[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered poverty in Liverpool.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to be joined by my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Liverpool. Together we will speak up for the communities of our great city and bear witness to the terrible realities for too many of poverty in Liverpool. I know that sadly we will hear some heartbreaking stories of avoidable deprivation, unfair disadvantage and incredible resilience in the face of some insurmountable odds. I hope that the Minister will listen closely and pass on what he hears to his ministerial colleagues, not least because Monday’s Budget will afford his Government an opportunity to put some things right.
I am very proud to call Liverpool my home. It is a vibrant, proud, creative and dynamic city. We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Liverpool being the European capital of culture. Just last month the Giants came to Liverpool, attracting more than 1.3 million people from around the world to our streets. When we talk about poverty in Liverpool, we are talking about poverty in a hard-working, proud and resilient city. It is a global city that takes knocks and bounces with a smile and a joke. The ancestors of the people of Liverpool sailed the oceans to New York and Sydney and back again. They fled famine, and forged new lives on Liverpool’s streets. They are the people—many still with us—who kept the docks working as bombs fell all around them, and ensured that Britain did not starve.
How dare some people do Liverpool down. I reflect on the comments—I have made him aware that I would mention him—of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who has accused the city of wallowing in victim status, and of having
“an excessive predilection for welfarism”.
Let me be clear that Liverpool’s people are not victims. Liverpool does not want welfare, and it certainly does not want charity. Liverpool wants jobs, homes, skills, investments and opportunities—and the people of Liverpool will do the rest. As the right hon. Gentleman’s great hero Winston Churchill once said:
“Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Liverpool’s strength is its people: the entrepreneurs, writers, artists, actors, poets, musicians, designers, restauranteurs, architects and filmmakers who have carved out a place in world history, and our teachers, shop workers, careworkers, street cleaners, bus drivers and so many more whose hard work and grit give the city its beating heart and soul. However, Liverpool is also a city mired in poverty, which saps the ambitions of our young, mars the autumn days of the elderly, denies opportunities, and can fray the fabric of our city.
A couple who bought a house in the Picton ward of my constituency wrote to me just the other month, saying that they had witnessed something horrible. They wrote:
“'As we walked up the street, I saw two boys who must have been around 10 years old. They were opening people’s bins and seeing what they could find.”
The couple approached the children—it was 11 o’clock at night—and discovered that they had collected a discarded hoody and some half-empty bottles, including shampoo and shower gel. The couple wrote:
“This is not the Liverpool we know and has left us angry, outraged and very upset.”
Those constituents of mine have a right to be angry. We should all be angry. Let me not mince my words, because poverty kills. Infant mortality is a key indicator of poverty in our country. In 2014, across England and Wales the death rate of babies under the age of one was six in every 1,000 births. In Liverpool, the figure was nine in every 1,000 births—50% higher. In Liverpool, the avoidable death rate from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes is 326 people in 100,000; in the Chilterns, it is 138 per 100,000. Life expectancy is 10.1 years lower for men and 8.1 years lower for women in the most deprived areas of Liverpool compared with some of the least deprived.
Let me briefly set out some city-wide context. I am grateful to the always excellent Commons Library, and Liverpool City Council’s policy team, for collating some of the facts that I will present. Liverpool is the fourth most deprived local authority in our country. Alongside Middlesbrough and Manchester, Liverpool is ranked joint most fuel poverty deprived local authority in England—that refers to people being unable to afford to keep their homes adequately heated, which is particularly relevant as we embark on the winter months.
Since 2012, Trussell Trust foodbanks in the city have fed 108,635 people, 36% of them children. Last year alone, more than 6,700 children had to rely on the generosity of our city’s food banks, and in the same period Liverpool City Council has made more than 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel and clothing. That was a 6% increase on the previous year. In fact, the council spends £23 million a year dealing with a range of issues surrounding poverty and homelessness to try to prevent that poverty from turning into destitution.
Despite those enormous efforts, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that Liverpool was second in the city rankings on destitution. Let us be clear about what we mean when we talk about destitution, because it is the most extreme form of poverty. It means someone sleeping rough for more than a day, not eating properly for two days, being unable to heat or light their home for five days, going without proper clothes or toiletries, or receiving an income so low that those basic essentials will stay out of reach. That is the reality for too many. Sustained low income coupled with a financial shock were the most significant triggers for a plunge into destitution, against a backdrop of benefit, health and debt issues.
Liverpool was the first council in the country to carry out an assessment of the combined impact of the Government’s changes to various welfare policies. It found that 3,400 households across the city with a long-term sick or disabled resident have been hit by the bedroom tax. It found that families with children have been hit the hardest by the combination of a freeze in child benefit, reductions in housing benefit rates in the private sector, the introduction of the bedroom tax, and the benefit cap—policies introduced by the coalition Government and continued under the current Administration. It found that young people aged 16 to 29 account for one in three applications for council emergency payments, that single private tenants aged 25 to 35 have seen a cut of around £34 a week in their housing benefit, and that women in our city account for 60% of those affected by a cut in council tax support, and 65% of those hit by the bedroom tax.
By 2020, £444 million will have been slashed from our council’s central Government support since 2010. When adjusted for inflation, that equates to a cut of 64% of the council’s overall budget over the last decade. Of course, times have been tough everywhere. Can we be accused of special pleading, or parading our poverty? No. Government policies have created more need, while at the same time Government cuts have made it harder to meet those needs. The Government have changed the funding formulae that once helped to support the most deprived cities such as Liverpool with historically high rates of poverty and low council tax bases.
Central Government support has been slashed and councils such as Liverpool have been told to make up the difference from business rates and council tax payers. However, we are unable to replace that funding with higher demands on our hard-pressed council tax payers and businesses, because such a high proportion of our properties are in the lowest band: council tax band A. In fact, council tax across the city raises just 11% of the council’s annual spending on its vital services. If Liverpool had experienced the average cut for local authorities across the country from 2010 to 2020, our city would be more than £70 million better off. Instead, it is having to deliver services with 3,000 fewer staff.
According to End Child Poverty’s analysis, 32,000 children are growing up in poverty across our city. In my constituency alone, 6,129 children—one in three—live in poverty. In one ward, Picton, more than half of children are growing up in poverty, while in nearby Kensington and Fairfield ward the figure is 45%. Figures from the Children’s Society show that approximately 3,300 children in my constituency live in families who experience problem debt; I do not need to tell the Minister all the pressures and challenges that come with that. Across Liverpool, more than 17,000 children receive free school meals, and there are continuing concerns that during school holidays too many of them are going hungry.
