It will be obvious to the House that a great many Members have indicated that they wish to speak in this debate. It will also be obvious that the time available is very limited. I will therefore have to impose an initial time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches, but I must—[Interruption.] Order. I must warn hon. Members that if everybody takes four minutes, plus the time allowed for interventions, only about a third of those who wish to speak will be able to do so. One would hope that Members, out of consideration for others, might take less than four minutes where at all possible.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that the number of people using foodbanks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 since April this year, of whom one third were children; further notes that over the last three years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes the assessment of the Trussell Trust that the key factors in the rising resort to foodbanks are rising living costs and stagnant wages, as well as problems including delays to social security payments and the impact of the under-occupancy penalty; calls on the Government to publish the results of research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which Ministers promised would be made public in the summer of 2013; and further calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on foodbanks, including a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty.
I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has been put up to speak for the Government in this debate. Despite Ministers repeatedly stressing that
“food banks are absolutely not part of our welfare system”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1071.]
it is regrettable that the Department with lead responsibility for food in our country, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has not felt it appropriate to provide a Minister either to open or to close the debate.
Is there a more damning indictment of this Government’s record than the number of people who now rely on food aid in this country? Since April this year, over half a million people have relied on assistance from the 400 food banks run by the Trussell Trust, which is double the number of food banks compared with this time last year.
The hon. Gentleman first asked me why the previous Government did not refer people who needed assistance to food banks. In a parliamentary answer in September, his own Government said that Jobcentre Plus only signposts people to food banks and does not refer people to them or issue vouchers, so there is no difference whatever.
No. Let me make it clear that I will not take many interventions because of the number—[Interruption.] I am seeking to give hon. Members in all parts of the House a chance to get into the debate, and it will not help if I take three quarters of an hour to open it.
As a fellow Knowsley MP, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that, from April to 13 November, 756 children and 1,424 adults were referred to food banks with vouchers? We congratulate the agencies involved in doing that work, but is it not absolutely disgraceful that this is what we are reduced to?
I agree. My right hon. Friend and I share food bank provision in our constituencies, so I know that to be true.
Since April this year, over half a million people have already relied on assistance from the 400 food banks run by the Trussell Trust charity—that is double the number of food banks compared with this time last year. Of those half a million people, one third are children. In Britain, the seventh richest country on the planet, in the 21st century, it is a scandal, and it is getting worse. More people have been going to food banks in the past nine months than in the whole of last year. Half a million people have gone to food banks compared with 26,000 before the last general election.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady. She seems to be placing responsibility for all this at the door of the coalition Government. Is she aware that the excellent food bank in Farnborough was established in 2009 as the 49th Trussell Trust food bank? Does not that illustrate that it was the destruction of the public finances by her party in government that has been responsible for the disaster that is affecting this country?
I agree that some food banks were established before the last election, but 400 have now been established by the Trussell Trust, rather than 49. By the time we left office, 40,000 people were visiting food banks, a tenfold increase on the 4,000 at the start—
There are now half a million people visiting food banks—an exponentially larger figure. It is right that this House seeks to find out the real cause of that increase. It is a scandal that is getting worse. The Government now have the humiliation of the Red Cross helping to collect and distribute food aid in Britain for the first time since the second world war.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is under a lot of pressure. I want to inform her and the House that not only are people depending on food banks, but poor people in Slough are now fighting each other in the local Tesco when discount vegetables and fruit come out. A constituent texted me yesterday to say that he observed such fights on three separate occasions and that Tesco now has to put on security to deal with the issue. Is that not shocking in the 21st century?
That is shocking. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate that I want to leave the longest possible time for them to be able to highlight such experiences in this debate, so I will not take further interventions.
Although the rise of food banks is not something that anyone can be proud of, the huge volunteering effort to keep them going is something we should be very proud of. Communities are coming together in outrage and in sorrow at the growing poverty and hardship they see around them. Whether they are organised by churches, voluntary organisations or individuals, people have refused to stand by and watch their neighbours go without food. More than 30,000 volunteers are now giving their time. Others have donated, including more than 3,400 tonnes of food last year.
