[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered food poverty in Merseyside.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall this afternoon, Sir David.
May I start by thanking all the selfless and dedicated food bank volunteers not just in Merseyside but across the country? Over the past two years I have volunteered at a local food bank in my constituency—the North Liverpool food bank network at St John’s church in Tuebrook—and I have seen at first hand both the fantastic work it does and the massive need it seeks to address.
May I also welcome my hon. Friends from across Merseyside who have joined us for this debate? Two of my hon. Friends who are unable to be here today have sent their best wishes. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), has been a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and my other neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), used his first Prime Minister’s question last year to ask about schools providing free meals during the holidays, which is a subject I will return to later in my speech. Both of them have other duties in the House this afternoon.
Frankly, this is a debate that we should not be having. As a first-world country—one of the wealthiest in the world—it is surely shameful that we have seen the exponential increase in food bank use that there has been. According to the highly respected Trussell Trust, 128,697 people were provided with a three-day emergency food package in 2011. Last year, the comparable figure was over 1.1 million, which is an eightfold increase in a six-year period. In the run-up to Christmas, ITV Granada ran a special report on food poverty, focusing on Morecambe in the north-west. That programme was seen by more than 7 million people, and the issues that it raised so powerfully are exactly the same as the issues that we face in Merseyside.
The Department of Health defines food poverty as
“the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet.”
The United Nations found that between 2014 and 2016, just over 4% of the UK population were deemed to be severely food insecure. That is nearly 3 million people in our country, and it suggests that there are about 2 million people suffering from food poverty who, for whatever reason, have not had access to a food bank.
Across the north-west last year, the Trussell Trust network provided 175,000 emergency food packages. That is the largest number in any region in the country. Of course, that does not take into account the independent food banks that are also providing food aid, including the Hope food banks, the Orchard and the Merseyside Youth Association food bank. Last Friday, for example, the Orchard food bank in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) opened at 10 in the morning, handed out 49 bags of food in the space of 25 minutes and had to close at 11 because it had run out of food packages, such was the demand.
Across Merseyside, the two biggest factors driving people to use food banks are low incomes and changes and delays in the benefits system. In the six months between April and September last year, 27% of people in Liverpool said that the main reason they were being referred to the food bank was a low income. These are people in work who are having to use food banks. In recent years, we have seen an increase in food prices. Last year, for example, there was the highest rate of food price inflation for four years. When that is combined with wage stagnation and increasing job insecurity, it means that many of the most vulnerable families in work are taking home less money. Real wages have barely increased in this country for over a decade, and last year they fell by 0.4%. This brings together what might be described as a “perfect storm”, where the price of food is increasing much quicker than most people’s wages. I urge the Government to focus more on measures to tackle the scourge of low pay in this country.
Nationally, the main reason people are referred to food banks is low incomes for families in work. In Liverpool, although that is the case for a significant number, the primary reason is changes and delays in the benefits system. Some 51% of those who used a food bank in Liverpool last year did so because of changes or delays with their benefits. Since 2010, we have seen more than 20 major changes to working-age benefits in this country, and that has affected more than 50,000 households in just the city of Liverpool. Liverpool City Council undertook a cumulative impact assessment of those changes two years ago, and I urge the Minister to work with Liverpool City Council and other local authorities to undertake a current cumulative impact assessment of the impact of benefit changes in communities in not only Merseyside but other parts of the country.
Just before Christmas I walked into my constituency office and saw Jay Glover, my assistant, on the phone to the Department for Work and Pensions for an extraordinary amount of time, trying to resolve somebody’s benefits problem. That was just before Christmas, and that person had to go to a food bank. Does my hon. Friend agree that such incidents are becoming ever more frequent in all our constituency offices, and so we know that this DWP delay is real?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My experience from my advice surgeries and the constituency caseworkers in my local office is exactly the same, as I am sure is that of colleagues. The survey evidence that I referred to demonstrates that in Liverpool, half of those who have to use food banks say that it is because of delays and changes with benefits.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this really important subject. In Wallasey we have a very similar result. Well over half the people who have to use the food bank—and it is large numbers now—report to the Trussell Trust that they are doing so because of either benefit sanctions or delays to their benefits. Does he agree that this is a Government-made problem?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I will now focus my remarks on the set of challenges arising from that combination she described so accurately of the impact of benefit changes, benefit cuts and benefit delays, and sanctions.
A report by Sheffield Hallam University pointed out how the risks and costs had, in many ways, been passed from central Government to local authorities. From the point of view of Merseyside authorities, this has coincided with a drastic and dramatic cut in central Government funding for those local authorities.
As it has been implemented, universal credit has had an impact on debt and therefore on food poverty. In an article published this weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) suggested a number of changes the Government could make to universal credit that would have a real impact on communities such as those across Merseyside. Two of her suggestions are relevant to today’s debate. One is to urge the Government to follow Labour’s example and commit to passporting every family on universal credit to free school meals in order to avoid cliff edges when household earnings increase. Secondly, she suggested that claimants should be able to choose to receive their universal credit payments fortnightly to minimise the risk of households running up debts while they wait for payments. I urge the Minister to consider those two very positive suggestions from my hon. Friend.
A former Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions wrote in a letter to Liverpool City Council:
“The suggestion that benefit delays are responsible for an increase in foodbank usage is unfounded”.
That is completely at odds with what I hear when I volunteer at my local food bank and with all the information that I have received from a range of local organisations in preparing for today’s debate. I ask the new Minister, whom I welcome to his position, to take a different view from that of his predecessor and instead to support the view of the Trussell Trust that changes to benefits are forcing people to turn to food banks. If he is not prepared to take that position, I would like him to give the House his alternative explanation for the eightfold increase in the number of people using food banks.
Food poverty is a growing public health concern. A lack of access to the nutritious food needed for a balanced diet increases the burden on the national health service. Liverpool has seen a significant rise in the number of fast food outlets coincide with a rise in food poverty. The city of Liverpool has the 34th highest outlet density of 325 local authorities, and the areas with the highest density tend to be in the most deprived parts of the city. One of the strongest measures of a healthy diet is how often people manage to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day. Liverpool has the 29th lowest proportion of the population managing that; Manchester is the only core city with a proportion that is lower still.
