoodCycle, to develop a database of exactly where food waste was, so that it could be linked with the outlets and donated to people in need. It was initiated after a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs summit. The supermarkets agreed to take part, because they were worried about legislative action—my Food Waste Bill—compelling them to give such food to charity. Now that the threat of legislative action is receding, it seems that supermarkets are less willing to participate in the pilot. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a great shame and that we need to make sure that food that is going to waste is linked up with people in need?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to raise the point in my conclusion, but I will reflect on it now. A good trial is going on in her area, and we hope it will be replicated across the country when the results are complete. Yes, all supermarkets have a responsibility to do everything not only to minimise the food they waste but to ensure they waste none whatever so that people can benefit. That is a separate issue, which needs to be dealt with by itself, and it will not necessarily address all the issues of food poverty. However, I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend said, and I hope the Minister can respond.

I want to take a moment to share some stories about constituents who are in this predicament, because it is important that we personalise the issue, rather than just using figures. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for referring to my film about food poverty, which I made because I was so distraught after January’s debate; indeed, now is perhaps a good time to reflect on what happened during that debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has responsibility for the natural environment and fisheries, singled out myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—I do not know whether my hon. Friend recalls this—saying

“it is ridiculous to say that the rise in the need for food banks is attributable to this Government”—[Official Report, 23 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 80.]

I contest that 100%, and that is what motivated me to make my film, to carry on campaigning and to have this debate, although I should add that several other Members also called for it.

I want to reflect on people’s stories about why they have to access emergency food aid. In my film, I spoke to Patricia, who had been employed her whole life after leaving school. In her last job, she had worked for 22 years as a bookkeeper. She has only ever contributed and only ever wanted to play her part and to work. Having been in her post for 22 years, however, she was made redundant because of the cuts to local authorities. Of the past 13 months, she has worked for just two, despite making literally hundreds of applications. She cannot afford the internet, but she is in the library every day trying to seek employment, and she goes for interviews and all the rest of it. I went to Patricia’s small flat, and I saw at first hand that it was cold, that the cupboards were bare and that there was nothing in the fridge. She had £3.60 in her wallet to last her for the week. It is people such as Patricia—the strivers, who want to make a contribution and who have worked all their lives— who have to hang their heads in shame and go to a food bank.

I met a man who had been in hospital having heart surgery when his benefits were stopped. When he came out, he found that his electricity pre-payment meter had run out; he had left a light on, but someone had burgled his home anyway. A district nurse issued him with a food voucher because he had no food in his stomach and had not eaten for two days. Although still recovering from heart surgery, he walked four miles in the freezing cold and rain to access emergency food aid.

In addition, I met a single father of three who was trying to do the best for his family. Someone had said, “Here’s a food voucher so you can feed your children.” He had gone without food for more than two days to feed his kids. That is the reality that too many of our constituents face. I hope the Minister will not give us a similar response to his colleague, who told us that it is “ridiculous” to say this problem is attributable to the Government. I do attribute the blame to this Government, and the fact is that all those charities have to step in and fill the gap.

I was looking through the press, and I want to mention some of the stories and headlines. In just the past three months, we have seen headlines such as “Desperate people facing 20-mile hike for food” in the Metro. The Sunday Express—these are papers we would not expect to talk about these stories—had the headline, “3m people starving in the UK: Parents having to choose between eating or heating.” In the Daily Mail, we saw the headline “Schools teach cookery on Fridays so hungry children from families too poor to eat have food for the weekend.” Another headline referred to the fact that 10% of families do not have enough food. Other headlines included, “Mum starves herself to feed kids—and re-wraps their toys as Christmas presents” and “Demand for food parcels explodes as welfare cuts and falling pay hit home.” The Yorkshire Post ran the headline, “Rising food prices raise fears of a ‘hidden hunger epidemic.’” The list goes on. It is a really sad indictment.

I have mentioned some of the organisations involved. FareShare does a fantastic job of providing food to 722 community food members. The Trussell Trust has 270 food banks, and there are other food banks that are not included in that figure. The trust provides three days’ worth of nutritionally balanced non-perishable foods, and 90% of the food given out by the food banks is donated by the public.