I congratulate Liverpool City Council on ensuring that all our children’s centres have stayed open despite Government cuts. Picton and Kensington children’s centre has been working with the Granby Toxteth Development Trust to provide meals during the school holidays. It says:
“We are dealing with huge issues of food poverty, and as of September we have also built in after school play sessions with a meal included to tackle this.”
I anticipate that hon. Friends will want to talk in more detail about how our amazing football fans are collecting every week for their city’s food banks. They do not just sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”; they prove it with their generosity—and not just the Reds, but the Blues, too.
Not long after I was elected in 2012, I became the first Member to secure a debate about the food banks popping up across the country to patch the holes that the coalition Government’s decimating policies had created in the safety net for those most in need. But let us pause for a moment and ask: why, in 2018, in one of the richest countries in the world, do we have food banks at all? Why have more than a million people had to access emergency food aid on their own or their family’s behalf in the past 12 months? That is an incredibly sorry state of affairs and we should all be ashamed of it.
Food banks stand as a testament to the generosity and decency of everyone across our country, but the citizens of Liverpool in particular. Like many hon. Friends, I have joined the biannual food collection co-ordinated by the Trussell Trust in local supermarkets. At a recent collection in Tesco, I was told that the people of Liverpool have been the most generous donors in the country. Whenever I have been involved in food collections, I have been struck by how many people stop and say, “This could be me one day—I know that I am just one weekly or monthly pay cheque away from being in that situation.” It takes just one financial shock to affect a household’s income, because so many are living literally from month to month.
Food banks also stand witness to the fact that Ministers are losing sight of their responsibility to protect the welfare of citizens in our country. Kensington and Fairfield ward in my constituency had the largest Trussell Trust food voucher count this year. In just two wards—Kensington and Fairfield, and Picton—more than 2,700 adults have been fed by food banks in the past year. Issuing food bank vouchers during my constituency surgeries and via my caseworker is a regular occurrence.
I am grateful to the Liverpool Echo for its campaigning work on poverty. An article quotes one of my local food bank volunteers, Kathleen Quayle:
“The foodbank gets busier as the weather changes. From about October, when it gets colder, people are having to choose between heating and food. A lot of the people who come are ill and hungry. They’re exhausted…You can see it in their faces and that’s a travesty in a society like ours.”
I echo that sentiment. I have made several food bank visits, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will talk about similar experiences. It is just appalling to bear witness to people having to rely on emergency food aid, through no fault of their own.
We face the spectre of universal credit arriving in Liverpool this autumn. Just this weekend, the Liverpool Echo published a story about “James”, who is originally from my constituency and now lives in another part of the city. He lost his job and was put on universal credit. He is just 31, but his experience was so traumatising that he considered suicide and his wife turned to sex work to bring some income into the family. With no money for three months and all their possessions sold, they were up to their eyes in short-term high-interest loans and left destitute and abandoned by our Government. That is happening now, not just in Liverpool but in other cities. It is absolutely appalling.
Maggie O’Carroll, who leads our local enterprise hub, says that more than 425 businesses have been established by unemployed people and nurtured through the hub since 2016. As I said, ours is a city of creative and determined people, but Maggie warns:
“Universal Credit poses a very real barrier to those who depend on benefits and wish to become self-employed to launch their own start-up business.”
I ask the Minister to respond to that point in particular, because it has so many implications that have not been addressed.
Just last month, Liverpool City Council published its own forensic analysis, “Universal Credit: Unintended Consequences”, which should be in every Minister’s red box. It shows that it is the poorest, sickest and most disabled people—who are living in the city’s most deprived wards and have already been hit hardest by the bedroom tax, failed personal independence payment assessments and housing benefit changes—who will suffer most from the dangerously out-of-control roll-out of universal credit. Debbie Nolan, health programme manager at Liverpool Citizens Advice, says:
“Payment delays and high rates of deductions once UC is in place will cause unprecedented hardship for the most vulnerable”.
To those who are looking for work, it is unfathomable that in the past year the Government have closed jobcentres across our city. In my constituency, Edge Hill and Wavertree jobcentres have both closed, which follows the closure of Old Swan jobcentre in 2012. More than 3,000 people in Liverpool, Wavertree are being denied the local help that they need to find work. I have highlighted in debates and campaigns the distances that my constituents have to travel—another barrier that makes it even more challenging for them to get on with finding work—but it has fallen on deaf ears.
Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that nationally, from May 2017 to April 2018, 359,000 universal credit claimants were referred for sanction decisions, of which 71% related to attending or participating in work-focused interviews. Looking at the jobcentre closures in my constituency, it is not hard to understand why so many people have been affected. I am already hearing from single parents who want to get to their jobcentre but cannot afford the bus because they have not been given their payments. They are having to walk for miles, and they cannot get childcare. I have raised those very real challenges with the Government but they have not been addressed. The latest statistics show that 5% of universal credit sanctions lasted for 27 weeks—more than half a year—with no access to support. That is not acceptable.
Increasing numbers of people are homeless on our streets in Liverpool, despite our council spending £12 million to alleviate the worst distress. That situation is replicated in other cities, including here in the capital. Other constituents of mine have found themselves shut out of work after episodes of ill health because our NHS regularly misses its targets for cancer and other treatment. Families are giving up work to look after elderly parents because our social services cannot afford to provide support. Parents are losing work to look after children who are too ill to go to school, but have been told that they are not ill enough to meet the rising thresholds for mental health and social services.
For example, there is the case of Ms M, a single parent of a young son with autism, who is working three days a week and was making use of 30 hours’ free childcare, only to have it withdrawn because she got lost in a bureaucratic maze. She was trying to do the right thing, but is now facing the risk of having to give up work. Where is the humanity? Where, indeed, is the cold, hard economic realisation that failing to properly and flexibly support people such as Ms M and her son to stay out of poverty raises costs for everyone?
What needs to be done? When the Chancellor delivers the Budget he needs to restore funds to our council and recommit to future Budget allocations that reflect the depth of deprivation experienced by cities such as Liverpool. Today, Liverpool City Council is forced to spend money that it should be investing in the future on patching up the holes in the Government’s botched welfare reforms, including £3.5 million on protecting 42,000 people from the full impact of Government reductions in council tax support and £2.7 million on more than 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel, clothing and furniture. A total of £9.2 million has been provided since dedicated Government funding was withdrawn.
Secondly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must invest in Liverpool and its people. I anticipate that the Minister will tell us today that employment is up but will not mention how precarious much of that employment in our city is, thanks to the widespread and increased use of zero and low-hours contracts. He will not mention that unemployment rates across Liverpool are consistently above the national average and wages below the national average. The median household income for Liverpool is £20,373, which is nearly £11,000 below the UK median of £31,310.
