[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered poverty in the Liverpool city region.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome right hon. and hon. Friends from across the city region to this important debate; we speak with one voice on poverty in our area.
Poverty is not an ephemeral concept. For far too many people in our city region, it is part of their daily grind. During the debate I will celebrate the fantastic achievements of charities, voluntary organisations and community groups that work tirelessly to tackle poverty in our area; highlight some of the challenges individuals and families face; and identify what we can do collectively to try to tackle the issue across the Liverpool city region.
During her coronation in July last year, the Prime Minister spoke on the steps of Downing Street of
“fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.”
However, since her parody of Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 St Francis of Assisi speech, it has been hard to find one policy in which the Prime Minister provides solutions to address the issue.
I absolutely accept that. If lines are drawn right across maps of the city region, there are similar disparities and instances in which life expectancy rates are completely at odds with the attempt to improve everybody’s life chances, as the Prime Minister said she would on the steps of Downing Street.
Will the Minister address the fact that the 55% of working families in poverty—a record high—need hope that things will improve? We need to ensure that there is aspiration for children caught in the cycle of deprivation, and innovation in Government thinking to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. I think we all remember how things turned out for our area last time there was a Conservative Government. By the time the Tories were ousted from power, our country was far more divided than when Thatcher came to power and promised to heal discord, so Government Members will forgive my cynicism about the veracity of the current Prime Minister’s words and her resolve to tackle poverty.
To get a better understanding of the current situation in the Liverpool city region, it is important to start by charting the economic vicissitudes we have seen in our recent history. Before the financial crash in 2008, the Liverpool city region experienced reasonable levels of economic improvement and was growing faster than the rest of the north-west economy. We benefited from European objective 1 funding and billions of pounds-worth of private sector investment that catalysed our area’s regeneration. The tangible manifestation of our renaissance was the changing cityscape, with projects such as the arena and convention centre and the Liverpool ONE shopping complex generating thousands of full and part-time jobs, helping to boost economic growth and raising visitor numbers. In 2008, we were able to showcase to the rest of the UK what we are capable of when given a fair crack at the whip.
The basic tenet of a decent society, on which I will focus my comments, is fairness. The last Labour Government had taken nearly 1 million children out of poverty by the time we left office in 2010. We helped to alleviate the suffering of many trapped in poverty through the creation of Sure Start centres, which gave our children the best start in life to break the cycle of dispossession. We also introduced tax credits, which helped to make work pay for many low-income families. However, despite improvements, there were still significant problems to tackle in some communities across the six districts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of our great achievements, removing that link was certainly important in taking huge swathes of older people out of the cycle of poverty.
The indicators and indices of multiple deprivation have gone backwards under the current Government. It is estimated that 91,000 children in the city region are growing up in poverty. Analysis by the Children’s Society estimates that, in the city of Liverpool area alone, 34% of children live in poverty, while 26,800 children live in 15,500 families in problem debt. Debt is a growing issue for many families simply trying to make ends meet. As StepChange highlights, problem debt costs the UK £8.3 billion a year through the damage it causes to family life, mental and physical health, productivity and employment prospects, and costs to the welfare state, the NHS, local government and other agencies.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. There have been many improvements in my constituency, particularly under the last Labour Government, but he has hit on an important point: working people are suffering poverty because they are on very low wages or can find only part-time jobs. One of the greatest challenges is surely how we ensure that people get a better income, because working people are suffering.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that in-work poverty is increasing. That can be tackled by giving people a proper living wage. That is something that we have said a future Labour Government will do. According to the Office for National Statistics, 46% of individuals living in households in the lowest total wealth quintile are in financial debt, which is twice as high as households in the highest wealth quintile, on 23%.
At a G8 summit in 2011, David Cameron promised:
“Britain will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest.”
However, a recent report by the Resolution Foundation found that this Government’s tenure will be the worst for living standards for the poorest half of households since comparable records began in the mid-1960s. Compared with other developed countries, the UK now has the worst household income inequality in the world, and it is at its most iniquitous since the early years of Thatcherism.
Local authorities are often the first port of call for families suffering from poverty. Liverpool City Council is facing an enormous funding headache. The Government slashed its grant by 58%, yet somehow still believe that the city council should provide the same vital services it once did. I challenge the Minister, or any hon. Member, to have their income reduced by significantly more than half and to still be able to afford to do the same things they did before. That is what the Government expect councils across the city region to do. How can local authorities in the areas of greatest need be expected to help families suffering the effects of poverty with such scarce resources?
A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs the public sector between £12 billion and £22 billion a year, which evidences the need for a co-ordinated and collaborative approach to tackle the issue. However, there is a wide range of complex contributory factors that can leave people facing severe hardship. Unsurprisingly, despite the last Labour Government’s rhetoric about eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020 with the Child Poverty Act 2010, the Tories are making life even tougher for families in our areas that have the highest levels of deprivation. Living costs have risen, welfare reductions are exacerbating child and family poverty, and pernicious policies have had devastating consequences.
The Prime Minister has extolled the vision of a “shared society” although, as with the mantra of the “long-term economic plan”, I have not heard her say much about it recently. Bewilderingly, she has tried to claim the crown of social justice for her party, but when was the last time she or her Government spoke about poverty? Under the Tories, life is increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable, and low levels of social mobility are magnified in areas outside London and the south-east.
Policy has included the bedroom tax, which penalises people for living in a property where the Government consider bedrooms are not being utilised. The problem in areas such as ours, however, is that those living in under-occupied homes had nowhere to go, due to the shortage of suitable properties for them to move into. The Government’s one-size-fits-all approach failed to solve the problem it was allegedly designed to tackle and instead forced people out of their family homes, exacerbating the breakdown of social cohesion in many of our communities. In Merseyside and Halton, we do not have the right housing mix to accommodate demand, which is creating problems in the private rented sector in particular. Increasingly, we have instances of rent poverty, with unscrupulous landlords charging rent rates that renters simply cannot afford. Direct payments have hindered and not helped, too.
People are having to make unenviable decisions about whether to heat, eat or pay rent, so it is no wonder that some get into arrears. In a number of cases, they end up being evicted and are forced on to the streets to sleep rough. Ministers have to take action to clamp down on that growing injustice, instead of spouting erroneous statistics to justify failing policies. I would be happy to accompany the Minister on any night he chooses to walk around any part of our wonderful city region to see the desperation of rough sleepers for himself and to speak to them to find out the reasons behind it.
Year after year, rip-off energy suppliers are racking up the cost of consumers’ gas and electricity bills. The latest hike in prices will cause particular concern to the 4 million UK households who live in fuel poverty. The suffering caused by cold-related ill health costs the national health service £1.36 billion a year, and for many the high cost of energy is exacerbated by substandard accommodation. During our time in government, we invested £18 billion into the decent homes standard. Only this week, the UK Green Building Council reported that 25 million homes would need refurbishing to the highest standard by 2050, at a rate of 1.4 homes every minute.
