I beg to move,
That this House notes that the number of people using food banks, according to the Trussell Trust, has increased from 41,000 in 2009-10 to 913,000 in 2013-14, of whom one third are children; recognises that over the last four years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes that low pay and failings in the operation of the social security system continue to be the main triggers for food bank use; and calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on food banks and tackle the cost of living crisis, including to get a grip on delays and administrative problems in the benefits system, and introduce a freeze in energy prices, a national water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives for companies to pay a living wage, an increase in the minimum wage to £8 an hour by the end of the next Parliament, a guaranteed job for all young people who are out of work for more than a year and 25 hours-a-week free childcare for all working parents of three and four year olds.
I welcome the Minister for Civil Society to his place in what is, I think, his first debate from the Front Bench, but I note that the Environment Secretary is not taking part in this debate. She transferred a question about food poisoning away from her Department just this week. She does not want to talk about food aid today, but she is—[Hon. Members: “Welcome!”] I would like to welcome the Environment Secretary to her place. She transferred a question about food poisoning away from her Department last week. This week she does not want to take part in a debate about food aid, yet hers is the lead Department. I just wonder what part of food policy she thinks she is responsible for.
Since the last Opposition-day debate on food banks a year ago, things have worsened. Over the past six months, there has been a 38% increase in the number of people seeking food aid from the Trussell Trust’s 420 food banks. The Trussell Trust expects the full-year numbers to be over 1 million. The report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK, entitled “Feeding Britain”, published last week, said that 4 million people are at risk of going hungry, 3.5 million adults cannot afford to eat properly, and half a million children live in families that cannot afford to feed them.
Nobody would choose to go to a food bank if they had any other option. Let us be clear about that. Research conducted by Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and the Trussell Trust and published in November, entitled “Emergency Use Only”, indicates the truth of what many of us who have visited our local food banks have seen. People are acutely embarrassed to have to go to a food bank. They feel ashamed to have to accept such help, but the research is clear: people turn to food banks as a last resort, when all other coping strategies have failed.
The Trussell Trust says that 45% of people who visit the food banks that it operates do so because of problems with the social security system, a third because of delays to determining their benefit claims, and the rest because of benefit changes and sanctions, often unfairly applied, which have left them with no money.
My hon. Friend is correct. I know that the two Trussell Trust food banks in my constituency have figures similar to the national average, which show that over a fifth—22% in my constituency—of people who resort to food banks for an emergency food package are in work.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the statistics from the Big Help project in Knowsley, which covers her constituency and mine: 23% of those who receive vouchers to go to the food bank are in work—in other words, the working poor. Even more alarmingly, 45% of the vouchers issued involve children.
My right hon. Friend is correct. The figures for the Knowsley food bank, which cover his constituency and mine, are pretty similar to the figures for the south Liverpool food bank: benefit delays 28.8%, benefit changes 14.5%, and low income—in other words, poverty pay—22%. This is a problem that he and I recognise from our constituencies, and it needs to be addressed.
Is my hon. Friend aware of a worrying trend that I am now seeing in my advice surgeries, which the local citizens advice bureau also told me is a problem—people are not going to the food banks because they do not have the means to cook any food as they cannot afford the gas or electricity?
My hon. Friend is correct. His experience is similar to mine. I know of people who go to food banks in my constituency who hand food back that has to be cooked, and ask for food that can be prepared without the necessity for cooking. That is anecdotal; I do not know what the percentage is. There is no tick on the food voucher for that, but that is indeed happening, in my experience and that of my hon. Friend.
It is truly shocking that, according to the Trussell Trust’s figures, 45% of the ever-increasing need for food aid—or 60% according to the numbers in “Feeding Britain”—is caused primarily by the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions, yet the Department has done nothing since our debate last year to tackle the benefit delays and changes that are causing so many of the problems. I notice that no DWP Ministers are on the Front Bench today for this debate. Why has the DWP done nothing?
The hon. Lady must be aware that the number of claims being processed on time by the DWP has gone up to 93%, compared with 85% in 2010, so action is being taken. She is right to say that delays are the biggest problem, so far as food banks are concerned, but things are improving.
I shall just finish responding to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), then I will give way. I had not realised that I was quite so popular. The hon. Gentleman claims that the delays are being tackled, but the DWP’s target is to determine a claim in 16 days. If someone has no money and they have to wait 16 days for their benefit claim to be determined, and then wait for the cheque to arrive, they are going to have to go to a food bank. I do not think that those targets, whether they are being met or not, are anywhere near good enough, and nor did the report, “Feeding Britain”, which suggested that claims ought to be cleared within five days.
Why are DWP Ministers not doing something about this? They appear indifferent. The Minister for Employment has said that
“there is no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform.”
That is because she refuses to collect such evidence. Either the Ministers are indifferent and incompetent, or they are indifferent and venal. In reality, they do not care enough about the problems to take any action.
Is my hon. Friend also concerned by the Government’s view that food banks should have a degree of permanence? I commend the work of re:dish, which distributes food in the Reddish area of my constituency. When representatives of re:dish attended a meeting with the previous Minister for the third sector, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), they were appalled by the view that their voluntary efforts should be there for the long term.
We ought to take note of the experience of other jurisdictions where food banks have become part of the social security system. Professor Liz Dowler of the university of Warwick carried out a piece of research—long-delayed, I might add—for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When she commented on it on the “Today” programme, she dismissed the idea of using surplus food as a solution to hunger, saying:
“There is no evidence from any country that has systemised using food waste to feed hungry people that it is effective. It is better to reduce”
that waste. I am concerned that what has happened in Germany and Canada could happen here—that is, that we could institutionalise dependence on food banks. Policy makers on either side of the House should be very careful before embarking on a policy that institutionalised food bank use in this country.
Is it not clear that this is not just about delay and error, and that what is happening is partly a direct result of a deliberate policy? Benefit sanctions in particular have been a major cause of people going without food, sometimes for lengthy periods. That is not accidental; it is deliberate and it needs to change.
I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend. There is a deliberate attempt by DWP Ministers in this Government to sanction and stigmatise people who are on benefit.
The cost of living crisis means that people are more than £1,600 a year worse off since 2010. Living standards will be lower at the end of this Parliament than they were at its beginning. Prices have risen faster than wages for 52 of the 54 months that our Prime Minister has been in office. There are more working families living in poverty in the UK today than families with nobody in work—for the first time since records began. The cost of some food essentials has gone up in the past six years by as much as 20%. Families on the lowest incomes spent almost a quarter more on food last year than they did six years ago—they were already the families who spent the largest share of their income on food. People are now buying fewer, cheaper calories; they have been forced to trade down to less healthy, less nutritious, more processed foods.
It is not just food that has been going up in price: since 2010, people have been paying £300 more on average for energy to heat their homes and keep their lights on; water bills have gone up, with one in five people struggling to pay them; the cost of housing keeps rising, with renters now paying on average over £1,000 a year more than in 2010; and for those with children, the rising price of child care is making it harder and harder to take on work.
Yet during this time the Government have done nothing to address the cost of living crisis—and they plan much worse. Robert Chote, chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said plans in the autumn statement now take
“total public spending to its lowest share of GDP in 80 years.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the Government’s plans would take
“total government spending to its lowest level as a proportion of national income since before the last war”.
This Tory plan to recreate 1930s Britain, along with its hunger, low pay and non-existent rights at work, coincides with changes to the labour market making it tougher to make ends meet, even for someone who is in work. The “Feeding Britain” report says that 25% of food bank users are in work and the Trussell Trust says that 22% are: increasingly, being in work is no longer a guarantee against going hungry in Britain today. David McAuley, the Trussell Trust chief executive, said that
“we’re…seeing a marked rise in numbers of people coming to us with ‘low income’ as the primary cause of their crisis. Incomes for the poorest have not been increasing in line with inflation and many, whether in low paid work or on welfare, are not yet seeing the benefits of economic recovery.”
He is correct.
My hon. Friend mentioned that the Government have done nothing to address the cost of living crisis that so many people face, and she rightly talks about low pay. Does she agree that the effect of the Government’s policies has been to encourage zero-hours contracts, insecurity in the workplace and low pay? That has been the consequence of their policies, leading to more use of food banks.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The number of people in precarious, low-paid employment is increasing. According to the TUC, since the financial crisis hit only one in 40 new jobs is full-time, 36% are part-time and 60% involve self-employment. Only a quarter of those on zero-hours contracts work a full-time week, and one in three reports having no regular, reliable income. No wonder many of them end up at food banks, despite being in work. This is happening in Britain—the sixth richest country on the planet—in the 21st century. It is a scandal that is only made worse by the fact that our economy is growing again and the number of people in work is increasing. The Conservative party never stops telling us that this is what success looks like—I would hate to see its version of failure.
The hon. Lady is quoting extensively from the “Feeding Britain” report, but she is missing the key point of that report, which said that it was completely wrong to play party politics with such an important issue. What the people who use food banks deserve is for us all to work together to make sure we can find a lasting solution so that nobody is left behind as we move out of this recession.
I will not give way again.
Can there be a more damning verdict on the indifference, incompetence or venality of Ministers in this heartless Government, who so love to sneer and scapegoat the victims of their back-to-the-1930s ideology, than the hunger that now stalks our land and is increasing? Thousands of volunteers across our nations who help to operate food banks and who donate food to them are outraged about the plight of our fellow citizens forced to rely on food aid. Unlike the Government, they at least refuse to sit idly by and watch the suffering of the men, women and children affected without doing something positive to alleviate it. I thank them all and pay tribute to them for their fantastic effort, but it should not be necessary in this day and age for 1 million people to rely on food aid.
Volunteers at my local food bank collection centre in Glasgow told me that the main reason for the surge in the use of food banks in the past year is the number of people on exceptionally low wages. Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of people in Scotland, as in many other regions and nations in the UK, on less than the living wage is rising every month under this Government?