We need a proper industrial strategy, including a regional investment bank, real apprenticeships and lifelong skills training to grow jobs, grow incomes and let our people grow tall. We need to devolve real economic powers to the city region. Liverpool City Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has made a great start in bringing our communities together, but now the Government need to get behind his and the combined authority’s efforts to transform our regional economy.
Those of us who call Liverpool home are proud of our city, but we are shamed by its poverty. We are not looking for a handout or even a hand-up. We want a fair deal to allow us to be in charge of our own destinies. Instead, the Government are largely responsible for the poverty of too many of my constituents.
The Prime Minister told us in her conference speech the other week that austerity is over. Ministers need to set out what that will mean for the people in Liverpool. They need to acknowledge the challenge that we face, do everything possible to apologise for it but also, most importantly, help us to do everything possible to turn it around.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate and on her excellent and graphic description of the reality of poverty in Liverpool for far too many people.
There is no doubt that the city of Liverpool has been transformed since the days when Margaret Thatcher’s Government planned what they called its managed decline, thanks to sustained investment by the European Union over nearly 30 years, at a time when Liverpool was abandoned by central Government. It has also been helped by support from the UK Government since 1997.
Liverpool, Riverside includes a thriving city centre, the iconic waterfront and world-class universities. It is a top tourist spot and the cruise liners have returned, yet too many people in local neighbourhoods struggle with poverty, which means struggling for their day-to-day existence. As my hon. Friend said, Liverpool is the fourth most deprived local authority in the United Kingdom. Three wards in Liverpool, Riverside—Kirkdale, Princes Park and Riverside—contain some of the poorest areas in the whole country.
There are two shameful statistics that epitomise some of the problems of poverty and deprivation experienced by people in Riverside. Only 67% of 16 to 24-year-olds are economically active—regarded fit and able for work—compared with 78% nationally. Such depths of deprivation are sometimes caused by ill health or long-term problems that people experience where the economic base is in fact very low. The second figure is that 40% of children in Liverpool, Riverside—6,500 young people—suffer poverty. That is a shameful figure. Many of those children are in working families. Those are just some indicators of the depths of poverty in some communities in Liverpool, Riverside, despite the great successes of the city of Liverpool and its positive developments over the last 20 years or so. What should be done to address this?
First, we must stop the cuts and fund public services. We must recognise the importance of the public sector, specifically local government and the national health service. Liverpool City Council provides a lifeline to people in need, as well as providing support to local communities and showing civic leadership for the whole city. There should be no more cuts to Liverpool City Council. It is vital that education and social care are funded properly, both to deal with immediate need and to equip young people with the abilities and the confidence to look forward to a more positive future.
Only yesterday in this House, I met young people leaving care who were very concerned about the lack of support given on leaving the care system and moving into adulthood. They were very positive young people who very firmly wanted to be successful citizens, but they were very concerned. That lack of support is not being addressed as local authorities face cut after cut. Liverpool City Council has already lost at least 50% of its central Government grant. As local government looks ahead to the planned removal of all central Government funding, it is staring into the financial abyss.
Secondly, the Government must stop the planned roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool. Without major alterations, it will simply cause more poverty. According to the Resolution Foundation, 3.2 million working families nationally will lose £48 per week on universal credit. We have already heard about the problems of people being forced to go to food banks to eat and the stress, as well as loss of income, that people on universal credit are forced to experience. I say very clearly to the Government that they should stop the planned roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool, Riverside. There are reports that it might be about to happen, and we deserve to know exactly what the position is.
We are often told that the route out of poverty is through people getting a job. Where that is possible, I certainly agree, but there are many people who are genuinely too ill to work and that has to be recognised. For many people, getting a job is the way out of poverty and I support that, which also means that I support investment in the local economy. Regional strategies are vital. There are opportunities for jobs in Liverpool’s key sectors, such as biotech, vehicle manufacturing, the creative arts—including the excellent Baltic Creative—the maritime sector and others, but there have to be specific initiatives that look at what is happening within local communities as well and help people to move from unemployment into work. Above all, there has to be the right level, type and quality of education and skills training for people to enable them to take up those new jobs. That means no more cuts to the City of Liverpool College, which is a vital provider of skills training and further education. As responsibility for skills training is transferred from central Government to Metro Mayor Steve Rotherham under the devolution agreement, it is very important that funding is not lost. Specifically, it is important that the millions of pounds of European Union funding that now go into skills training in Liverpool do not disappear. I ask the Minister for a specific assurance that that is being considered, because it is very important for the future.
I cannot end without mentioning the threats that withdrawal from the European Union will pose to employment and wellbeing in Liverpool. There is a threat to the economy as a whole, which means a threat to jobs and to public funds and finances, estimated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be as high as £80 billion in the event of no deal. With reduced public funds, there will be less money to pay for education, social services, policing and the whole range of other vital services provided by the public sector.
I conclude by restating that Liverpool has outstanding strengths—its people are perhaps its greatest strength—and has made great strides in recent years. It has recovered from being a place that was described as a “wasteland”, when people were leaving the city—all that is well in the past. It is now a positive, creative force, and more people are coming to Liverpool. It is a place for the future, but the lives of too many people are blighted by poverty. It is indeed time to stop the cuts in public services and to support local communities.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. She will see from the turnout that we are glad that she secured it and that we are keen to support her. I also congratulate her on the way she set out our basic concerns as representatives in this place of the great city of Liverpool.
The Prime Minister said something very important to her party conference: she said that austerity is over. I always like to listen to what Prime Ministers say at their party conference—it is always a very important speech. We will have the chance soon to judge the political coherence of this Conservative Government and how worthwhile or otherwise were the Prime Minister’s words at her party conference, because next week we will see whether the Chancellor acts on the declaration that austerity has ended. I can certainly say that at this time in Liverpool it does not feel like austerity has ended. If it is over, we in Liverpool will expect the Budget to deliver real relief for those in the city who are in poverty and hardship. We will expect the incomes of the poorest to improve as a direct result of the Budget measures that we will see from the Chancellor next week.
Many people in Liverpool really need the Chancellor to deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise to end austerity. Some of them are the most vulnerable people in our society—people who need the most support and who have endured eight long years of that support and their income being systemically removed and reduced by measure after measure from Governments that, from their perspective, do not seem to care about their lives or wellbeing.