Liverpool City Council has tried to address the challenge by teaming up with a brilliant local social enterprise, Can Cook. Using donations, Can Cook has produced food packages containing predominantly fresh food, feeding local people with nutritious food for five days. I take this opportunity to praise the work of Can Cook in its efforts to make healthy food parcels available to people, and to thank the Liverpool Echo, which teamed up with Can Cook for a significant fundraising campaign in 2016. That is just one example of the ways people across Liverpool, including Liverpool City Council, are striving to help the poorest in our city.
The Liverpool Citizens Support Scheme was set up by the city council to help the most vulnerable in Liverpool who are facing short-term crises to meet their needs for food and other essential items. The average award is £91, and Liverpool City Council made over 10,000 awards, of which 8,000 were for families in urgent need. The council is also helping with discretionary housing payments for people who need extra help with their rent. The original budget for that scheme was £2.7 million, but the sheer demand has meant that the council has found another £600,000 for it. That highlights a number of things, including the impact of the bedroom tax on communities across Liverpool.
The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has established the Mayoral Hardship Fund, a special £2 million fund over three years, set up specifically for the council to be able to respond to the exceptional and growing pressures on Liverpool residents who are on a low income. Those schemes have become a life support system for some of the most vulnerable families in the city, who are facing years of austerity, wage stagnation and benefit changes. I ask the Minister to join me in praising the city council for doing that, to tell us what the Government will do to support Liverpool’s efforts to protect the most vulnerable and to say whether they will encourage other local authorities in other parts of the country to establish similar schemes.
I will finish by talking about one of the many brilliant community organisations in my constituency, which works with some of the poorest and most vulnerable. The organisation is called Croxteth Gems, and before Christmas I was pleased to team up with it to help with its “12 Days of Christmas” campaign. Jean Hannah, who runs the organisation, tells the story of a family she visited in Croxteth a couple of years ago, who were on hard times. Jean arrived at their home and was shocked to see that, rather than an actual Christmas tree, the family simply had a picture of a Christmas tree. They could not afford a tree or Christmas decorations. The “12 Days of Christmas” campaign sought to ensure that some of the poorest families in Croxteth were nevertheless able to enjoy their Christmas. Originally, the aim was to help 100 families, but the strength of the local community response was such that Jean and her team were able to deliver food, clothes, Christmas trees, decorations and presents to 136 families, benefiting over 350 children.
Croxteth Gems does work like that all year round. It was originally set up to provide play and youth services, but because of the reality of food poverty, it has increasingly had to serve food to hungry children. One thing it does during school holidays is to provide play to children in the local area, and provide meals as part of that. It is now helping to support a local school to provide a breakfast club for over 70 children throughout the school year. The additional work it does, beyond its core mission, has only been made possible by generous donations from the local community.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has led some excellent cross-party work urging that there should be free school meals for children during the school holidays. That measure would make a difference to some of the poorest and most vulnerable families in Merseyside and, indeed, in other parts of the country. I know there is a private Member’s Bill on the subject on Friday’s Order Paper; I urge the Minister and the Government to give serious consideration to supporting that proposal to help some of the poorest and most vulnerable children be fed throughout the school holidays.
There are organisations up and down the country like the ones I have referred to—Croxteth Gems and the North Liverpool food bank—stepping in where the state has failed. I also particularly thank Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which has brought together Everton Supporters Trust and Spirit of Shankly—Liverpool’s supporters—to mobilise football fans in Liverpool in support of our local food banks.
I want to see an end to food poverty not just in Merseyside, but across the whole of the United Kingdom. For that to happen, it will require a fundamental change in Government policy on benefits, wages and the funding of local authorities. I am pleased to have had the opportunity today to highlight the scale of the challenge we face and to pay tribute to the amazing response of local communities across Liverpool. Local people have risen to the challenge of addressing food poverty. I urge the Minister and the Government to change course so that together we can finally defeat food poverty once and for all.
I will begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing the debate. It is tremendously important that this issue, which is of long standing and is worsening, is highlighted as regularly as possible. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we repeatedly held Opposition day debates in the main Chamber on this matter. I remember those debates going back to 2012-13, yet the Government, as far as I am aware—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—are still not collecting statistics on the amount of food bank use and the reasons behind it.
I find it amazing and disgraceful that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world—although we are slipping down the league—do not care enough that many of their citizens have to feed their families by going and collecting food given to them to make them research why it is happening and what can be done about it. I must say that that does not seem to stop Ministers writing to those of us who raise these issues with them, asserting that the Government are not at fault, and that benefit delays and changes are not at fault; my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby read out an example. How Ministers can say that, when they do no research into what the reasons are, is utterly beyond me. I have been calling for the Government to research this for years, but so far as I am aware they have still not undertaken to do so.
I welcome the new Minister to his place; I predicted that he would respond to the debate, because it is always the newest Minister in the Department who draws the shortest straw and has to deal with these debates. I sympathise with him. In my experience, these debates are always a hot potato for the Government; they cannot decide which Department should answer, because nobody in government is responsible for food poverty. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not want to do it, the Department for Work and Pensions does not want to do it and the Cabinet Office does not want to do it. The short straw used to be drawn by the Minister with responsibility for volunteering, but that post appears to have disappeared from Government. However, we have not yet had the updated list of ministerial responsibilities—a week after the reshuffle—so we do not know for certain that that is the case. It looks like, at least for the present, the new Minister has drawn the short straw and caught the hot potato and will have to deal with the matter.
He will have to deal with it, because those of us who represent constituents who have to go to food banks regularly in order to feed their families will never stop raising the issue with the Government until something is done to alleviate the problem. It is not good enough for the Minister to say—I hope he will not do so today —that it is just one of those things, that it is nothing to do with the Government and that they have reduced the number of benefit delays. The fact is that the biggest reasons by far for people resorting to food banks, certainly on Merseyside, are still changes in their benefits, sanctions on their benefits and so on.
The other big reasons why people go to food banks, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referenced, are that, even though they are in work, their income is not regular enough, they do not have guaranteed hours or they are on zero-hours contracts. They do not know when the next pay cheque is coming and they have fixed costs, such as rent and other bills, which means that there are times when they simply cannot afford to feed their family.