In the Wirral, before the previous Labour Government took office, 65% of social housing was below the acceptable standard. Owing to the money that was invested under that Labour Government, when we left office less than 5% of the social stock was below the acceptable standard. Does my hon. Friend recognise how that helped to deal with the problems of poverty, and health related ones in particular? What can be done to take that process further if he is elected Mayor of the city region?
I will concentrate on the first bit, rather than the second bit, if that is okay. On the progress made under the Labour Government to tackle what has to be described as the scourge of people living in substandard accommodation, we did an awful lot of good, and we were hoping to do even more. People have to understand that when they are heating a home without double glazing, for example, the heat is easily lost. Simple things such as double glazing or cavity wall insulation help to retain heat, and so reduce bills. That is what we did for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people throughout the country, and certainly our area benefited.
I hope that the Government will do something simple to tackle the problem of 1.4 homes per minute needing to be brought up to standard until 2050. My party has pledged to get to grips properly with the poor quality of homes. We have made that an infrastructure priority, which would allow us to combat the problem effectively and efficiently. Lamentably, the Government would not join us in the voting Lobby to ensure that homes were fit for human habitation.
Regrettably, my constituency has been ranked No. 1 in the whole country for disability and health deprivation. Life expectancy in Liverpool, Walton is many years shorter than for the residents of Walton-on-Thames, for example. As we heard during Prime Minister’s questions today, the Government have encouraged those with minor ailments to visit pharmacies, so as to alleviate the pressure on GP surgeries and on accident and emergency services. It is therefore outrageous that pharmacies in my constituency will not receive a single penny from the pharmacy access scheme, forcing on some the prospect of having to close. Out of the 394 chemists in the whole of Merseyside, only 18 will be funded, while the constituencies of the Prime Minister and of the Secretary of State for Health will each have seven funded. How does that address poverty of health, as the Prime Minister promised she would do? How does that prevent the knock-on effect for our NHS? How can people help themselves out of poverty when the Government do everything they can to make the basics of life even harder for them?
Recent statistics published by anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust highlighted the worrying rise in the use of food banks in our area. Between April and September 2016 in my constituency, the North Liverpool food bank supplied 2,638 three-day emergency food parcels to families, of which nearly 1,000 were for children. It is a national disgrace that in the fifth richest economy in the world, almost 1.1 million people rely on food banks.
On this Government’s watch, however, things are getting even worse. Only recently I received a letter from the Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions informing me of two proposed jobcentre closures in my constituency. There are similar problems throughout the city region. The Government do not seem to understand that closing a jobcentre and relocating it miles away creates further barriers for local people trying their best to find work. Perhaps the Minister will explain when he sums up why the Government consistently put obstacles in the way of people who are trying their best to find work. As an alternative proposal, will the Minister agree to run a pilot scheme in the Liverpool city region in which we use our libraries, one-stop shops and community centres to provide a neighbourhood service to help people back into employment?
Education provides the essential building blocks to achieve the economic success that we so desperately need, and yet too many children in Merseyside and Halton are going to school hungry. That has a devastating effect on their educational prospects. Teachers and governors are doing all they can to help, such as with the provision of breakfast clubs for children. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has been a great champion of free breakfast clubs, as research suggests that if children have a decent breakfast, they are more likely to concentrate better, learn more and achieve improved results at school.
The Government are devolving only limited powers to metro Mayors—this is where I should declare an interest—while at the same time fragmenting delivery and centralising accountability in the school system. The Liverpool devolution deal provides the metro Mayor with only limited powers over learning, such as on post-16 skills. Further devolution could present the opportunity for each part of the Liverpool city region to work better together to challenge poor educational performance and spread best practice, rather than for each local authority to operate in splendid isolation. We have the ludicrous circumstance of local education authorities continuing to have statutory responsibility for schools, under legislation such as the Education Act 1996, while being deprived of any levers to pull in order to fulfil those duties and influence outcomes.
When one college reports that 81% of students arrive with English and maths inadequate even to commence studying their courses, we need to address the issues, rather than perpetuate the existing fragmentation. It goes without saying that protecting per-pupil funding rather than proceeding with the Government’s 6.5% real-terms reduction in education spending is a priority for our areas. There is a poverty of aspiration among far too many young people across the city region, so if I am elected in May, I want to be able to convince the next generation that they can be the doctors, nurses or lawyers of the future and start to develop strategies to tackle the root causes of poverty, such as poor educational attainment. I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government are so hesitant about further devolution of education powers.
I also want the Government to give metro Mayors the power to reallocate residual apprenticeship levy funding, which could be ring-fenced for innovative apprenticeship programmes. That would not cost the Government a penny, but would afford areas the opportunity to develop apprenticeship programmes to respond to local need. The Government signed up to local commissioning in the devolution agreement, but can the Minister explain why the Liverpool city region is not allocated its own contract package for the work and health programme? The current deal overlooks our local expertise, which we should harness to support people into employment, and would mean that Manchester could develop innovative approaches unilaterally but we could not. Will he address that? Such levers would enable metro Mayors to make a real difference, so I hope that the Minister will address those issues.
Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the voluntary and community sector and the fantastic charities in our city region that do so much to make the lives of others that much more bearable.
May I take my hon. Friend back to apprenticeships? Riverside College in my constituency, which he is due to visit, provides excellent opportunities for apprentices, but further education colleges have had massive cuts to their budgets. The Government need to address that if they want to expand apprenticeships and have good-quality apprenticeships that link in well with local businesses, because local colleges will be key in doing that. I wonder what my hon. Friend’s view is about that.
Like many people here, I was at the debate about FE funding and the need to reduce the Government’s proposed cuts. We partially succeeded in doing that, but the proposed cuts to the budgets of FE institutions across the city region are still significant and will prevent them from doing some of the things that the Government want them to do.
The Government want 3 million apprenticeships in this Parliament. That will not happen if budgets are constantly slashed. I have suggested an alternative. Companies with a turnover of £3 million or more will have to pay a 0.5% apprenticeship levy. I do not believe that all that money will be used for apprenticeships—not all organisations will draw down their entitlement—so there will be a residual fund. With the Government’s help, we could develop an innovative programme so that that ring-fenced money could be used for apprenticeships and we could respond to what is coming down the pipeline and develop skills for the next three, four or five years. I hope that the Minister will address that.
The real issue is that we do not need meaningless slogans from the Prime Minister such as “shared society”. From pioneers such as Kitty Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone, Dr Duncan and Father Nugent to the organisations that may go unnoticed but will provide vital support today and tonight to people who are less fortunate, our area has been at the forefront of great social advances for many centuries. If the Government are serious about reducing inequality and devolving powers to start to tackle poverty in all its manifestations, the Minister must give proper consideration to my suggestions. I look forward to his response.