The rise of reliance on food banks has angered people around the country. That is why more than 141,000 people have signed the Daily Mirror petition demanding this debate—a debate the Government could have held in their own parliamentary time, but chose not to.
Let us be clear about who is now relying on food aid in this country. Although in the past it may well have been those who were homeless, or at least those without an income, that is increasingly not the case. In fact, just 4% of people turn to food banks due to homelessness, while 19% of referrals have been as a result of the Government’s changes to welfare and more than a third are down to the incompetence that has led to delays in payments to which people are legitimately entitled.
I have made clear that I am not giving way, because I want to maximise the amount of time available to others to get into this over-subscribed debate.
The majority of people turning to food banks are working-age families. Nearly a fifth are in work, but they are still struggling to get through the month. As the Trussell Trust’s executive chairman, Chris Moulds, said
“2012-13 was much tougher for people than many anticipated. Incomes are being squeezed to breaking point. We’re seeing people from all kinds of backgrounds turning to foodbanks: working people coming in on their lunch-breaks, mums who are going hungry to feed their children, people whose benefits have been delayed and people who are struggling to find enough work. It’s shocking that people are going hungry in 21st century Britain.”
He is right.
The Government have tried to claim that the growth in food banks is a case of supply and demand. Lord Freud, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, suggested that the rise was down to people seeking out food because it was free. He said:
“by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1072.]
Yet everyone who receives food from a food bank is referred there by a front-line organisation and, therefore, verified as being in a crisis situation.
The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a matter for debate, and I have no doubt that he will be able to put that point later in the debate. The more time we spend on points of order and on me quietening people down, the less time there will be for Members to make the points they wish to make.
To suggest that people can just arrive at a food bank asking for free food shows just how out of touch Ministers are with the way food banks work. The Trussell Trust is very clear: over 50% of referral agents are statutory agencies, and referrers include doctors, social workers, school liaison officers and citizens advice bureaux advisers. These professionals make sure that people turning to food banks are in genuine crisis.
People are using food banks not out of choice, but out of necessity, yet Ministers still refuse to listen. The Education Secretary has claimed that people are turning to food banks because
“they are not best able to manage their finances.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 681.]
How insulting, patronising and out of touch is that comment.
There is a very straightforward way for Ministers to clear up any doubt about the reasons for the increase in reliance on food aid: they can finally publish the official report into the growth of food banks, which was delivered to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June. That report has now been sat on by Ministers for six months, longer than it took to produce. In April, the then Minister of State at DEFRA, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), said:
“The conclusions of this work will be available in the summer and published on the Government's website.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 821W.]
Now Ministers say the report is still being subjected to
“an appropriate review and quality assurance process.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 November 2013; Vol. 749, c. 1293.]
I bet it is. It is very clear that the Government are determined to hide the true scale of the growth of food banks. They are right to be embarrassed by the truth, but they should come clean, so I say to the Minister today that she should finally force her fellow Ministers in DEFRA to publish this report.
Even without the Government’s hidden report, the reasons for the rise in food bank use is clear: it is the cost of living crisis facing householders up and down the country; it is because even as we finally see some growth in parts of the economy after three years of failure, that growth is not being shared fairly. Last week’s Office for National Statistics figures were clear: average earnings have risen by less than the rate of inflation for the fifth year running. Figures published alongside the autumn statement showed that real wages will have fallen by 5.8% by the end of this Parliament. Under this Government, we have seen the longest period of falling real wage values since records began, and the consequence is that working people are £1,600 a year worse off under this Government.
The number of those paid less than a living wage is up by 1.4 million since 2009, to 4.8 million workers in the UK last year—[Interruption.] No, I have been very clear that I am not giving way again in this debate. [Interruption.] As pay packets shrink in real terms, prices continue to rise, and they rise faster than wages. That has happened for 41 of the—[Interruption.]