I reiterate that people cannot just turn up at a food bank and ask for food; they need a food voucher issued to them. I and a number of other MPs are in the difficult position of being able to issue food vouchers to our constituents if we feel that they are in need. It is a difficult and sensitive situation to broach; sometimes when I meet constituents I feel that I really have no choice but to softly ask whether they want food vouchers. I can tell that constituents are ashamed and embarrassed, but they take the voucher because it means they will get to eat properly.

If I might reflect on what my hon. Friend has just said, food parcels are extremely basic: they include basic rice and basic pasta—there is nothing glamorous in them at all. Other charities are doing equally important work in offering hot, nutritionally balanced meals, with meat, veg and everything else, rather than just what we find in a food parcel. I note that the audience includes colleagues from the Salvation Army, which runs a fantastic community café in my constituency called Grub In A Tub. The café provides nutritionally balanced meals for £3, and people go there every day to get warm and to get a hot meal inside themselves. I commend the work that such organisations do on top of the work being done by the food banks.

I thank my hon. Friend for commending the work of the Salvation Army. I mentioned Magic Breakfast. He is right to suggest that the food from a food bank is non-perishable and not fresh; it is tinned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as pasta, cereal and UHT milk, so it is nothing glamorous. I also commend the work of FoodCycle, which provides fresh meals for people across the country. Its network of three cafés is growing, and it does a great job using food that would otherwise go to waste.

I know that supermarkets have to play their part, but I would like to take a moment to commend their recent work on making food collections, which several of us will have been involved in. At the start of October, Sainsbury’s, in partnership with FareShare, did a national collection, collecting 2 million meals from its customers. As customers came into its stores, they were given a list of things to collect, and they donated them afterwards. Six hundred volunteers helped in that exercise. Only last week, the Co-operative group teamed up with the ITV breakfast show “Daybreak” and the Salvation Army for the “You CAN Help” food campaign. I went to my local Co-op store and saw the cans being collected, and I made a contribution myself. The final figure for the collection is not known exactly, but it is expected that more than 110,000 cans will be redistributed across the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I commend the work supermarkets are doing in partnership with charities—I had hoped to make this point later—but they must make sure they are not part of the very problem she talks about by paying people poverty wages or giving them zero-hours contracts and only part-time work. Obviously, it is commendable that supermarkets are doing something to try to deal with the problem once it is created, but they must make sure they are not part of the problem in the first place.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree. Some supermarkets are a lot better than others in terms of the contracts they give out. Not every supermarket has taken part in food collections. It is important to add that Sainsbury’s and Tesco both made sure that they did not make any profit from the collections that they made. Of course supermarkets have a massive role to play in many ways, including ensuring that their staff are not living on poverty wages.

I was at the Tesco collection in my constituency last week, at the store that collected more than any other in the country. People were incredibly generous. We collected 15,000 meals at the store in Allerton road. Tesco collected 2 million meals and gave a 30% top-up. The public have shown tremendous generosity, but we should not have to have such collections.

I want quickly to reflect on the future. I have spoken about people in work who are in poverty and mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures of the other week. There are in this country more people in poverty who are in work than there are out of work. That is important, and the Government should reflect on it. We have had the autumn statement; we did not get an answer from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but we know from analysis done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that 60% of the people who are most affected are those in working households and that the poorest 10% of the population will have the biggest percentage drop in their incomes because of the autumn statement. Many organisations have raised serious concerns about how that will affect what happens. Barnardo’s talks about families that currently exist on only £12 per person and are worried about the future.

Yesterday, as reported in column 152 of Hansard, I asked the Chancellor whether he was ashamed that by the end of this year, on his watch, 250,000 people would obtain emergency food aid. I was disappointed that he did not want to reflect at all on the substance of my question and the serious issue that people face. He referred only to having to deal with the economic challenges. I urge the Minister to think long and hard, particularly now that we are in the run-up to Christmas, about what the Government can do to help not only the people in our society who are most in need but the people we least expect to find suddenly in desperate and difficult circumstances.