It seems somehow appropriate that we are here under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, given that you represent a constituency in the Liverpool city region.
Nothing defines poverty more starkly than someone being unable to feed themselves and their family because there is no food in the house and no money to buy it. In my experience, that is not a position that anyone wishes to be in. We still live in one of the richest countries in the world, but that kind of poverty is widespread and increasing. It is a key part of the worst of the poverty that I see increasingly in south Liverpool and Halewood.
Since the global financial crisis hit in 2007-08 and the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government decided in 2010 that never-ending austerity and public spending cuts were the answer to it, there has been an explosion in the number of our citizens placed in the painful, invidious, unhealthy and humiliating position of having to go to a food bank to feed themselves and their families. Since the election of a Tory Government in 2015, we have also seen a doubling down on cuts in social security support. Scapegoating and a blame culture have become characteristic of the callous and sneering tenure of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and his successors in the DWP. It seems that we are to expect more of the same from our new Chancellor of the Exchequer in next week’s Budget as he desperately tries to offset the spiralling pressures and economic uncertainties caused by the extreme way in which his Government are intent on us leaving the EU.
The numbers on food bank use are stark. Some 2,894 people accessed a food bank in 2005-06, but just 10 years later, in 2015-16, 1.11 million people had to access Trussell Trust food banks alone. Figures for the first six months of this financial year up to September 2016 show that that number is on course to increase again. However, we do not know the true number of people affected, because the Government, disgracefully and callously, still refuse to collect the statistics. We know that the available figures understate the extent of the problem, because there are hundreds of food banks not included in the Trussell Trust scheme that do not use the vouchers on which its statistics are based, and many people cannot use food banks because they cannot eat the dried, tinned and processed food that is given out in food parcels, for medical, practical or cultural reasons. They sometimes cannot do so because their financial problems mean that they have no gas or electricity and cannot cook what they are given to eat. In my experience, that is an increasing problem.
In December 2014, the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who is in his place, tried to fill the gap in statistics created by Government indifference. In its report, “Feeding Britain”, it stated that 4 million people were at risk of going hungry, 3.5 million adults could not afford to eat properly and half a million children were affected.
Thanks to the work of the “Share Your Lunch” campaign run by the social business Can Cook, which is based in my constituency, I can say that in Liverpool we calculate that our food bank and other food help outlets have had about 60,000 visits in the last year. Some of those will have been repeat visits, but “Share Your Lunch” thinks that the real number of people without food is double that. Indeed, visits to Bridge Chapel, the Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency, increased by 10% last year to 3,890 after a two-year plateau, with 43.5% of visitors coming from Speke-Garston. Some 10% of the households who access help at Bridge Chapel have at least one person in work. That indicates the extent of very low pay and zero-hours contracts that do not guarantee any minimum income. Under-employment is a real problem in our region.
According to “Share Your Lunch”, 45% of Liverpool families live below the poverty line and risk falling into food crisis. The number of children who start school under- weight has risen by 16% since 2012, up to one in five children in the UK arrive at school hungry, and one in three teachers surveyed by YouGov have brought in food for children in response to finding hunger in their classroom.
Why do we have this problem in Liverpool when we live in the sixth richest country in the world, and what can be done about it? The Trussell Trust says that the most common reasons for referrals are benefit delays, low income and benefit changes, which account for 27%, 25% and 16% of referrals respectively. That means that a full 43% of people who use food banks have to do so because of the DWP’s inadequacies and poor actions. No wonder the Government will not even collect statistics on why people are forced to go to food banks—they would be embarrassed by the findings.
Does my hon. Friend realise that there is also a similar pattern in the Wirral? I suspect the numbers are not quite as high, but the reasons for the existence, running and use of food banks on the Wirral are similar. There are now seven food banks in Wallasey, and according to the Trussell Trust, benefit sanctions, the inadequacy of benefits and delays in paying benefits are why almost half of the people affected find they have to resort to a food bank to feed their families.
Indeed. In fact, “Feeding Britain”, the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, had an even higher figure: it said in December 2014 that almost two thirds go to food banks because of benefit issues. That accords with my experience in my advice surgeries in Liverpool and Halewood, where I find that those who most need help have been let down completely by the social security benefit system and that, more often than not, the crisis precipitated by DWP behaviour has left them without money and without food.
Typical scenarios include illness leading to job loss; redundancy leading to an application for jobseeker’s allowance or other benefit, which is then delayed for months while the family has no income; or sudden Kafkaesque checks on entitlement at the behest of Government, like the recent behaviour of Concentrix in cancelling people’s tax credit on the basis of entirely groundless supposition. It was unavailable to be contacted and delayed putting things right for months. That company had been financially incentivised by the Government to cancel claims, and it did so unjustifiably and at random.
I had many constituents coming to my advice surgery who were in work and had suddenly had their tax credits stopped, which meant that they could not afford their childcare, which in turn meant that they could not go to work. All kinds of problems followed, often leading to visits to our local food banks. Even the current Government were forced to act, thanks to the pressure put on them by colleagues across the House, yet a number of my constituents have been left with no money and no food by that behaviour of Concentrix. Fortunately, some of them are now getting compensation —perhaps up to £100, but more usually £50—from the Government for what has been done to them.
Sometimes, benefit changes precipitate food crisis, such as when people move from JSA to employment and support allowance or from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. Believe me, such a change can, and often does, cause a cascade of catastrophe when things go wrong. People have to manage for months with no money before the system is put right and the backdated payments are made. That is how people end up with no money and no food.
I am seeing benefit sanctions happen increasingly—it is an accelerating problem. Sometimes—this is deplorable —the sanction is open-ended, and my constituents are not told about that. It is often unfairly applied to vulnerable people who have done nothing to deserve having all their money stopped indefinitely.
It is clear that the best way of making inroads into the cause of this problem and cutting food poverty is by turning the DWP back into what it should be—a provider of social security for those who need it—and by ending the punishment of poor and disabled citizens just because of the misfortune of their circumstances, which seems to be the DWP’s raison d’être these days. That, however, will require a Labour Government.
I want to say a little about what can be done and is being done about the problem. In my constituency, I have a range of organisations trying to help. They include the Trussell Trust, with its food bank in Bridge Chapel; non-Trussell Trust food banks and more ad hoc arrangements in a number of places in Halewood, Speke and Garston; a FareShare distribution centre in Speke; and Can Cook, a social business that helps run “Share Your Lunch”, an ambitious initiative that aims to eradicate food poverty and provide fresh, nutritious food for those who are hungry rather than food parcels of dried and tinned processed food. There is no shortage of people trying to help. I thank the volunteers and organisers who have been willing to step in to help their fellow citizens when the Government are abrogating their responsibility and are happy to leave people with nothing.