Order. I do not understand why there are conversations going on all around the Chamber. [Interruption.] I can see where they are taking place. If Members are here to take part in the debate, they must listen to the hon. Lady who is proposing the motion.
No, I will not give way.
Let us just take the weekly shop. It is the essentials that have gone up in price the most—food required for a balanced diet. Fruit: up 11.3%. Vegetables: up 6.9%. Meat: up 5.2%. Bread and cereals: up 4.3%—all up by more than inflation. We know from DEFRA’s own annual family food statistics, published last week, that families on the lowest incomes spent 22% more on food in 2012 than five years ago. Those families were already spending the largest share of their income on food. The consequence is that families have been forced to trade down, with a third switching to economy brands. A quarter of those on low incomes are now buying less fresh fruit, with one in five families buying fewer fresh vegetables, which means poorer nutrition for many children.
Not only food prices but household bills have added to the cost of living crisis. Energy bills are up almost £300 for families since the election, while company profits have gone from £2 billion to £3.7 billion. More than 2 million homes in England and Wales, including more than half a million families with children, have been forced to spend more than 5% of their household income on the cost of water. Yet the regional water companies have made £1.9 billion in pre-tax profits, and paid out £1.8 billion to shareholders.
I have made it clear why I am not giving way.
For those with children, the rising cost of child care is making it harder and harder to take on work. The cost of nursery places is rising five times faster than pay, while there are 35,000 fewer child care places and 576 fewer Sure Start centres. Most perniciously of all, the Government’s bedroom tax has increased the pressure on 660,000 people, including more than 400,000 disabled people, yet the vast majority do not have a smaller place to move to. The average family affected is now losing £720 a year.
This debate is a vital opportunity for the House to acknowledge the rising reliance on food aid in our country. We ensured that it took place, because the Government were never likely to do so. They will not even publish their own—clearly damning—research into why the rise in food bank usage is so high. Since April, just one charity’s network of food banks has helped half a million people, a third of whom were children. The reasons for that are clear: the rising cost of living, caused by rising prices that have outstripped falling and stagnant wages; the Government’s unwillingness to stand up to vested interests in the energy and water companies; their unwillingness to take action on the lack of available hours for part-time workers, the rise of zero-hours contracts and poverty pay; incompetent welfare reforms and delays in making payments; and the bedroom tax.
Britain can do better than this. We need a long-term plan to tackle the cost of living crisis and reduce dependency on food banks, including a freeze on energy prices while we reset the market, a water affordability scheme and tough new powers for Ofwat to cut bills, measures to end the abuses of zero-hours contracts, Make Work Pay contracts that reduce company’s tax bills to incentivise them to pay a living wage, an expansion of free child care for three and four-year-olds from 15 hours to 25 hours a week to help working parents, and the abolition of the bedroom tax. That is how we, a one-nation Labour Government, will address the scandal of food poverty in our country. That is how we will once again reduce and then remove the need for food aid and the reliance on food banks in our country.
I welcome this debate to answer honestly the points made in the motion and to clarify all this, but to be honest, a far more realistic debate would have been brought by Government Members and the people of the United Kingdom on how Labour derailed the UK, destroyed its finances and made it such a vulnerable place.
I will continue a little, because the truth must be heard.
While Labour was in office, it gradually wore away the financial strength of this country, eroding its savings and savings culture, and then it crashed the economy. Gas bills doubled, council tax doubled and fuel duty went up 12 times. The only things that grew under Labour were debt and overspending. It left the UK with—[Interruption.]
It is only fair that I set the scene before taking interventions.
Labour left the UK with the highest structural deficit of any major advanced country. It wiped £112 billion off the economy, leaving a debt of about £3,000 to every household. Personal debt reached a staggering £1.5 trillion. That whirl of living beyond our means—that increase in prices, debt and unaffordability—had to come to a stop. It came to a stop suddenly and, sadly, we are all paying the price. The Government are paying the price, charities are paying the price, businesses are paying the price and individuals are paying the price as we try to balance not only our household budgets, but the budget of the country. [Interruption.]
