[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship this afternoon, Mrs Riordan. I am delighted and dismayed in equal measure to open this debate on food banks in Wales. I never thought, when I entered public life as a Cardiff councillor a long time ago, in 1991, that this topic would become a priority for discussion. I never thought I would see, in my time in public life, the rapid expansion of centres to hand out food to the people of Wales, on a scale unprecedented since the 1930s.
Of course, we from Wales have particularly strong and often bitter memories of the 1930s and of poverty. It was often said of my grandmother, Gwenllian Evans, a miner’s wife from Nantyglo, that she could spread an egg over Cardiff Arms park, such were her culinary skills of making a little go a long way. My mother, who is still alive today and living in Cwmbrân, often told me of the poverty that she grew up in, in the 1930s, in Nantyglo and the times when it was a struggle to feed the family.
I will in a moment. I am just warming up; once I have got into my stride, I will let the hon. Gentleman have a go.
It is for those reasons that I believe the provision of social security is such a strong theme in the history of Welsh politics, and that the rapid increase in food banks in Wales is particularly hard for us in Wales to take.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the history lesson as to what life was like under Ramsay MacDonald in the 1930s. Returning to the present, given the hon. Gentleman’s interest in food banks, why did no Labour Member of Parliament ask any questions about them during the entire period of the previous Labour Government?
It is because food banks were such a minuscule feature on the scene compared with what we see today, despite the Prime Minister’s erroneous use of statistics recently at Prime Minister’s Question Time, in an attempt to sidestep his failure to take note of the rise of food banks over a long period.
It is particularly apt to talk about the 1930s because we are reliving that period of austerity economics. The failures of, and false theories behind, austerity economics are being repeated. We might expect that from the Conservatives, but it is staggering that it is being repeated in the coalition by the party of John Maynard Keynes through its approach to the economy.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the powerful world economic forces that have been at work in the past 20 years. It has almost been like King Canute all over again, trying to hold back the forces of international capitalism over the past 20 years and trying to keep income inequality down. The previous Labour Government did possibly more than any other Labour Government in attempting to alleviate that. For example, they introduced the national minimum wage, which made a massive contribution to trying to alleviate the impact of income inequality, which, in a globalised capitalist system, is difficult to resist.
Last year, in Wrexham, the first food bank was set up since I first came to Parliament in 2001. This April, the richest people in Britain will get a tax cut because of this coalition Government’s policies. That is the type of ethical approach taken by this Government.
I will get a bit further into my stride before I let the hon. Gentleman have another go.
It is no coincidence that the three giants behind the creation of what became known as the welfare state came from Wales: David Lloyd George, Jim Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan. It is particularly ironic that the Government presiding over a policy that is helping to trigger the rapid expansion of food poverty and food charity for the poor are a Government who include members of the successor party to Lloyd George’s Liberals.
The hon. Gentleman calls into question whether the Lib Dems are the successor party. That is another debate for another day. Perhaps Lib Dem members of this Government should recall the words of David Lloyd George as we debate food banks and poverty. In presenting his “people’s Budget” 104 years ago, in 1909, he said:
“This…is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty...I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.”—[Official Report, 29 April 1909; Vol. 4, c. 548.]
I am afraid that under this Government, the wolves of poverty are back, along with the sharks who prey on the financial misfortunes of the poor with their high-rate loans.
Will my hon. Friend comment on a particular feature of the Neath food bank? Some 1,400 people in the Neath area are dependent on the food bank. Around half of those are in work. It is not solely people on benefits who are dependent on food banks; people in work are, too. The Wales Office website has still not taken down the Secretary of State’s commitment that people in work will always be better off than they would be on benefits. Those people are dependent on food banks in my constituency.
Indeed. In a recent debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned that he had collected food for FareShare in Penarth. Many of the people being helped by the food bank were not the people one might expect, but people in work who were struggling to get by. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) has been keen to intervene; I note that a new food bank has opened up in Chepstow. I am sure that he will pay it a visit shortly, if he has not already done so.
In Wales, the rapid expansion of food banks is a subject that resonates and rankles. It is symptomatic of an approach by the Government that represents a shift away from the British belief in the importance of social security, founded by the three great Welsh pioneers and symbolised by the old-age pension, national insurance and the national health service, and its replacement with the alien American concept of welfare stigmatism—the demonisation of the poor and the replacement of the state’s responsibility with the vagaries of the charitable handout. The good society has been gazumped by the ill-named “big society”, in which well-meaning individuals try to patch the gaping holes created by austerity economics.
Would it be too much to ask, on such a serious issue, that we steer away from the notion that all this started in May 2010? A food bank in west Wales, of which I am a patron, started in 2000 under the Labour Government. It is keen to stress that the argument that the hon. Gentleman is pushing is misleading.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not accusing me of misleading the House, because you, Mrs Riordan, would have stamped on him if he had done so. My argument is not that food banks are bad things, or that their work is bad—it is not; it is good. What is wrong is the scale of the work that they have to do because of austerity economics and the rise in the cost of living, which are direct results of this Government’s policies. The Government made the ideological choice to follow an austerity economics policy—
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. That is what is so unfortunate about the Prime Minister’s attempt to use statistical shenanigans to disguise the fact that the real issue is the sheer number of people who now have to go to food banks. I compare that with the charitable aid that was on offer under the previous Government, and that will always be present in our society, one way or another, which is to be welcomed. It is the scale of what is being done, not what is being done, that is most important.
In Swansea, tonnes and tonnes of food are being gathered every month for the food bank, and thousands of people are affected. My hon. Friend will be aware that some 30,000 people now rely on food banks in Wales. What is his projection for after April, when 40,000 people will be affected by the second-bedroom tax? Does he agree that the least well-off will be worse off and relying on food banks?
I will not make a projection, but I am sure the Minister will want to do so, because, of course, he should be very concerned about the impact of the Government’s changes. No doubt he has done a considerable amount of work on the issue raised by my hon. Friend, and he will perhaps say something about it when he winds up the debate.
This is my second and last intervention. Will the hon. Gentleman express a view on a comment made by the 17-year-old food bank in west Wales?
“Statistics are misleading because it takes time to build up referrals and to be known about. The huge increase in recent years should not be taken as being the same thing as a huge increase in need.”
Those are not my comments; they are the comments of a food bank. Will the hon. Gentleman include them in the context of his argument?
Obviously other people assess the need, and not the food bank itself—the vouchers are brought along to the food bank. I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman’s local food bank, of which I am sure he has a better knowledge than I do; I can comment on my local food bank, however. I have heard stories from other hon. Members, and I have seen evidence from across the country. He is burying his head in the sand if he does not think that the vast expansion of food banks is happening because of the impact of austerity economics, welfare benefit changes and the cost of living.