I also thank the public, who make donations. In Liverpool, we are particularly blessed by the solidarity and generosity that people show each other, in particular those less fortunate than themselves. That is true across the city region—it is a defining characteristic of Merseyside and Halton. That generosity is exemplified by the “Share Your Lunch” campaign, run by Can Cook in my constituency but well and ably supported by the Liverpool Echo, which I commend for the work it has done in highlighting this issue and tackling it in practical ways, and by many business supporters and other individual donors. It has raised £51,600, generating a total of 28,800 fresh, nutritious meals that it has supplied to people who need food. More than 19,000 kg of fresh vegetables and 18,000 kg of fresh meat have been provided through its efforts. Indeed, in the campaign’s first week it raised £35,000, all because of the generosity of our fellow citizens in the city region. I hope the Minister accepts that that shows people’s concern about the fact that their fellow citizens are having to suffer the humiliation of not being able to feed themselves and their families.
That huge response has been welcome. It has enabled “Share Your Lunch” to carry out initiatives such as providing everything for Christmas lunch for people who could not afford Christmas and helping families in food poverty get through the school holidays, which are a big problem. When no school dinners are available, it can be almost impossible for certain families to feed their children. The current food bank model is not perfect—it is not the last word—but it does give emergency help to thousands of families when they need it.
There are different ways of tackling this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) set out the long history we have in the city region of charitable assistance and innovative social support, which long predates any of us being Members of this House. He was right to highlight that. That entrepreneurship is continuing in organisations such as Can Cook, with its “Share Your Lunch” campaign in my constituency.
In a typical food bank parcel for a family, there are 22 tins of processed food, all extremely high in salt and sugar. If the food does not go together to make a good meal, some of it may remain difficult for families and recipients to utilise. Food bank parcels do not cater for vegetarians, vegans or those with special dietary needs, so how do those people get help? Perhaps FareShare can help. It has a distribution centre in my constituency and does good work delivering surplus food from supermarkets, which would otherwise go to waste, to third sector organisations. Of course, food banks and other organisations do have to pay to be members and to receive the available food. They also have to take what is available; they cannot order what they would like or what is needed. I know anecdotally that much of what is passed on remains unused or ends up sent to landfill by the third sector organisations rather than by the supermarkets, because it cannot be used for one reason or another. Therefore, while the food bank model operated by the Trussell Trust and the work done by FareShare helps many people—it has been a lifeline for many—there is room for other approaches to be tried as well.
That is where Can Cook and its “Share Your Lunch” comes in. It believes that good fresh food is a human right and that everybody should have access to fresh food by choice, regardless of their circumstances. Given that many people who find themselves with no food and no money are in that positon not because of anything they have done but because of circumstances, I agree completely that those people ought to have choice if that is possible. That is an ideal worth pursuing. Why should those in food poverty have no choice but to eat dried and processed tinned food, full of sugar and fat, which is not healthy or nutritious and may not go together to make balanced meals? Why should they not have a choice of fresh, healthy, nutritious food?
“Share Your Lunch” has developed a good food model with the aim of using some of the profits from its catering operation—it is a social business providing good, fresh to schools and care homes—to generate free, fresh, nutritious meals for those who need them. It has partnerships across the city region—across Liverpool and Knowsley—with councils and with businesses. It aims to develop good food areas where it can feed hungry residents in a designated area with the free meals generated by its commercial activity. That model is interesting and has something to offer. It is a win-win if it works and will give residents an extra choice when they face a food crisis, so that they can access fresh and nutritious food if they prefer or if it suits them, rather than a food bank parcel.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how the problem is to be tackled across the whole UK. What does he have to say about “Share Your Lunch” and Can Cook’s model? I wish “Share Your Lunch”, the campaign, and Can Cook, the organisation, all the best in their endeavour. If they succeed, even the poorest of my constituents, at the worst time of their lives when they have no food and no money for food, will be able to eat healthily and properly should they choose to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Howarth. It is fantastic to have you in the Chair for this timely debate. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), on securing this debate.
All of us here today see in our weekly constituency surgeries low pay, precarious work, zero-hours contracts, energy price rises and benefit delays leaving thousands of our constituents living on the edge of poverty, if not submerged by it. In such circumstances it takes only an unexpected bill, a family illness or an accident to leave people without the means to properly house, clothe or feed themselves and their families.
The number of such cases increased dramatically last year when the full impact of the Concentrix tax credits debacle became felt. We heard a moment ago how that impacted on the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) as well. The most extreme examples of hardship as a result of that fiasco were felt by people such as my constituent, Michelle, who faced repossession as her tax credits were stopped simply because a previous tenant’s mobile phone bill was still registered at her address.
In Liverpool, as in so many places around the country, such personal financial precariousness is compounded by the Government’s long assault on local community services and networks that have traditionally supported people to get back on their feet.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton alluded to in his remarks, we have seen from central Government a cut of 58% to our budget since 2010, and Liverpool City Council is faced with making a further £90 million of cuts over the next three years, bringing the total amount of central Government spending cuts since 2010 to a staggering £420 million. I will say more about the cumulative impact of the cuts in a moment. It is simply not possible—I am sure that no Minister in their heart of hearts really believes it to be possible—to make such deep cuts over such a sustained period of time without damaging the social fabric that protects people in need from the worst effects of poverty.
The all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency has praised Liverpool City Council’s healthy homes programme, which brings together help and advice with practical support on keeping our constituents’ homes warmer to tackle fuel poverty. That is particularly relevant in this debate. According to the Government’s new definition of fuel poverty, my constituency is in the top five in the country to be affected by this issue. Liverpool is one of the few councils around the country that sees the value in this activity and it does its very best to continue funding a team of environmental health officers who can use enforcement powers to make unwilling landlords improve properties if there are health and safety risks to their tenants.
The healthy homes programme has supported about 46,000 initial assessments, resulting in 22,000 referrals for additional support over the past seven years. The programme estimates that it has saved our NHS about £55 million over a 10-year period, while the enforcement work has made private landlords invest an additional £5.5 million in their properties. It is proof that a relatively small investment in long-term support and preventive work, carried out by local councils in partnership with local agencies, can make a huge difference and actually save money in the long term, as well as improve the health and wellbeing of local people. As a local MP, I have referred many of my constituents to the service. They have gone on to see improvements in their homes and can now afford to heat them properly, particularly during the cold winter months.
However, Government cuts threaten our council’s ability to continue to deliver this vital service for our constituents. Of course, our council is doing all it can to protect the most vulnerable. For instance, in children’s services, money has been set aside to maintain our network of children’s centres for the next 12 months, because we see the value in providing that vital service, with the aim of devising a viable option for the future of the services. However, the council still has to find savings of £4.1 million, which it intends to make by reducing the cost of care placements and packages, and increasing the number of in-house foster carers.