As I have said, I will take interventions when I have set out what has happened.
Let us be honest. The Trussell Trust saw what was happening in 2000. It looked at the evolving problem that was caused by personal debt, overspending and people living beyond their means. It set up the first food bank in that year and the food bank network in 2004. The number of food banks had grown tenfold by 2010. Most startlingly, when those food banks started, Labour did not want to know why. When they grew tenfold, Labour did not want to know why.
When the Labour councillor who had set up the Trussell Trust came for support and said, “Allow me to signpost food banks in Jobcentre Plus”, Labour said no. Labour wanted it to be its little secret because, beneath the veneer of what seemed like a sound economy, it was crumbling. It knew what was going to happen. Sadly and shamefully, there has been no investigation by the Opposition. They do not want to know what went on. It took my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) speaking to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to get the food banks signposted.
My constituency office took a phone call from an ex-serviceman yesterday who is now thankfully in receipt of a war pension, disability living allowance and employment and support allowance. However, while he was waiting for four weeks for Atos to deal with his appeal, he had to use a food bank. Does the Minister agree that that is an absolute disgrace?
We have hardship payments and support payments. We have put in a new element of reconsideration to make the process quicker. The speed of the transaction for getting benefits has increased by six percentage points.
Let us not get away from how this started under Labour. What each and every one of us does is important. I have heard nothing from Opposition Members about the news that, because of our welfare-to-work programme, 30 million people are in jobs today. We know that under Labour, the number of households with nobody working doubled—[Interruption.]
I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and to the Secretary of State for changing that disgraceful ruling by the previous Government. Will the Minister praise Harlow food bank, which was set up in 2009 after the years of plenty? Does she agree it is sad that food banks are being turned into a party-political football by Opposition Members who are trying to destroy the excellent work they do?
I do indeed. If one thing came out of the disastrous years that made our country more vulnerable because of the disastrous finances of the Labour Government it was the fact that not only are this Government doing more to get people into work—I will say it again, although I heard no positive sounds from the Labour Benches before: there are 30 million people in work—and that businesses have helped to support people and have taken them on, but that the community has come together to support one another. That must be a positive move. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No, I will make a little more progress.
Let us go back to the report that Labour obviously did not want, so as to keep it as its little secret. Labour Members did not want to look into why the Trussell Trust was set up and has grown exponentially, but we did. We looked into the matter, and it is right that we give an accurate report. It was the Labour party that brought us the dodgy dossier and never wanted verification of the facts—why let the facts get in the way of a tale of fiction? It is only correct that we get our facts right and deliver this report at the right time, as we are doing. As we have said, it is positive; people are reaching out to support others in church groups, community groups, local supermarkets and other groups. That is a fact—[Interruption.]
In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No. Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
It is important to look at what is happening around the world. The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust. In Germany, however, with a population of 82 million, there are 1.5 million users of food banks. Canada has population of 35 million, and there are 830,000 monthly users of the Trussell Trust. [Interruption.] We must put everything in context and look at what happened, whether that is the overspending and not being able to balance the books from 2002, or the financial crash of 2007. [Interruption.] We must look at how much we have done to balance and rebalance the economy, and get it on a stable footing.
It is startling that the shadow Minister took only three interventions. We all listened then, so it would be appropriate to listen to the facts now. That is where we go wrong. We do not listen to what is going on.
The coalition Government were brought in to solve the mess that Labour got us in. Nothing more clearly shows what we have done to support people than what we have done on jobs. The best way to help people to get out of poverty is to get people into work. Children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. Labour is the party that gave us workless households.
I will say this again because the Opposition still have not acknowledged it. Thirty million people are in jobs today. That means that a further 1.25 million people are in jobs since the general election. The Opposition told us—[Interruption.]