I do not know whether the Minister has visited a food bank. Perhaps he will tell us whether he has been able to see one at first hand and speak to people who must obtain emergency food aid. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made a good point about the role that supermarkets should play in redistribution and in preventing the waste of food. That important issue needs to be dealt with. However, I would like to know what the Minister is doing and what conversations he has with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, particularly about delay in benefit payments, which is the largest contributory factor in the need to get emergency food aid. What conversations has he had or what representations has he made to his colleagues in the Treasury, in the light of the autumn statement, about the fact that the poorest in society will be hit hardest? My concern is that the situation will only get worse if the Government do not do something serious about it soon.

We have had a full debate so far, and the hon. Lady was generous in giving way more than 20 times. The subject is important, and five hon. Members have written to ask to take the floor. I must call those Members, but the two Front-Bench Members must also speak, so if there are any interventions, can they be brief, and will those called to speak try to leave a little time for their colleagues to make their points?

It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for obtaining it. Everyone will be shocked at the explosion in the number of food banks that have opened. On behalf of my party as well as myself, I thank charities, Churches and faith organisations that run food banks and particularly volunteers and donors who enable food to be made available.

I hear what the hon. Gentlemen says about his party; but does he condemn the Conservative party for not having a single person on the Benches with him?

All I can say is it was a bit of a surprise when I turned up to the debate and I was the only coalition Back-Bench Member who had come to make a speech; but let that be as it may.

We have heard about the Trussell Trust. Giving out food is not a simple thing; there are all the hygiene regulations that go along with it, and the trust does a lot of work to support the banks to ensure that their work is properly organised.

Poverty is distressing wherever we see it, and food poverty never goes alone. The question whether to eat or heat has been asked for many years, and Parliament has addressed fuel poverty since 2001, when I was first elected. Food poverty is not a new issue, either. In February 2009, I asked a parliamentary question about the proportion of income spent on food by the poorest 10%. The answer that came back on 5 February 2009, as published in column 1451W of Hansard, was that they spent 22% of their income on food. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree gave a figure of 15%, which may be the result of a different form of statistics; I am not trying to make a point of that. The point that I want to make is that the issue is a growing one, which has had to be addressed for many years.

From about 1995 to about 2005, we were in a halcyon period for food prices, which reduced in real terms, and the amount that families spent on food as a proportion of their income was reducing, but we have had a change since 2005 and food prices have gone up for many reasons. Other countries have become more economically capable and have achieved higher incomes. There has been greater demand for meat and dairy products, for instance, from countries that previously relied on grain and rice. That has had a huge effect on the price of food over the period in question. There has also been an increase in world population. According to the Foresight report, which is an excellent book about food and food prices, if we have a world population of 9 billion people by 2050, we can expect even more pressure on food prices.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree set out today’s problem comprehensively, and she is right that it has two aspects, the first of which is obviously lower incomes in a time of economic problems. People are on lower wages and salaries. Many people’s salaries have been pegged for three, four or more years, and there have been problems with benefits as well; but I believe that we could also deal with rising prices. My speech, which will last just a few minutes, is mainly intended to tell the Minister that this country must play its part in ensuring that global food production can feed the world at a price that people can afford.

The period 1995 to 2005 was typified by low food prices, on the back of a huge amount of agricultural research done from the 1960s to the 1980s that gave us the capability to produce food. As food prices fell during that time, Governments and commercial organisations did not invest as much as they could or should in agricultural research. We have lost that driver, which would have ensured a secure supply of food to keep prices reasonably low and certainly affordable for the poor around the world as well as in this country. The Government need to play their part to establish such research once again.

I want to mention that the fluctuation of food prices can be very damaging for not only consumers but producers. The Foresight report states:

“High levels of volatility in global food markets are an issue because of the adverse effects they have on consumers and producers, because of the disruption they cause to the global food system, and, when particularly severe, because of the general economic and political instability that can occur. These effects will be most severe for low-income countries and the poor”—

in more developed countries—

“and spikes in food price can be a major cause of increased hunger.”