I have said before that the use of food banks is an indication of a major crisis and desperation, often amounting to destitution. People do not go to food banks for fun; food banks are an indication of crisis. People are reluctant to go to food banks because they think it is humiliating and an indication of a personal failure to feed their families or to be able to live. No matter how compassionate and helpful the volunteers and staff who distribute food at those distribution points are, it does not take away the humiliation and pain felt by those who have to resort to food banks. Many of my constituents who have been in such a position have made that very clear when I have talked to them about it.
Last year the scale of the food crisis increased, as could be seen at the south Liverpool food bank and at the Knowsley food bank, which covers the Halewood part of my constituency. It is possible to extrapolate from those two centres’ figures that, just in my constituency, in 2017-18, 3,933 people were given emergency food packages to enable them to feed themselves and their families. Some 1,457 of those helped were children—the figure increased from the previous year, which itself had increased from the figure for year before, which had increased from the year before that. There have been increases for many years.
Last year, there was an 8% rise in the number of vouchers presented at the south Liverpool food bank and at distribution points in the Liverpool part of my constituency. In the Halewood part of Knowsley, which is in my constituency, the number of people who were helped increased by more than 20%. The number of children who were helped was up by more than 50%. In my constituency alone, more people were helped in one year than were helped by food banks in the whole of the UK in 2005. That is the reality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree was correct to make it clear in her remarks that this should not be something that we accept as inevitable. There is nothing inevitable about having to use a food bank. It could be fixed by ensuring that people who are currently in that position have the income to look after themselves. I should make it clear that other, non-food bank, help is available in my constituency, but is not counted in the figures that I just set out. It includes organisations such as Can Cook, a charity based in Garston that provides free, freshly cooked meals to those in food poverty who need help. Although it ranges much more widely than Garston and Halewood, last year Can Cook provided 18,000 free, fresh meals to hungry people in the Liverpool city region, some of them in my constituency.
Things are worse than the Trussell Trust figures imply; the scale of the need is greater. The experience in my constituency is that the need for emergency food help, including food bank use, is increasing, and that the poverty that it represents is deepening. In a parliamentary answer to my question this week, the Government have yet again refused to take any action to begin to collect official statistics about the causes of such an increase in dependency on food banks, suggesting only that they will review existing sources of information to fill data gaps.
In my view, that is just not good enough. The Government seem to not want to know the truth, and so they do not bother to do research or collect statistics. I have been asking them for years to do that. I can tell the Minister what the main causes of food bank use are in my constituency: in the south Liverpool food bank, 49% of those who were helped said that the main cause of their food crisis was delays in the payment of benefits to which they are entitled, or changes to their benefits. Some 32% said the main reason was low income because of low wages, underemployment and not working enough hours to make ends meet at the end of the week or month. In Halewood, the figure for benefit delays and changes was also 49%, while the figure for low pay and lack of hours was lower, at 19%. Those figures are not untypical of Trussell Trust food banks around the country. When Ministers tell me, as they did in a recent parliamentary answer, that
“People use food banks for many reasons, and it would be misleading to link them to any single cause,”
they do not want to accept that the main causes of this increasing food crisis include their administration of the social security system and their austerity cuts to our safety net.
Things are about to get worse. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) spoke about the roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool, which is beginning to happen. The Trussell Trust tells us that where universal credit goes live, there is an average 52% increase in food bank use over the following year, compared with a 13% increase in the areas where universal credit has been operational for three months or less. The increase is there even after accounting for seasonal and other variations. In my constituency, only 13% of the households who are to be placed on universal credit have yet been put on to it, only 10% of the children who will be in households on universal credit have yet been affected, and only 2% of the households on sickness or incapacity benefits have yet been placed in that position. That amounts to a looming tsunami of further hardship, misery, poverty and hunger that the Government are about to unleash on some of the poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents. Like my hon. Friend, I urge the Government to stop and not to roll out universal credit in my constituency. I can tell the Minister now that it will cause more poverty, hardship and desperation if they press on as they have told us they will.
Riverside, a registered social landlord that covers my constituency, has been surveying some of its tenants about the impact of universal credit roll-out. It says that 7% of its tenants are on universal credit, but that their rent arrears amount to 18% of the rental debt owed. Average arrears for universal credit tenants are £600, compared with £218 for households not on universal credit. That is yet more evidence that Government policy is imposing hardship and poverty on some of my poorest constituents through their social security policy. Universal credit roll-out creates more debt and hardship and an inability to meet the basic expenses of living. That is clear from the experience of some of my constituents, who have come to be on universal credit ahead of the roll-out. I have given examples before in this Chamber and in the main Chamber—egregious examples of real hardship and pain caused by universal credit, administrative failures and by other problems with the benefit.
The Church of England and Children’s Society’s recent report “Not making ends meet” highlighted that poverty is not being caused by universal credit alone, and I agree. The lowering of the benefit cap, restrictions on help with housing costs and sustained low income, including in-work poverty, are also increasing problems. I sometimes wonder whether Ministers understand the degree to which multiple changes to benefits, with cuts that were planned and announced years ago but are only now being implemented, and loss of support from other sources, such as the local authority, can affect already vulnerable and poor individuals and families, for whom one more blow might be the final straw. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “Destitution in the UK 2018” made that point. It estimated that in 2017, across our nation, 1.5 million people were deemed to be destitute—unable to access the bare essentials to eat, stay warm and dry and keep clean. Food, clothing and heating were the most common essentials that people were without. Such destitution was found to be clustered in London and northern cities such as Liverpool, with Liverpool second only after Manchester in exhibiting the worst rates. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also made reference to that study.
Since 2010, Liverpool has had the highest level of cuts in local authority funding. By 2020-21, almost 68% of its money will have been removed by central Government. That is £444 million-worth of cuts, despite increasing demand for the help that the city council provides for its poorer citizens. It provides a lot of help beyond the amount of money it is given by the Government to provide such help. The Liverpool citizens support scheme has seen a 5.7% increase in awards, mainly due to increasing demands for urgent needs awards. The main reasons cited were that the individual was waiting to receive a state benefit or had no funds due to an unforeseen crisis. Universal credit roll-out will increase the need hugely. I know from my own case load that if not for the Liverpool citizens support scheme, many of my constituents would have had nowhere to turn.
Similarly, discretionary housing payments have increased by 35%, and the city has to put more money in than it is given by the Government to support that. The Mayor of Liverpool tops up the money because he is unwilling to let vulnerable people go without help and have nowhere to turn and become homeless, thus imposing an even higher financial burden on the state. Universal credit roll-out could push the resources and schemes beyond the Mayor’s capacity to continue to fund them effectively. Unless we see significant measures in the Budget to alleviate poverty in Liverpool and really end austerity, the trends we are discussing will worsen. We will judge the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about ending austerity by the impact of the Chancellor’s Budget next week on the lives of our most vulnerable and poorest constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. Earlier this year I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on food poverty across Merseyside. I will start today as I did then by saying that this is a debate that we simply should not be having in a wealthy country in 2018.