There is a reason why the previous Labour Government invested in creating more than 3,000 children’s centres across our country and invested in the early years of a child’s life. It was to break a cycle that we know still persists in our country and is getting worse: where a child is born determines their life chances and outcomes. That is why children’s centres can and should be making a difference. The council cannot deal with the extent of child poverty in Liverpool with a Government in Westminster that are not interested in contending with this vital issue.
Under this Government, one in three children in my constituency—more than 6,000—are living in relative poverty, and almost half of them are in families where at least one parent is in work. The subject on the Order Paper today is poverty in the Liverpool city region, but of course our children are not alone in experiencing the pain of Tory policies. Across the country, we have seen an increase of 200,000 children living in poverty, up to 3.9 million, in a single year. That is the price children across our country are paying for the Tory Government’s failure to tackle inequality adequately.
In one ward in my constituency, Picton, more than half the children—52%—are living in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. In Kensington and Fairfield ward it is 43%, in Old Swan it is 34%, and so it goes on, in ward after ward, right across our city region, year after year. Children’s life chances are being stymied because Government policies have created an economy built on casualised, low-paid, temporary and precarious work for their parents, and removed the safety net that previously ensured children were supported.
For comparison, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), 13% of children are, after housing costs, living in poverty. In the constituency of the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), the figure is 16%. Frankly, whether the percentage is 13%, 16% or, as in my constituency overall, 33%, children, after housing costs, are living in poverty. Those figures bring shame on the Government, and we must all recognise that poverty is not spread evenly around our country. Some parts, such as our Liverpool city region, carry a heavier burden.
I fear that too many Government Members carry with them a view of some places in the north, such as Liverpool city region, as home to people deserving not of a chance, but of contempt. I do not make that point lightly. I ask Members to ponder this single statistic produced by the Children’s Society: more than 3,000 of the children living in poverty in my constituency of Liverpool, Wavertree are from families where at least one adult is in work. Such people are doing the right thing: heading out the door every morning, working hard and returning home, only to see their children still living in poverty.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Will she attempt to explain what the Government’s thinking might be, given the disparity in poverty between certain areas that she has just explained? In the Wirral, we have lost 57% of local authority funding, Liverpool has lost 58%, and yet there are some areas, normally represented by Conservative MPs, that have seen nowhere near those levels of cuts, and the average is 37%.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important contribution. It is a point that I was going to make later in my speech. The coalition Government decided to remove the weighting for deprivation. Every Member who has contributed or is about to contribute has made that very point to Ministers sitting on the Government Benches. If we had had the average cut in Liverpool, we would have an additional £84 million a year, which would make a significant difference to the life chances and outcomes of the people we are elected to represent.
The Government talk a lot about increasing aspiration, but some people aspire every day to have enough money at the end of the week to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs and to secure a roof over their heads, and not to have to choose between those three at any moment.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said about the Government’s proposed jobcentre closure plans. Liverpool will be hit hardest of all England’s cities by the proposal, which will affect 40% of our jobcentres. I presented a petition last night, on behalf of hundreds of my constituents, against the two proposed jobcentre closures in our area. The issue is very significant, and if the Government are serious about dealing with inequality it does not make sense to treat Liverpool city region in that way.
We should not forget that in 2015, the Tory Government scrapped child poverty targets that were brought in by the previous Labour Government. Ministers no longer have a legal duty to tackle the number of children in poverty. They believe themselves to be essentially unaccountable for their policies, but we will hold them accountable because we meet our constituents and their children in our surgeries every week. We see the faces of people such as my constituent Frank, who, on obtaining custody of his child last year, faced months of delays and administrative errors in trying to have his child benefit and child tax credits paid. That left him financially unable to provide properly for the child placed in his care and plunged his newly reunited family into extreme and abject poverty.
Conservative Members may say, “Well, of course, the poverty target was measuring the wrong thing,” or “Poverty ain’t what it used to be in my day. Children going hungry—now that’s real poverty.” If that is what they say, I would reiterate the significant comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood.
I am conscious that another hon. Member wants to speak, so I shall reflect only briefly on the issue of food poverty, which affects too many people not only in the Liverpool city region but across the country. The Central Liverpool food bank, which unfortunately is one of many in my constituency, has fed a total of more than 43,000 people, including 15,000 children. The number of people having to use the service has increased, because of an increase in the number of people being sanctioned. Many are children. Many people not only are using the food bank in a crisis, but have become chronic users because they cannot put enough food on the table for a sustained period of time.
I have raised the issue of food poverty before. In fact, I obtained the first debate on food banks in this House, in 2012. I also made a film about it called “Breadline Britain”. At that time, only a few hundred thousand people had to obtain emergency food aid. It is worth reiterating the point made earlier: the fact that more than 1 million people have had to get emergency food aid in the past year, in the sixth richest nation in the world. That is a stain on the national consciousness and I am ashamed to live in a country where that is the case. I am frankly appalled and disappointed that the figures are getting larger every year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned that I have been a long-term supporter of organisations such as Magic Breakfast, which helps schools provide children with breakfast. There are too many reports from teachers—and the number is increasing —of children sitting in school not having had breakfast. If it were not for those breakfast clubs, they would not be able to concentrate and learn properly.
The cuts that have been made are significant. It is not just a question of how much is in the pot; it is also a question of how it is distributed. We have been disproportionately affected because of the removal of the weighting for deprivation. I believe that the Government have washed their hands of the tough choices and passed them on to councils, as in the case of our city region and its people. Our early intervention grant was cut by 44% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. It is worth reminding the House that that grant is intended to support children and those most in need. It is no surprise, given that it has been savaged in that way, that people are struggling to get by.
As I said, it takes only one unforeseen event to push people over the edge into debt. That is why, according to the Children’s Society, nearly 2,500 children in my constituency are living in families that have problem debt. About a third of families with problem debt say that they have cut back on food in the past month. A third have cut back on heating and a third on clothing. Those are the basics of a decent life, and that is what is happening in this country in 2017. The tough choices being made in Britain today are whether to choose food over heating or heating over clothes, or to run deeper into debt. Children in poverty are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a job and more likely to experience mental and physical illnesses.
It does not have to be like that. We have heard from other hon. Members about the incredible charitable and voluntary sector efforts being made in the city region, but on their own, those valiant efforts are not enough. On behalf of all my constituents, young and old, and the people of the Liverpool city region, I urge the Minister to consider the issue of poverty seriously, and to outline exactly what the Government and his Department will do to address it properly.
I hope to finish long before then, Mr Howarth. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—a sign of Merseyside’s ingenuity at keeping topics within the family. I am also immensely grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) managed to secure the debate.