We all recognise the full damage that the Labour Government did to public debt, but there is another area of debt of great concern—household debt, which stacked up radically and significantly during the last years of Labour government. Does the hon. Lady think that that had any impact on what is happening now?
The reality is that debt is a reason why people go to food banks—about 13% do so—but 45% to 60% of people go to food banks because of benefit changes, disallowances and sanctions. That is part of Government policy, and something that the Government could tackle if they had the will, which they clearly do not. They refuse to accept any responsibility, despite the fact that their policies are making the situation worse. They refuse to accept that as a Government they have a moral obligation to act to alleviate these problems.
Just look at what Ministers have said. They show no understanding whatever of how a lack of money affects the lives of people struggling to make ends meet. The welfare reform Minister, Lord Freud, said last summer that
“food from a food bank—the supply—is a free good and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1072.]
Lord Freud appeared unaware of the fact that people cannot just turn up at a food bank and get food: they have to be referred, and half of them are referred by statutory agencies. When pressed on 4 March this year in the other place, he opined that
“clearly nobody goes to a food bank willingly. However, it is very hard to know why people go to them.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 2014; Vol. 752, c. 1215.]
From ignorance to indifference in a few short months—and he is the Minister for welfare reform. If he really does not know why people go to food banks, I can tell him: it is because they are desperate and have no food to eat and no money to buy it.
The Chancellor, meanwhile, suggested that increased awareness explained the relentless rise in food bank use. He told the Treasury Committee in July last year:
“I think one of the reasons that there has been increased use of food banks is because people have been made aware of the food bank service through local jobcentres.”
The Government Chief Whip last September preferred to suggest that it was the fault of poor people themselves:
“There are families who face considerable pressures. Those pressures are often the result of decisions they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 682.]
Baroness Jenkin was forced to apologise just last week for suggesting that increased use of food banks was because:
“Poor people don’t know how to cook”.
Perhaps the most revealing quote is from the sneerer-in-chief himself, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who said in January this year:
“I think it’s a positive thing for people to use food banks”.
He went on:
“There are complex reasons why people use food banks but I think it’s excellent.”
So there we have it: it is part of this Government’s strategy to replace the social security safety net, which the Work and Pensions Secretary is demolishing. He is doing this in pursuit of the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to take us back to levels of public service spending and provision not seen since the 1930s. It is part of this Government’s ideological obsession with shrinking the state to replace social security with charity. What a disgrace!
Only by tackling the cost of living crisis can we begin to see the numbers of people relying on food banks decline. If things are going to change, the country needs a Labour Government. We will legislate to freeze energy prices and reform the market to stop energy companies from ripping people off.
No! He has not even had the courtesy to be here for the beginning of the debate.
We will introduce a water affordability scheme to support customers who are struggling, and we will give the regulator tough new powers to curb the excesses of the water companies. We will abolish exploitative zero-hours contracts and incentivise companies to pay the living wage. That will also help to increase income tax receipts and boost economic growth.
Labour will take action on low pay by raising the minimum wage to £8 an hour. We will introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee to get young people and the long-term unemployed off benefits and into paid work. We will help get parents back into work, too, by guaranteeing 25 hours of free child care a week for three and four-year-olds, paid for by an increase in the bank levy.
Labour will abolish the bedroom tax, address the huge delays in benefit payments and ensure that there are no more targets for sanctions in jobcentres. We will make housing affordable by increasing supply, building 200,000 homes a year by the end of 2020. We will support renters by introducing longer-term tenancies and banning rip-off letting fees.
That is how to tackle the cost of living crisis. That is how to build an economy that works for everyone instead of just a privileged few. That is how to reduce the number of people relying on food aid, and that is what the next Labour Government will do.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand from the Table Office that it has had notice that the Government intend to publish tomorrow their much-delayed anti-corruption plan, which was due in June, and that the plan has been shared with third parties outside the House, but not with Members. Given the Christmas recess and the fact that Members might be leaving this evening, could you give any direction as to why Members are receiving the document after those outside the House?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very reasonable point. Of course, I have no responsibility for the actions of the Government, but I am quite sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what he has said. If it is indeed the case that something that should have been reported first to the House has been published elsewhere, I am sure that Mr Speaker will take a very dim view of that. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it has not been published, but sent to others. If Mr Speaker has an opportunity to make a ruling on the matter, I am quite sure that he will say that matters that ought to be reported to the House ought to be reported first to the House, as a matter of courtesy not only to the House, but to the people we are elected to represent.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion and thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box, if not for her good luck wishes. We are fortunate indeed to be informed by the report published last week by the all-party group. The members of that inquiry, including the Bishop of Truro and Members from both sides of the House, have stressed the need to ensure that partisan politics are put to one side.
I have barely started. Let me get into my speech a little more, please.
Likewise, the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the launch of the inquiry report, stressed that a partisan approach would not work. I want to honour and respect that spirit in my contribution.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred to the all-party group and said we were all in agreement on various matters relating to food poverty. He is wrong. We were not in agreement; I certainly was not. I was very clear that it is problems in the Department for Work and Pensions that are driving people to food banks.
As I said, I want to honour and respect the spirit of the Archbishop of Canterbury in speaking at the launch.
I especially want to recognise the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Salisbury (John Glen), and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). The Government welcome and value their passionate but measured approach. We recognise that this is an important issue but also a very complex one. As the recent report by the inquiry showed, the reasons for the use of food aid are multi-faceted and often overlap.
It is also important to put the use of food aid in the UK into its international context. The APPG inquiry noted the development of the use of food aid in other western economies. It found that 1,000 food banks are operating in Germany and that one in seven Americans now rely on a food bank.
It is only right to start by highlighting the inspirational work of volunteers, charities, faith groups and businesses in supporting people in need, and the generosity of the public. I pay tribute to their dedication and passion.
This country has a long tradition of selfless individuals providing such help. Much of this support in communities is led by faith groups, and they have played an active role in the APPG report. My predecessors as Minister for Civil Society and I have met a number of regional groups of faith leaders to listen to their views on the use of food banks. The way that communities have pulled together shows us all how we can build a bigger, stronger society.
I echo the Minister by thanking Telford Crisis Network for the work that it does on the food bank in Telford, along with a community store. He has moved very quickly on to thanking volunteers, quite rightly, but can I take him back a step? Why does he think there has been such a significant increase in the use of food banks? That is a very simple question.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment if he will let me make a little more progress, because I want to talk about a personal experience.
Last month, I visited a Tesco superstore in my constituency to thank shoppers and volunteers for all their fantastic efforts in supporting the neighbourhood food collection. The collection was held in conjunction with the Trussell Trust and FareShare, with Tesco topping up shoppers’ donations by 30%.
I was struck by the generosity of local people kindly donating items to help others. By that stage, 88 boxes had already been sent to ReadiFood, a food bank in Reading. I have visited ReadiFood and seen first hand the incredibly valuable support that it provides. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work, commitment and passion of everybody involved in providing food aid.
Order. Five people are standing and shouting at the Minister. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) will not say that people are not shouting when I say they are. If I say they are shouting, they are shouting. If the House wishes to have a proper debate, the Minister must be able to make his points, and then people can intervene. When he is ready to take interventions, he will make that clear.
I am sorry that hon. Members have not listened to my opening comments in trying to make this a sensible and serious debate where, for the sake of all our constituents, we put to one side some of our personal beliefs. However, I will give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).
I thank the Minister for kindly giving way. I heard what he said about attending a food collection, which obviously is not the same as visiting a food bank, although he did then say that he had been to a food bank. Will he share with the House how many food banks he has visited and how many food vouchers he has issued to his constituents?
I have visited food banks in my constituency, and I obviously hope that all hon. Members have done so in theirs. It is very important that all Members of Parliament know what is going on on the ground in their constituencies, so I advise everyone to take the opportunity to visit their local food bank if they have not already done so.
I was at the launch of the recent “Feeding Britain” report. The report is a serious contribution to this debate. It is absolutely vital to tackle food waste and ensure that surplus food is redistributed. We are determined to support food retailers, the industry and consumers in their efforts to do so. There will always be some surplus in a resilient supply chain, and we support the industry in taking forward its work to make surplus food available to redistribution charities.
On behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Waste and Resources Action Programme led a working group to encourage food redistribution in the industry. The group discussed the barriers to surplus food redistribution across the supply chain, and developed possible solutions. As a result, new research case studies and guiding principles were established in March to enable the industry to redistribute more.
The UK has taken a lead in Europe on food waste reduction through the Courtauld commitment. I am pleased to say that all major food industry representatives have signed up to that voluntary agreement. It includes specific targets for food waste reduction, as well as ones to encourage food redistribution. Real progress has been made. During the first two phases of Courtauld, we prevented 2.9 million tonnes of food from being wasted, worth £4 billion, and annual UK household food waste decreased by 15%, or 1.3 tonnes, between 2007 and 2012.
It is great to see the lead taken by large retailers such as Tesco and Asda. We hope that more will follow their example. I have already mentioned that Tesco is offering support to local communities, and Asda gives its overs—the surplus when more stock is received than was expected—directly to FareShare. We need to take that further. This is a moral argument, not just a sustainability issue. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are convening a meeting with leaders of all major food retailers and other industry representatives.
May I drag the Minister back to food banks, which this debate is about? From the Government Front Bench, perhaps he can answer this question: why are many food bank users not made aware of the various crisis payments available to them in different circumstances, and why have even fewer got such payments? May we have some fact and less waffle from the Minister, please?
As the hon. Gentleman probably heard during the last debate, more than 93% of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance claims are processed on time—at the moment, that means within 16 days—which is up 7% since 2009-10. When fully rolled out, universal credit will speed that up further. In 2014-15, £94 billion will be spent on working-age benefits to support people who are on low incomes or out of work. That is a significant support network for people who need it.
I am grateful to the Minister. May I give credit to the Greater Maryhill food bank in my constituency, which does exemplary work? It did not exist in 2009, despite the fact that unemployment in my constituency was much higher than it is now. Can the Minister explain why the use of food banks has gone up by a huge percentage while unemployment is decreasing, which he reminds us about frequently?