Liverpool City Council, as we have already heard, faces the near-impossible challenge that when services are needed most they have fewer and fewer resources to respond. I join colleagues in praising the Mayor and the city council for their efforts to mitigate the impact of central Government policy. The citizens support scheme to help the most vulnerable in Liverpool during a short-term crisis has provided a lifeline for some of the most disadvantaged citizens, following the coalition Government’s scrapping of the social fund. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said in her opening speech, last year more than 13,000 crisis payments were made from the fund, which is a 6% increase on the previous year. It has provided a lifeline for some of my most vulnerable constituents.
Earlier this year a family of four in my constituency were served with a section 21 notice when their landlord decided to sell the property, forcing the family to look for another privately rented property, but they were not in a position to pay the one month’s rent and deposit up front. My constituents are both in work, but in low-paid jobs, so they lacked the means to provide the payment. As they faced the threat of homelessness, I referred the family to the mayoral hardship fund, and a contribution towards their deposit and rent was provided.
Another constituent was recently forced to move properties because of the bedroom tax. His personal independence payment had been stopped, so he had no available funds to purchase furniture for his new home. We referred him to the mayoral hardship fund, and funds were provided to enable him to furnish his new home.
A week before Christmas last year, a young mum contacted me, having recently been transferred on to universal credit. She was not due to receive her first payment until 11 January and her gas and electricity were due to run out that evening, just before Christmas at the height of winter. In the face of that dire threat, the local authority stepped in and, through the citizens support scheme, she was provided with a three-week award of almost £300, energy vouchers and a PayPoint cash voucher of £170.
A review of the scheme presented to the council’s cabinet in May this year set out a very stark warning, stating that the scheme
“cannot mitigate the multiple impacts of the government’s programme”.
The same report also warned that more people face greater hardship once the full raft of changes to the benefits system begins to bite, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has said. Of course, as we know, disabled people often bear the brunt of such changes.
Last month Liverpool City Council published an excellent report, “Universal Credit: Unintended Consequences”. Its key findings were that universal credit risks forcing households into debt, increasing severe poverty and leaving too many people, including children, facing food insecurity, destitution and eviction. The report brought together community leaders, civic figures and politicians across the city to urge the Government, as I join my colleagues in doing today, to rethink the roll-out of universal credit before it is too late.
That call is echoed by people at the north Liverpool food bank. They told me:
“We don’t want to be feeding people emergency food, so we need to fix the system that lands people there in the first place.”
The food bank’s modest suggestion—I would go further—was that the current north Liverpool roll-out date of 5 December should at the very least be moved to new year, to avoid the Christmas period, so that claimants do not have to wait weeks for their benefits before Christmas. I urge the Minister, as a bare minimum, to give a commitment today at least to consider that proposal, which might give some reassurance and comfort to some of the most vulnerable families in Liverpool in the run-up to Christmas.
As has been said, the main reason people are referred to food banks in Liverpool is benefit delays and changes. The Trussell Trust has repeatedly warned that changes to benefits are forcing people to turn to food banks. One in three working-age social housing tenants in Liverpool who receive housing benefit has been affected by the bedroom tax, and there is no doubt that that has pushed many into hardship. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, the city council last year undertook a cumulative impact assessment of more than 20 major changes made to working-age benefits since 2010. I urge the Government to work with Liverpool City Council and other local authorities to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information about the appalling cumulative impact of welfare reforms, including universal credit.
The other reason for people being referred increasingly to food banks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, is low income. Yes, unemployment has fallen, but in my constituency and the rest of Liverpool it is consistently above the national average, and for many people who are in work, that work does not pay enough for them to get by. Much of the increase in employment is insecure and low paid.
I have seen at first hand the fantastic work that food banks do in my constituency, and I pay tribute to their selfless and dedicated volunteers. In the year up to last month, the north Liverpool food bank provided food to more than 3,000 of my constituents, including almost 1,300 children. That represented a 10% increase on the previous year. Once a month I volunteer at the north Liverpool food bank at St John’s church in Tuebrook in my constituency. I was there last Saturday. In September we helped 137 people. While I was there I talked about the debate we are having today, and we discussed issues I might raise. The two main points that came out of the discussion, including with the vicar, were the increase in use during the several years that the food bank has been at St John’s, and the change in the profile of the people who come to it. There are still many single people—mostly men—but increasingly there are families with children. Some are people in low-paid work, and some are waiting for benefits.
I also want to pay tribute to a food bank in another part of my constituency. At Dovecot food bank there is concern about the unseen numbers of people not receiving the support they might need. The food bank has been working with local schools to identify vulnerable families and ensure that support is available to them. One of the most disturbing trends that is identified is having to serve food to hungry children because their families cannot afford to feed them. Most schoolchildren in Liverpool are enjoying the half-term holiday this week, but for many low-income families school holidays represent financial stress, hunger and even malnourishment, because of the absence of free school meals. Croxteth Gems was originally set up to provide play and youth services, but increasingly over the past few years the people there have been serving food to hungry children because their families cannot afford to feed them. During the school holidays, Croxteth Gems hosts a play scheme, including a free breakfast and lunch for the children. Sometimes they serve food to almost 100 hungry local children.
The charity Feeding Britain, set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), has established local pilot areas for programmes that provide free meals and activities for children during school holidays. Earlier this year the Government provided £2 million of funding for families to benefit from free healthy meals and activities in the summer holidays. That meant that organisations such as Feeding Britain could reach many more families. It was welcome, but it was a modest step in the right direction. I take the opportunity today to urge the Government to increase the funding provided to those programmes, so that no children should go hungry in the holidays—particularly the long summer holidays—simply because they do not have access to free school meals.
I want to say something about education, and will echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) said. More than 32,000 children in Liverpool are growing up in poverty. Education has a central role to play if we are to achieve a fairer society with less inequality and tackle poverty. Like my colleagues, I pay tribute to the city council for keeping children’s centres open despite austerity. Good-quality early education has a big impact on children’s development.
An area of controversy at the moment is the Government’s potential plans for nursery schools. There are two fantastic nursery schools in my constituency—Ellergreen and East Prescot Road. Both were judged outstanding by Ofsted, but at both there is concern about long-term funding. I know that the Minister responding to the debate is not an Education Minister, but I seek assurances from the Department for Education that the concerns of nursery schools in Liverpool and across the country are being listened to. Those schools equip children, often in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods, with the education and skills they need to have the best chance later in life.