If the Minister has anything in his speech about the best way out of poverty being work, I suggest to him right now that he crosses it out. I see him getting his pen out now; that phrase will be in his speech a lot. It is not the case in Liverpool that the best way out of poverty is work, because many people who work hard still cannot afford to feed their family. If that is the Government’s only response, they are simply complacent. In fact, if the Minister commissioned research about why people use food banks, he might actually have some real evidence that that is the case, instead of the anecdotal evidence that we get at our constituency surgeries.
The South Liverpool food bank in my constituency has seen ongoing increases in people asking for help over the years. Not only was there a 10% increase between 2015 and 2016 but last year it went up again. In 2015-16, 3,890 people in the Liverpool end of my constituency accessed a food bank. The figure last year went up to 4,076, more than 1,700 of whom—almost half—were children. In 2005-06, 2,894 accessed a food bank across the entire country, but there are now more than 4,000 just in my constituency, so when I say it is a disgrace that the Government do not collect statistics and research why this is happening, I mean it. It is a problem that they appear not to care about, because they do not seem to be finding out why it is happening and coming up with a policy for dealing with it. When we talk about our constituents going hungry or children not being able to concentrate at school and losing weight over the summer because there are no school meals, it is simply not good enough that that is our Government’s attitude.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that, even though the Government do not do any research, the Trussell Trust and those people who actually provide food and collect food for food banks do. Their research proves conclusively that benefit delays, changes to benefits and low pay are the main reasons why people resort to food banks. Will she acknowledge that, as universal credit comes to my constituency and is introduced into the Wirral, my local food bank has said it will have to collect an extra 15 tonnes of food to deal with the 30% increase in food bank use that its research suggests accompanies the introduction of full universal credit in any area?
I agree with my hon. Friend on the impact of the roll-out of universal credit. One reason why I say that this crisis, which is already worsening and has been over the past few years, is actually set to get even worse is that we have not yet had the full service roll-out of universal credit in Garston and Halewood and across much of Liverpool. It will be rolled out at some time during this year, although it has been delayed again.
The Trussell Trust says that it has noticed a 17% increase in food bank usage across all its food banks where universal credit is rolled out, against an average—where the roll-out is not a factor—of 6.5%. That is a significantly increased extra risk where we have universal credit roll-out, and that is about to happen in Liverpool and across Merseyside this year. We expect, as local Members of Parliament, a big increase in this kind of problem coming to us and our advice surgeries.
The Liverpool Echo’s Share Your Lunch campaign has, over the last 18 months, raised more than £73,000 and fed more than 36,000 people across the city region with fresh and nutritious meals. It has done a tremendous job within the very fine tradition of self-help that we have in Liverpool and on Merseyside. However, that initiative is now over. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referenced Can Cook, which is also based in my constituency, although it works across the city region.
Although Can Cook is moving on to try to do more good work, the fact that, over the last year or so, its initiative has fed many local children who do not get their free school meals during Christmas and the school holidays shows definitively the importance of the initiative my hon. Friend referred to, of passporting free school meals and making free school meals available in school holidays. For many children in my constituency, it is the only good meal they are guaranteed in a day. During the summer vacation, many young people in adventure playgrounds, such as the Garston “venny” in my constituency, were kept fed with fresh and nutritious food from Can Cook and Share Your Lunch.
My hon. Friend also referred to Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an organic campaign that has grown up among football supporters, of which there are many in Liverpool. Home matches are used as an opportunity to collect food for food banks, such as the North Liverpool food bank, which is of course based around the two football grounds in Liverpool. Again, they are in the finest Liverpool tradition of self-help and of making a difference to the lives of neighbours. Unfortunately, it reminds me too much of what was happening in the early part of the 20th century in Liverpool—of the Clarion soup vans, of the initiatives organised by the early labour and socialist movement and of Bessie Braddock and her mother, Mary Bamber, who used to go around cooking food for unemployed people, who were in a desperate state at that time. We should not be going back to that.
The Minister has to make sure that his Government try to stop this happening and do not simply ignore the problem, refuse to collect statistics on it, blame the victims for what is going on and insinuate that because food is free, of course people go and access it. We have a large and growing crisis of food poverty in our city and in this country. It is my contention that the Government are doing nothing to tackle it. They will not collect statistics on why it is happening, and things are set to get worse this year, with the roll-out of universal credit.
It is not enough for our Prime Minister to stand on the steps of Downing Street and assert that she is going to do something for people who are struggling or just about managing, and then do absolutely nothing to help people who cannot feed themselves or their families, not through any fault of their own but because this Government have removed support for them via the local authority and the benefits system. The Government are not trying to make sure that work pays and that if one works for a living, there is enough in the wage packet to feed a family. That is where this Government are falling down. It is a disgrace, and I wait to hear from the Minister that he at least is going to do something to tackle it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate on such an important issue.
We should be clear that it is an absolute disgrace that there are so many people suffering from hunger and poor nutrition in this prosperous country in 2018. Food poverty is, of course, part of more general poverty. People in poverty juggle between providing for essential needs such as eating, keeping warm and keeping housed, and too many people face the impossible choice: heat or eat? How can it be just that so many people, including children, are going hungry?
Let us look at what is happening in Liverpool, where the city council has already lost 58% of its disposable income. That figure will reach a massive 68% by 2020. The Liverpool mayoral action group’s important and groundbreaking report shows the cumulative impact of 20 cuts made to benefits, including benefits for people in work, since 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred to that. Those cuts resulted in a loss of £157 million for Liverpool people by 2016. That means that 55,000 people have been affected by a reduction in their income, which was already too low to meet basic needs. The principal groups of people who have lost out are those who are long-term sick, disabled, in insecure jobs or in jobs with insecure and changing incomes and many families with children. Those problems will be exacerbated by the full roll-out of universal credit across Liverpool this year.
Inadequate income to meet basic needs leads inevitably to food deprivation. People are constantly juggling between having enough to eat, keeping warm and keeping a home. That is intolerable. My hon. Friends have referred to the work of food banks and the disgraceful situation of so many people needing to rely on emergency food supplies to survive. Between October 2016 and September 2017, 8,732 emergency food vouchers had been redeemed at one of the three Trussell Trust food banks in Liverpool, feeding 18,456 people. That is divided between 11,500 adults and 6,900 children. What a terrible situation in 2018. The main reason for this abominable situation is benefit cuts and people on low incomes, in unstable jobs and getting an irregular income.