We called this debate to set the record straight on the growing use of food banks in Wales and to highlight the cost of living crisis facing hundreds of thousands of Welsh families.
I am here to listen to the debate because I have constituents who work in Wales, and there are people from Wales who come to work in my constituency. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) highlighted, the issue is as much about people in work as about people out of work. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) share my concern about the explosion of the issue? We have heard about the growth in the number of food banks in Wales, but nationally, a couple of hundred food banks have opened across the UK. By the end of April, 250,000 people in our country will have accessed emergency food aid. Does he not think that is a terrible indictment in 2013 in the seventh most industrialised nation in the world?
I do, and I apologise in advance if I repeat some of those statistics later. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in Liverpool, which is sometimes wrongly referred to as the capital of north Wales, although it certainly has a strong Welsh influence. I recommend to Government Members the YouTube video that she made showing the impact of food banks and of the Government’s policies on the people in her constituency. The video is worth viewing.
The number of people relying on food banks in Wales has trebled over the past year, rising from just over 10,000 to just under 30,000. The issue is the sheer scale of numbers, not the percentage increase. The number, as hon. Members have said, is forecast to rise to 40,000 a year over the next 12 months. The growth of food bank usage in Wales is twice the UK average, which the Minister should think about.
The Government, however, will not acknowledge that the growth in food bank usage is a problem. A Downing street source recently said that food banks are for people who
“feel they need a bit of extra food”.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the casual callousness of that comment, because, like many MPs, I find myself reluctantly handing out food vouchers to my constituents from my constituency office and surgeries, and I never thought I would when I entered public life. I assure Downing street and the Prime Minister that not one of those vouchers has been issued to, nor have I ever been approached by, constituents who
“feel they need a bit of extra food”.
Constituents approach me because they are desperate and do not know how they are going to feed their children this weekend. In short, they are in a crisis and the state is not there to provide immediate assistance.
Like me, I am sure my hon. Friend finds that, when he hands out food vouchers, not everyone who comes to him is a malingerer or a scrounger. There are people who have delayed benefit payments and are being denied the money they need to help keep their family in food and heating.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, in many cases, the reason why people are unable to feed their family that weekend is that there is no benefit. They have fallen upon a crisis in their life and there is no immediate assistance available. They have been told they will have to wait for some considerable time, and they are unable to access a crisis loan of any kind, which is why they come to us. We are handing out vouchers so they can get some food for the weekend. That is the reality. It is not a lifestyle choice, though the tone of the comments from No. 10 Downing street suggests it is. They do not want a free box of tinned or dried food to top up their adequately stocked pantries; they are using food banks because of the cost of living crisis that is facing families across the UK.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way, and I will not seek to intervene on him any further. We know from questions asked just before Christmas that neither the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor nor Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have visited a food bank. Does my hon. Friend agree that had any of those Ministers, including the Prime Minister, been to a food bank, we would not have heard those comments from No. 10?
Yes, I suspect my hon. Friend is right. I am sure the Minister has visited a food bank and will say what impression it made on him. What were his feelings on visiting the food bank?
Government policies such as the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, the VAT hike and the bedroom tax are making the crisis worse. I hope the Minister will distance himself from the comments we have heard from Downing street and acknowledge that Government policies are making things worse, not better, for hundreds of thousands of families across Wales.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Visitors to food banks in my constituency tell me that, because they are paying VAT on other things, particularly on peripheral items such as fuel, they have less money to spend on food. That is the reason why they come into food banks for the first time. Those people are in work and often work long hours.
Yes, indeed. That is a continuing process. The consumer prices index figures were released today. CPI is 2.7%, which is 1.2 percentage points above rises in income for people in work. There is an impact on everyone, including people in work. As we know, as VAT is a regressive tax, it has the greatest impact on those on the lowest incomes. Also, because their marginal propensity to consume is much higher than that of people on higher incomes, VAT is a particularly hard tax on them.
Some 90% of the food in food banks is donated, mainly by the public via supermarkets, Churches, community centres, schools and other organisations. I pay tribute to the efforts of food banks, many of which are run by the Trussell Trust, including the one in Ely in my constituency, which I have visited. They are intended as a crisis intervention for families in need. As I said in response to an intervention, the problem is not what food banks do but the scale on which they must now do it.
Food goes to distribution centres, where food bank volunteers gather, weigh, account for and issue the food. Food is issued only to recipients with vouchers, and vouchers are issued by front-line service officers trained in the assessment of need. Issuing organisations include, among others, citizens advice bureaux, Jobcentre Plus, GP surgeries, social services, housing officers and now, as I said earlier, Members of Parliament and, I suspect, Welsh Assembly Members, too.
A voucher gives just over three days’ worth of food, and vouchers are typically issued in batches of three. As we heard, the trust operates 23 food banks across Wales, nine of which opened in the last year, and four more are expected to open in Wales by Easter this year. There are now more than 270 food banks across the UK. In 2011, some 7,173 adults and 4,038 children in Wales used a food bank, and in 2012, the numbers rose to 18,721 adults and 10,328 children. The trust forecasts that the number of people relying on food banks in Wales will rise to 40,000 next year.
The trust collates information about the people using food banks. The consistent main reason cited for using a food bank, accounting for between 40% and 45% of usage, is benefit changes and delays in benefit payments. About one quarter of usage is accounted for by low-income families, and about one tenth by debt. As we have heard, food bank usage has exploded over the past two to three years. It is sad but typical that the Prime Minister recently tried to suggest that food banks expanded by a greater amount under the last Government than under this one; that abuse of statistics was skewered by Channel 4’s feature, “FactCheck”, which I recommend to hon. Members.
The trust forecasts that this year, 250,000 people across the UK will use a food bank. Hundreds of thousands of Welsh families face a cost of living crisis worsened by the Government’s policies, including welfare changes that are likely to make the crisis even worse. The Welfare Up-rating Bill alone will hit 400,000 low and middle-income households in Wales, including 170,000 families in Wales who currently receive working tax credits. It is estimated that 140,000 people in Wales will be worse off under the Government’s change to universal credit and 40,000 will be hit by the bedroom tax; I know that hon. Members are already getting a lot of traffic in their surgeries about that issue.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has shown that between 2010 and 2013, inflation will have risen by 16%, whereas average earnings will have risen by just half that, or 8%. The TUC estimates that four-year wage stagnation will cost the average worker £6,000. Wales has some of the highest energy bills in the UK, and more families are having to choose between heating and eating. As I said, the VAT hike alone added £450 a year to average household bills. Low economic growth has created fewer opportunities, and unemployment is forecast to rise in the next two years. Public sector job losses are forecast to reach 1 million by 2017. Meanwhile, in April, the Government will give more than 8,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £107,000, and the top 4,000 earners in Wales will benefit from a cut in the additional rate of income tax.