Order. If hon. Members do not keep quiet and listen to the Minister, she will have to repeat her speech over and over again—[Interruption.] Order. If the House keeps interrupting me, I will call order again and again, and very few hon. Members will have the chance to make the speeches they have prepared. Let us have silence. I call the Minister.
We have 1.25 million more people in jobs than we had at the election. We know that the best way out of poverty is to be in a job. The Opposition said that 1 million more people would be out of work. They were wrong. They said there would be a double-dip and treble-dip recession. They were wrong. They are also wrong on food banks.
That is why we must compare Labour’s legacy of a debt-fuelled boom with what this Government have done. What are this Government doing and how have we supported people? Under Labour, 5 million were on out-of-work benefits, the number of households where nobody worked doubled, and 2 million children lived in workless households. That is what we do not want—[Interruption]—but it is Opposition Members who say, “Shame.”
How are the Government helping families? We want to ensure that work always pays. That is why we have brought in universal credit—to ensure that 3 million people are better off. That is what the Government are doing.
Let us be honest. One thing the Opposition do not understand is that disposable income is different from income. What have we done to support people with disposable income?
The Opposition spokeswoman gave way three times. We will finish what we are saying. I appreciate that Back Benchers will have only four minutes, but, should there be time, I will give way.
What have the Government done? We have taken 2.7 million people out of tax. We have cut tax for 25 million people, giving them, on average, £700 extra a year. We have stopped Labour’s fuel and petrol price increases, saving families £300 and someone in a business with a van £1,000. All of that is key. The winter fuel allowance and cold weather payments have stayed, and we have given tax breaks to young people who are going to be in a job. That is what we have done to support people. When we talk about what happened under what Government, what happened when and how the Trussell Trust started, and when we talk about the removal of the spare room subsidy—[Interruption.]
Order. Members must not shout at the Minister. It is clear that she does not intend to give way, and she is not going to give way if you shout at her. Please be quiet, allow the Minister to finish her speech and then everyone will have a chance to make their contribution.
The Trussell Trust started under Labour—it hid that away—and the removal of the spare room subsidy in the private sector started under the Labour Government in 2008. Rewriting history does not work. The British public want to know the truth: those on the Labour Benches ruined the economy and we are getting it back on track.
I am very grateful to the Minister. On the one hand, she has spent a long time telling us that there are now many more people in work, although the rate of employment has still not returned to pre-recession levels. But if —[Interruption.]
Tomorrow, when Hansard comes out, we can read the full explanation, because hon. Members probably do not want me to go through it again. Actually, it was because of the crash, the overspend, the personal debt and the public debt left to us by those on the Opposition Benches.
Another issue that has been raised is zero-hours contracts. They happened under Labour: the numbers in 2013 are the same as the numbers in 2000. In fact, the number of zero-hours contracts went up by 75% from 2005 to 2009, something that those on the Opposition Benches did absolutely zero about. It is the Leader of the Opposition’s Doncaster council that presides over the biggest number, within his council. Again, there is a lot of fluster and a lot of bluster. The Opposition did nothing in government and they are doing nothing to control their Labour councils, yet we are now picking up the pieces.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has spoken eloquently about the price of Labour. Is she aware that in 2009 one could walk down Glascote road, where my food bank is situated, and see repossession notices in window after window as house after house was taken away by banks that foreclosed on them? The grisly legacy of that lot was not just a loss of jobs but the loss of homes too.
The Opposition like to forget all about that. The industry I know most about is probably the construction industry, which was brought to its knees in 2007 under the guidance of those on the Opposition Benches. Many industries had a tough time pre-2010. That is when it all happened. Equally, the Opposition are so bad with numbers they do not understand that there needs to be a change of gear to rebalance an economy and change things to get back on track. It does not happen overnight; it happens over a long period of time. Something to ponder on for a second is that it was the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who said that the Opposition want to be tougher on benefits and do more than we are doing. I wonder how Opposition Members feel about that and whether they believe that use of the Trussell Trust would be higher or lower were that to happen.