Schools need to know that they have reliable funding so that they can offer the best quality education. There is concern in Liverpool, as there is in many parts of the country, that once the national funding formula is adopted it could disadvantage schools in our city. I implore the Government to ensure that such factors as deprivation, pupil mobility and prior attainment are at the heart of the national funding formula.
Finally, on further education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, equipping young people aged 16—and adults—with the skills they need is vital. Last week there was a Love our Colleges campaign lobby of Parliament. I met the principal of Myerscough College, who told me about the great work it is doing, and that it faces tough financial circumstances. Investment in FE would make a big difference in tackling poverty in Liverpool. I hope that the Minister can take that message back to his colleagues at the Department for Education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on her excellent speech; she set out everything that the city faces, from cuts to local authorities, the hostile environment on benefits and the personal experiences that we come across in our surgeries every week, as well as the evidence in report after report. The Government seem determined to turn a blind eye to those reports and doubt their veracity, and I find it shocking when the Minister shakes his head, when we see such experiences every day.
I was not shaking my head.
You were during my hon. Friend’s speech. The experiences I am talking about are things we see every day in Liverpool.
I was elected for the first time last year, to represent a Liverpool constituency, and it is an incredible privilege. When I am asked what the biggest issue facing my constituency is, I say poverty—and it is, because that is the critical issue affecting people, in their long-term health, educational outcomes, job opportunities, living standards and mental health. Most of all, it affects their sense of self-worth. That is the most hurtful part of seeing the decline in our communities. As my hon. Friends have done, it is right to put on the record how proud Scousers are, and how strong our communities are. That is shown by the work that our community centres and food banks do day in, day out. Liverpool is an astonishing city that is doing well in many respects.
This debate set me thinking about what poverty is, and what we are talking about today. If we look back in history, we see different types of poverty. I have seen individuals fall into poverty—people can lose a job, be moved on, and then perhaps another job appears, and during that time, trade unions and charities may help out. Families also fall into poverty. My family was affected by unemployment. My dad was unemployed for seven years, and sometimes it felt as if we did not have much money when we were growing up. Nevertheless, we had a family unit, we had a community and we had support. We still had good schools and public services, the local authority did its bit, and there were youth facilities. Today we are talking about whole communities being pushed into poverty while the safety net is withdrawn from the bottom.
Poverty is man-made. It does not exist in a vacuum; it is the result of decisions made by the powerful. No one person is responsible for their own poverty. Austerity is and has been a political choice, not an economic necessity. Since 2010 this Government have handed out an eye-watering £110 billion in tax giveaways for the biggest corporations and the super-rich, paid for by devastating cuts to wages, living standards and essential public services for the rest. They have starved our schools of funding—something they deny—taken police off our streets, including 1,000 from Merseyside Police, and left our NHS and social care in crisis.
Not only have the cuts themselves been political, but so too have their distribution. New research from the University of Cambridge shows that post-industrial cities in the north of England have been hit by the deepest cuts to local government spending and that, on average, Labour councils have been hit four times harder than Tory councils. Few places have been hit harder than Liverpool, with the staggering 64% cut to local authority funding that we have heard about. Conservative Members tell us not to fear because the Prime Minister announced at the Tory party conference that austerity is over. Leaving aside the fact that we have heard such empty rhetoric three times before, I assure the Minister that the reality on the streets of Walton and across Liverpool tells a different story as austerity rolls on, piling misery on our communities.
We have already heard many of the statistics, so I will not repeat them all. Average wages in Liverpool are £11,000 below the national average, and 40% of children in my constituency are growing up in poverty. Liverpool is now classed as having the second-highest levels of destitution of any city in the UK. On top of that, this Government now heap universal credit—a policy so fundamentally flawed that it has become an exemplar of institutional incompetence. [Interruption.] I think I heard the Minister tut, but this is being played out on our streets, and we see the evidence in report after report. Perhaps he will respond to some of the points raised today, including the Trussell Trust’s report, which states that demand for food banks has soared by 52% in areas of universal credit roll-out, compared with 13% in other areas.
Housing associations, letting agents and private landlords have told me that tenants are falling into rent arrears in areas such as Bootle and elsewhere where the roll-out has gone ahead, and that evictions will increase. The calamitous roll-out in my constituency comes right before Christmas, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was right to call for it to be delayed, at least until after the Christmas month, when we know it will cause increased hardship. The figures are stark, but they do not do justice to the human misery that I already deal with in my casework under the existing benefits system.
Under this Conservative Government, we are being hurtled backwards to bygone days, reminiscent of when it was a crime to be poor. The Government’s welfare reforms have seen hundreds of millions of pounds sucked out of Liverpool’s local economy. The benefit freeze—in reality it is not a “freeze” but a real-terms cut for millions of low-income families—has meant a loss of £45 million for households in Liverpool. We have heard about the cumulative effect of such cuts.
Given the pressures, some people have to give up employment to care for elderly relatives. A scaffolder came to my constituency office and explained that he has had to give up good, well-paid employment because the care is not there for his elderly mother. We have heard how the local authority already has to act as a sticking plaster, which shows that the current benefits system is failing. I want to congratulate the Mayor and the local authority on their work.
Next week the Chancellor will reveal the Government’s budget, and we will no doubt have a debate about economic growth and the fudging of figures to mask deep systemic problems in our economy. Not only have we seen the worst decade for wages in centuries, but the UK is the only advanced economy in which wages have continued to fall, even when the economy is growing. That is because of a decades-long trend of the share of gains from growth going increasingly towards profit, not wages. More and more economists tell us the blindingly obvious: having money from economic growth flow to working people and the poor rather than to the rich would stimulate better rates of economic growth and lower unemployment. As income inequality increases, the potential for economic growth is constrained. Since the 1970s, while productivity and the economy kept growing, the average worker’s pay package did not. The Financial Times has stated that since 2007,
“the UK was the only big advanced economy in which wages contracted while the economy expanded. In most other countries, including France and Germany, both the economy and wages have grown…The UK sits on its own as a rich economy that experienced a strong economic performance while the real wages of its workers dropped.”
What does economic growth matter to my constituents if it does not even reach them?
We have heard reports that the Chancellor is considering bringing back regional pay in the Budget in order to deny pay rises to our constituents on a national pay scale. Can the Minister tell us anything about that, and can I urge him to feed back that it would be an absolute disaster for the regions of the country if the Chancellor were to go anywhere near the idea?