I have a few questions that I hope the Minister will answer in his response. What does he think best explains the explosion in food bank use in Wales? Is it the cost of living crisis facing Welsh families, or the notion that more people have suddenly decided that they want a bit of extra food, to quote No. 10? On the “Politics Show” this weekend, the Welsh Office Minister in the House of Lords, Baroness Randerson, said that the Government are reducing the deficit in the fairest possible way. What exactly is fair about the bedroom tax, which will hit 40,000 people in Wales while taxes are cut for millionaires? What impact does the Minister think the Welfare Up-rating Bill will have on the number of people in Wales relying on food banks? Has he made any estimate of that?
Does the Minister agree that the growing number of food banks in Wales is a symptom of the cost of living crisis facing Welsh families? Does he accept that the Government’s failure to get the economy moving is likely to have led more people to rely on food banks? What does he think the expansion of food bank usage in Wales and across the UK tells us about the success or otherwise of the Government’s policies? Does he think that the number of people in Wales who rely on food banks is likely to rise or fall over the next two years? I hope that he has made some estimate in preparation for this debate.
We never thought to see the return of the charity handout as a mass means of feeding the poor in Wales. Is the Minister proud of his Government’s big society, or ashamed of its small-minded demonisation of the poor?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this important debate and on his compelling contribution, in which he painted a stark picture. As he said, the Government’s response to the increasing despair among Opposition Members about the growth of food banks has been to say that food banks grew under the last Labour Government, that they are a sign of the big society, that they are somewhere for people to go if, as the Downing street source said,
“they need a bit of extra food”,
and that we should thank them for the work that they do. I certainly agree with the last part. I thank Raven House Trust and King’s Church in Newport, which do a superb job with the little resource that they have. They are hugely dedicated, and I thank the volunteers in local churches who collect on their behalf. I am not sure that I know what a big society is, but I can certainly recognise examples of the good society operating in Newport.
As my hon. Friend said, we must all agree that the huge growth in food banks is sobering and a terrible reflection on how bad things have become. Raven House Trust, based in my constituency, became a charity in 1994, helping Newport’s homeless with furniture and food. In December, it gave out 850 food parcels, and this week it told me that in the last six months of last year, it had seen a marked increase in demand due to welfare changes, and that it is bracing itself for a dramatic increase from April. That trend is confirmed by the Trussell Trust, which is based in Newport and operates food banks elsewhere. It says, as my hon. Friend said, that 40% to 45% of those who ask for help do so because of changes to benefits and delays in benefit payments, although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said, many working families on low pay are also in need.
Everyone who needs a food parcel will have a different story, but it is true to say that those in desperate need and asking for help have often been the homeless, those with drug and alcohol problems and, in my area, asylum seekers. That is absolutely awful, but Raven House says that, increasingly, families with children are relying on food banks to survive. Changes to the benefit system—which often leave people with reduced payments while claims are processed—low pay and rising fuel and energy bills are causing the cost of living to rise the fastest for the poorest households.
On that issue, does my hon. Friend agree that the online delivery of universal credit will mean that many families, who are vulnerable and often dysfunctional—some people have mental illnesses, and many do not have access to computers—will have no benefits, leading to a massive escalation in poverty, hunger and reliance on food banks?
My hon. Friend is right. Yesterday, as he will know, we heard evidence from charities working with people with mental health issues in Wales. They said that for their clients, not being able to do things online was a huge problem, as many clients had difficulties opening the letters. That is a big issue.
Recently, food banks in my constituency have seen a marked change and desperate need. Let us remember that families must be referred by an agency or an advocate, such as a citizens advice bureau, social services, Newport City Homes, Women’s Aid, and others. However, help is not unlimited. People are expected to use the parcels to tide them over and get back on their feet.
The picture is much the same at King’s Church, which collects food to donate back out to agencies. When it set up it did not feel best placed to assess the need, and did not want to interrupt the established process between, say, a social worker and their client. It collects the food to pass on to agencies, which decide who to give it to. King’s Church opened in 2009 and at that stage gave out 50 food hampers a month. It has expanded the areas it covers across south Wales and now gives out in excess of 1,200 a month.
In 2012, King’s Church gave out 12,500 hampers. It expects to deliver 18,000 in 2013 and forecasts a need for 24,000 in 2014. It is important to remember that in the King’s Church model the official agencies identify the need. Demand is going up. King’s Church feels that it is just scratching the surface. Both King’s Church and Raven House are gearing up for the benefits changes, and we can see why. A study by Bron Afon housing association into those affected by the bedroom tax in Torfaen quotes tenants—it visited every one of them—saying that they would rather go without meals to find the money to stay in their home. Teachers report seeing hungry pupils each day and food banks are working with schools.
Providers in my constituency know that things will get worse. The trend has been a steep rise in demand, even before the Government’s austerity measures really hit. When FareShare Cymru, which is based in Cardiff and does an excellent job, is reporting that charities are finding it hard to pay the membership fee to join its organisation, and that it is finding it difficult to maintain the service, the Government need to open their eyes to see how their policies are hurting. They should not just make flippant remarks about people getting an extra bit of food.
First, I should like to deal with comments made to me directly by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I received an invitation to visit a food bank in Chepstow, but it was during the parliamentary week and I made it clear that I was unable to take a day off from here. I am more than happy to visit it at any time, however, and I hope that that will be arranged.
Of course there is poverty. There is poverty in Monmouthshire and in the whole of Wales. I spent many years in the Welsh Assembly making the point that there is a great deal of poverty in Monmouthshire, although that usually fell on deaf ears among Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly, who assured me, practically, that the place was full of millionaires, although it never has been and it certainly is not at the moment. There is a great deal of poverty in rural areas. I hope that matter will be addressed.