The hon. Gentleman is making important points, which I welcome, about the wider challenges of food prices in the world. Does he have any thoughts about the impact of speculative commodity trading on food prices and biofuel targets driving up the price of certain foods both here and abroad?

If I had more time, I could deal with those issues. I was going to speak briefly about speculation and food prices. Some people say that forward buying and hedging on foods may lead to more level prices, but others argue exactly the opposite. The Government need to find out the exact effect of speculation on food prices.

The Government should also consider, certainly in a global context, having strategic reserves of staple foods. For instance, the amount of wheat now in store has been greatly reduced from what it was 10 years ago. It is not surprising that wheat costs about £220 a tonne on the market today, whereas 10 years ago the cost was certainly less than £100. Huge spikes and fluctuations have caused real difficulty for people on low incomes.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree on her speech. We must see food banks as a temporary measure—I hope that it is only temporary—to address food poverty in this country. In the longer term, we must look to more strategic approaches in playing a part to ensure that global food production is sufficient not only for this country, but for the whole world.

Order. There are still four Members plus the two Front Benchers to speak. If colleagues helped one another, that would be very good.

I will be as quick as I can, Sir Alan. I want to add a few points to the comprehensive introduction given by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).

Food poverty is becoming an urgent safeguarding issue for children in this country. Not only are malnutrition-related illnesses—anaemia, scurvy, diabetes and rickets—on the rise, but teacher surveys increasingly show that children come to school hungry and dirty. About half of teachers now admit to bringing in food for them from their own home, and about a quarter of teachers now say that they have given them money from their wages to buy food.

My police force—Greater Manchester police—has said that children shoplift simply to get food. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned a similar situation in Bristol, and the Metropolitan police have said the same. Recently, Save the Children launched its first ever UK-wide appeal for feeding and clothing children in the United Kingdom. In 2012, surely we can do better than that. I agree with Save the Children that that quite simply should not happen here. There is also the appalling spectacle of Jobcentre Plus referring people directly to food banks. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree that food banks are now seen as part of the welfare state.

How on earth have we got here? I can tell the Minister that we have got here for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend—a combination of rising food prices, which have risen at three times the G7 average, and benefit delays, high unemployment, part-time work and poverty. At the same time, the Government are stripping away support for children and families. We have seen cuts to the early intervention grant of about 40%, coupled with cuts to children’s services. We have seen changes to free school meals that will take 350,000 children out of that entitlement, although one in four children rely on free school meals for their only hot meal of the day. The Institute for Fiscal Studies now predicts that, by 2020, child poverty will stand at 2.4 million. In this country, that is a damning indictment of what this Government are doing to communities and children.

We are seeing not only a response from charities, but from Labour councils. Where the Government will not step in, they are doing so. In Islington and Newham, the councils have introduced universal free school meals, and in Hull, the council has reduced the cost of school meals to just £1. I want the Minister to take away this point: if the Government do not care about child poverty, fine—they do not care—but food poverty threatens completely to derail their own outcomes, such as education improvement and the other stated outcomes of the Secretary of State for Education. There is no chance that children who arrive at school so hungry that they cannot think straight can achieve the sort of outcomes that he talks about.

Similarly, the autumn statement has recently been delivered by a Chancellor who seeks to make a distinction between strivers and scroungers. Oxfam says that 60% of the families using its food banks across Greater Manchester are in work. About half the children now growing up in poverty have parents who work, in many cases with both parents working. That makes an absolute nonsense of the distinction between strivers and scroungers. If the Government will not feel shame from the moral case that is made about child poverty in this country, will they at least understand that it threatens their own outcomes and that action must be taken?

I will be briefer than I had intended, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for securing this debate, her excellent speech and her campaigning outside Parliament, which has been noticed and appreciated by many people.

As a society, we want to look after our children, nurture them and make them happy and healthy. Everyone in the room surely finds the idea of children going hungry truly shocking. However, the evidence all around us is that many families find it increasingly difficult to give their children enough to eat.