The reasons for people visiting food banks are complex and frequently overlapping. It is difficult to give one particular reason for the use of food banks increasing at a time when, as the hon. Lady says, unemployment is dropping rapidly in constituencies all around the country.
That brings me to an important part of my speech, on the economy. Our broad policy approach is that economic growth and employment offer the best route to give people a better future and to reduce poverty. Our country has been through the deepest recession in living memory, and the Government inherited a tough fiscal and economic situation, including the highest structural deficit of any major advanced country.
The Government have a long-term economic plan to secure Britain’s future, and sticking to it is the best way to improve living standards. Although there is more to do, that plan is working, as the Chancellor made clear in his autumn statement. There are now more people in employment than ever before, and I hope Opposition Members will welcome that fact. The economy is growing faster than any other in the G7, and we have cut income tax for 26 million people and are freezing fuel duty, cutting child care bills and providing funding for councils to freeze council tax. It is working—disposable income per capita is rising, and income inequality is down. I welcome the news this morning that not only are jobs being created and unemployment falling, but wages are rising significantly above inflation.
However, we are not complacent. There are still hard-working families facing challenging circumstances, which is why we continue to spend £94 billion a year on working-age benefits to support millions of people who are, for instance, unemployed or on low income. More than 93% of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance claims are now processed on time, within 16 days, which as I said earlier is up 7% since 2009-10. Universal credit will further speed up that processing, and the Department for Work and Pensions will do more to raise awareness of short-term benefit advances. That work will include providing more information about such advances to claimants both online and in jobcentres. We will also update staff guidance on those advances and remind staff of the process for considering them.
As I said, the reasons are complex and frequently overlapping. If the hon. Lady has read the report herself, she will know what was in it, so I will leave her to cogitate on what the top reasons were.
We acknowledge that there is concern about prices. Following Ofwat’s 2014 price review, water bills across England and Wales will reduce by up to 5% before inflation, which is equivalent to about £20 a customer. I hope that Opposition Members will welcome that cut. As I have noted, we are freezing fuel duty, and road fuel prices are falling—they are at their lowest level since the end of 2010. It is also welcome news for consumers that year-on-year food prices have fallen, with an annual rate of inflation for food and non-alcoholic beverages of minus 1.7% in the year to November 2014.
Order. I have already made it clear that if the Minister says he is not giving way, he is not giving way, although he has given way several times. It does not help the debate if hon. Members shout at the Minister, because then nobody can hear the arguments. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made some excellent and clear arguments, which were heard, and the Minister must have the chance to do the same.
It is disappointing that Labour Members are trying to drown out my remarks, but I return to the point that I made at the start of the speech: we need to engage with this issue in a proper, sensible debate, and I am happy to take interventions, as indeed I have done.
The Government are taking action to help hard-working families, and disadvantaged children are eligible for free school meals throughout their time at school and college. The Healthy Start scheme provides a nutritional safety net for pregnant women, new mothers and low-income families throughout the UK, and it is helping half a million families to buy milk, fruit, and fresh and frozen vegetables. The school fruit and vegetables scheme provides a daily piece of fruit or some vegetables on school days to children in key stage 1 in primary schools and nurseries attached to eligible primary schools in England.
I thank the inquiry for its hard work in preparing the recent report. This is an important issue, and the report contains a series of recommendations that should be carefully considered by the Government, the food industry, civil society and others. We will continue to engage with the inquiry as it takes the proposals forward. As Minister for Civil Society, I acknowledge once again the inspirational support provided by volunteers, charities, faith groups and businesses to help people, because too often such support goes unrecognised. The use of food banks understandably generates passion and debate from Members across the House, but all will join me in recognising the selfless dedication of everyone involved in providing food aid.
When I was elected to this House four years ago, no food banks operated in my constituency. Now there are two. Every fortnight at my advice surgery I meet people who are struggling to make ends meet and who find it hard to pay the bills, cover the cost of school trips, and pay the rent. When I became a Member of Parliament I knew that many of my constituents had tough lives, but the level of poverty experienced by some in one of the richest cities in the world is shocking and should shame us all. I am appalled that in 21st-century London some people cannot put food on the table; I am appalled that some children go to bed hungry.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
I am also appalled that some politicians claim that the increased use of food banks is somehow a symptom of more food banks being around. In recent weeks, the Education Minister in the other place told us that those who use food banks need to prioritise their spending more effectively, and the Chancellor helpfully suggested that the increased use of food banks is due to the Government advertising them more. That is out of touch and insulting. When I hear such comments, I ask myself whether those who have uttered them have ever spoken to a mum who is struggling to feed her children, because I have.
About two years ago, I started to make referrals to the Trussell Trust. I remember one woman who came back to my advice surgery a second time, asking for a second food bank voucher. She sat across a desk from me, her eyes brimming with tears, embarrassed in front of her children. She was humiliated and desperate. Food banks are not about getting a freebie or an easy option for those who want to save a couple of quid; they are the last resort for people who are often dealing with multiple, complex problems such as losing a job on top of a fluctuating mental health problem, or family break-up coupled with a series of outgoings that are simply impossible to manage.
Food banks are as much about people not being able to pay the electricity bill as they are about not being able to put food on the table. Many of the people I see at my advice surgeries tell me stories that reflect what organisations, such as the Trussell Trust, say are the main reasons for people visiting them: benefit changes and delays, debt, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment. If we want to reduce food bank usage, we have to tackle the underlying causes.
I was waiting for my hon. Friend to mention sanctions. An older chap came to see me at one of my surgeries. We had just given him some vouchers, because, like her, we also issue food bank vouchers to those in desperate need. He had come to see me because he had been sanctioned again—for the third time. He has profound learning disabilities and it takes him hours to fill in an application form. The Department for Work and Pensions had sanctioned him because it said he was not trying hard enough.
Recent research shows that benefit delays and sanctions are two of the main reasons why people visit food banks. The Minister seemed not to know that, but we all know it from our advice surgeries.
If we want to tackle more and more people going to food banks, we have to get to grips with the underlying causes. We need decent jobs that pay a decent wage; we need to build homes that people can afford to live in; we need action on energy prices; and a robust benefits system that treats people like human beings. Until we do those things, we will see food bank use continue to rise.
The two food banks that now operate from my constituency provide much-needed support to many people who are in genuine hardship. They are run by compassionate and inspiring people: Fred Esiri at the Elim Pentecostal Church and Janet Daby at the Whitefoot and Downham Community Food Plus Project. As you know, Mr Speaker, just last month the Food Plus Project won the Paul Goggins memorial prize for best civil society initiative to tackle poverty. At the presentation of the award in Speaker’s House, I was struck by words of the late Paul Goggins, which were shared with us by his son Dom:
“Poverty is an affront to our common humanity. When you see it you need to roll your sleeves up and do something.”
There are people in food banks up and down the country rolling their sleeves up and working to tackle poverty, but we in this House must take our responsibilities equally seriously.
Thousands of people visit food banks each week. There are thousands more in food poverty who never make it, and instead rely on handouts from friends and family or skip meals altogether. Food banks exist to address short-term hunger and to help people out of a crisis, but it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that people are not routinely having to rely on charity to feed themselves and their family. The alarming rise of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world should not be brushed under the carpet. We in this place need to be honest about that. We need to roll our sleeves up and do everything we can to address it.
It is a pleasure to speak under your guidance, Mr Speaker.
Not one person in this Chamber got into Parliament to make people’s lives a misery and not one person in this Chamber agrees that people should be hungry out there on our streets. [Interruption.] Millions should not be hungry, as has been said. What I want to question is the validity of the amendment. I have e-mails from the chief executive of the Trussell Trust telling me that he does not have any valid data. [Hon. Members: “What amendment?”] The motion. [Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker, I am just trying to find the information Opposition Members require and that is wasting my time and wasting the House’s time, because we all know why we are here.
Food banks have been around since 2000 and it is a good job that they have been. They were actually set up under the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—a fact that Labour Members seem to forget, and I welcome the fact that they are there. Let me go through some of the figures from the Trussell Trust. In the debate pack, it actually contradicts itself. It states that in 2014-15 there was a 38% increase—to 492,641—on the previous year, but that in 2013-14 the figure was 913,000. Those numbers do not stack up.
I want to read an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to the chief executive of the Trussell Trust:
“The last correspondence I had was with Adrian Curtis”—
a food bank network director—
“who told me the only figures you held were regional figures on usage and these figures were then divided by the number of food banks in the area. He said you do not hold figures for the number of individuals using the food banks and how often they need to use them and for what reason.”
Are we talking about 1 million people starving or about 1 million meals? I do not want to see any of my constituents starve—not one of them; one person in my constituency starving is one person too many. However, I take great exception to party political ploys, when the Opposition have nothing to say. I have never been invited to a food bank in my constituency, although I would love to go, yet every time this issue comes up, there is always a letter from a staged Labour source saying that MPs should do something about it. Well, I am doing something about it—I am trying to get to the truth, and the truth is that if hon. Members do not have accurate data, they do not have an argument.
As an MP, I want to know why my constituents are starving. I want to know what problems they are facing and where we can help. As the Minister correctly said, we are working with the supermarkets to get food in and to help people in genuine need, but we need accurate data, so we have to be grown up. If Opposition Members do not have accurate data, they have not got an argument. Although I sympathise with them, I do not accept that 1 million people are starving in Britain. If they were, we would be up there with the Chinese and the Indians of this world, which we plainly are not. I implore hon. Members to grow up, get decent and ensure that when they put their choices before the public, they give them the right figures.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know you have just come into the Chair, so I shall be brief. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was here at the start of the debate, but has chosen not to take part, while the Minister who I understand is to wind up the debate was not here for the opening remarks or interventions. Bearing in mind the importance of this debate, that seems disrespectful to me, as it will seem to others listening to the debate, not just us as parliamentarians. Will you give some guidance on the rules governing who should be here and when?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I shall be corrected if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Minister had another engagement of a ministerial and parliamentary character elsewhere on the estate—I think in Westminster Hall.