The fact is that people are suffering. The situation is increasingly disturbing. The Liverpool public health report for 2016-17 makes alarming reading. It records that 27% of children in reception classes in Liverpool are obese, as are 38% of children in year 6. Obesity is closely linked with food deprivation and poor nutrition. That report records a disgraceful and horrendous figure—a significant rise in hospital admissions for malnutrition in women of childbearing age and young people. It is hardly believable that such a thing is happening in our day and age. The report also shows that, in 2016, provisional data demonstrate that there were 39 infant deaths in the city—the highest recorded figure since 2005. What a horrendous situation that, in 2018, in a prosperous country, more people are being admitted to hospital for malnutrition and there are more infant deaths. Those are things that nobody would believe unless they saw those figures in Liverpool’s public health annual report.
What is being done to address this woeful situation? Liverpool City Council must be commended for its efforts. My hon. Friends have referred to a number of steps that the council is taking. The city Mayor’s action group on fairness and tackling poverty has identified food poverty, together with deprivation in fuel, clothing and housing, as a key concern requiring investigation and action. It has implemented a series of practical measures, including issuing crisis financial awards for food and mitigating the impact of Government cuts on the income of vulnerable people by using discretionary funds—funds that are increasingly under pressure.
Many of the people receiving those funds because they are in an emergency and a desperate situation are in work. Let us do away once and for all with the myth that people who are suffering in poverty are in some way feckless or do not want to work. That is an outrageous untruth or, if I am allowed to use the word in Parliament, a lie. That is what that charge is.
Liverpool City Council has also instigated healthy living public health initiatives, which are very important. The basic cause of the problem is a lack of income. It is right that people are given the fullest possible information about how to make best use of an inadequate income and basic information about nutrition and how to access nutritious food. That work is important.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, no matter how much good work the Trussell Trust food banks do, the food that they hand out is tinned, dried, fatty and full of sugar and salt? That is not the best way to build a healthy diet. Those dependent on food bank usage are automatically getting poor-quality food, through no fault of the people who are helping to hand out that emergency support.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The work of food banks is excellent and very much appreciated, but of course they depend on the food that is given to them, and she has pointed out some of the consequences.
Liverpool City Council has done a great deal, and I have referred to some of that work, but it cannot solve the problem that the Government have created. Although the invaluable work of the Churches and the voluntary sector is a crucial lifeline for many, that alone cannot remove poverty, hunger and poor nutrition. The Government have a responsibility to resolve the problems that they have created. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals on how he will change this deplorable situation.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing the debate.
Food poverty is at epidemic levels across Great Britain. As my hon. Friend said, it was defined by the Department of Health as
“the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet”.
We question “a healthy diet”. Under the current Government, we have seen a 122% increase in the number of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition. For the most part, that is because a good diet is simply out of reach financially. In 2016-17, there were 806 admissions to hospital of people suffering from primary malnutrition in England. Food price increases, welfare reforms, wider Government cuts and insecure, low-paid employment are at the root of this crisis. An increasing number of our citizens are living in genuine deprivation.
I have seen the problem of malnutrition in my own constituency, where 74 people were admitted to my local NHS trust—St Helens and Knowsley—with primary or secondary diagnoses of malnutrition in 2015-16. Unfortunately, the data is not divided into primary and secondary at local level, and we know that secondary malnutrition can be related to other illnesses.
Why is this happening in the sixth wealthiest country in the world? Put simply, we have become so profoundly unequal that last year’s Sunday Times rich list stated that it was “Boom time for billionaires” in Britain. Well, the Government have certainly addressed that situation. The £20 billion-worth of tax cuts under this Government have largely benefited the wealthy, and there have been increases in indirect taxation, which disproportionately affects the less affluent in our society—the very people we are talking about—and more than cancels out the effects of any direct tax cuts from which they might have benefited. Research published last year indicates that we are now the most unequal society in Europe, both socially and economically.
Let me tell hon. Members about the experience of many of my constituents. They are often plagued by low-income, insecure employment and never have any opportunity to save for a rainy day. They are often people who are unemployed through no fault of their own, who are in between jobs or, in some cases, longer-term unemployed, and, of course, those who are affected by benefit delays and changes. People affected by benefit delays and changes make up 43% of food bank referrals nationally and 42% of referrals in my constituency.
Other crises bring people to food banks: being without benefits altogether, which can happen for a variety of reasons, including waiting for claims to be processed, debt, delayed wages, domestic violence, not having recourse to public funds, and homelessness and sickness. All the people affected have been let down by a Government who are bent on cutting the social safety net from under them even though they can make £20 billion of tax cuts.
Food aid organisations are doing a sterling job of plugging an ever widening gap, and I pay tribute to the volunteers at food banks up and down the country. I have witnessed in my constituency how hard the volunteers work in St Helens and Knowsley to ensure that families have access to the supplies that they need. In the six months from April to September 2017, the Trussell Trust recorded that, in Merseyside, three-day emergency food supplies were handed out to 16,761 adults and, appallingly, 10,145 children. That is without the likely spike in use in the months leading up to Christmas and over Christmas.
The St Helens and Knowsley food banks have provided me with ward-level data relating to food bank use in my constituency. It is shocking. In 2017, 2,134 of my constituents were recipients of supplies from the food bank in St Helens, where my constituency has seven wards, and 40% of the recipients were children. I am told that the full data for December has yet to be collated, which means that the true figure is even higher. I was deeply shocked to see that nearly one quarter of the recipients were concentrated in just one ward of my constituency. Knowsley food bank, from April 2017 until the present day, has fed 648 of my constituents, 44% of whom were children. Knowsley accounts for just two wards in my constituency.
It should be noted that the data is provided by the Trussell Trust itself. As many colleagues have said, the Government do not collect any data whatever, on either the levels of food bank use or the number of food banks. The Government say that that is to avoid placing an undue burden on food bank volunteers, but I argue that it is to try to minimise the focus on the fact that, under this Government, people are going hungry at astonishing and unforgivable rates.
FareShare Merseyside has told me that it was busier than ever in redistributing surplus food from the food industry to charities and community centres in 2016-17. It is not just food banks that are helping. They do a significant job, but there is lots going on. In that year, FareShare Merseyside contributed towards in excess of 1,142,000 meals across the city region, feeding more than 19,000 vulnerable people every week. In St Helens alone, it has 14 member organisations to which it provides food.