One of the most important things that can be done to address this matter is dealing with the completely unfair local government funding formula, brought about by the Welsh Assembly in about 2000, which has caused a catastrophic loss in income for local authorities, particularly those in rural areas. As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware, the local government funding formula for Wales, introduced by a Labour Welsh Assembly Government in about 2000, does not take proper account of the costs of dealing with rurality or the extra costs involved when trying to deliver goods and services in rural areas, and it does not take proper account of the age of the population. Sadly, those who live longer are much more likely to incur costs on the local authority than those of us who are younger and in better health. If those two issues were addressed in the local government funding formula, it would go a long way towards stamping out poverty in parts of Wales, particularly in the rural areas. I hope that the hon. Gentleman joins me in campaigning against that disgraceful, unfair local government funding formula, which did so much to remove cash from rural areas of Wales.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will mention food banks in a moment. He has dealt with the local authorities, but will he not accept that those are under strain now because of the cuts that the Westminster Government have made to revenue and capital grants to local authorities?
I will certainly come to it. I am jumping in rather quickly by not mentioning the 1930s and the Ramsay MacDonald Government, during which time my family were miners, but I wanted to start from 2000. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) knows that local authorities in Wales are funded by the Welsh Assembly, and its funding has remained in line with inflation.
Well, one problem is that the Welsh Assembly has found it easy to raise money—taxation through the back door—by reducing the amount of money, proportionately, that it gives to local authorities throughout Wales and expecting them to raise the difference in council tax. The hon. Gentleman will know how the gearing effect works: a small cut in the amount given to the local authority by the Welsh Assembly will result in a much larger increase, proportionately, in council tax to make up the difference.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned the 50% tax cut for millionaires, a great line that he repeated a number of times. Of course, this came about because Governments of left and right since the 1980s, across the whole world, have accepted—
Mrs Riordan, my apologies.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 50% tax cut for millionaires several times. That was introduced to increase the amount of revenue that the Government have, and it was certainly not put in place during the previous Government.
The reality is that there is poverty in the whole United Kingdom; there always has been and I assume that there probably always will be. The Government have an enormous problem dealing with the economy at the moment, as a result of the deficit and debt that they inherited when they took over in 2010.
The hon. Gentleman loosely referred to the relationship between local government and food banks. Does he accept that the Welsh Government, by paying for the 20% cut that will be imposed in England on council tax, which would cost the average person on housing benefit in Wales some £5, have done a lot to try to stem the flow of people having to go to food banks, and have put money back into the pockets of the poorest at a time when his Government are taking money out of their pockets?
The Government are not taking money out of the pockets of anyone that they do not have to. The people whose pockets have been picked most under this Government are those in the very wealthy bracket, who are now paying more, proportionately, of total tax revenue than they were under the previous Government. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I have already said that there is a huge problem with council tax in Wales. In Monmouthshire, where we have a food bank, council tax has risen more than anywhere in the whole of Wales. It has risen by more than virtually anywhere else in the entire country. Monmouthshire receives less funding per head than any other local authority in Wales, by quite a long way.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned the economy, which of course is crucial in this regard. He talked about the forces of global capitalism. I was struck by the fact that the economic problems of the previous Government were always said to be the fault of the invisible hand of global capitalism, which perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not support, although I thought that most members of his party these days did. Yet the economic problems that we now face are apparently nothing to do with the previous Government and nothing to do with global capitalism, but all down to the policies being followed at the moment. That is incorrect.
The problems that we have are simple. We owe £1 trillion on the books and probably the same amount again in figures that are kept off the books—public sector pensions, private finance initiatives, and so on—and we have to find a way of paying it back. Instead of paying it back at the moment, we are borrowing £120 billion a year from the banks.
I listened to the hon. Gentleman talk passionately about poverty, and we had more crocodile tears than in the Limpopo valley of South Africa, where 24,000 crocodiles escaped from a farm last week, according to the press. We did not hear the hon. Gentleman mention one single thing that he wanted to do about any of this—not one solution.
The solution is simple. We need to create the conditions that will allow growth, prosperity and jobs to be created in this country. We will not do it by borrowing money, levying higher taxes on people or printing money. We will do it by getting the deficit under control and starting to pay back some of the enormous national debt, which was created by Labour Members. That is how we will create growth in this country. That is what the Government are doing, and they have my 100% support.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing the debate.
In Swansea East, we have a food bank that started off covering one area of Swansea, but then had to stretch its services right across the city because of the increase in people who needed its help. I have worked closely with the food bank from day one, and I have come to know the volunteers and have seen the dedication and effort they put into their work. They are very clear about why they have to do that work: they have to fill a gap the Government have created. There are pressures on our communities and on family incomes. It is not just the unemployed we are talking about; hard-pressed, hard-working families also need help.
I give out vouchers every day, and it is frightening how many more I now have to allocate. In the beginning, my staff and I kept a stock of perhaps five bags of dried goods on hand in our storeroom, and we would hand them out if a hardship case came in. In the run-up to Christmas, however, we were going to our local food bank at Gorseinon every day, and we were bringing back bagfuls of food for people who really needed help.
When I intervened on my hon. Friend, I talked about why people come to us for help. They do not come because they fancy a change in their menu or some of the nice extras that might be in the bag, but because they have nothing left in the cupboard. That is not because they are poor copers or have not managed their income properly, but because something has happened that means they need immediate help. That is where the food bank comes in.
We have heard a lot of facts, figures and statistics about food banks in Wales and across the UK. Every week, when my staff and I sit down and talk about what happened in the preceding week, we think, “Thank goodness we can turn to the food bank.” We are not being romantic about it; going to the food bank is just a fact for many people.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Did she see the Salvation Army briefing for the debate? It said the development of the food bank movement
“may lead to a level of dependency which small community projects are simply unable to meet. This concern comes from the experience of churches in North America who find that food banks have become part of the welfare system.”
Is the point not that we are danger of going down the American route of using charity, rather than social security, which is the British way?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree entirely. It is a worry that there is this alternative to the benefits system. We understand all the stresses and strains in the economy, and we know that there are huge pressures and increasing demands on income, but we just cannot let people fall behind. A measure of any good society or state is how it looks after its weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. I am ashamed to say that we are not doing a good job with some of the hard-pressed people I meet.
In Swansea, the demand on food banks has increased, and not just over Christmas. In September and October, they distributed two tonnes of food, which I am sure equates to many dozens of bags. It is hard even to grasp the idea of weighing out two tonnes of food on to pallets. Thank goodness the Churches and schools were having their harvest festivals; it meant we met the demand. However, we were really concerned about Christmas. I was so concerned, and the issues raised with me were so concerning, that I went to local employers and shopkeepers and asked, “Will you donate food?” The response was magnificent, and we got the additional food. Through a concerted effort with other organisations in Swansea, we managed to help people over the Christmas period.