I want to report two facts from the frontline of people in my constituency fighting against hunger, then I will address four brief questions to the Minister about actions that the Government could begin today to abate that hunger. If I had reported the things that I am about to say when I first joined the House in 1979, most people would have thought I was heralding the post-truth era of politics, but they are ordinary, plain, shocking facts.
Feeding Birkenhead is a wonderful coalition of organisations that feed children in the school holidays, as well as feeding many families. It gave me some information for the debate, including the example of a little girl who arrived at one of the school feeding projects, which was full up. The projects insist that just because children are poor it does not mean they should not have fun in their holidays, and be fed as well; the little girl said, “Could I come in if I miss the fun? But I want the food, because I am so hungry.”
The other example was, rather appropriately, from around Christmas. A mother was lowering her child into one of the waste bins of one of our great supermarkets, to scavenge for food and then be brought out. That mother is suffering from cancer. Feeding Birkenhead now feeds her, but the awful indictment is not only that a child was put in danger, risking all sorts of injury from pulling things around in the bottom of a waste bin; it is the fact that the mother now reports that the food she gets, which would otherwise have gone to waste, is providing her with the best diet she has ever had.
My four questions for the Minister are about ways in which we in Merseyside could immediately be helped to fight back against the extent of hunger, particularly among schoolchildren. First, given that the Digital Economy Bill is going through the House, will the Minister require the three Merseyside boroughs that do not use housing benefit data automatically to register children as eligible for free school meals, and therefore the pupil premium, to do so? That approach was pioneered by Liverpool and taken up by Wirral and Knowsley. In my constituency it resulted in £725,000 a year extra coming into Wirral both to feed the children who had not been getting free school dinners and in pupil premium.
Secondly, in what ways will the Government consider helping all six boroughs to run school holiday meal and fun programmes similar to those in your constituency, Mr Howarth, and in Birkenhead? Thirdly, will the Minister choose Merseyside to be one of the first pilot areas for the revolutionary new set of indicators measuring children’s school-readiness, devised by Wirral teachers and the University of Cambridge? We would like that to be part of the roll-out of the Government’s programme on increasing life chances. We would measure whether life chances were equalised before children came to school, during those crucial first years.
Lastly, will the Minister give us the small resources that we need so that all our six boroughs can follow the example of Greenwich, which has managed to set up job creation schemes—not training schemes—so that all families hit by the benefit cap can gain work and therefore get the cap lifted? That makes a huge difference to their income, their wellbeing and the incidence of children being hungry. Those would be four real advances for Merseyside.
I wanted to try to sit down by 3.30 pm, and I will do so now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this really important debate.
I would like to comment on how strong all the contributions have been this afternoon. My hon. Friend’s speech was wide ranging. He focused on fairness and the fact that we have had a strong economic renaissance in very recent years in the Liverpool city region, which he would like to see re-stimulated. He also focused on the bedroom tax and child poverty, which many Members picked up on, as well as the closure of jobcentres, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) made a good contribution on the impact of the cuts to FE colleges and what they mean for apprenticeships. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made an excellent speech, looking in particular at the Government’s delivery of social security support and the failures in that regard. She gave a visceral description of what it means to so many of her constituents not to have food or money for food.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also spoke powerfully about the impact of poverty, citing the shocking statistic that one in three children in her constituency live in poverty, and about the shame that we live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet last year saw an increase of 200,000 in the number of children living in poverty. She focused on the cuts to local authority spending, which have had a real impact on support services and the local economy as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) also spoke about the impact of those cuts to local authority spending and the 10-year disparity in life expectancy between the east and west of Wirral.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) made really strong points about the need to feed children. The example he gave of a mother with cancer lowering her child into a waste bin was Dickensian; we really do not expect to have to picture that kind of scene in this day and age. He also gave an example of a little girl asking for food, saying she could manage without fun but not without food. That has to shame us all. I hope the Minister will respond to the specific requests that my right hon. Friend made.
The Merseyside area, which equates to a large part of the Liverpool city region, has some of the most deprived communities in all of the UK. The latest statistics from the Church Urban Fund suggest that within its boundaries, Liverpool city region has three of the 10 most deprived parts of the UK: Anfield, Walton Breck and Everton. Five of the 20 most deprived constituencies in the country are in the Liverpool city region: Liverpool, Walton; Knowsley; Liverpool, West Derby; Birkenhead; and Bootle. It is clear that the Government’s obsession with austerity, their cuts to local authority spending—which have hit Liverpool and Wirral particularly hard, with cuts of 58% and 57%—and their failure to promote growth and opportunity, coupled with the impact of their social security changes since 2010, have hit the people of the region hard.
My hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood, for Liverpool, Wavertree and for Liverpool, Walton all spoke compellingly about the increase in food bank use. In Merseyside, the number of adults and children receiving help from food banks run by the Trussell Trust leapt from just over 56,000 in 2014 to nearly 61,000 the following year. The figure remained around the 60,000 mark for 2016.
There are many reasons that force a family to visit a food bank, such as delays in being paid, particularly when someone is in insecure work and does irregular hours or is on a zero-hours contract, which we sadly see only too frequently in the current working environment. According to the latest ONS figures for April to June 2016, the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts in their main job was more than 900,000—nearly 1 million people, or nearly 3% of all people in employment. That figure was 156,000 higher than for the same period in 2015.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2016 study of poverty and exclusion found that 46% of residents in poverty in the north-west belonged to households containing at least one person in work. The Government repeat as a mantra that work is the best route out of poverty. Yes, work should be a route out of poverty, but for many families it leaves them struggling to cope with basic bills. We have heard plenty of examples this afternoon to back that up. Will the Government take urgent action to ensure that work pays, by reversing the cuts to work allowances under universal credit, which was first rolled out in the north-west?
Some 31% of families in the north-west are private renters, and the reduction in the household benefit cap outside London to £20,000 from November last year means that for the first time, the cap is having a real impact outside London. In 2014, 12% of families on Merseyside were in fuel poverty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree spoke about with real passion. With inflation expected to rise over the coming year, the number of families who are in poverty despite being in work looks likely to rise even further.
Delays in receiving universal credit or other forms of social security are causing many people real hardship. The Trussell Trust has stated that 44% of all referrals in 2016 were due to changes and delays in social security payments. Of course, that has been reflected in the testimonies of several Members this afternoon about the cases they see coming to their surgeries on a weekly basis. The 2014 independent review by Matthew Oakley of sanctions for JSA claimants on the Work programme recommended that the DWP should pilot the use of warnings and non-financial sanctions, as did the Work and Pensions Committee in 2015.
The last available DWP figures for sanctions, for 2014-15 to 2015-16, show a fall, but their use in particular areas such as Bootle and Liverpool, Riverside remains consistently higher than in other areas. I know those areas well, because I taught in Bootle and in Liverpool, Riverside, and had first-hand experience of the kind of hardship that people have to deal with. I understand that the DWP has not yet carried out a pilot of using warnings in place of sanctions for first sanctionable offences in England or Wales. Will the Government commit to extending the pilot to other areas outside Scotland?