The Government do not collect any data on children arriving at school hungry. Why are our schools providing breakfast to hundreds of thousands of children? Teachers noticed children could not concentrate to learn and were sleepy, simply because they were hungry. “You can always tell if a child has eaten breakfast—they concentrate more in class and behave better, too.” That is what teachers say.
Forty-three per cent. of teachers recently polled in a survey believe that their breakfast club may have to close in the next few years. Nationally, that equates to 6,700 clubs, which feed 200,000 children. Eighty-six per cent. of those polled said that the closures would be down to lack of school funding. Schools, local government and everybody who helps are affected by cuts. Most worrying of all, more than one third of teachers in schools with breakfast clubs that have already closed down said that they had noticed a decline in exam results, and then the Government tell us that Merseyside is not doing too well on education. A lack of decent, nutritious food must not hold our children back for life. The Government should be ashamed. They should stop lecturing us about children not learning and start feeding the children. What is happening will serve only to entrench the social divide in the UK for generations and it must be stopped.
Almost 30% of my constituents are paid below the Living Wage Foundation’s living wage of £8.25 an hour. That is simply not enough to get by on, let alone to save to provide a cushion to fall on. In my constituency, 27% of the children—more than one quarter—live in poverty. In addition, a higher proportion of my constituents than average suffer from long-term sickness—38% of the working age population.
The Government’s policies actively contribute to the situation, causing starvation. Their own Secretary of State resigned after the 2016 Budget because of the planned £3 billion of cuts to universal credit, among other policies, which cumulatively saw the poorest families— 2.5 million of them—up to £2,100 a year worse off, when the Government were cutting £20 billion off tax for those at the top.
The recent reduction from six weeks to five weeks for receipt of universal credit payments is not enough. Delays will remain a contributing factor in food poverty. The Government are tinkering at the edges of a crisis. In areas where universal credit has been rolled out, food bank use has increased by 30% in the following six months. It is immoral to expect families to survive for five weeks with nothing. I fear for my vulnerable constituents in low-paid insecure employment, who have never—and nor have their extended families—been able to afford to save. The Government are also granting applications for an advance of universal credit. I believe that that must immediately be changed to an up-front advance as part of all applications for universal credit, with an opportunity to opt out of the advance, rather than having to ask for a loan or advance.
On 11 January the DWP’s consultation on free school meal eligibility criteria—and an earnings threshold of £7,400 as a requirement for a child to receive a free school meal—closed. The same Government who implemented £20 billion of tax cuts are consulting on reducing the eligibility criteria. Despite Ministers’ insistence that 50,000 more children would qualify, the Children’s Society is adamant that the measure would mean more than 1 million children losing their school meal—which, nearly always, will be the only meal they have. In the region of Merseyside, just under 24,000 would no longer have free school meals, and in the two local authorities that cover my constituency, St Helens and Knowsley, 4,300 children would no longer be eligible for a free school meal. The consultation is over. There must not be any reduction in the eligibility criteria for free school meals, or some children could lose the best source of nutrition they get in a day.
I am pleased to be opening Company Shop and Community Shop in my constituency next week—I am pleased because it will bring help, but not pleased that it is needed. I applaud the initiative, which works with big-name retailers and manufacturers across the country, taking surplus food and products from them. That enables food prices to be significantly reduced, and leaves families with a sense of pride in purchasing their own goods. Many families do not go to the food bank because their pride does not allow them, so many more than we know about are hungry. I am delighted to hear that new jobs will be created as a result of the shops opening. Poverty is not inevitable. It is a result of Government inertia and incompetence, and their immoral behaviour towards people. The Government owe vulnerable people their dignity and must work to build a more just society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important debate and making such a compelling speech. I join him, as I am sure all Merseyside MPs do, in paying tribute to the food bank volunteers who work so hard to address the needs of those who need help to feed themselves and their families.
We have had some fantastic, passionate contributions, in which the points were made incredibly well. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) spoke with passion about the Government’s years of failure to collect the statistics needed to understand the situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) spoke about the disgrace of food poverty in this country, and the impact of hunger on public health, with particular reference to the increases in the number of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition and in the number of infant deaths. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) spoke passionately about the huge inequalities of wealth in society. Her claim that poverty is not inevitable rings true. There were also good interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). I welcome the new Employment Minister to his post.
I believe that the debate is timely. This morning the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a study showing that one in four of Britain’s poorest households is falling behind with debt payments or spending more than a quarter of its monthly income on repayments. Earlier today the Office for National Statistics also published the latest data on food prices. Despite a slight fall in the rate of inflation compared with November, the price of food was still more than 4% higher in December, compared with December 2016.
The full service of universal credit is being rolled out on Merseyside and, despite the changes announced by the Government at the end of last year, leading voluntary organisations make it clear that universal credit has not yet been fixed. It was introduced in Bootle in October and in Wirral in November, and over the year it will spread to the rest of Merseyside, finishing with Everton and West Derby in December, at least if the Government stick to the current timetable. I want to underline the point that food poverty is just one aspect of the pressures that people on very low incomes face. They can face appalling choices such as whether to heat their home or go hungry. Parents may skip a meal so that their children can eat. Those are choices that no one should have to make. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health highlighted the link between poverty and poor diet in reports last year, and went on to point out the impact on health not just in childhood, important though that is, but over a much longer period.
The Government do not collect or publish statistics on the number of people seeking help from food banks, despite years of pressure to do so from the Opposition and voluntary organisations. The Trussell Trust, the largest organisation of food banks in the UK, does not seem to find it a problem, and nor have any of the organisations that I have contacted for help on Merseyside, so I ask the Minister once again whether the Government will produce statistics on the number of people receiving help from food banks. We need to know not just how many people seek help but for how long. The Trussell Trust statistics show that in 2016-17, 37,000 adults and 24,000 children were helped by their Merseyside food banks.
The situation varies across Merseyside. Areas such as Birkenhead, Liverpool and Knowsley have the highest rates of poverty, but it is also striking that in my constituency the demand for help has grown even in some relatively affluent areas. In 2017, Wirral food bank distributed 109 tonnes of food. In the north-west as a whole, between April and September 2017, Trussell Trust food banks gave more than 87,000 three-day food supplies to people in crisis, compared with nearly 78,000 during the same period in 2016. That is a 12% increase. The Government commissioned a report from the University of Warwick, which was published in 2014, and one of the points that it made was that people seek help from food banks as a last resort. The fact that so many people are in that situation should be a major concern.