It is worth pausing for a minute to let that idea sink in. In 21st-century Britain, when we carry around more technology in the mobile phones in our pockets than it took to get to the moon, when we can cure diseases that were deadly a generation ago and can pay our sports stars £250,000 a week, how can it be that any child goes to bed or to school hungry? That is shocking, and it should be shocking.

I agree that we have to admire the Church groups, charities, volunteers and groups such as the Trussell Trust, which have stepped in to run food banks to help the most vulnerable. Across the country, thousands of people have appreciated their help. They do tremendous work, and I would definitely pay tribute to their commitment, hard work and dedication. However, I am also deeply concerned that many people are forced to seek such help. I hope that this debate, and some of the personal stories that we have heard, will encourage the Government to take another look at what is happening here in the UK.

With food and energy prices rising more quickly than wages, more and more working families are finding themselves edging towards food poverty. They often struggle simply to get by from week to week. Many of them just do not have enough to spare when something unexpected happens. Any sort of unanticipated crisis—whether redundancy, bereavement, delays in benefit payments or even the breakdown of a freezer—leaves them with nowhere to turn but the food bank.

My local citizens advice bureau tells me that the majority of people needing food parcels in my area are in that situation because their benefits have been stopped or their expected payments have been delayed. That should particularly be in our minds when we consider the transition to universal credit. Other examples of reasons given by the CAB include people leaving prison who have had to wait for their benefits to start, someone who lost their job because of mental health problems after working for 23 years, and a woman whose husband had just died and was not able to access his bank accounts until after probate.

Many people who have received such help appreciate it, but I agree that in nearly every case they have exhausted every other option before having to turn to a food bank. We should acknowledge—I am pleased that other Members have said this—that it is never an easy option to go to a food bank. We should not underestimate the stigma that people feel when forced to do that. As our economy fails to recover, unemployment remains high and prices increase, I fear that it will become increasingly routine for the most vulnerable to have to turn to such help.

Last month, I joined Church leaders and volunteers collecting groceries from shoppers in my local Tesco store, for a food bank in east Tameside that has just been set up by the Trussell Trust. I was struck by the incredible generosity of people, many of whom are not enjoying the best of times. In only two days, the charity collected almost 2 tonnes of groceries from shoppers in Stalybridge, an incredible amount given that people are tightening their belts. That shows how determined we can be to help those most in need when we come together as a community.

It is appropriate that this debate should follow yesterday’s discussion of the autumn statement in the main Chamber. Government policies, whether it is the increase in VAT, the real-terms cuts to tax credits and benefits or decisions that have led to people losing their jobs, are hitting the most vulnerable people in society. As families struggle with higher living costs, lower wages and changes to welfare, the situation will only get worse, especially after April when some of the welfare benefit changes come into force.

If the Chancellor had come to the Chamber yesterday with an autumn statement that uprated benefits and asked everyone to give more, that would have been one thing, but the autumn statement represented a net give-away for the next three fiscal years. There was money for tax cuts for millionaires and for corporation tax cuts for banks, but the money has to come from the people who get up and go to work for some of the lowest wages in this country. How come that is not an economic necessity as much as lowering corporation tax is? That is the question that the Government must answer. I think, though, that we know the answer. It is a sick and cynical political game that is designed to be some sort of political strategy. We need to know from the Liberal Democrat MPs whether they think that is a good thing to go along with.

Finally, I agree with the points made about the long-term future of food banks. We know from America, where food banks operate very widely and often on a huge basis, that they are essential in the short term but are not a long-term solution. I do not want to see them publicly funded, as in some American states, and we should recognise that if that happened, it would be an erosion of the state’s responsibilities to its own people. To rely on food banks as a long-term policy solution would be to gloss over the underlying causes of poverty and falsely to give an illusion of security.

Rising food poverty should be of concern to us all. But up and down the country tonight, as families struggle with lower incomes and the squeezed cost of living, we all have to admit that food poverty is the reality of modern Britain.

Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan; I know that I have only a short time—my voice is going, so I must be quick anyway.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on an absolute tour de force of a speech. She touched on many of the points that I was going to mention in my contribution. Like many hon. Members, I recently visited a food bank; this one was in Risca in my constituency. I went to Tesco and saw people giving up food that they had struggled to pay for. Their generosity moved me and got me thinking about this debate, which is about food poverty in the run-up to Christmas.

The most famous Christmas story is probably “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the great social reformer and writer who celebrates his 200th birthday this year. When the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge, he reveals a boy and a girl. He says:

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.”

As I look around the Chamber today, I see many colleagues on the Labour Benches. I do not see a single Member from the Conservative party. Their absence damns them. It shows what they think of the most vulnerable in society. As they criminalise the unemployed, those who are too sick to work and those who find themselves in the most dire circumstances, they do not realise that those using the food banks and claiming benefits are people in work. Those are the people who are struggling. What would Charles Dickens say if he were to come alive at this point? He would be ashamed that in the 21st century—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Minister to laugh.

Yes, he is laughing. But food banks are now a way of life. [Interruption.] The Minister may get angry and annoyed, but when a person is struggling, when they do not have food in their belly and they are sending their children to bed hungry—[Interruption.] He says it is pathetic.

You look into their eyes and you tell them that this Government’s policy is the right one. You tell them. You say that it is pathetic. You talk to those people in my constituency who are struggling and you say it is pathetic. The Minister should be ashamed of himself as he stands here today and defends his Government. Look into those eyes and remember those families.

The last Member to speak is Stephen Doughty. Can you try to speak for a measured period of time? You have been very tenacious today and have had half a dozen interventions. It shows your tenacity, but we do not want to take away time from the two Front-Bench speakers, who need to give answers to the questions that have been posed, including many from you.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members for allowing me to intervene. I do not want to go over the ground that I have already covered. I would appreciate it if colleagues noted my recent employment at Oxfam and my work with the Trussell Trust, FareShare and the Co-operative Group, which has been in the last six months.

I want to share a couple of brief personal reflections. In 2005, when I was working with the charity World Vision, I travelled to Malawi and saw the work of the UN world food programme. Supplies were being handed out to people in the famine-struck areas of southern Malawi and southern Africa.

I watched as women, who were literally skin and bone, and people suffering from HIV were queuing up to receive packets of rice and basic foodstuff. I have seen absolute poverty in the world. I did not expect to come here to talk about people in this country receiving parcels from food banks. Although the circumstances that the people in Malawi and the people in Cardiff South and Penarth find themselves in are qualitatively different, the same loss of hope and dignity and the stigma are absolutely there. I really want to press that point on the Minister so that he can reply to it in his speech.

I have met many families in my constituency. In Llanrumney, I met a family who have a severely disabled child with a health condition and who wrongly had the support for that child removed. As they had to budget very carefully, they had realised that they had no money that week to pay for electricity or food. They had called up for a crisis loan—many of my hon. Friends referred to the use of such loans—and were told that they could not have one. Where was the child benefit, they were asked, and why had it been spent.

The mother revealed that she had budgeted very carefully the week before and had bought a birthday present for her daughter. The crisis loan helpline told her that she should not have bought that present and was therefore not eligible for a crisis loan, which was why she had to go to a food bank. I really want to press that point about the stigma and the indignity of the situation that many families find themselves in.

We have heard about the perfect storm of rising prices, low and stagnating incomes and their effect on people. I do not want to rehash the statistics, but I want to press the point with the Minister that people do not understand why millionaires are getting tax cuts when so many are having to rely on food banks. People look at the priorities of this Government and simply do not understand them.

I also want to reiterate the point about the impact on health. I have talked about how low-income families were taking in less fruit and vegetables, because the prices of those items have gone up by about 30%. It is clear from the evidence that low-income families have a higher rate of diet-related disease. Will the Minister tell us whether he has had conversations with colleagues at the Department of Health and in the devolved Administrations about the hidden costs of those health impacts on people in Wales and across the UK?

Many of my colleagues talked about supermarkets. I commend Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op for supporting the food banks, but I ask them to look at their own pricing policies. Some of the smaller stores, such as Tesco Express, charge differentially higher prices on key items such as milk and bread. The prices are far higher than in the larger supermarkets, which people who cannot afford to drive a car cannot reach. I urge the supermarkets to look at that matter. Has the Minister had any conversations with them?

