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NHS Staff: Food Banks

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many NHS trusts are (1) providing, or (2) planning to provide, food banks for nurses and other NHS staff.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that we are working to support the welfare of NHS staff. We continue to support all NHS staff during these challenging times; individual employers across the NHS are best placed to prioritise support for their staff. Information on food banks set up by NHS trusts is not held centrally, but from March 2023 the Family Resources Survey will track food bank usage.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but it was not really an answer. An NHS Providers survey last autumn found that 27% of trusts had food banks for staff and 19% were planning to have them. That is nearly half the trusts in England. At least one trust was providing food vouchers as staff were going without meals, and the cost of living has severely worsened since then. Are the Government not utterly ashamed? Why do Ministers not start paying nurses, ambulance workers and other staff properly, instead of forcing them to go on strike for better wages to feed themselves properly?

I thank the noble Lord. The lowest paid, who are obviously most at risk in this category, we have sought to protect the most. They received a 9.3% pay increase. In all these circumstances, we have been looking to follow the guidance from the independent bodies, which we will continue to do.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that food price inflation is now running at over 16%. This disproportionately affects lower-paid workers, including many health and social care staff, yet the Government’s approach seems to be, “Crisis? What crisis?” Does the Minister accept that nurses are seeing real-terms pay cuts at present? Is he worried about the effect of these cuts on his long-awaited workforce strategy?

As has been mentioned many times, the workforce strategy is key; being able to recruit and retain staff, and pay, are vital elements of it, so I accept the challenges in this space. At the same time, I am mindful that we have sought to protect the lowest paid through these increases, as I mentioned. I am confident that the new pay review body, which is coming up, will seek to take the inflationary pressures into account to make sure that there is a fair settlement for everyone.

My Lords, why are the Government hiding behind the pay review body? When it looked at wages for the health service, inflation was running at 4% or 5%. We have just heard that food inflation is now running at 16%. Will the Government think about this again and ask the pay review body to look at the facts now?

Again, April is very close; the pay review body will be looking at the facts then. The noble Lord is quite correct that the real change is inflation, and that is why the priority for all of us has to be to reduce inflation. It is pernicious in its impact on every single one of our pockets, and most of all on those people with the least money. That has to be the priority, but we will continue to support these people.

My Lords, back in 2008, there were only 26,000 people visiting food banks—they were brought in, really, as a response to the crash—but that figure is now 2.56 million people. Back in those days, Ministers were somewhat ashamed that we had them; now they seem to be handy photo opportunities for Prime Ministers. Where do food banks figure in how the Government look at the economics of this country? It seems to me that they count on them a great deal more than they should.

Clearly, food banks should be a last resort for people; that is definitely my hope. I am glad to say that there are some good examples of where hospitals have thought that this is the appropriate thing to do and have set them up to help people in that circumstance. However, the biggest increase has been in energy bills, which we have sought to protect people from. I am glad to see that prices are forecast to reduce in future. Actually, gas futures prices are down 71% for next year, so things are starting to get better. Is it challenging right now? Yes.

My Lords, are the means of improving the conditions and welfare of all aspects of our much-valued NHS workforce forming a central part of the discussions that are continuing in an effort to reach an agreement in this current tragic dispute?

They are a central part of the discussions, but at the same time, we have to work out how we can best spend the budget. There are difficult choices here. Clearly, we want to make sure that we are protecting elective recovery and front-line services in A&E, so there are a lot of competing demands in this space. We are seeking to balance those in the best way possible, with the help of the independent pay review bodies, to make sure that we protect and pay what is appropriate in the circumstances.

My Lords, a survey by the Cavell Nurses’ Trust found that 14% of nurses and health workers are using food banks to feed themselves and their families, and nearly 70% are either unprepared or very unprepared for a financial emergency. What assessment have the Government made of the effect this is having on the health and well-being of staff? Does the Minister feel that this ought to provide a greater incentive to the Government to resolve the long- running pay dispute?

That is a concern; we want to resolve the pay dispute. I know personally how much time and energy are being put into this from our side as well. Clearly, more needs to be done. We are not there yet, but I am hopeful that we will get there. At the same time, we did try to protect those on the lowest incomes, as I mentioned earlier. Everyone received a minimum of £1,400, which is 9.3%. Clearly, we will need to do more for the next year, but we are trying to protect those in the most difficult circumstances.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what percentage of NHS hospitals have subsidised canteens that staff can use at the end of long shifts, and how many of these are open in the evening and during the night, when access to reasonably priced hot food is hard to find? If the Minister does not have those figures, could he please write to me with them?

I do not have those figures so I will happily write to supply them to the noble Baroness. However, I have some examples, such as Newcastle upon Tyne, where they have good free meal cards that they can give out to help people buy their meals discreetly themselves, or the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital, which has subsidised £2 hot meals that are available at any time. So there are some good examples of what trusts are doing to help people in the space, but I will write to the noble Baroness about the other cases.

My Lords, on a recent visit to a food bank at my local hospital I met a nurse, a single parent with two children, who has a gross pay of about £30,000 and income tax and national insurance of £5,600. Her rent has gone up from £1,000 to £1,500—that is £18,000 a year—and she has energy bills of £3,000. That leaves her about £10 a week for food. Yet the Minister seems to be implying that these people are awash with cash. Is he not ashamed that he is not giving these people decent wages so that they do not have to use food banks?

I do not think I have implied today that people are awash with cash—that has not been my tone for one moment. My tone has been one of complete understanding that we are in a difficult situation, with difficult choices to be made. We are trying to navigate our way through while bearing down on inflation, which is the priority, and making sure that our scarce resources are focused on the areas of most need. The noble Lord talks about taxes but clearly tax is one area where we want to make sure that it is as fair as possible as well. There are a number of measures and the solutions are not easy, but we are definitely mindful of the issue.

My Lords, most of the publicity we hear about the present dispute refers to percentage increases, not absolute salaries. What is the approximate salary of a junior health service employee?

Clearly, there is a wide range with regard to that. If I was to take an average overall, we would probably be talking about the mid-£30,000s as a very broad average, but I will quite happily provide my noble friend a breakdown of those detailed figures. However, as I say, we have made sure that as a minimum everyone received at least £1,400, accepting that the lowest paid need the most protection.