Many of my colleagues have spoken clearly about the reasons why people turn to food banks. The Trussell Trust found that of the people accessing its support 43% did so as a result of benefit delays and changes and 27% did so due to low income. Those are things that the Government can take action on, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston pointed out. The length of time for which people wait for an initial universal credit payment has been a major reason for social security delays, if by no means the only one. That also increases the likelihood that people have to turn to a food bank more than once.
Last April the Trussell Trust warned that food banks in areas where the full service of universal credit had been introduced in the previous six months had a 30% average increase in requests for help compared with a year before. From this month, people will be able to ask for a 100% advance on the first payment, and from February the initial five-day waiting period will be removed. Will the Government make a commitment to publish regular statistics on whether they are meeting the new target of five weeks for initial payments, as well as figures for the number and percentage of claimants asking for advances, so that we can have an idea of how far removing the five-day waiting period is affecting the need for advances?
If people are sanctioned, they can be referred to a food bank by the Department for Work and Pensions. The latest statistics for sanctions published by DWP show that the sanctions rate for universal credit increased by more than 3% in the last quarter. Will the Minister look seriously at introducing a yellow card system and non-financial sanctions, as suggested by the Work and Pensions Committee, to help to reduce the number of people who need help from a food bank? Ten per cent. of the people who sought help from Wirrall food bank last year were in employment. That is one reason why it is so important for the Government to reverse the cuts to work allowances for universal credit. Will the Minister urge his new colleagues to do that?
A study published by the University of Oxford for the Trussell Trust, in June 2017, found that people using food banks were likely to belong to groups that are most affected by recent reforms to social security: disabled people, lone parents and large family households. Those groups are particularly affected by universal credit and the changes introduced last April. In the study, more than 50% of households that had received help from a food bank included a disabled person. Mental health conditions affected people in a third of the households. The basic disabled child element in universal credit is half that of the disability element in child tax credit. There is no severe disability premium in universal credit, which means that disabled people who would have been entitled to it will be £65 a week worse off than tax credit recipients.
Does my hon. Friend accept that many disabled people have special diets and a requirement to eat or not eat certain things? Neither food banks nor the emergency support that they normally access take that into account.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and for many disabled people, the need to heat their home is also a bigger element in their weekly bills.
Will the Government reverse the cuts to support for disabled people in universal credit? Those cuts will have an increasing impact as universal credit is rolled out to a wider range of claimants. Lone parents and their children constitute the largest number of people receiving help from food banks overall. A study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that lone parents were set to lose around 15% of their net income on average—around £1 in every £6—and that households with three or more children could lose as much as £5,400 per year. Will the Government look again at reversing the two-child policy, and heed the warning from the Resolution Foundation that cuts to the work allowance could act as a disincentive for some lone parents to work additional hours, once they have entered employment doing a smaller number of hours at the start?
The Government recently announced that children would be eligible for free school meals if their family’s income was £7,400 per year or less, excluding social security. That creates a cliff edge in universal credit, which could create a disincentive for people to work additional hours—that has always been the Government’s argument against tax credits in general. Free school meals are worth £2.30 per child per day, which over a 38-week school year works out at £437 per child. The Resolution Foundation has calculated that crossing the threshold by earning more than £7,400 a year would effectively mean losing £11 a week in income, and it would take £30 of earnings to claw that back, given the universal credit taper rate. Eligibility for free school meals is another area where families lose more the larger they are. People in insecure work whose income may fluctuate from week to week could face a difficult choice. Will the Government act to avoid families being put in that situation by removing the cliff edge and ensuring that all children in families who receive universal credit are eligible for free school meals?
To conclude, let me underline the seriousness of the situation. New figures this morning show that food prices are still increasing by more than 4%. There is a freeze in key working age benefits until 2020, and wages are stagnating for those in work, particularly those on low incomes. Universal credit is far from fixed, and aspects such as the low level of support for disabled people and the cliff edge for eligibility for free school meals have received much less attention. The Government should act to fix those problems with universal credit at an early stage before people are driven into extreme poverty, and they should return to the original principles of universal credit to ensure that work always pays. They need to tackle poverty, not push families into it.
Just as people are experiencing multiple forms of destitution, there may be more than one reason why someone is forced to turn to a food bank for help. If those groups most likely to use a food bank—disabled people, lone parents, and larger families—are also those who have been hit the hardest by cuts to social security support since 2012, and by cuts to local authority spending and a reduction of services in their areas, then the social security net is clearly not doing the job it is designed to do. It should be protecting people in their time of need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in this important debate—my first as Minister for Employment—and I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing it.
The Prime Minister is absolutely clear: the Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, where no one and no community is left behind. I would like to think that all Members of the House share that ambition. I completely agree that we need to provide appropriate support for the least well-off and most disadvantaged people in our society, and we must do all we can to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Part of that is making sure that people get help with the cost of living.
Perhaps I may make a little progress—there will be plenty of time to intervene.
The introduction of the national living wage has given the UK’s lowest earners their fastest pay rise in 20 years. With the increase in personal allowances, the Government have cut income tax for more than 30 million people and taken 4 million low earners out of income tax altogether.
The Minister speaks about the income tax threshold, but does he realise that most of the people we are talking about are on zero-hours contracts and really low pay, and they do not pay income tax? None of those tax giveaways have any effect on their weekly income.
Four million of the lowest earners have been taken out of income tax altogether, which I hope the hon. Lady will welcome. A typical basic-rate taxpayer will now pay over £1,000 less in income tax than they would have done seven years ago.
If what the Minister describes is supposedly helping the situation, how does he explain the fact that year on year in Liverpool, the number of people who have to go to food banks to get help with feeding themselves and their families is increasing?
Perhaps I may make a little progress, and hopefully I will provide some of the answers that the hon. Lady is looking for.
We plan to further increase the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 by the end of this Parliament. Working parents are now entitled to up to 30 hours of free childcare, saving them around £5,000 a year. I hope that, whatever our political differences, all Members of the House will welcome those measures. We have also frozen fuel duty, saving the average car driver £850 over the last eight years, compared with the pre-2010 fuel duty escalator.