It is no fun if someone has not had their benefit payment, and if paying bills has taken the food out of their mouths. That is the reality: people are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Will they heat the house? Will they put food in their children’s mouths? I am worried—I hope the Minister will respond to this point—about the one in 10 people in Wales who tell us they have skipped a meal to feed other members of their family. They are not making that up, and that is a serious issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when the law is changed, and tenants, not landlords, receive housing benefit under universal credit, there is a real danger, under conditions of increasing pressure in which people do not have enough food to feed the family, that people will end up being evicted, because they feel they have to feed their children? There is now greater reliance on food banks, but we are building a time bomb of problems in terms of hunger, homelessness and devastation in many of our communities.
I agree. It is a ticking time bomb. It is not wrong to use terms such as “explosion” or “huge growth”. I do not know where this will end. When constituents are sitting in front of me, and we are wading through the complex new rules and regulations, we solve one problem, but we are left with a raft of other problems. I often have to tell people, “Hold on now. I do not have the answer yet.” That is the biggest issue in my postbag. There are many fearful people out there; they are really worried about what is happening to them and about the changes we have heard about—the bedroom tax, the changes under universal credit and the changes to the designation of who can receive disability living allowance—but I do not have all the answers. However, I do know that there will be more and more problems, and I meet more and more fearful people.
Food is not a luxury, but an essential of life. We all like to have a good diet, and we all enjoy certain foods. People are not receiving luxury items, but the staples and the basics of life. Their circumstances are putting huge pressure on their daily incomes.
We already have particular problems in Wales, and we all know about the problems we have had historically and geographically. We have lower incomes. The Office for National Statistics says that pay has fallen by £80 per month on average. That puts pressure on people. There are more cuts and changes to be implemented. As I said, I meet people who are very fearful. They are worried about this poverty explosion.
The number of people using food banks is a good indicator of what we need to do. We need a solid plan from the Government to get us out of this mess. We do not want false promises or denials of what is happening in our constituencies. The situation will not improve unless we have direct Government intervention. That means that we must take responsibility for people on benefits. We should not see them as an easy and quick way of saving money. We must think not necessarily of inflating people’s quality of life and standard of living, but about ensuring that people receive a decent basic wage and decent basic income.
Every day I hear about constituents losing their jobs, or about benefits that have been delayed or crisis loans failing to appear. As I have said, the changes to the welfare system are huge and will have far-reaching effects. We have a maze of new rules and regulations to go through. I am working at the moment with other bodies—the local authority, charities and Citizens Advice. We are all picking our way through and trying to come up with something practical for our constituents. No sooner do we get to the bottom of things than more changes are made.
I echo a question that has already been put: is that what we want in modern Britain? I do not want to be melodramatic and talk about Victorian soup kitchens and going back to handouts–
It is ironic that we are debating this subject on pancake Tuesday. I am reminded of a song that we used to sing when we were kids, which my grandmother taught my mother. If hon. Members will forgive the Welsh, it went like this:
“Mae mam rhy dlawd i brynu blawd
A’m tad rhy wael i weithio”.
It translates as “My mother is too poor to buy the flour and my father is too ill to work.” Considering the dependence on food banks and the ravages that Atos is wreaking on our constituencies, those are chilling words. I will not say anything melodramatic, either, about Victorian values, but as I was on my way here it occurred to me that the words of that song had a message for us.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing the debate. As he said, there are 23 food banks in Wales, and four of them are in north Wales. They operate in disadvantaged areas, although I am sometimes at a loss to decide which areas of Wales are disadvantaged and which are not, given that disadvantage is so widespread. As I said in an intervention, nine food banks were opened in the past 12 months, and I understand that there are a further four in development. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of adults and children who have at some point been dependent on food banks. The significant fact is that in 2011 there were 11,000 people in that position, and in 2012 there were 29,000; 2,500 families a month were referred in 2011, and in December 2012 that figure was nearly 5,000. There is a trend there.
The main reasons why people go to food banks, as we know, are that they have benefit problems: either their benefits are not paid, or they are paid late. That accounts for almost half the people who go to food banks. Others go because of debt or because they are homeless. Significantly, about 20% of those who go to food banks are working poor people. As someone else said, these are not the scroungers of the popular newspapers. The growth of food banks in Wales is a symptom of a much more fundamental problem: the growing inequality that I mentioned earlier, and a failure of wages and incomes to match the ever-increasing cost of living. There is a fundamental mismatch between people’s wages and what they need to pay for such basics as shelter, warmth, food, and clothing.
Food banks currently provide a vital short-term service and are not a long-term solution, even for the individual who goes to them. That must be borne in mind, if we think that there will be more dependence on food banks. However, they can be a life-saving service. I was glad to open the food bank in my constituency last year, and to meet the good people who give their time and effort to make the place work in the service of their fellow citizens. Their aims and the outcomes that they achieve are entirely laudable, but this is a matter on which the Government should lead. Food banks, if we have them at all, should supplement public provision; they should be a marginal support. It is astonishing, and a disgrace, that in the second decade of the 21st century, when we produce more food than we consume, and after all the advances that have been made in science and technology, we cannot make sure that people get sufficient food.
Food banks, obviously, are a marker of inequality. As I have said, benefits and tax credits have not risen in line with real inflation. However, in Wales there has also been a consistent decline in economic performance and in people’s ability to buy the food they need. The figures are quite stark: Wales’s gross value added per head compared to the UK average in 1997 was 78.1%, and in 2011 it was 75.2%—a decline of about 3%. For west Wales and the valleys—the poorest areas as defined by the European Union—the figure was 67.2% in 1997. It is now 65% and it is, alas, on the way down. Recent analysis by the Resolution Foundation has shown that between 1975 and 2010, the average annual year-on-year change for the bottom 10% was only 0.2%; for the top 1% there was a 2.4% year-on-year increase. Thus there is local decline, and also a decline in relation to class and income sector. As I have said, inequality grew, and has been growing since the 1970s. Some of that was perhaps partly affected by Mrs Thatcher’s policies, but that growth has been consistent.
Unfortunately, average household income in Wales is 12% lower than in the country as a whole. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has forecast that Welsh economic growth will continue to lag 0.5% behind that of the UK as a whole; so there is a substantial historical problem that is growing. Food banks are not the answer to all that. The remedies are fairly easy to list: we need better economic growth and income distribution, particularly in the poorest areas. We in Plaid support the living wage, as we supported the minimum wage. We need to take steps to end fuel and food poverty.