I am grateful for this opportunity to explain why I could not be here for the opening comments of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). I was indeed representing the Government in a Westminster Hall debate on the welfare of greyhounds called by an Opposition Member, as I explained to Madam Deputy Speaker before the commencement of the debate.
It is a regrettable state of affairs, it has to be said, but the Minister has explained his position with courtesy, for which I thank him. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has put his point on the record, and people will form their own view about the appropriateness of the organisation of matters. We will leave it there.
In the limited time available, I would like to draw the House’s attention to the activity in my constituency.
In Clackmannanshire, we are fortunate that individuals have committed to establishing food banks at The Gate in Alloa and the drop-in food bank run by Activ8 in Sauchie. I have to say a big thank you for the dedication and foresight of people such as Evelyn Paterson, Val Rose and Sandra Gruar, because without their commitment the situation in Clackmannanshire would be a whole lot worse, while in Kinross-shire and South Perthshire, part of my constituency, people such as Les Paskin, who manages the Perth and Kinross food bank, deserve our gratitude for a venture described by the Daily Record as a “Food lifeline for Crieff”.
I want to put on the record the level of support these operations are providing to my communities. Perhaps the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) can listen and get some of the numbers now. In the first year of its existence, Perth and Kinross food bank provided 1,573 food parcels. That is three days’ food for 2,772 people, including 712 children, and the equivalent of 25,000 meals. The Gate has delivered 214 food packs, feeding 371 people with 7,745 meals between July and September of this year alone. At the end of October, it had supplied 21,700 meals to people in crisis in the preceding 10 months. That equates to a 35% increase in the number of people supported and a 50% increase in the number of meals supplied. The numbers show that 49% are due to benefit delay or sanction, a figure even greater than the 37% due to poverty or debt.
A constituent came to me on Friday who has been sanctioned for three months—that is three months without a single penny coming in. He showed me evidence that he had applied for 21 jobs on one website alone in the past three days, but because he could not show that he had handed in his CV in one particular place he was sanctioned. That is what we are dealing with. Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Minister will not acknowledge that?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about, and her abhorrence of, what is going on. I am sure that every Opposition Member has had people coming to their constituency surgeries and delivering that kind of message. It is abhorrent and it must stop.
My office in Alloa is the third biggest referrer of those in need to the Gate food bank and my constituency offices in Alloa and Crieff act not only as drop-off points for donations but as collection points for food parcels. Let me take the House back a couple of weeks. We supplied a food parcel from my constituency office in Alloa for someone who had prearranged collection. The gentleman came and collected his food parcel and one of my members of staff went out of the office a few minutes later only to find him sitting in the street outside my office eating a cold tin of spaghetti. He was that desperate.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about what is happening in his constituency. I was shocked to hear from Sarah Sidwell, who runs the food bank in Hull, that she expects a 20% increase in the number of people coming forward for food parcels in the lead-up to Christmas. Is he experiencing the same in his constituency?
I have exactly the same expectations as my hon. Friend. Indeed, later this week I will visit one of the food banks in my constituency and I am prepared for what they will tell me and for a horror story.
It was not that long ago that a man walked 7 miles to the Activ8 food bank in Sauchie for a polythene bag of food, only to have to walk 7 miles back home to provide for his family. I can honestly say that when I was first elected to this House I never foresaw a time when my constituency offices would be used for such a purpose and would have such a workload. This is a growing problem and we must do something about it.
We know that a proactive and caring Government could and would confront this shocking situation. They would do that through measures to scrap the bedroom tax, rather than voting to keep it, by growing the number of employers who pay the living wage, through the enforcement of tough sanctions on employers who do not pay the minimum wage, through a fairer approach to benefit sanctions and through a benefit system that does not seem set to make the claimant pay from the outset.
In Scotland, we have a Government who support the policies of the Conservatives in this place by refusing to support a 50p tax rate and who vote against the extension of the living wage in public contracts. In Scotland, we are hamstrung by not one but two Governments with the wrong priorities. We can do something about this, and we must, even if we have to wait until May to begin to right the wrongs.
I hope that every Member will read the all-party report entitled “Feeding Britain”, which has 77 recommendations, all of which seem eminently practical. I think everyone would agree that we should collectively seek to ensure that benefits can be paid as quickly as possible. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) was giving an undertaking that, if a Labour Government were elected next spring, benefits could be paid within five days. We would all want to ensure that benefits are paid as quickly as possible.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announcing earlier this week that the Government were
“looking to new measures committing the Department to raising much more awareness, as was asked for, of the short-term benefit advances. We are doing that through websites, on posters and by providing information in jobcentres…hoping to roll it out at the beginning of the new year”
ensuring that advisers
“constantly advise those at risk of the availability, should they need it, of interim payments.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 633.]
We should all agree on that.
On sanctions, the report suggests the introduction of a yellow card system. No one has spoken about it as yet, but it seems an eminently sensible idea. We all know as constituency MPs that constituents sometimes get into circumstances where there is not necessarily a fair or black-or-white situation, so introducing some sort of yellow card system might be much fairer.
I caution the Opposition against trying to give the impression that there is some huge new fund of money that can be given for this purpose. Every party, so far as I can recall from when I was in the Division Lobby, voted for the welfare cap, and if the leaders of both parties are also ring-fencing payments to pensioners, it means that benefit payments to working families and so forth are inevitably going to get squeezed. I fully support encouraging employers to pay the living wage and, if we can, to raise the minimum wage, but we are all working within tight conditions.
The report makes recommendations not just to the Government, but to the food industry. Tackling food waste is an important issue, and I was slightly surprised that some Opposition Members would discount it. I was glad that, in Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, Ministers acknowledged that and said that they would meet industry representatives to see how better to deal with food waste. The waste and resources action programme, which is based in my constituency, is already taking a lead on this.
As to the suggestion or implication that the debate is entirely about benefit delays and sanctions, may I read in my remaining time a short extract from the Bishop of Truro’s article in last week’s Church Times? This is just one quote to show the complexity:
“The other force at work is the addiction that many individuals and families have, but which particularly sharply affects the budgeting of low-income families. A family earning £21,000 a year, for example, where both parents smoke 20 cigarettes a day will spend a quarter of their income on tobacco.”
He went on to talk about the need to address the
“circle of addiction fed by debt, at the expense of being able to put food on the table.”
These are complex issues, and I suggest that pre-election soundbites are not worthy of them. It is a pity that this evening’s debate has sometimes degenerated into a pre-election soundbite debate.
I am absolutely outraged that people are going hungry in one of the richest countries in the world. We have nearly 1 million people attending food banks and over 13 million, including children, the disabled and elderly, living in poverty. Worse still, a high percentage of those 13 million people are in work, working day-in and day-out, with low pay and rising living costs.
Members will know that I was part of the all-party parliamentary group inquiry team that spent most of this year touring the country taking evidence from charities and food bank users, and also know that I sit on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is holding an inquiry into food security. While this does not make me an expert, it does mean I have a broad knowledge of the growing hunger problem this country faces and the causes of it.
What I have seen is an increase in the number of soup kitchens in my constituency, because people do not have the equipment in their homes to cook any food.
No matter where in the country we took evidence, we heard the same stories time and again. People were using food banks because of poverty pay, welfare and benefit changes, unfair sanctions and benefit delays.
My hon. Friend has rightly mentioned the problems caused by benefit changes. I recently initiated a debate in Westminster Hall about the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payments. When I telephoned my local benefits office in Bellshill, I was told that a man had been waiting for 14 months for a decision. Will she encourage the Government to accept their responsibilities, especially their responsibility for the mess at the Department for Work and Pensions?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I shall say something about the issue that he has raised later in my speech.
In the past, we had a welfare state with a supportive safety net. When I was unemployed, and when members of my family and I fell on hard times, I was proud to live in a country in which they and I would be able to get help. Sadly, that is no longer the case. I remain proud of my country, but not of the people who are running it. The fact is that the safety net no longer exists. Since the coalition introduced its welfare reforms, we have experienced a harsh and punitive regime. We have a culture that no longer talks to people about their circumstances or tries to understand their hardship, but sanctions them without hesitation and cuts them off from any means of financial support without a care.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I want to make some progress.
That is not just my view, but the view of the brave people and selfless organisations that gave evidence to our inquiry. Time and again, people cited the changes in the welfare state as a primary driver to the food bank. It would be a total injustice not to acknowledge that. It is a national disgrace that food banks have become a part of the fabric of our society, but I thank God that they are there, for the truth is that, if the food banks and the faith groups were not plugging the gaps left by the state, people would be starving. There is no common sense or humanity in the system any more.
We heard from a number of agencies about the culture change at the Department for Work and Pensions. The system now exists to catch people out, not to help them. That culture change has been led by those at the top, those in the Government who want to scapegoat the poor. We see that attitude when Ministers deny that welfare reform has led to people going hungry, which completely ignores the experiences of all our constituents. Ministers accuse critics of welfare reform of playing politics. I wonder whether they would have the gall to face some of the hungry people in my constituency and tell them that. It is not playing politics; it is the reality of life in our country nowadays.
People are going hungry, and, with each passing day of this terrible excuse for a Government, more and more are falling into poverty, with little or no chance of escape. There are no second chances in Britain today. Food poverty is a clear consequence of the Government’s ideological assault on the social safety net and the people who rely on it. One hungry person is a complete disgrace, but thousands of hungry people are a national disaster. I want us to try to consign this age of hunger to the history books. I know that that can best be achieved under a Labour Government.
Two or three weeks ago I had the honour of co-chairing the launch of a report entitled “Emergency Use Only”, compiled by the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England. It is a balanced and thoughtful report and chimes very much with my own experience as a constituency Member of Parliament.