The information the Minister provides is, of course, welcome, and we are familiar with those announcements. Does he agree that the people in Liverpool, and Merseyside generally, who are going hungry—the people to whom Labour Members are referring today—are those who are, in the words of the Prime Minister, “left out”? What is he going to do about it?
Let me come on to that—there is plenty of time left in the debate.
The basic state pension is now at one of its highest rates relative to earnings for over two decades, reversing the trend of decline that we saw between 1997 and 2010. Ultimately, however, work is the best route out of poverty.
I thought that the hon. Lady would react as she did, but she should not take my word for it. Let me quote from a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:
“People who live in workless households have much higher rates of poverty than those who live in households where at least one person is in work… Rising employment, skills and pay contributed greatly to reductions in poverty over the last 20 years.”
The biggest reason now for food bank use in Liverpool—apart from benefit delays and the things that the Minister’s Department does to people—is low income. It is people who are in work, so his point is simply not accurate.
I am not sure that I completely understood the hon. Lady, but I was quoting from a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. If she feels that it is inaccurate, she should talk to someone there.
Perhaps the Minister will allow me to try again. One of the main reasons that people go to food banks in Liverpool is low income. The income they get comes from work—they are working-age people who are working but do not have enough money to feed their families. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report is about a countrywide situation. I am talking about what is happening in Liverpool and to my constituents. A lot of people are in work but cannot afford to feed their families on the income they receive. It is simply not good enough for the Minister to say that that is not a problem.
I did not say that it is not a problem, and of course I want to ensure that everyone, both in Liverpool and across the country, gets the help they need.
Adults in workless families are four times more likely to be in poverty than those in working families, and children who live in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those in a house where all adults work. We want to see more people in work, and we want to support more people into work. In recent years, the Government have undertaken the most ambitious reform to the welfare system in decades to ensure that work always pays. This reform is already delivering real and lasting change to the lives of many of the most disadvantaged people in our society. Nationally, there are almost 1 million fewer workless household than in 2010. Indeed, workless households are now at an all-time low. In the north-west, the region that many Opposition Members represent, there are around 87,000 fewer workless households than there were seven years ago.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In a sense, he is answering the earlier question, because if the numbers of workless households are going down, yet food bank usage is going up, surely we have a real challenge about families where people are in work still having to access food banks, because of low pay and insecure work.
I know that this a very emotive subject and I understand that hon. Members are keen to get answers. I will seek to provide some of those if I may make progress. The latest data shows that the employment rate in the Liverpool city region has seen a 4.1 percentage point increase since 2010 and the comparable national figure shows an increase of 4.2 percentage points.
We have had a discussion about food poverty and more generally about poverty rates. The case is, whichever way you look at poverty rates—relative or absolute; before or after housing costs—none are higher than in 2010. The proportion of people in absolute poverty is at a record low. Across the country, there are 600,000 fewer people in absolute poverty compared with 2010 and in the north-west, there are 100,000 fewer people in absolute poverty compared with the three years up to 2010.
Of course, we want to do everything that we can to make sure that those numbers go down further. Let me explain what we are doing in welfare reform to make that happen.
The Minister is being very generous with interventions. Given the statistics he has read out, which are trying to show that things are getting better in terms of poverty reduction and more people being in work, can he please explain why the number of people on Merseyside who are having to access food banks in order to eat and to feed their families is still going up?
I will come on to that point, but there are complex reasons why people use food banks. I want to go back to the point about work being the best route out of poverty. It is the case that across the country around 75% of children from workless families moved out of poverty when their parents entered full-time work.
Let me come on to universal credit.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some progress. I have taken a lot of interventions. Perhaps the hon. Lady will let me continue for a moment.
When it comes to reform, universal credit lies at the heart of transforming the welfare system. Universal credit supports those who can work and cares for those who cannot, while being fair to the taxpayer. [Interruption.] I would just say to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) that before this role I was the Housing Minister and I had the opportunity to do an engagement tour around the country, meeting social housing tenants with the aim of producing a Green Paper, and I met around 1,200 social housing tenants across the country. There was a discussion around universal credit and I have to tell hon. Members that the vast majority of people I talked to felt that, in principle, universal credit was absolutely right: it is simple, it makes sense and it helps to deliver the benefits that people need on a timely basis. I will come on to talk about the changes that were introduced in the Budget, because we always want to ensure that things can be done better.
Will the Minister give way?
No. If I may, I will continue for the moment.
There is always a comparison of universal credit with what came before. It is the case that, because of withdrawal rates, tax credits encouraged lone parents to work for 16 hours and couples to work only 24 hours a week between them. Universal credit provides the opportunity for the first time to support people who are in work to progress, so that they can increase their earnings and become financially independent. We have reduced the universal credit taper to 63%, so that people who progress into work can keep more of what they earn. Under universal credit, work always pays.
I have to disagree with the hon. Lady’s comment from a sedentary position. It does, because for every extra hour people work, they get to keep more of the money they earn.
Universal credit claimants are able to find work faster and stay in work for longer than those under the system it replaces. Indeed, 86% of people under universal credit are actively looking to increase the hours that they work, compared with only 38% on jobseeker’s allowance.
We have to ensure that help is provided as people seek to find employment. The Government are providing a wide range of support targeted to each individual’s personal circumstances. Under universal credit, people have access to more tools than ever before to underpin their work search and help with budgeting, digital skills, preparing CVs and getting ready for job interviews.
The Minister is obviously ranging somewhat more widely on universal credit. Will he respond to the very specific question that the shadow Minister and I raised about the cliff edge in the rules in universal credit that relate to free school meals? Will he and the Government look again at a very significant negative side of the reform?
The hon. Gentleman knows that free school meals are universal for all children from reception to year 2, and currently all children who are the offspring of universal credit claimants are entitled to free school meals. There has been a consultation, which has closed, and the Department for Education will respond.
I am undertaking a programme of visits to jobcentres across the country. It is important for me as the Employment Minister to talk not only to the people who work in those jobcentres, but to those people who are there as customers. Last week, I visited the jobcentre in my local area, Reading, twice, first to talk to the people who run it; and secondly to talk to individual claimants. I sat in on one of the interviews and asked one of these ladies what she made of universal credit. She said:
“Universal credit is amazingly simple.”