I will not ask the Minister a long list of questions that he would find it difficult to answer, or demand that he fleece the rich and distribute the largesse to the poor, which he is clearly not in a position to do. I want to ask him for a tiny little step. Let us see whether as a matter of good will he can reply for the Government. It is about something that my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) and I have been pursuing recently: a small step in relation to winter fuel payments. In response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), the hon. Member for Cardiff West talked about the importance of disposable income. If people could spend a bit less on fuel they would have a bit more to spend on food, so I ask the Government for a commitment to pay winter fuel payments a bit earlier. Then older people and people with disabilities would get their money to spend earlier in the year, and could get a better deal on coal or a tank of gas or oil. It is not a huge thing, and it would not cost a lot. Will the Minister give a positive answer to that question, as a measure of good will?
A last, brief point—but an important one—is that Wales is not a unique case in the UK or the European Union. We must look beyond our borders and Europe’s borders, and fight to provide food security for people all over the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing an important debate.
Sometimes in debates about food banks, or poverty—urban or rural—I get the feeling that Government Members think we make things up or exaggerate them.
The hon. Gentleman has summed up my absolute frustration with the House since I came into this place. All those on the Government Benches seem to want to do is look into the past and blame the Labour Government for everything. I simply ask him to put himself in this position: if tonight someone cannot afford to feed his family, because he finds that he has no food and that his children are screaming for food, will they care whose fault it is? What they care about is where their next meal is coming from. Often in this House, we look more interested in trying to win cheap political points than in bringing about real political change for people who are suffering.
Instead of emotion, I am looking forward to something I have not heard so far, which is someone telling us what exactly Labour policy would be. How much extra would a Labour Government borrow? How much extra money would they print? What would they add to the national debt to spend money and resolve the problem?
Were the hon. Gentleman to let me carry on with my speech, rather than intervening in my first couple of minutes, I might have been able to develop that argument. Surely it is a damning indictment of any Government when food banks increase threefold; 22,000 meals were provided by food banks in Gwent in the past year. That is equivalent to a third of the people living in my constituency. Food banks are a damning indictment of Government policies, but they are only a symptom of Government policies.
I had a briefing recently from Caerphilly borough council’s housing department, in which we talked about the effect of the bedroom tax. Single parents whose child is not living with them will not be able to have the child stay over with them. Disabled people will have to leave their homes, even though they have made adjustments, because they have an extra bedroom; otherwise, it will cost them £91 extra, which will have an effect on what they can spend on utilities and food. They are being driven to food banks.
I remember the Welfare Reform Bill going through; everyone was labelled a scrounger just because they were claiming benefits, even though six in 10 people in work are claiming benefits. That is happening an awful lot. We are not talking about the people we might traditionally think of—the ones talked about by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), such as drug addicts or alcoholics who need food. We are talking about people in work, and that is a damning indictment. Unless there is some change, we are writing off another generation.
I grew up in the ’80s; my father left home when I was 11 and my mother brought me up as a single parent. I could list the things my mother would do with a tin of corned beef to feed us throughout the week; we had corned beef fritters, corned beef stew, and corned beef pie. She even made bread-and-butter pudding out of sandwiches that we had not eaten. Yet she was not faced with the problems that people face now. It is all very well to quote statistics, and it is easy to do that, but what does it mean for children going to school hungry? They are being written off before they even start. They do not have the tools intellectually, because they are too hungry to do school work.
We need to think about radical solutions. Rather than pigeonholing people as benefit scroungers, let us talk about individual need. If I find myself out of work, I have different needs from someone who has not worked for a long time. It is no good the Government saying, “We need to make cuts.” The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) thinks that we need to make more cuts and that the Government are on the right path— he is nodding away—but if we cut someone’s job, we increase the welfare bill. If we cut the welfare bill through welfare reform, we are putting pressure on charities and others who are helping with handouts. Sooner or later, whether the Government like it or not, someone will have to pick up the bill when the charity has gone under or when the volunteer cannot do the work any more. It will be left to the Government to pick it up.
I would like to have developed the argument further, but someone else wants to speak, so I will give them the last five minutes.
I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for being so gracious as to allow me five minutes to contribute to the debate.
First, importantly, the work done by food banks is appreciated by all Members of the House. The political reasons behind the creation of food banks might be debated passionately, but their work is most welcome. I do not have a food bank in my constituency, but my children have contributed to and collected for the one in the constituency of the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). We applaud food banks, because they show a community coming together to support the most vulnerable.
What is missing from the debate, however, is any attempt by the Labour party in Wales to provide a context. It has been a self-indulgent debate in many ways, in which attacks on Government welfare policies have been made completely out of context. We heard no comments whatever on the fact that in April 2007 there was one food bank in Wales, but by May 2010 there were 10; now there are 24 to 26, depending on which statistics are accepted, but the reasons are much more complicated than changes to benefits. If we look at benefits payments in Wales, my understanding is that when the Labour party came to government in 1997, the average employment and support allowance payment for a benefits recipient was 20% of the Welsh average income. By 2010, when the Labour party left power, that proportion was down to 17.2%, and it has since increased to 17.6%. Last year, benefits went up by 5.5%, the highest for some time.
We have to provide the context for why household budgets are being challenged. They are being challenged by forces beyond the control of any Government. Food prices have gone up 27% between 2007 and 2012; that is beyond the control of the Government. When I was in Washington last year, a crisis was hitting corn prices because of drought in the mid-west, but that type of thing is not in the control of our Government. Look at electricity and fuel prices. Prices are subject to VAT at 5%, just as they were throughout the entire period of the Labour Administration, yet electricity prices have doubled and gas prices have tripled since 2000. No Government can deal with that type of effect on people’s household incomes. No Government can respond in a sufficient manner to that type of price increase, which is beyond the control of any Government.
All we have heard from the Labour party have been accusations that all the difficulties were caused by Government changes. Time and again it is Government changes, even when those changes have not yet been implemented. We heard a lot about the so-called bedroom tax that will affect people’s incomes; it has not yet been implemented. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) talked about the effect of universal credit; it has not yet been implemented. Blatantly political views have been expressed about people in desperate situations in Wales in order to score party political points. I find that most disappointing.
Even worse, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who is no longer in his place, stated that the coalition was responsible for cutting taxes to the wealthiest in society while punishing the poorest. That came from a Member who, I gather, voted to get rid of the 10% tax rate for the lowest paid in society and who was quite happy for capital gains tax to be paid at 18% by the wealthiest City financiers while their cleaners paid 22% tax. Those are the realities of what happened under Labour, but not a single comment has been made in the debate about that atrocious track record.