As time is short, I shall outline just some of the points made by those organisations. They began by considering what had caused the increasing use of food banks and they concluded that it was due to an acute income crisis. There could be a number of reasons for that crisis. The word “complexity” has rightly been used a great deal today. The income crisis could be due to factors connected with employment, or unemployment. It could be due to a change in family circumstances. But it could be due to the benefits system, and it clearly is in a number of cases. The system is complex, people have had to experience long waiting times, and there has often been a lack of clear information about why people have been sanctioned and what they must do to remove those sanctions.
I have had to sign on myself, and I remember waiting until I was in dire straits financially before I went and did that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that 16 days is far too long for someone to wait before receiving jobseeker’s allowance?
I would agree that in many circumstances it is probably too long. Circumstances will be different for different people, but for some people it most certainly is too long.
I want to consider what we should be doing about this situation. There has been criticism of the Department for Work and Pensions. I want to make it clear that most staff in DWP do an excellent job, and most DWP staff in my constituency really do try to help the people who come before them—not everybody, but we are all human beings.
First, we should improve access to short-term benefit advances. I think the Government recognise that. I hope they will do something about it and make it clearer how people can access those advances more readily. Secondly, we should look at sanctions policy and practice. Some of the instances that have been highlighted to me of how people have been sanctioned seem, frankly, to be over the top and in some cases ridiculous—in some cases perfectly justified, but in many cases I have questioned that.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Work and Pensions Committee has decided to conduct an inquiry into inappropriate sanction use because of our significant concerns about that.
There have been cases where people have had medical appointments, for example, which they cannot avoid, and so could not go to sign on, so there needs to be a bit more flexibility, while not taking nonsense from people who try to get away with things. Most of these people are not trying to get away with it at all, however.
Thirdly, the report recommends that we should improve the employment and support allowance regime, ensuring that claimants are not left without income for long periods. Fourthly, the local welfare assistance scheme is currently under review after a challenge. I urge the Government to ensure that the funding is ring-fenced, and that local authorities are not required to absorb it into their budgets, as many will find that difficult. We need that money to be ring-fenced locally for the coming financial year. I hope the Minister can respond on that, or at least indicate when we are going to hear about that.
I agree that food banks should not become a readily accepted part of formal provision. Clearly, there will always be people who get into difficulties. Being the son of a vicar in London, I remember that people would frequently come to the doorstep and ask for food. That is always the case—people do get into difficulties—but food banks should not be part of a readily accepted formal system for the long term.
The report chimes with the report presented last week which colleagues wrote. The Government should take the evidence and the recommendations seriously. Some of the recommendations should not be difficult to implement; it should merely be a matter of instructing DWP offices what they should, and should not, do in terms of sanctions.
This debate is extremely important. I am very glad that it has taken place today. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will do their utmost to ensure we improve the current situation, but ultimately it is up to the Government to look at the ways in which they can do that.
I want to start by saying that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and that I agreed with so much of what he said. I also want to say that, to be fair, the Minister is right to acknowledge, as we do on this side, that some of the problems that are propelling people in this country to food banks have deep roots and a long history that goes back beyond the time his Government have been in office. However, we simply have to acknowledge the explosion in the scale of the problem in recent years.
We cannot have a sane and sensible debate about how to resolve the problem if Ministers refuse to acknowledge that over the past four years the number of people relying on Trussell Trust food banks alone—there are many other food banks around the country—has gone up from 41,000 in 2010 to nearly a million now, and that in those years we have seen food banks such as the Brick in my constituency springing up to fill need and demand.
Many people are too frightened or humiliated to go and ask for help, and the British Red Cross—more used to working in countries torn apart by war, famine and disaster—is launching its first-ever emergency appeal in this country, one of the richest countries in the world, to feed and clothe our children. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We have to start by acknowledging that and the heartbreaking reality, as all my hon. Friends who have visited food banks in their constituencies will know, of a nation that will not feed its children.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, as always. There is agreement across the House about how well food banks are performing, how well organisations such as Tesco are doing and how generous our constituents are in giving money and food to food banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that what is missing on the Government Benches is the anger at the fact that we have food banks in this country? That is what I saw when I was collecting at Tesco in Brook Green—that people are so concerned.
The Minister’s warm words and praise for many of the charities running those food banks would be a lot more convincing if his Government had not just tried to gag them to prevent them from speaking out by passing the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which we will repeal.
One of the reasons why we have such a problem is that the safety net that those charities campaigned for and that we built during the previous century has been allowed to collapse in this century. What was provided once as a right is now provided as charity. That, in the end, is what lies behind the humiliation facing many of the people forced to walk miles to go to food banks and the gnawing anxiety that they live with daily, not knowing where their next meal will come from.
Indeed. My hon. Friend is right.
In the short time available to me, I want to talk about the solutions to these problems. The first solution, which tackles a long-term trend, is that work must pay. Far too many people have been forced into work that is low-wage and zero or small-hours. One of my constituents wrote to me before this debate and said that she was forced into a job where she was given, on average, only 15 minutes of work a day over the course of a week, and that £1.10 a day did not even cover the cost of her bus fare. When she left that job she was sanctioned, got into debt and ended up having to go to a food bank. The solutions are obvious: raise the minimum wage and encourage firms to pay the living wage.
When the Minister went to Tesco, did he ask that company why it does not pay all its staff a living wage? I would be interested to know. Those who claim to be part of the solution can also be part of the problem. It is the Government’s job to set the tone of what we expect from our major employers. In communities such as mine, there are real issues about the number of jobs available. If the Government do not invest to create jobs, it is no use telling people to get on their bike and go and get a job.
The second thing that Ministers must do is rebuild the safety net. I do not know whether the Minister understands how much damage the bedroom tax has done to people in communities such as mine. It must be scrapped immediately. The benefits delays that my hon. Friends have mentioned are so important. I have people in my constituency who are waiting six months just to get an assessment for employment support allowance. On top of that, the universal credit has been introduced. In principle I support it, but many people are now managing budgets that they never had to deal with before, and it has propelled many of them not just into debt, but into the arms of payday lenders—payday lenders that this Government refuse to do anything about.
If Ministers were at all interested in the experiences of my constituents, which they do not appear to be as they seem to be talking together, they would learn that the culture in the jobcentre—
No, I will not give way. It is about time Ministers listened, rather than trying to tell us that there is no problem in this country.
The cultural change that is needed in the jobcentre, which routinely strips people of their rights and their dignity, will come from getting rid of the unofficial targets for sanctions and restoring adviser discretion so that organisations can work with people, not against people, in their search for work.
I will say this to the Minister, now that he is finally paying attention to what I am saying about the experience of my constituents: what a waste this all is! He talks about food banks. Well, I will tell him something. There is a growing recognition across all the political parties that in the current economic climate we desperately need to harness the talents, the passion and the energy of people in every community, to make this country fairer, stronger, better and more sustainable. Instead, we have charities—cancer charities and children’s charities. Instead of supporting people at the hardest time of their lives, we can do little more than feed and clothe the children in one of the richest countries in the world. What a tremendous waste it all is!
I have visited the new food bank in my constituency and the one in Sparkhill, just outside my constituency. Both are Trussell Trust food banks and both do excellent work. I congratulate the people who work in them. I have done welfare rights for about 25 years, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to send people in crisis somewhere where they can get emergency food aid.
The Trussell Trust website tells us how the trust was founded in 1997 and how food banks were born in 2000. It tells how the founder, Paddy Henderson, received a call in 2000
“from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying ‘my children are going to bed hungry tonight—what are you going to do about it?’ Paddy investigated local indices of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis.”
This problem is not new, but the fact that there are now food banks is a positive thing.
I think we would all acknowledge that there has always been a problem with people and families going hungry in this country. It is nothing new, but how does the hon. Gentleman explain the huge increase in the number of people presenting at food banks in recent years?
One aspect of that is that people such as myself who were unable to refer anyone to a food bank before can now do so. I have always seen people in a state of crisis—[Interruption.] No, I have seen people in a state of crisis, and the Trussell Trust also confirms that this was happening in 2000.
Let us look at an example involving habitual residency. I think that the House is united in not wanting benefit tourism. However, when people leave this country to go and live abroad for five or 10 years and then come back, they do not qualify for benefits because they have not been habitually resident here. They then come to see me and I tell them that, in such an emergency, I can send them down to the food bank. I have handed out vouchers to four people. It is true that some people end up in such a state that they cannot afford to cook the food, and that is something that we need to be aware of. They often do not want to go to the food bank for that reason. Similarly, the cost of the bus fare to the food bank can also be an issue. We have to recognise, however, that the habitual residency rule is not new. It has been around for some time. The Trussell Trust refers to “hidden hunger”. We all agree with the policy of having habitual residency qualifications for means-tested benefits.
Sanctions give me cause for concern. I have sat down with senior civil servants who have told me that there are no targets for sanctions, but I have also had confirmation from people working in the Department for Work and Pensions that they are under pressure for not having issued enough sanctions. I also see people who are being wrongly sanctioned. To me, that is very wrong. The safety net should be fair but, as I have said on a number of occasions, it is not operating properly at the moment.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) made an excellent speech, and I support everything he said, but I would also like to emphasise the point made by the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) about the yellow card system. The sanctioning system was originally designed to be punitive, but under the universal credit system, it is supposed to be less so. The Government have gone wrong in not having moved towards a compliance-oriented sanctions system and waiting for universal credit to bring that in. We should have changed how the system was initially set up under the previous Government. It was initially set up as a punitive system, but it should have been moved towards compliance. I would support the yellow card system, which the Trussell Trust also supports.
Again, the Labour party has to think carefully about its policy proposals. It proposes to increase the number of years someone has to work to qualify for contributory jobseeker’s allowance from two to five years. The effect of that will be to reduce the number of people who get contributory JSA, which is why the Labour party is suggesting it, but the families involved will then face exactly the same sort of crisis that will drive them to a food bank.