Those are not my words, but the words of an individual who went—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister is not giving way.
That is the word of an individual who actually has made use of the system.
Ensuring that people get the benefits they are entitled to is important. Whether in work or not, jobcentre staff help their customers to ensure they access their full entitlement to benefits and any other support, such as free school meals and free prescriptions. They also have tailored support for those people who face the most complex employment barriers. That can include temporarily lifting requirements where claimants are homeless, in treatment for drug or alcohol dependency, or victims of domestic abuse.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby raised a point about people having delays in getting money paid to them. The statistic on universal credit is that 92% of all claimants get all the money they are due paid on time. Of course, no one wants to wait for money if they need it—advances can be claimed on the same day in an emergency.
The Minister is being generous with his time. He is talking about support for the most vulnerable, so would his Government reverse the cuts to support for disabled people under universal credit?
Hopefully I will have enough time to respond to that point—I believe the hon. Lady is talking about the higher rate of disability premium.
A number of other points were raised about food banks. Jobcentre staff also work in partnership with a variety of local agencies and signpost claimants to local services, including food banks, to help them access the full range of support available. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby quoted from a report from 2016 by Taylor and Loopstra based on UN data. There are a number of reports, including one on income and living conditions produced by Eurostat, which found that the UK has a lower percentage of food insecurity than the EU average and a lower percentage than Germany, France and Italy. Ultimately, we need to ensure that we get help to people who need it, and that we help them into work so that they can support themselves.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I have given way quite a lot in this debate. If I may, I will continue. If I have time at the end, I will of course take further interventions.
Food inflation has been discussed. Food prices have fallen in three of the past four years, which has a positive impact. Let me address up front the question about the use of food banks. The Government do not propose to record the number of food banks in the UK, or indeed the potential number of people using them or other types of food aid. There is a range of available food aid—from small local provision to regional and national schemes—and the all-party parliamentary group on hunger, which set up an inquiry to thoroughly investigate the use of food banks, said that there were numerous complex reasons why people use food banks.
Jobcentres engage regularly with the Trussell Trust, and are encouraged to foster good relationships with local food banks. In Merseyside, all jobcentres have a food bank single point of contact, and jobcentre staff have been working actively with food banks to ensure that staff are up to speed with the changes resulting from universal credit.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) mentioned international comparisons. I refer her to statistics produced by the OECD showing that, since the mid-2000s, the UK has been one of only two major advanced economies with increasing redistribution. It found that, since 2010, growth and income from work for the lowest-income households in the UK is higher than in any other major advanced economy.
The Government have always been clear that universal credit would be introduced in a way that allows us to continue making improvements. That is why, at the autumn Budget, we announced a comprehensive and wide-ranging package of measures worth £1.5 billion to address concerns about the first assessment period and the budgeting issues faced by some claimants at the start of their claim. Since the start of this year, claimants have been able to get 100% of their estimated universal credit payment up front as an advance that they can pay back interest-free over 12 months.
I will address a couple of other points, as I have a few minutes. On the point about disability payments, as the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) knows, income-related employment and support allowance and the link to disability premiums, including the severe disability premium, are being replaced by universal credit as part of simplifying the benefit process and to address overlaps. Universal credit has two disability elements for adults, mirroring the design of ESA. The higher rate is set substantially higher than the ESA support component equivalent.
That being the case, why will some disabled people receive £65 a week less than they would have before universal credit?
I am happy to have a dialogue with the hon. Lady, particularly in my new role, but I point out, as I have said, that the rate is set substantially higher than the ESA support component equivalent. However, I am happy to enter into a dialogue with her outside this debate.
The Minister has spent most of his time replying to this debate talking about universal credit, but the debate is about food poverty. Is he suggesting that, over the next year, as universal credit is rolled out on Merseyside, the number of people having to visit food banks will go down?
I cannot predict the future. The reason why I have talked about universal credit is that it is a matter raised by Opposition Members, and because I think that it is important, if we talk about welfare reform, to talk about the current reforms that the Government are putting in place.
In conclusion, the Government’s track record on helping people into work is clear. Unemployment is at a 42-year low at 4.3%, with nearly 1 million fewer workless households than in 2010. Incomes have been rising. Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that in the year 2016-17, real average incomes of the poorest fifth of households had risen by £1,800 since 2007-08.
However one looks at it, poverty rates in the country—relative or absolute, before or after housing—are no higher than in 2010, and within the working-age population, all headline poverty rates are lower than in 2010. Yes, there is absolutely more to do—we certainly cannot be complacent, and I have no wish to do so—but the Government’s reforms have demonstrated real progress in tackling poverty and disadvantage.
The Minister just said that he does not wish to be complacent, but with all respect to him, I must say that that was a very complacent response to the debate. In particular, he did not address the fundamental question at the heart of the debate, which I posed at the beginning of my speech and other colleagues raised, about the eightfold increase in the number of people using food banks in 2017 compared with 2011.
The Minister said that the all-party group on hunger has said that the causes of increased use of food banks are complex. Of course they are complex, but several of us cited the research, which he did not dispute, suggesting that the major two reasons are low pay and insecure work on one hand, and benefit changes and delays in the benefit system on the other. I hope the Government will reflect on the points raised by Members from across Merseyside. There is anger and passion on the Opposition side of the House. We are reflecting the anger and passion in our own constituencies about the sense of injustice and inequality, and the poverty that people face.
The Minister addressed some of the specific points raised by several Opposition Members. I note in particular what he said about free school meals. I and others will pursue that with the Department for Education, because the threat of that cliff edge will be damaging to communities. Clearly, as a number of my hon. Friends have said during this debate, this is a major issue that is not going to change.
There is a fear that, as universal credit is fully extended across Merseyside, our communities will face greater levels of debt and greater usage of food banks. The bedroom tax, an issue to which I referred briefly but which featured less in this debate than it often does, has undoubtedly contributed to insecurity and debt for many of the communities that we seek to represent.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to air these important issues. I hope the Minister and the Government will go away and reflect on what we have said, but I return to the fundamental point: the evidence shows us that the eightfold increase in the use of food banks has to do with low pay, job insecurity and poor-quality work, but also benefit delays and changes. The Government need to look again at those issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered food poverty in Merseyside.