The worst thing that came out of the debate was the comment by an Opposition Member that we were creating a dependency culture. Labour Members are from a party that has been in government in Wales more or less since the end of the first world war, whether locally or nationally, and from a party that has failed Wales time and again, creating ghettoes of inequality within Wales. I cannot comprehend how they can with a straight face make the accusation that the coalition Government have, in two years, created a dependency culture. I find that staggering and unacceptable.
My final point is that this Government have presided over the creation of more than 1 million jobs in the private sector. Last week, a constituent on £71 jobseeker’s allowance visited me. That is no way to live—I am the first to acknowledge it, and I think every single Member in the Chamber would acknowledge that they could not and would not want to live on £71 a week. That is why it is so important for the Work programme and the support offered by the Government to get people back into employment. That is the real way to deal with the issue—not by point scoring about changes to this benefit or that benefit, but by acknowledging that a life on benefits is not something we should aspire to as a country. It is not something I aspire to for the people of Wales.
Time and again, we have heard from the Opposition party that everything would be okay if there were a Labour level of spending on benefits and welfare. The Government have much more ambition for the people of Wales. We want them to have the opportunity to work and take themselves out of poverty, not through dependence on the state but through their own efforts, and that is what we are creating.
We have had a wide-ranging debate in which many extremely important points were made. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing the debate. He reminded us of the strong tradition in Wales of translating our concern for the well-being of each and every member of our communities into reforms in society that enshrine the dignity of the individual by organising our collective wealth for the good of all, whether through the pension reforms of Lloyd George, the creation of the NHS by Aneurin Bevan or the far-reaching reforms of my predecessor, Jim Griffiths. Those things were done precisely so that people would not have to rely on handouts such as those given by food banks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) paid tribute to FareShare Cymru and to the King’s church in her constituency, and made the point that food banks are well run, with proper systems of referral for those in genuine need. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) spoke of her personal experience helping people who are in distressing circumstances. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) raised the issue of rural poverty and the widespread nature of deprivation. He contrasted the wealth of food produced with the abject failure to distribute wealth and food equitably.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) focused on the formula used to distribute money—the rate support grant—to local councils in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) emphasised the dire need that many people find themselves in, and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) did not come up with a solution to the question of how to eliminate the need for people to rely on food banks. That is a matter I would like to return to later.
The dire statistic is that the number of people relying on food banks in Wales has trebled over the past year, rising from just over 10,000 to just under 30,000, with forecasts of 40,000 next year. Across the UK, food bank usage has doubled in the past year from around 125,000 to around 250,000. The growth of food bank usage in Wales is therefore twice that of the UK average.
The Trussell Trust operates 23 food banks across Wales, nine of which have opened in the past year. Four more food banks will open in Wales by Easter this year. In 2011, a total of 11,000 people—7,000 adults and 4,000 children—used a food bank, but in 2012 it was 18,000 adults and 10,000 children. That is a very grim message indeed.
I would like to pay tribute to the excellent work of volunteers who run food banks up and down Wales. Nothing I say in my remarks is intended to criticise their immediate response to a growing need. In my constituency, the Antioch centre and the Elim Church do amazing work. I was with them a couple of weeks before Christmas at the entrance to the Tesco superstore in my constituency, and the response from the public was tremendous from people of all walks of life. The members of Elim Church had lists of items that were suitable for people to purchase for the food bank and to include in their shopping. As they came out the store, people willingly gave the food they had purchased especially for the food bank.
We have to ask why we are seeing this increase in the number of families in need and what the Government can do about it. I want to see us tackle the causes of poverty and hunger, to look at what is wrong with the structure of our society. When it comes to giving aid to developing countries, we have long since learned that it is no good just giving people handouts. That is the whole point of the Fairtrade movement: the customer pays a fair price for goods so that the people who grow or make those goods can receive a wage that enables them to make ends meet, so that they do not have to rely on charity. How much better to have the dignity of being in charge of their own lives and budgets, not having to beg.
The same is true for people in the UK. I want to see the Government take measures that will tackle the causes of poverty. Why has there been an increase in the number of people turning to food banks? Quite simply it is because more and more people are suffering financial hardship. Let us see what can be done about that. We need policies that determine income distribution in this country, and those are very much a matter for the UK Government. While the Welsh Government can try to provide services to mitigate the effects of lack of income, they do not have control over some of the main factors that affect income.
As specialists in the House of Commons Library have pointed out, there has never been an absolute correlation between the amount of money that someone can receive on a benefit and their actual needs. It has always been a bit of a compromise—a bit of political expediency as to what was acceptable. What they are clear about is that there has never been a time when those benefits have not been uprated in line with inflation, whatever the colour of the Government in office. It is has been a tremendous sadness this year that the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill will effectively bring real cuts in people’s income. That is on top of the many additional costs that they have already had to face. We have already discussed the fact that while benefit increases have been limited, there has been rampant inflation, particularly on essential food items, ranging from 17% to 36%, depending on which food items are considered, over the past five years.
There has also been the increase in VAT. VAT is charged on a range of items, including toilet paper and bathroom products that are not luxuries but items that every family needs. While VAT is not put on food, it is on many essential items. That was a valid comment made by colleagues.
People often face the difficulty of delays in receiving benefit, or have it cut off. We have unfortunately seen some disastrous behaviour by Atos and the problems that has caused. When 40% of its decisions go to appeal, there is something very wrong. I ask the Minister to pass on to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions our very real concerns about that. Benefit changes are one of the key reasons why people end up at a food bank; they account for 40% of the people who go there.
The other major concern is low income. Many people on low incomes are claiming working tax credit. There have been horrendous changes to the working tax credit by the Government, which have left people with much less money. The point of those credits was to top people up so that work would pay. I was shocked to hear the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), say not only that people could do a few hours’ extra work, when we know how difficult it is to find extra work, but that he thought that would compensate for the changes in housing benefit. He did not realise, of course, that for every extra pound earned, a person would lose 65p in entitlement. It is not a matter of equating three hours’ work at the minimum wage to £15 extra in housing benefit. I again ask the Minister for Wales to speak with his DWP colleagues about the worrying effects that those changes in housing benefit will have on many of our constituents.
We have already seen the cutting of the pension credit and the savings credit, cuts in the health in pregnancy grant, and the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. We are asking the Minister to prevail on his colleagues to not simply accept the situation as it is, but look at ways of putting it right. For example, they should rethink the welfare benefits uprating legislation to restore the link between benefits and inflation. As I have said, the bedroom tax and the cuts planned to the working tax credit are both areas we would like him to look into.