Let us consider what happens to a couple who are both in low-paid work and then one of them loses their job. Under Labour’s new proposals they will find themselves having an income crisis that they would not find under the Government’s current legislation. This is a complex issue of detail, and some of the Opposition’s proposals would make more people go to food banks. We need to look at how to deal with it in detail and protect people from hunger—hidden or unhidden.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) talked about Members of this House who have been around for some time. Well, I have been around for some time and I have never known a situation like this.
Last Saturday, I attended a Christmas lunch for pensioners at the Trinity House community centre in my constituency. It was a lovely occasion, but I did ask myself what kind of lunch some of the people would have been having if they had not been there. I went to a school and the head teacher told me that the meal provided for children there was the only proper meal they had all day; I had to ask myself what happens during holiday periods.
I went to the New Covenant church for a carol service last Sunday in another part of my constituency. I had a chat with the pastor and I was told of the things that were done at that church. He told me about its food programme and its food bank. He told me that the church has volunteers who work there and in the community but cannot find jobs when they have left the volunteer period.
That night, I went home and saw on television a commercial that said, “Help Unilever and Oxfam fight hunger in the UK”. I found it utterly shaming that a commercial such as that had been made, where people were saying that there was so much hunger in this country that action against it had to be organised. Despite the damage done by this Government, this is one of the richest countries in the world, and it is utterly humiliating that people should have to go to food banks to get a meal.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has yet had a chance to visit the excellent FoodCycle Manchester. I am a patron of the organisation and was at FoodCycle Bristol on Sunday. It uses food waste—surplus food—to provide meals for people who cannot afford them. For the 60 or so people I met there on Sunday, it was probably the only nutritious cooked meal they were going to get that week. I urge him to visit.
My hon. Friend has got it right, because one sees this again and again. Why? It is because of poverty. The figures show that in my constituency 42% of children live in poverty. Mine is the 10th worst constituency for that in the whole UK. The city of Manchester is fourth in Britain for poverty, and that is according to the Department for Education’s own definition. Children are said to be living in relative poverty if their household’s income is less than 60% of the median national income.
Manchester is a target for this Government. They have taken away more Government funding from my city than from anywhere else in the country, whereas in other parts of the country, such as Surrey, they are actually increasing the amount of Government funding. It is a cynical political trick. They know that they cannot win seats in Manchester, so why make life comfortable for people there? By contrast, in Surrey they do have some hope of winning constituencies. It is a political manoeuvre and my constituents suffer because of it.
The Government’s policy can be summed up:
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given…but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
Benefit sanctions are spoken of again and again. Heaven knows I have a case load, as the Secretary of State knows from his correspondence with me, but people should not look for benefits other than those to which they are entitled by family circumstances. They should be able to have jobs. In Manchester, we have the Manchester living wage, but it does not prevail. If people do not have incomes or jobs they cannot buy food. It is terrible that we have in this country—a progressive western European country—hunger that is categorised by Unilever and Oxfam. The people who provide food banks are fine, decent people. They are good people—valuable people—but we should not need them.
It is a pleasure, Mr Speaker, to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who represents the city where my husband grew up. I am familiar with the type of poverty that he described, as my husband grew up in a two-up, two-down council house in a neighbourhood very similar to the one that he represents. Like many Government Members, we are absolutely able to relate to and represent the sort of community that he represents. I am sure we all share the horror and shock at the fact that many people need to go to food banks in the 21st century in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We are united in our desire to help people out of poverty and help them stand on their own feet to secure a sustainable life.
I find the tenor of this debate unbearably disappointing, after doing so much careful work with colleagues across the House on the all-party parliamentary group. Everyone has said that the work was thoughtful and considered, and it has been much referenced. The key finding of that report was well articulated by the Archbishop of Canterbury: this issue is so great and has been going on for so long that it needs to rise above party politics. It needs a considered, all-party approach, but this debate has thoroughly let down the people in our constituencies who have to go food banks. It thoroughly lets down the hundreds and thousands of volunteers who give their time so freely.
The Opposition had the opportunity to hold a debate granted by the Backbench Business Committee. They did not have to pick an Opposition day to discuss such an issue. I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) to discuss the APPG findings, and in the time available I want to discuss what is going on in my constituency. For well over a year, volunteers from my team have gone to each session in the three food banks in my constituency. I represent one of the poorest regions in the country, so I understand why people use food banks. We are helping those volunteers to get to the underlying reasons why people use food banks and we are helping those people to get back on their feet. That was a key recommendation in the APPG report.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a key point about food banks and the important work that they do is that it is not just about the distribution of food? It is about listening to problems and giving advice, pointing people in the right direction, as well as providing food.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that the volunteers at the food bank really welcome the volunteers from my team, who provide such important advice in getting to the underlying reasons why people are there. We can help with issues relating to benefits, employment, housing and debt, among many others, because there is a huge variety of issues. By working with DWP locally and Cornwall council, as well as with employers and civil society, we can help a great many people access the available help so that they can deal with those issues and get themselves back on their own two feet, which is exactly what they want to do. Nobody wants to end up at a food bank, but some people at some time in their lives will need a great deal of help to help themselves. Although the state of course has a role to play, nothing will ever replace the kindness and generosity of somebody freely giving their time to help a person in need.
The volunteers in my constituency, like those in my hon. Friend’s, work really hard at the food bank to support and help people. One thing they raise with me, however, is the fact that from time to time people have nowhere to turn when they have benefit problems. Does her office have people in that situation coming to see her for help?
Yes, and I am very pleased that I have such experienced members of my team at the food banks. They have years of experience at the citizens advice bureau and can give that advice and sort out benefit problems with the DWP locally. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the team in my local Jobcentre Plus, who work very well with us when issues are identified, to ensure that people get the support that is there for them. The biggest single issue we find in the work we have been doing for well over a year now is that people do not get, or do not even know about, all the help that is available to them. Having people at food banks who can offer good advice on welfare, debt and employment is absolutely essential. Although I really appreciate and value the opportunity to talk about the excellent work being done in my constituency, I think that the way the Opposition have approached the issue today is shameful.
I am ashamed and angry that we are having to have this debate today and that just under 1 million people in our country have to access emergency food aid. It is an absolute disgrace. We know that those figures only touch the surface. I heard stories when I was in Erewash—for example about Billy, who has to go “skipping” when the supermarkets put out their food at the end of each day because he has nothing to eat. There are the mums who are going without, the teachers who say they have children turning up at school hungry because they have nothing to eat at home, and the councillors who are handing out food from the back of their cars. The list goes on. The figures we have are just from the Trussell Trust, but we know that there are many more food banks and unofficial organisations that help people in need, whether they be hostels, luncheon clubs or the many other people who provide emergency food aid.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: there is not one person who walks into a food bank with their head held high. People cannot just walk into a food bank because they decide they want a bit of extra food; they have to be referred. As the many hon. Members in this House who issue food bank vouchers know, it is an incredibly difficult thing to broach with a constituent who is clearly in need. I have had constituents reject the offer because they are ashamed and embarrassed. The fact that we have to do that as MPs should fill us all with shame. Frankly, I am appalled that two years on from the debate we had at Christmas 2012, when the Minister said that it was not a problem, the number of people in our country having to access emergency food aid is approaching 1 million. Again, I am frankly appalled.
We know that there are many organisations across the country doing phenomenal work, whether that is the Trussell Trust, FareShare or FoodCycle, which go out of their way to provide people with help. I have seen it in my constituency. I have met a man who had to walk a 9-mile round trip in the cold, having just come out of hospital after heart surgery, because he had nothing to eat at home. I had a constituent who had worked all her life but was made redundant in her mid-50s. She had applied for hundreds of jobs and did not receive the support she was entitled to. My constituent Thomas O’Donnell waited eight months for his personal independence payment and suffered malnutrition as a result. I am sorry that the Minister is too busy to listen to the individual cases of my constituents who have been affected and had to access emergency food aid.
I have been asked not to, because other Members wish to speak.
A family in my constituency have been waiting since August to get their tax credit application processed, and they are having to live on food bank vouchers because they have nothing to eat at home. I pay tribute to James Sloan and those at Central Liverpool food bank who do such an excellent job in providing people with support, and the volunteers who give their time to collect food, the people who donate very generously—in Liverpool, we have had one of the most generous supermarket collections anywhere across the country—and the people who give their time to listen and to provide a cup of tea.
However, I reiterate that we should not need those volunteers. We should not need the hundreds of food banks. We should not have 1 million people having to access emergency food aid. It is a disgrace that over 23,000 people—
Order. Time is up. Before I call the next speaker, let me say to the House that I know that nobody intends any discourtesy, but it is frankly discourteous for Members on the Treasury Bench to be chattering to each other when an hon. Member is speaking. These are important matters. Please let us treat each other with appropriate respect. I hope that the Minister, who is sitting there impassively, has got the point—he had better have got it.
It is a privilege to contribute to this debate. I represent Salisbury, where the headquarters of the Trussell Trust are based. I have had the privilege of deep and thoughtful conversations and dialogue with those at the Trussell Trust during my time as MP.
Having contributed extensively to the report over the past six months, I am struck by the range of the 77 recommendations that we have made. The report makes uncomfortable reading for all politicians in all parts of the House. I want to make it absolutely clear that I understand the strong feelings that are generated when we discuss this matter. Let me therefore point out that we focus extensively on the issues of low pay, benefit administration, benefit delays, hardship payments, short-term benefit advances, tax credits, mandatory reconsideration and benefit sanctions. However, it is also important that we think about supermarkets, the food supply chain, energy companies and regulators, and how the food banks operate and work with other charitable organisations. If we are going to take this report seriously, it is very important that we do not try to cherry-pick its recommendations. As Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust said,
“that’s precisely how to hollow out the potential and impact of the inquiry and leave most of the causes of the problem untouched.”