The Government’s cuts have not tackled the deficit; they have shifted it on to local authorities and public services, plunging them into crisis, while starving our economy of the patient, long-term investment it needs to thrive. The problems are so stark that the solutions must be radical. The people of Liverpool do not need piecemeal change; they need something much bigger. That is why the next Labour Government will not be satisfied with tinkering around the edges of a rigged economy; they will transform our economy so that it works in the interests of the ordinary people I represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing this important debate.
Liverpool is a place I have got to know well, like many others who have spoken today. Part of my constituency lies within the Liverpool city region, and many of my constituents travel to work or visit Liverpool each day. Many—including my wife—have recent personal or family heritage in Liverpool, and people are well aware of what colleagues have already noted. Liverpool is a city with incredible culture, buildings, beauty—Scouse pride, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) pointed out—and history. It is also a city that has places that are suffering deep and scarring poverty and, disgracefully, 32,000 children are living in poverty. That poverty is made even worse by the Government’s austerity measures, and it looks set to deepen further as a result of the roll-out of universal credit across the city and region.
This afternoon we have heard many examples and arguments for why the roll-out of universal credit must be halted and the policy radically reformed and fixed. We heard many more in the main Chamber last week—in fact, we have heard many over the past few months. Of course, universal credit is not the sole cause or trigger of poverty—I will talk about some of the other causes later—but it is certainly not scaremongering to suggest that rolling out universal credit across Liverpool is likely to make the issues worse and the suffering even greater. There are many reasons why the Government should stop the roll-out, but surely the evidence that more people will be forced to use food banks— 69,000 used them last year alone—simply to feed themselves and their children is reason enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said that people in Liverpool want jobs, skills and investment. They certainly do not want to root through bins for food and vital goods. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton rightly pointed out that austerity is a political choice, and that it is driving what we see on the streets of Liverpool. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) pointed out that only 16%—a stark figure—of young people aged 16 to 24 are in work. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made a strong case that the end-of-austerity cheque should deal with the growth in food bank use and the decimation of public services in Liverpool. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) pointed out that this is a debate we really should not be having today—or on any day—and said that universal credit is exacerbating the crisis on the streets of Liverpool.
My question to the Minister is this. If the unacceptable delays, the growing rent arrears in Riverside and elsewhere, and the numerous tales of mistakes and misapplications are not enough to make the Government stop and think again, what will it take? It seems that the prospect of children going hungry in Liverpool and elsewhere is not enough to stop universal credit. That should shame the Minister, the Government and all of us in the fifth richest country in the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby said.
Of course, poverty is not caused solely by universal credit, although it often rises as a result. Good, well-paid, fulfilling and decent jobs can help to tackle poverty, and we have often heard Conservative Ministers talk about work being the best route out of poverty. The question, however, is, what kind of work? We hear lots of spin from the Government about jobs and employment, but beneath the headlines lies a story of insecurity, low pay and wages falling far short of decent expectations. Real-terms weekly pay is £11 a week lower than it was a decade ago. Business surveys suggest that there are 1.8 million people on zero-hours contracts in the economy, and almost 800,000 consider such posts to be their main job. The draconian cuts to in-work allowances from universal credit is a retrograde step. The National Audit Office says that there is no evidence that it leads to employment growth.
Having focused on what little the Government are doing to tackle poverty, I want to take the opportunity to welcome what Liverpool City Council and many other councils across the country are doing to blunt the ever sharper knife of Tory austerity and to support those in need. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others mentioned the work of Liverpool’s Labour Mayor, Joe Anderson. The Labour council and its city region Mayor are helping to tackle poverty. They have spent £12 million on services for homeless people, £3.5 million protecting 42,000 people from the full impact of Government reductions in council tax support, £2.7 million on almost 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel, clothing and furniture, and £2.2 million on 8,300 discretionary housing payments to people affected by welfare reform and hardship. They have set up a £2 million hardship fund that will run from 2017 to 2020 to help struggling residents. As has been rightly pointed out, all children’s centres remain open. There is a demand for real powers to transform the economy into one that offers high-quality, decent and fairly paid jobs—something that Whitehall control has so far failed to deliver.
My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Garston and Halewood mentioned those actions in the main Chamber last week, and they are welcomed by all Members from Liverpool. Once again, it is left to our councils—usually, our Labour councils—to help those most in need. They have already faced draconian cuts—Liverpool’s budget has been cut by 64%, or £440 million, in a decade—and yet the Liverpool Mayor is still determined to tackle the root causes of this shocking poverty. Meanwhile, the Government have cut taxes for the richest and wealthiest businesses and corporations—a £110 billion giveaway.
We accept that eradicating poverty requires more than one approach. It requires many partners inside and outside Government. We also know that two key elements are fundamental to the approach: a genuine desire from the Government to do it and the willingness to prioritise that desire and make decisions to underpin it. The Government’s record show that they have neither.
My hon. Friend will have heard the Government announce, over the summer, their intention to halve homelessness by the end of this Parliament and eradicate it by 2027. As charities that deal with homelessness and crisis said at the time, unless the Government deal with the problems in our economy and put together a cross-departmental strategy, the idea that they will ever get anywhere near that target is fanciful, because they are dealing only with the results, not the causes.
My hon. Friend makes a very strong case and a fair point.
The Minister has heard my colleagues talk about the extent of poverty and its effect on Liverpool and elsewhere. He has heard the genuine fears that the Government’s current policy direction—their cuts to welfare, nurseries, schools, colleges and local government, and their disastrous approach to Brexit—will make that worse. He has heard about the inequality and the unfairness that people, families and children are suffering in Liverpool and places like it. Their lives and opportunities are defined by their postcode, rather their talent, ambition and dreams. Will he now step back and listen to the reality of life in poverty from real people and real cases, look further than the spin of statistics about the jobs market and the economy, which far too many people see as a world away, and lobby the Chancellor?
The time to act is now. End the cuts that push people into poverty, the benefits freeze and the two-child cap. Stop the damaging, catastrophic roll-out of universal credit, which will make poverty worse in Liverpool and elsewhere. Restore the £3 billion-plus cut from the system made in 2015. Act now and fairly fund public services.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I clearly do not agree with all the points they made—I am sure they will not agree with everything I am about to say—but it is crystal clear that every one of them is driven by a passion to protect the most vulnerable people in society. We all want the same result; we just disagree about how to get from A to B. I am conscious that hon. Members mentioned lots of different issues. I am merely a junior Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, so in the limited time I have got, I will try to cover the points about employment, income and poverty, universal credit, migration and food banks. If time permits, I will also cover some of the other points that fall at least roughly within my area.