It recently became clear how the delay of at least six weeks at the start of a claim for universal credit is leading to people falling into rent arrears or being forced to look to food banks for help. What will the Minister do to address that? Does he consider it right that families should be forced to turn to food banks for help or fall into rent arrears due to the basic design of the Government’s flagship social security policy, designed to lift people out of poverty?
I recently went to a cross-party event on the issue of poverty. There was a girl called Kelly there who spoke of what it felt like when her mum was not able to pay the rent and they had to move into a hostel. That little girl did not want to let people know how ashamed she felt and how upset she was, so she used to pinch herself to stop herself crying. That should not be happening in a country as rich as ours.
The first pledge the Prime Minister made was that she would lead a Government driven by the interests of families struggling to manage, not the interests of the “privileged few”. She referred to the
“burning injustice that if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.”
Within the Liverpool city region, the difference in life expectancy is as much as 12 years for men and 14 for women, as several colleagues mentioned. Life expectancy is highest for men in parts of Childwall, at 83 years, and for women in Ainsdale, at 90. It is lowest for both sexes in Bootle, at 71 for men and 76 for women. Both Ainsdale and Childwall are a 20 to 30-minute drive away from Bootle, but the difference in people’s life chances is stark.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey remarked, at the other end of the age scale, the figures for child poverty are also sobering. Some 29% of children in the UK as a whole live in households on relative low income after housing costs—in other words, they live in poverty. The figure for Knowsley is 30% and for Liverpool it is nearly 34%. In the Picton and Princes Park wards of Liverpool, over 50% of children are growing up in poverty after the housing costs of their families are taken into account.
The Government have abandoned targets set in the Child Poverty Act 2010 to reduce child poverty based on household income. Are they still seriously committed to tackling child poverty? It is a concern when the goalposts are moved in such a manner. Perhaps the Government just do not want to see the figures for what they are.
In my own constituency of Wirral West, there is a great deal of hidden poverty, despite some areas being among the most affluent. For example, volunteers at the community shop in Royden Road, Upton, provide food parcels to families from right across Wirral, and they talk of things such as people being on statutory sick pay and not having enough money to make ends meet. Wirral Free Uniform for Secondary School distributes recycled school uniforms free of charge. It told me of one woman who had walked all the way from Birkenhead to Hoylake to pick up a uniform for her child. That is a distance of more than 8 miles, but she walked it because she did not have enough money to pay for a bus.
The Liverpool city region contains areas of deeply entrenched poverty, and the policies pursued by the coalition and the current Government have hit communities on Merseyside hard. Two of the early pioneers in identifying and combating poverty, Charles Booth and Eleanor Rathbone, were born in Liverpool. Eleanor Rathbone fought for the introduction of family allowances—the forerunner of child benefit—in the inter-war period. Charles Booth produced groundbreaking maps of London, based on poverty, to identify the areas of most need. I think that both would be really shocked and greatly disappointed to find that families in work, in the city of their birth, in the 21st century are still forced to turn to food banks for help. It is time the Government took action to alleviate the suffering of those experiencing poverty, not just in Liverpool but across the whole of the UK.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing a debate on this most important issue, and congratulate everyone who has contributed to it. These are very serious matters. They are not new, I am sad to say. There have been income disparities and health inequalities in our country for a very long time. The alleviation of poverty and the spreading of opportunity are key aims that have brought hon. Members on both sides of the House into this line of work and into public policy. We may have different approaches to some of the issues, but they are no less important to Members, whichever political party they represent.
I particularly want to join the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton, for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) in commending the great work of the voluntary sector in this area. Again, that is not new. Over many decades—centuries, in the case of some organisations—great support has been given to the neediest people in our communities.
I want to set out, in the time that I have, some of what the Government are doing or seeking to do to make further progress, what has already been achieved and what more we believe can be. As a number of hon. Members said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few. That includes building strong economies in every part of the country, ensuring that everyone can benefit from our strong record on the economy.
There is clear evidence that the best route out of poverty is through work. We know that because working-age adults in non-working families are almost four times more likely to be on a low income. According to the “Child poverty transitions” report published in June 2015, 74% of poor children in workless families who moved into full employment exited poverty. I would therefore like to draw hon. Members’ attention to our record on employment and set out what we are doing to help to get even more people into work.
The latest employment figures, as you will know, Mr Howarth, show that the employment rate is at the record high of 74.6%. The number of people in employment is also at a record high—31.84 million. Those trends are being seen broadly across our country. Since 2010, more than 60% of the rise in private sector employment has taken place outside London and the south-east. The employment rate for the Liverpool city region, at 67.7%, is 2.7 percentage points up on 2010. The unemployment rate in the region is now 5.4%, down from 10.4% in 2010.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton suggested that there were particular issues, with people being able to find only part-time work. Of course I acknowledge that there are people working part time who would prefer to be working full time. I am pleased that that number has come down and that less than 14% of part-time workers are now in that position and would prefer to be working more hours. In the last year, more than 70% of the growth in employment has been in full-time work.
Pay is also up, by 6.2% on the year. The people right at the bottom of the income scale—the bottom 5%—have just seen, according to the latest annual figures, the highest rise in their average income since that data series began, in 1997. Income inequality is down.
Our welfare reforms are at the heart of our approach to increasing employment.
I do not seek to put any tint or rosiness on the situation. I was merely going through the facts, both at national level and at the level of the Liverpool city region. It is the case that more people are in work and we are now seeing incomes rising. Of course there is more to do; I never dispute that. My colleagues in jobcentres are working night and day on exactly that, and of course the overall stewardship of the economy remains central to people’s prospects.
We are delivering a modern and effective welfare system that ensures that work, and progressing in work, will always pay. Alongside that, we are taking action against child poverty and disadvantage, addressing the complex barriers that face some families and hold them back. Of course, we continue to protect and support those for whom work is not and cannot be an option. We have had to make difficult decisions on welfare spending, but we have never lost sight of that mission. Universal credit lies at the heart of it, transforming the welfare system to ensure that it always pays to work and to progress. That is in contrast to the pre-2010 system, under which in-work poverty increased by 20% between 1998 and 2010, despite, as is well known and as was discussed, welfare spending on those in work increasing by £28 billion.