I do not want not to reference fully the complexity of individuals who use food banks and the fact that some of the issues they raise make uncomfortable reading for politicians on the Government Benches. However, we have to be honest about what we are saying about an alternative. When we talk about reforming the sanctions system, we are talking about a system where there has been a significant improvement and where, when there were changes to benefits in 2006-07, there was also a spike in the proportion of those who gave benefit delays as a reason for using food banks. In fact, the situation was very similar to the one we saw when the recent benefit changes were implemented. This is a national system, where 18,000 decisions are made every day.
I absolutely agree. Even in Salisbury, where according to today’s figures unemployment is down to 0.8%, we know of individuals who have not been well served by certain decisions. We all act as advocates for those individuals, and it is perfectly right that we should.
As the Bishop of Salisbury said when he gave evidence to the APPG,
“hunger can happen to any of us. It stems from low pay, lack of self-esteem, family breakdown, unemployment, addiction, mental illness, sickness or bad luck”—
or, indeed, a combination of many of those factors. Any strategy on food poverty that ignores that list in its entirety and how those elements interact with one another, choosing instead to focus entirely on benefits and economic factors, does not do justice to the complexity of the problem in this country. Everyone who turns to a food bank has a different story to tell: some are about straightforward administrative errors, whereas others are extensive tales of hardship. I urge the Government, in their response, to reflect on the full range of our 77 recommendations and the issues that we have discussed.
I want to address one question that arises from the speech made by the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). There is a sense of anger and shame that, as politicians, we are all almost powerless in the face of the rising tide of poverty and hunger in our constituencies. I want to caution people who think it will be easy to stem that tide. I want to address those on both Front Benches on what I hope, as we go into the election, the electorate will ask of us in alleviating the current position.
I do not believe, as the hon. Gentleman and some academics have suggested, that we are in a world in which we can easily move to the abolition of food banks. I wish that were true. One important thing that I hope we did in the report was to suggest that the situation exists not only in this country, but in similar economies in the western world. In Canada, the United States, France and Germany, as in this country, the number of people reduced to hunger is increasing. That suggests that something very fundamental has happened and is happening to the economy in such western countries, and that protecting the poor—as far as they are concerned, the economy is clearly falling away—will be really difficult.
That does not mean that we should not think about what we are doing, or that we should not ask both Government and Opposition Front Benchers to lessen the number of our constituents who are faced with the horror of not being able to feed their children or, many times, not being able to feed themselves. The Government have an important role in relation to the number of people who are hungry. A number of rip-off merchants in the utilities who charge the poor more than the very rich are accountable. There is the shame of being in a country in which only 2% of the edible waste is recycled to people who are hungry today.
No, I will not give way, because other Members want to speak.
The important point for Government and Opposition Front Benchers is whether we will implement the recommendation that if someone’s benefit is not paid in a reasonable time, they automatically qualify for emergency payments. Will they both introduce a yellow card system to ensure that those who have been sanctioned can seek help, rather than having to face hunger? It is fine for us to get angry, but we have some power, which is to make the two Front-Bench teams respond to our demands, and I have not heard them talk about that tonight.
My last visit to one of the six Trussell Trust food banks in my constituency left me shocked and horrified. I heard about a single mum—working as a lunch time school supervisor while training to become a classroom assistant—who must, being employed part time, attend jobcentre interviews. On the day her father died, she forgot her appointment. She rang the next day to apologise and explain, but the death of her father was not accepted as a valid reason for missing her appointment. She was sanctioned for one month, and had no choice but to turn to the food bank. I heard about the 14 men sacked with no pay after four weeks’ work when their food-packing employer went bust. The jobcentre told them they could not claim, but had to pursue the company for their wages. Being penniless, they turned to the food bank.
These stories and thousands like them typify the impact of this Government’s welfare reforms, which, through a cocktail of callousness and ministerial incompetence, are condemning hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens to modern-day penury. These people are doing all that we ask of them: they are in work or training, and they are trying their hardest under difficult circumstances to better themselves and provide for their families. They are exactly the type of people that our welfare system was created to support, but this Government are punishing them, and leaving them destitute and reliant on charity to stop them and their children going hungry.
Ministers refuse even to acknowledge the explosion in the use of food banks. The Secretary of State boasts that we have fewer people using food banks than in Germany, but having 1 million people having to depend on hand-outs to prevent them from going hungry—870,000 more than when the Government came to office—is nothing to be proud of.
The reasons that the Government have given for the rise in the number of food banks have ranged from the ignorant to the outright scurrilous. There is not the time to recite all the dreadful things that Ministers have said, but now infamous ones have included sentiments from “Let them eat porridge” to “People use food banks because more people know they’re there”, or, “There’s more food waste being recycled”. It is either that or “The lower orders simply can’t cook”. There is no limit to how offensive Ministers can be. Condescending and out of touch does not begin to describe it.
What our country needs is a lower cost of living, higher wages and a fair benefits system that is fit for purpose. We must end the scandal of in-work poverty by raising the minimum wage, spreading the living wage, keeping household bills down and putting an end to exploitative employment practices. The Government would have it that poverty is the personal and moral failure of the poor, to which there is an all-stick-and-no-carrot solution of plunging the poor further into destitution.
We have to ask what type of society we want to be. Having witnessed the tremendous kindness and generosity of ordinary people who donate to and run food banks, I do not think the British people believe that those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own should be thrown on to the scrap heap as the Government are doing. Any future Government ought to count achieving a hunger-free UK as a priority, but for that Government this nation’s hungry will sadly have to wait.
Everybody should agree that it is an absolute and utter disgrace, in a rich, developed nation of the 21st century, that so many of our fellow citizens have to resort to food banks. The largest food bank in my constituency is the Angus food bank, which is run by a group of churches, supported by the Trussell Trust. I have joined food collections, and the dedication of volunteers and the generosity of those who donate never ceases to amaze me.
It is often those who have little enough themselves who are most ready to help their fellow citizens. I recall that at a recent event, one person came up to us with a small donation, saying that he could not afford much but had been helped by the food bank when he was in need and wanted to give something back. That is far from unusual. Food banks bring out the best in ordinary people with a desire to help those who find themselves in temporary difficulties through illness, unemployment or other factors. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have that effect on Ministers.
The rise in food bank use is down to rising need, and the number of people using them is certainly going up. In Scotland alone, 51,647 people received a minimum three-day supply of food from a Trussell Trust food bank in the six months to September this year, an increase of an astonishing 124% on the same period last year. Almost one third of those helped were children. The Trussell Trust expects that over the full year, the number will rise to more than 90,000. Angus food bank helped 1,247 people in the six months to April, and it does not cover the major town of Arbroath, which is served by other food banks. Some 277 of those people were children. In the council ward where I live, 338 people were helped. Those figures are shocking.
Why do people go to food banks? The Trussell Trust says that only 5% of people who come to it cite homelessness as the main cause of their crisis. Almost half—46%—cite benefit problems, and a further 18% cite low income.
(Strangford) (DUP): The Trussell Trust food bank in Newtonards, in my constituency, was the first in Northern Ireland. It is run by the Thriving Life church and does excellent work. I am the main referral agency for it, and for the record, the main reasons for referrals are benefit delays at 30%, benefit changes at 15% and low income at 22%. Last year—
Clearly the main issues are a direct result of the current Government’s policies. Many people turning to food banks have been “sanctioned”, to use the Government’s word, often for seemingly unfair reasons. Some 86% of food banks say that they have seen an increase in referrals for that reason. It is not just the Trussell Trust making that point; Barnardo’s also does, citing the rising cost of living, cuts in welfare support and benefit delays.
Those matters are under the Government’s control. There do not need to be delays in sorting out benefits when circumstances change or for there to be sanctions for seemingly minor reasons. From my constituency experience, there appears to be a particular problem when someone wishes to change from a dual to a single claim. They cannot get a clear answer on what information is required to prove their status. Such cases can drag on for months, which is completely and utterly unacceptable. Sorting that out would not necessarily increase costs and would certainly reduce the misery that many of those who use food banks are suffering.
The use of food banks is not just about benefits. It is also about incomes, as many Members have said. The Scottish Government are promoting the living wage among their own employers, and the new ScotRail contract will include a living wage clause. SSE has just become a living wage employer. Food banks are not an easy route for anyone, and those who will be most pleased when food banks cease to be required are the volunteers who are putting so much into running them and helping those in need.
Like many Members, I will start by thanking those in my constituency and across east Durham without whose donations, care, compassion and commitment, local food banks would not function. I thank volunteers who work with the East Durham Trust’s FEED project, and the County Durham food bank for its hard work and dedication throughout the year, and the support that it has offered my constituents in times of great crisis. However, although I am delighted and honoured to pay tribute to those volunteers and everyone who supports food banks, we must address the political question of why there has been such an exponential growth in their use. Government Ministers suggesting that it is some kind of act of God simply does not wash.
In my opinion, the acceptable level of food bank usage is zero. Access to adequate nutrition is a basic human right, and there is no excuse, even in a time of austerity, for a modern and rich country—I think we are the seventh richest country—to be unable to meet the food needs of its people. The Prime Minister said that food bank usage increased from 2005-06, but numbers went from 40,000 to almost 900,000 this year—those are huge numbers.
Information that I receive from food banks in my constituency shows that there is little evidence, if any, of people abusing the system. The average number of visits from an individual user is 1.7, with the food bank often being instrumental in resolving a particular crisis and the underlying cause that led to initial contact with the food bank. In fact, food banks are more concerned about those in Easington and east Durham who are too proud to access the service, and it is often only the intervention of a referral agent—a health visitor, social worker, or sometimes an MP—that brings many cases to the attention of the food bank.
I do not have time to go into the figures, but the numbers are staggering and we have not seen anything like it since the miners’ strike in terms of the numbers of families and children who are being fed not just by the Peterlee and Seaham based centres, but by centres in smaller villages. Something like 1,300 people use such centres every month, a third of whom are children, and one food bank produces 12,000 meals a month. Clearly, benefit delays or referrals are the commonest reason why people are using those food banks.