We would also like the Government to get a grip on energy companies. We understand that some energy price rises are due to the worldwide energy market. We also know that there are a number of measures that could be taken. There could be a lot of tightening up with the regulator, and the Minister could look at what can be done about energy prices for low-income households. What we want from the Minister now is not simply, “Oh well, it cannot be changed. Nothing else can be done. That is how society is. Prices just go up.” We want an interventionist Government who can devise a redistribution plan that will ensure that we do not have an increase in the number of people going to food banks. In fact, we want a fall in the number doing so in Wales. The Government could then be proud of bringing about a situation in which there was no need for any more food banks in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I not only thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing the debate, but congratulate him on doing so, because I understand that he was the successful one of a number of Labour MPs who were encouraged to put in for it. What the debate represents, as has been highlighted by some of my hon. Friends, is the latest stage in a political campaign by the Labour party to use the food bank movement as a vehicle for its political attack on some of the changes and challenges that we are facing as a coalition Government. The hon. Gentleman did exactly in his speech what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) encouraged him not to do, which was reduce it to a party political rant, treat 2010 as year zero, and remove the whole debate from its context.
The game was rather given away this morning when a number of us Welsh Members of Parliament were in a Committee. On the way out, I overheard a Labour Member say, slightly flippantly—I would not put it any higher than that—that they were going to have some fun with this debate today. That is the context for this afternoon; the Labour party is using this as part of a highly politicised campaign.
That is exactly what it is about. I did some research before the debate this afternoon and looked at the parliamentary record, because I wanted to know what kinds of questions and issues were being raised on food banks by Members of different parties—not only from Wales, but from right across the UK. It might not surprise my hon. Friends to know that I could not find a single reference by a Labour Member of Parliament, before 2010, to food banks.
No, I will not. I may not have been doing my research as fully as I should, but I could not find a single Labour MP who raised food banks as an issue on the Floor of the House of Commons before the coalition Government came into office. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff West says from a sedentary position that it was not an issue. Well, questions were being asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), as well as a certain individual called Dai Davies, representing the south Wales seat of Blaenau Gwent. He asked a question about food banks during the previous Government, and some Labour Members will recall how viciously that individual was treated by members of the Welsh Labour party in recent years.
Food banks were very much an issue under the previous Government. However, the conspiracy of silence that existed around food banks extended beyond this place to Jobcentre Plus, because one thing that Labour Ministers refused to do was allow Jobcentre Plus advisers to signpost people facing particular financial need to use food banks. That is something that we changed. In 2011, we altered the guidance to allow Jobcentre Plus advisers to refer people and advertise the services of food banks. Among the underlying causes and reasons for the expansion in the use of food banks in recent years, one reason is that, in contrast to the previous Labour Government, we see them, up front and unashamedly, as a good thing, and we encourage people who are facing points of financial crisis in their lives to use them.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned a “cost of living crisis”. He used that phrase several times, and it was picked up by other hon. Members as the reason for the expansion in the use of food banks. Of course, that is true. People use food banks because they face a financial crisis at that time. I have met people who use them for a whole variety of reasons: some are young, homeless people; some are struggling with addictions, and they are spending money as a result of addictive behaviours that they are seeking to address; and some are victims of domestic violence who find that they have to flee their family home—they are fleeing an abusive relationship and need that extra support. People use the resources for a variety of different reasons.
I do not want to spend too much time picking holes in the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West, but he did say, slightly patronisingly, that he suspected that the Minister would stand up and say that he has visited a food bank. Well, I have actually. In fact, I served as a trustee on a charity that ran food banks. The charity set up its food bank in 2008, and its services have expanded. It now provides not only food but a basic bank of clothing, because as hon. Members have rightly said, people face a whole range of financial needs. As well as that, it runs an annual toy appeal to ensure that the poorest families in Pembrokeshire, in my constituency, are able to have a Christmas for their children.
The charity was founded by some of the Churches, and I know that the hon. Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), among others, have mentioned different Churches and faith-based organisations that are behind the creation of food banks in their constituencies. I would like to pay my own tribute on the record to the volunteers and people who work in those organisations, because they are doing a fantastic job. When I speak to them, the last thing they want is to be dragged into a party political football match. This issue is bigger and more important than that. We could have had a sensible debate this afternoon about the social needs in Wales, and the role that charities and third sector organisations can play. It is really disappointing that the debate was reduced to a party political argument, when it could have been so different.
I am grateful for the way that the Minister is putting his points across. Does he agree that many volunteers across Wales will be utterly horrified by the way in which they have been portrayed and politicised by the tone of the debate? Instead of trying to use food banks as a reason for having a go at Government policies that are widely supported, we should all be supporting those volunteers who have been there for many years, and will be there long after this and other Governments have finished.
My hon. Friend expresses himself extremely well, as ever.
Let us look at the context for Wales. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned the underlying economic context for Wales. It is true that Wales has suffered from low wages, but it is not true that wages continue to decline relative to the rest of the UK. If we look at the most recent wage data for Wales, the increase is sharper than for the UK average. That is only a small set of data, but it gives us reason for optimism that we can, over time, close the wage gap and see more families in Wales taking home more real-terms pay from their jobs.
Every single day of the week at the Wales Office, we focus on the economic challenges facing Wales. Every week in the Wales Office we are thinking about how we work with the Welsh Government to bring in new investment in infrastructure and new inward investors, and see better, higher-quality jobs created in Wales that will provide higher real-terms wages.
Household debt was only mentioned briefly in the debate, but it is one of the key reasons why, in recent years, the number of people using food banks has increased. Over the past 10 years, and perhaps going back even further than that, there was an explosion of personal indebtedness, fuelled by the consumer credit boom, which was encouraged—egged on—by the policies of previous Labour Governments. Household indebtedness has started to fall in the past two years, but there is still a long way to go to see people with sustainable debt levels in their lives. That is one reason why some of the organisations that are at the forefront of setting up food banks are also at the forefront of tackling the debt culture. Some of the same organisations run debt advice counselling services alongside their food banks. The Government take seriously the challenge of payday loans and doorstep lenders, and we are taking real action to change the regulatory framework in which such people operate.
Fuel poverty has been mentioned by more than one colleague as a real challenge for Wales, and I absolutely recognise that point. We continue to support people in Wales through the winter fuel payments. The hon. Member for Arfon asked me to follow up on a specific request to see whether there is a way of facilitating, earlier in the season, cold weather and winter fuel payments, because that is when people have the opportunity to buy fuel at a cheaper rate. I shall certainly follow that up with my hon. Friends in the relevant Department.
To close the debate, I am sure that we will come back to this issue as MPs in Wales, and I hope, on that occasion, that we can have a more rounded, more thorough debate on some of the real issues affecting society in Wales.