We are building a fairer system that will mirror the world of work, we are eradicating the complexities and disincentives of the old system, and it is working. There are 828,000 fewer workless families now than in 2010, putting the workless household rate at its lowest since records began. Unemployment is down 894,000 since 2010 as the economy has grown. The employment rate, as I mentioned, is at a record high. In the last year, we have seen nearly 300,000 more people with disabilities, over 200,000 more women and over 150,000 more people from ethnic minority communities moving into work. Almost 1 million households have made a claim for universal credit, and there are nearly half a million current claimants. We began rolling out the full universal credit service on Merseyside in July and will have completed the full service roll-out to all Jobcentre Plus offices on Merseyside by September 2017.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Given that he is still painting a rosy picture and that the number of people who are hungry and having to resort to food banks and food assistance in my constituency is going up, will he undertake now to go back and persuade the Government to start collecting statistics about food bank use and why people use food banks, so that we can get a better picture, using official statistics, of what is causing that increasing and distressing problem?
The reasons that people use food banks are complex and overlapping, as the hon. Lady knows. Assistance provided by voluntary sector organisations can take a number of different forms. She will know that the Trussell Trust, an umbrella group for food banks, does in fact produce statistics on a regular basis.
Once universal credit is fully rolled out, we estimate that it will generate around £7 billion in economic benefit every year and boost employment by up to 300,000. We believe that making work pay and opening up opportunity for people to realise their potential are central to building an economy that works for all. By reducing the universal credit taper rate to 63%, we will further improve the incentive to progress in work, helping up to 3 million households to earn their way out of requiring welfare support.
Jobcentres across the city region were mentioned. Our jobcentres have an absolutely key role to play in supporting people out of poverty across the country, and I am proud of what our staff—our work coaches and others—do. Day in, day out, they help people to access both the financial and practical support they need to move into employment. As society has changed, so have our jobcentres; the offer in a jobcentre today is unrecognisable compared with what people would have seen in the 1970s. Reforms such as universal credit are revolutionising the relationship between our clients—our claimants—and work coaches, ensuring that the support we offer is more personalised and better suited to their needs. That includes enabling claimants to access our services in different ways that suit them.
It is right that the future of the estate reflects not only those fundamental changes, but the record levels in employment across the country, while always allowing a margin of flexibility for potentially unforeseen circumstances. In 2006, DWP employed 113,000 staff. Today that figure is 79,000, but on the same estate—because we have been locked into a 20-year private finance initiative contract that was signed in 1998. That means money is being spent on space that is not being fully utilised. That contract comes to its end, after 20 years, at the end of March 2018, which is an opportunity to review which offices we need in the future across the country, saving the taxpayer money while ensuring our customers are able to access the support they need.
On PFI contracts, and personal to my constituency, could the Minister look at the Hoylake jobcentre? I understand that there is a different arrangement there. This is not just about the ending of a PFI contract; I think there is something else going on here. Could he give us a picture as to what percentage of the jobcentres are about PFI and what are about something else?
I am happy to, although I also want to make sure I respond to points raised by colleagues. It is the fact of the end of the PFI contract, which covers most of the estate, that gives the opportunity and indeed creates the imperative to review the entire estate because we see the estate all as one. The Telereal Trillium contract does cover most buildings, but of course there is a knock-on effect both ways through buildings that are not covered by that contract.
In Liverpool, we currently use just 66% of the space that we are paying rent for. Even if we go ahead with the changes we propose, Liverpool will still have one of the highest concentrations of jobcentres relative to other conurbations. When considering this question, our overriding priority has been the future service that we will offer our claimants. In every case in Liverpool, as elsewhere, we have sought to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating with other services wherever possible.
Does the Minister not accept the point I made about Liverpool being disproportionately hit compared with any other city in England, with 40% of our jobcentres now earmarked for closure according to his plan? A not insignificant number of people are affected. In my constituency alone, 3,000 people will have to go to a new centre at least every two weeks. Thousands more have to access those two jobcentres. At least 3,000 people will have to do that. On that basis, does he accept that there is a disproportionate impact on the people of Liverpool? People not only in my constituency, but in others will be affected, as Members have said in this debate.
I will be delighted to write to the right hon. Gentleman.
Looking at our benefit reforms alone fails to appreciate the wider work on support for those on low incomes. I mentioned the increases that we have recently seen in pay. I do not have time to list all the other advances, but they include the national living wage, the changes in the personal tax allowance and the triple lock on pensions—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton brought up the link with pensions, but it was in 2010 that the triple lock came in. We have frozen fuel duty, helped to keep mortgage rates low and are cutting stamp duty—all of those are things to help people with their incomes.
Like many other areas, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Liverpool is benefiting from radical devolution. The city region devolution deal involves £900 million going to the city region, and that is just part of the picture. The regional growth deals involve £333 million from the local growth fund from 2015-21, bringing forward at least £249 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector. We do think that devolution has an important role to play in helping to promote and push forward economic prosperity.
Since 2010, we have seen income inequality and the proportion of people on relative low-incomes falling to nearly their lowest levels since the 1980s. Official statistics show that, in Liverpool, the rate of relative low-income has fallen since 2010, and there has been a similar reduction nationally.
I want to turn quickly to some of the points raised in the debate. The rate of sanctions in Liverpool is down by 50% in the year to 2016. We are looking at the results from the Scottish pilot that the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) referred to. We have taken on the recommendations of the Oakley review and, indeed, a number of recommendations from the Work and Pensions Committee. Debt was mentioned a number of times. I am proud of this Government’s commitment to the credit union sector, the action that has been taken on payday loans, the introduction of the help to save programme and that budgeting support is at the heart of universal credit.
The hon. Gentleman asked, “Why not more devolution?” He talked about schools. I would argue that free schools and the academies programme are the ultimate in devolution, giving power and accountability right down to individual schools. In terms of all these matters, we are always open to further proposals. The Government will of course be keen to work with whoever is elected as Mayor of Liverpool on employability and other things. The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about work in community locations. Edge Hill jobcentre—somewhere I visited recently—does exactly that, for example in its programme with refugees. Mr Howarth, I am out of time and I know that the hon. Gentleman would like to speak.
I could simply use the time allocated—just over a minute—to enter into a stats war with the Minister. There are certainly more people on zero-hours contracts, more in insecure work and more working families in poverty. However, I will use the time to concentrate on some of the questions I asked. Obviously, there are different methodologies by which we collate statistics, but as local MPs we see the result of Government policies on a daily basis—we do not need stats to prove that.
We have a particular problem with the five constituencies in our city region being in the top 20 for child poverty, but this debate was about poverty in its widest context: poverty of opportunity, poverty of aspiration, poverty of esteem, fuel poverty, rent poverty, child poverty and older people poverty. I started by saying that it is about fairness—that is all we want. I have made a number of innovative suggestions to tackle some of those issues and I am happy to have further discussions with the Minister on health inequalities, decent homes, energy problems, rough sleeping, the apprenticeship levy, the work and health programme, school collaboration and jobcentres.
Just as a last comment, the Minister talked about there being £900 million for the Liverpool city region. I will be 85 years of age by the time we draw down our last instalment—I will be happy to meet the Minister to celebrate that.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).