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who is no longer in her place, spoke of being disappointed with aspects of this debate. Well, I was disappointed that the Minister came to the Dispatch Box with a folder full of facts and statistics on the economy, food waste, the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions, and many other issues, yet he could not bring himself to admit why people are going to food banks in this country. For the benefit of the House, I will add some examples that I have heard, which back up what the Trussell Trust, independent food banks and many others are saying: the use of food banks is caused by changes and delays in the benefit system, debt, and, increasingly, people with low incomes who made up 22% of cases this year, up from 16% the year before. Those are the facts, and it is a shame that the Minister—unlike some Government Members who were far more candid and open—was unable to state them. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will be clearer.
I pay tribute to the many volunteers and organisations in my constituency, including Cardiff food bank, which is part of the Trussell Trust network and fed more than 4,500 people in the past year. The independent food bank at Tabernacle Baptist church in Penarth fed an increasing number of people this year—2,180 to date, and that number is increasing all the time. It repeats to me the same reasons for why people come to it.
I pay tribute to those volunteers, many of whom come to me and ask, “Why?” That is the fundamental question that the Government have failed to answer today. From my experience in international development, the same question is asked about poverty and injustice around the world. We see people who are facing disaster and we ask why they are vulnerable to disaster. It is because they are living in poverty. Why are they living in poverty? It is often of the systems, policies and processes of Governments and others that leave them in that place in the first place. One member of staff I worked with at the charity World Vision once spoke to me about a pit in the world of poverty, with a big digger digging it out. Organisations such as food banks can put rocks back into the pit to try to fill it back up. Ultimately, however, they cannot stop the digger digging it out. The digger in this case are the Government, with policies such as the bedroom tax and punitive sanctions, and policies that fail to deal with energy prices and the cost of living. That is the digger and that is what we have to switch off. The Government would do well to listen, rather than trying to undermine the organisations that are speaking up for so many across the country.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Antioch centre and Myrtle house in my constituency, and to those who volunteer to collect food from supermarkets.
It saddens me that, in spite of us raising this problem many times before, the Government still have not done anything about it. Instead of seeing a drop, we are actually seeing a rise, documented by others today, in the number of people going to food banks. I was particularly disappointed that the Minister did not seek to tackle or name the causes of that rise. He did not talk about benefit delays, low income or benefit changes.
It is a mark of indignity to have to go to a food bank. Nobody goes to one out of choice, and we should be trying to restore dignity. Believe me, people on the lowest incomes know where to find the cheapest food. Baroness Jenkin, who criticised cooking skills, has absolutely no idea. Very often, the people who live in the worst rented accommodation have the most expensive and least efficient cooking appliances and pay the most for their electricity.
On benefit sanctions, the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank acknowledged in a report in the spring that 68,000 benefit claimants each year are having their benefit payments stopped unfairly. In addition, there are a huge number of very dubious cases where it has been very unclear why a benefit has been stopped. People have been sanctioned for appalling reasons: death, being in hospital, and having learning difficulties and not understanding what they are supposed to be doing. That is absolutely outrageous.
Barnardo’s highlights the real issue: the breaking of the link between benefits and inflation. In the House of Commons Library note, the specialist tells us that that has never, ever happened before under any Government, whatever their colour. The link has never been broken. There is, therefore, a political choice: to sort out the country’s deficit problems on the backs of the rich and not take from the poor; or to do so on the backs of the poor and give tax breaks to millionaires.
“Hunger stalks the land.” That is the conclusion of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK. I welcome that inquiry. Thanks to the members of that inquiry and the report they have produced, the truth, so long denied by Ministers, must now be faced: a lot of people in Britain are going hungry.
I want to add my tribute to the volunteers responding to hunger. We have heard a good deal about the Trussell Trust. It has 400 food banks operating from 1,200 locations, every single one of them based on a church. Last month, the report it was responsible for, with others—referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) in her excellent speech and launched at the meeting chaired by the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—set out the facts. The interviews with almost 1,000 users in three food banks showed that well over half were there because of problems with the benefit system. The bulk of the problem is in the DWP. The all-party inquiry confirms that, yet no DWP Minister is going to defend the woeful record of the Department in this debate.
A newspaper article on 22 December last year told us that the chairman of the Trussell Trust repeatedly asked the Secretary State last year to meet to discuss the problems in the DWP that were driving people to food banks. The Secretary of State did not meet the Trussell Trust. Last week in the House he told us:
“I have never refused to meet it”.—[Official Report, 8 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 638.]
I hope he will at some point explain to us what the distinction is between not agreeing to meet and refusing to meet, because he did not meet the trust. The article tells us not only that the Secretary of State did not meet the Trussell Trust, but that in his reply to the letter he accused the Trussell Trust of publicity seeking.
What gets under the skin of the Secretary of State, whom I am delighted to see in his place, is that the Trussell Trust refuses to shut up about how many people are turning up to its food banks. He was simply unwilling to face up to the consequences for the hundreds of thousands of people forced by his policies to go hungry. Thanks to no less an authority than the National Audit Office and its report on universal credit, we know that he has established a good news culture in his Department: telling the truth about the effects of his policies is simply not allowed.
Having failed to get a meeting with the Secretary of State, the Trussell Trust wrote to the welfare reform Minister, Lord Freud, who wrote back on 30 August saying he was
“unable to take up your offer of a meeting”.
Ministers did not want to know what was really going on. Last week, faced at last with the truth from the all-party inquiry—heaven knows what pressure the Secretary of State put on his hon. Friends who signed up to the inquiry—the Secretary of State made a concession. He said he would do much more to raise awareness of interim payments—at last! Let us hope he delivers, but that was exactly what the Trussell Trust wanted to speak to him about well over a year ago, when he refused to engage.
I have made it clear that I have met members of the Trussell Trust. I have never denied meeting members. The right hon. Gentleman needs to reveal his sources.
The Secretary of State refused to meet the chairman of the Trussell Trust, because he wanted to explain to him the problems that the policies of his Department were causing for the hundreds of thousands of people having to go to food banks as a result.
As we now know, the big reason so many people are going to food banks is delays in benefit payments. Whenever that is raised, Ministers say that delays in benefit payments have fallen. The all-party inquiry has shed some welcome light on the matter. It wrote:
“We found that the Department for Work and Pensions does not currently collect information on the length of time taken for benefit payments to be made.”
It is not surprising they do not know what is going on, because they do not collect the information. The big problem is with sanctions, as we have heard: between 19% and 28% of food bank visits are the result of benefit sanctions. As Government Members have confirmed, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), enormous pressure is being placed on advisers to sanction people, whether or not those sanctions are justified.
We have all-party recognition that hunger is stalking the land. The all-party inquiry is right. We need a strategy to end hunger, and a big part of that will involve putting right the terrible problems in the DWP, but with DWP Ministers not even willing to take part in this debate, it will take a change of Government to do it.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to close this debate.
I begin by reiterating what many other hon. Members, including the Minister for Civil Society, have said about the fantastic work food banks do and the role they play in our voluntary sector. This Friday, I will again be visiting a food bank in my constituency, run by Don Gardner, who is involved in the local church, and by many other able volunteers and church groups in the area. I also pay tribute to hon. Members who took part in the recent all-party group inquiry into hunger and food poverty. We have heard some good contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field).
The report concludes that the issues surrounding household food security are varied and complex and should be considered as a whole. Indeed, earlier this year DEFRA published a review of food aid that reached a similar conclusion. We should also note that food aid is not just a UK phenomenon. Other countries have also seen a large increase in the provision of support through food banks. In Germany, for example, food banks support about 1.5 million people every week. There has also been a large increase in the number of food banks in countries such as France and the United States.
The reasons are complex and every report that has considered the issue has concluded that much. Some have said, for instance, that food price inflation might be a factor. There was certainly a big spike in food prices in 2008, but evidence shows that in 2013 food prices in the UK were lower than those in other European countries, including Germany. UK food prices are lower now than they were in 2013. In fact, in the last year UK food prices have fallen by 1.7%, the first time we have seen such a fall since 2002.
A number of people have suggested that the inflation that happened between 2008 and 2012 might have had a compound impact on household incomes and expenditure, and that is possible, but we should recognise that in 2008 the poorest 20% of households in this country were spending 16.8% of household income on food whereas in 2012 that figure was 16.6%. The amount spent by the poorest households on food barely changed between 2007 and 2012. We recognise that there are those who are struggling to cope with the cost of food, which is why the Government are doing a number of things to help. For instance, we have extended free school meals to all infant pupils, which means that an extra 1.5 million children are receiving a nutritious meal.
Let me turn now to some of the other points that were made. A number of hon. Members mentioned sanctions and delays in payment, but the fact of the matter is that 93% of JSA and ESA claimants get their payments on time—
No, I will not. We have no time.
That figure can be compared with 86% in 2009-10, so there has been an improvement in payment times.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned sanctions. I have discussed the issue with my own local jobcentre and I can confirm that hardship payments are being paid where needed. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead raised the important question of whether there is more we can do to advertise hardship payments. I can confirm that the Government are looking at ways in which we can advertise them more. My own jobcentre has already made it clear that whenever it sanctions anyone it also explains to them the availability of hardship payments, which is important. I should also say that there are no benchmarks or targets for sanction referrals. We have also tried to speed up the payment of hardship payments to within three days of when people are entitled to them.
I want to turn to a number of other relevant issues. First, is poverty a driver to the use of food banks? It might well be—obviously it is—but the best way to get people out of poverty is to help them off benefits and into work. Since 2010 we have 1.7 million more people in work, which means 1.7 million more people with the security of a pay packet. The latest statistics show that 95% of the jobs being created are full-time jobs.
Let me turn now to food waste, food recycling and redistribution. Much has been done through provisions such as the Courtauld commitment. For instance, we have cut household waste by about 15%, a saving of 1.1 million tonnes of waste, but the Government are committed to doing far more about the redistribution of food. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and my hon. Friend the Minister for Civil Society will convene a meeting in the new year with leaders of the major food retailers and other industry representatives to discuss how more surplus food can be put to good use.