I commend the work of many organisations in my constituency. I have mentioned Grub in a Tub and the many day centres that are providing hot meals for elderly members of the constituency. Oxfam and the Co-operative Group in Wales have been working together to raise funds for the Seeds of Hope programme, which is funding co-operatives in Africa and in Newport in south Wales. I thank you for your indulgence, Sir Alan, and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of my points.

I am pleased to respond to this debate from the Labour Front Bench. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for what was, I agree, a real tour de force. Her speech set out in comprehensive detail and with passion what is happening not only nationally but in her own constituency. I commend her not only for opening this debate but for her work on the issue. I also commend the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and all other colleagues who have spoken so passionately on so many interventions. That shows the strength of feeling about this debate and the reality of what is happening on the ground. I also thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) for his contribution, some aspects of which I will address. I note that he was equally shocked at the recent explosion in the number of food banks.

In previous debates on food poverty and food affordability, I have discussed in great detail strategic aspects of food policy, including global commodity speculation, domestic food security and resilience, so I do not intend to repeat those arguments. Instead, I will ask the Minister a very simple and direct question that has already been put by many others today: why, at Christmas 2012 in an advanced and developed nation, are we facing a rising tide of food poverty, with working families and individuals, as well as the unemployed, turning up in greater numbers every day at food banks and relying more and more on the immense and invaluable generosity of others?

The contribution of time and effort by volunteers at food banks, kitchens and food collection and distribution points throughout the country is quite simply incredible and inspiring. People—who are often themselves of limited means—have risen to the challenge of sharing food with those who, temporarily or otherwise, are unable to feed themselves and their families. We should be proud of that generosity of spirit, and proud of that statement of shared humanity. It is not pity; it is far more than simple charity. It is a recognition that—in a way that the Government have failed to understand—we actually are all in this together.

That is why Labour is supporting the work of groups such as FareShare, the Trussell Trust, FoodCycle and so many more that have been mentioned today that are responding to a real, immediate and growing crisis in the country. We should be proud of that endeavour and proud of the amazing collective response; yet we should also be ashamed as an advanced first-world nation that the state—the Government—is quietly walking away from its responsibilities to its citizens.

As we approach Christmas, I say to the Government—to good Ministers in this Government—that they are playing their part at the moment in the good Samaritan parable, but it is not the role that we want them to play. As others are stepping in to help the victims of food poverty and wider poverty who are in need, the Government are walking by on the other side of the road.

The Government have now presided over a decline into “Breadline Britain”, which is the title of one of the most comprehensive studies of the parlous finances of working households—not the unemployed, but the employed. The study estimated that nearly 7 million working-age adults are living in extreme financial stress, despite being in employment, and each of those households was just one step from penury—from extreme poverty. There are 2.2 million children in those households, although Save the Children estimates that as many as 3.5 million children may now be experiencing food poverty.

That is why increasingly the human face of food banks is not only the person relying on welfare support, although they are there: the pensioner who is otherwise faced with a choice between heating and eating and who can postpone making that choice at a food bank and the recently jobless mother finding that she cannot make the budget stretch for the whole week, sometimes choosing between feeding herself and her child. They—and many more—are there and are receiving support. But so are the working poor—people who find that the rising costs of living and declining real incomes mean that the ends no longer meet. As economic indicators go, the rise in payday lenders on otherwise struggling high streets is a sad indictment of socio-economic failure.

I make a “Christmas future” prediction for the Minister. More people will rely on the support of food banks this Christmas than last Christmas, and next Christmas more people will be in that situation than this Christmas, when the changes to welfare—including those announced in the autumn statement—fully kick in, affecting not only those reliant on benefits, who we have heard about, but the majority who are actually in work.

If the Minister does not want to listen to me, I ask him to listen instead to the Government’s one-time poverty tsar and a former welfare Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who said:

“Recent welfare cuts and policy changes make it difficult to advise these people where they should turn to get out of it: it really is genuinely shocking.”