All speakers acknowledged that we have seen record employment, with 1,000 new jobs created every day, unemployment at record lows, and 964,000 fewer workless households. That is important because research statistics show that workless households are four times more likely to be in poverty. I will come to the specific points made during the debate about that.
Many of the speakers mentioned that there had been an increase in zero-hours contracts, for example. That is not the case: the number of zero-hours contracts actually fell by over 100,000 in the last year alone, and they represent only 2.4% of total employment, which is around the same level as under the last Labour Government.
Will the Minister give way?
Briefly, although I will not take too many interventions because I am conscious of time.
Can the Minister explain why 32% of those using the South Liverpool Foodbank said that the main reason they were doing so was low income?
As I said, I will come to food banks—a little patience, please.
We all recognise that getting people into work is important, but ultimately the question is whether it leads to real cash in their pockets. Research has shown that there are one million fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low—and 300,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty, but there is still more to do. While food insecurity has almost halved in the last five years alone—we are at 5.4%; the European average is 7.9%—there is still more to do.
I have been reflecting on all the positive spin that the Minister is trying to put on various figures, but why then we are receiving a visit from the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in the next few weeks? Why is that person coming to this country to see the awful situation that we face?
We get reviewed as a signatory country and supporter of the UN’s work, and I will be speaking personally to the person coming.
Of the four current measures of poverty—relative, absolute, and before and after housing costs—three are lower than in 2010 and the other is the same. Those in poverty, who are the focus of this debate, are on average £400 better off in real terms than they were in 2010, while those in full-time work on the national living wage have seen a 7% real-terms increase in their income in the last two years alone. We have done that through a combination of increasing the national living wage—there are arguments about what the level should be, but I do not need to remind colleagues that the rate that we first set was higher than the one in the manifesto that Labour Members stood on in 2015—our income tax threshold, which has completely removed the lowest 3.6 million earners from paying income tax, which is worth £1,000 a year, and our extension of free childcare and other areas of support.
Let me turn to universal credit, which is very topical. One thing that surprised me was that nobody mentioned conversations with work coaches. I know that many Opposition Members have been to visit jobcentres—I have done my research and looked at their Twitter feeds. As a constituency MP—I have only recently been recalled as a Minister—I know that the work coaches on the frontline are very enthusiastic about the principle of universal credit. That does not mean that everything is right, but they are enthusiastic about it. For the first time, they can offer personalised and tailored support.
The hon. Lady says rubbish, but has she been to visit a jobcentre?
The Minister knows very well that there have been coaches in jobcentres for many years helping people on an individual basis. He seems to be arguing that there is no problem—that food bank use is going down and that poverty is going down. I can tell him that that is not the experience in my constituency.
That is not what I am saying at all. I said I would come to food banks. The hon. Lady has not been to a jobcentre to talk to work coaches and see what they have to say. [Interruption.] I know that other hon. Members have.
The key is that the legacy benefits are not some panacea, where everything is great. As constituency MPs, we all know from our casework that legacy benefits are complex, involving three different agencies—HMRC, local government, and the DWP jobcentre—and frankly, one would need to be a nuclear physicist to deal with all three.
Over 700,000 families on legacy benefits were, on average, missing out on £285 of support that they were entitled to, worth a total of £2.4 billion. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) is heckling from the sides again, but these are some of the most vulnerable people, and my role as the Minister is to represent them. I have seen in my casework, as a genuine local resident in my constituency, as the MP and, formerly, a councillor, that some people were overwhelmed by the legacy system. Under universal credit, they will have for the first time a named work coach who will stick with them throughout the process to ensure that they are not missing out. That does not mean that universal credit has been perfect—we have had many debates and there have already been many changes. In some cases, under tax credits and legacy benefits we had tax rates of 90%. I know that would please the Leader of the Opposition, but that is not what the decent public want. There were 16, 24 and 30-hour cliff edges, which created a barrier to people progressing in work. The legacy benefits were seeing £2.4 billion-worth of support missed. We cannot knowingly stand by and say, “We’ve got to stop universal credit,” because these are vulnerable people missing out on money.
We are conscious that we have had to make changes to the migration. We have always said that the roll-out of universal credit will be slow and steady—it is a “test and learn”. In last year’s autumn statement, we rightly announced that we would remove the seven-day waiting list, a welcome change that was called for by a cross-party campaign.
A lot of the cases brought up involve people who have not had access to money. We realised that people did not know that the system was not designed to provide advance benefits, so it is now a given that the work coach will push that information in the initial interview.
Anybody currently receiving housing benefit will now get two weeks of housing benefit in addition—no strings attached—which can then be used. We recognised that we should not presume in all cases that they should take full responsibility for paying their housing benefit, so we now offer, particularly where people’s housing benefit payments are sent directly to their landlords.
We have launched the Landlord Portal, which is very much welcomed by local government and housing associations, and we have protected the severe disability premium. In conjunction with the £3 billion-worth of transitional support in place, over one million disabled families will be on average £110 a month better off.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am sorry; I am running out of time. Severely disabled claimants will benefit from higher rates, ranging from £158 to £326. That is why hon. Members should think carefully about the unintended consequences of seeking political capital by calling for a stop to universal credit. Yes, lobby for improvements, but to stop it would be to deprive some of the most vulnerable people of support.
I am very short of time but I want to touch on food banks. I have met the Trussell Trust and have visited food banks as a constituency MP, a Minister and a councillor, and I have friends who work in food banks. I welcome the work of the football clubs in Liverpool in food collection; I went to see my local football club, Swindon Supermarine FC, which was doing a food bank collection last night. People use food banks for varying reasons, but if they are missing out on formal support, we must do something about that. I made a commitment to the Trussell Trust, with which I want to work closely—I am not precious. It is important that we help those vulnerable people, which could mean having a point of contact in every jobcentre so that if the volunteers spot someone who has been to the food bank first, they can then come to us. My commitment is to do all that we can for vulnerable people.
Luciana Berger has the final word.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I was not anticipating this opportunity, but I am grateful for it. I thank hon. Friends and colleagues for joining me and making representations—collectively, we have made a strong representation to the Minister—and I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for his remarks which, equally, elaborated on all remarks made.
We are talking about people—our constituents—who face misery every day. We sit here in a very different position to many of our constituents, who really struggle on a daily basis. I have reflected on the Minister’s remarks and I have captured some of the themes, but I am disappointed that he did not specifically respond to the experience in Liverpool—he gave national figures, but no figures specific to what is happening in Liverpool. He did not acknowledge the prevalence of various different forms of precarious employment—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10 (6)).