As the Member of Parliament for Ogmore, I personally endorse his concerns. The days of an MP signposting constituents to sources of support in troubled times are diminishing, as those social security and local emergency support structures weaken and crumble under this Government.

I do not believe that any Minister or coalition Member of Parliament came into the House to do the wrong thing by the people they represent, but they cannot continue to argue that they are helpless against global economic storms. The decline into “Breadline Britain” is happening on their watch, day by day, month by month, and now year after year. They can choose to do better, and that is why this debate cannot be, and has not been, simply about the amazing work carried out by those groups and organisations that have chosen not to walk by but to help their neighbours, in the best traditions of Christians, Muslims, all faith groups and no-faith groups—in the best traditions of humanity.

We applaud and continue to support the work of those groups and organisations—we could not do without them—but we ask the Government also to recognise that their own actions on benefits and tax reforms and their social and economic policies are not only failing to alleviate the problems but are worsening the situation. Think again, before it is too late.

This has been a worthwhile debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for introducing it. I also commend the other hon. Members who have taken part: my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). They have all made valuable contributions today.

I want to say from the start that I do not think that any Member should ever ignore the fact that there are people who face the most invidious choices that any person should ever have to make in their daily lives—choices about finding the money and deciding whether their family is able to eat or whether they have to meet the other demands on what are sometimes their very meagre incomes. That problem has existed for a very long time indeed, but I recognise—it would be very silly not to do so—that those pressures are increasing, particularly in the food sector, because of the cost of food and the fact that that cost is putting increasing pressure on many households at a time when the economic circumstances of this country are far from good and when there is a lot of difficulty.

Where I part company with some of those who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, is the contention that this has somehow been concocted by the current Government and that it is the current Government’s fault that we find people in these situations, because it clearly is not. The circumstances of poverty have been with us for a long time.

I am not sure that the concept of food poverty is actually a helpful one in this context. Poverty is the issue; the fact that people find it difficult to meet what is required to help their families to survive. That is the problem in this country. When we talk about fuel poverty, we are talking about a number of different factors; we are talking about whether there is energy wastage in people’s homes that they cannot afford to do something about. But with food, the essential issue is the price and the fact that people have or have not got enough money in their pockets to deal with it—end of story. That is why we must remember that these issues have persisted for a very long time and certainly through the most recent recession.

No, I have not got time to give way.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree made a point, which was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, about the percentage of income or budget spent by a less wealthy family on food; she made the comparison between the figures of 15.8% and 11%. But the fact is that if we go back to 2003-04—a situation that was not, I think, the result of the present Government—we were looking at figures of 16.3% and 10.4%. So a higher proportion of their budget was actually spent on food by less well-off families in those days, and there was also a bigger differential. It is important that people recognise that.

What are the reasons why we have this difficulty? Well, we have a very significant increase in food costs—[Interruption.]

Sir Alan, a lot of people seem to want to intervene from a sedentary position. I am trying to answer the debate in the very brief time that is available to me.

World food commodity prices are probably the biggest and most significant factor. The dollar-sterling exchange rate is a significant factor. There are oil price rises. There is demand for food, which again was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. The fact is that there is now a global demand, and we have to address that as a country that is well placed to produce good-quality food.

I want to pay tribute to the people who are trying to address poverty in our nation, not just in the big cities. Let us remember those who live in rural areas as well and who do not often figure in these debates. I remember that in the last Parliament I was the one Member who raised the issue of rural poverty. I did not get much of a response from the then Government, because they did not want to know about people in rural areas—in better-off areas—who suffered the same problems as others elsewhere.

I give an enormous amount of credit to those who try to deal with this issue through the charitable organisations and the other mechanisms, but it is quite clear that we must do more. I recognise that fact, and I am prepared to do everything that I can, first, to talk to the supermarkets, to enable the maximum amount of food to be made available—

Order. We now move on to the next debate. I ask all those Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so as quietly as they possibly can, so that we can start the next debate. That goes for everyone—Front Benchers and Back Benchers. Thank you very much, colleagues.