I will come to a close now. [Interruption.] Sadly, there is chanting from the Opposition. I find how the Opposition left this country—in a vulnerable position—a really sad moment. [Interruption.]
For the people of the UK, I find that deeply saddening. For me, it is not something to be chanting and cheering about. The Opposition need to reflect—for about the next 20 years—on what they did to UK plc, while we get it right. For those reasons, and many, many more—mainly its inaccuracy—I reject the Opposition day motion. Instead, I welcome the promising signs that we are delivering for jobs and growth: the fastest growth in the G7 this quarter, more people in work, more businesses going, more exports, more work for everybody. That is why we object to the motion and welcome what we are doing on this side of the House.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given the huge interest in this debate, not least among our constituents, is it within your power to extend the time for the debate?
I fully appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point. Another way to phrase it would be: if Members had behaved with decorum during the Front-Bench speeches, would there be more time for Back Benchers? He is right that there is a lot of interest in the debate, but sadly it is not within my power to extend the time available. I am glad he made his point of order, however, because it gives me the opportunity to ask hon. Members to be courteous to other hon. Members and keep their speeches as brief as possible.
Perhaps I can bring the House back to the issue of food banks. I decided to take part in this debate only last Friday, when I visited the Eastern Valley food bank in Pontypool in my constituency and saw its excellent work with my own eyes. It distributes more than a tonne of food per week and feeds more than 120 local families, and demand is so great it has opened three distribution centres in Blaenavon and Cwmbran. Like many food banks in this country, it is linked to the Trussell Trust, to whose Welsh representative, Tony Graham, I pay tribute.
That situation is replicated throughout Wales, which now has 33 food banks and 74 distribution centres. In the UK, three open every week.
I have visited most of my food banks, but there are so many of them that it is very difficult. Has my right hon. Friend noticed, like me, the type of person turning up at these food banks? I saw a woman who was a skilled worker—a draughtswoman—who could not get a job and had not had one for four years as a result of the Government’s policies. Did he see anybody like that?
Indeed, I did. I also saw that many people using the food bank were working people who simply did not have sufficient money to feed their families.
The Minister spent some time trying to decide who caused the recession, but in 2010—the year the Government came to power—more than 4,000 people in Wales got food from a food bank. In 2011, it went up to 16,000; to 36,000 in 2012; and in this year, it is estimated that 60,000 people in Wales will have to rely on food banks. That is the population of my town, Cwmbran, the fifth largest town in Wales. That is a disgraceful indictment of society and of what the Government have—or have not—done.
Some people have to go to food banks because of the problems they have with their benefits. On one occasion, a constituent came to see me, having been assessed for their personal independence payment by Capita six months previously, yet had still not had that assessment passed on to the Department for Work and Pensions because of Capita’s failures. Other constituents have waited more than four months. There are serious failures in the benefit system.
We know that in 2010, in Wales alone, 13% of those who went to food banks did so because of problems with the welfare and benefits system—and that has gone up to 20% today. That is the reality, but there are other reasons, too. It is, of course, also a matter of electricity, gas and water prices, and the price of food has gone up dramatically over recent years. What is to be done about it? The first thing we should do is properly tackle the issue of the cost of living.
It is nothing like the effect of the cost of electricity and gas on people’s incomes, that is for sure. We have to abolish the bedroom tax, which is a huge issue affecting the need for food banks, and in the meantime I hope people will continue to donate and volunteer.
The truth is that food banks show the best and the worst in our society. Local people in my valley have stepped up to help—Jen Taylor and her excellent team of volunteers have offered their time to help feed people and to give them hope. Churches, charities, offices, shops and individuals have donated huge amounts of food to supply the food bank.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the churches in Wales have played a fantastic role in collecting food? In my constituency, the Deva church, the Calgary church, the Catholic churches in Rhyl and Prestatyn and the Wellspring Christian centre in Rhyl are all contributing.
I think the churches in Wales have done a tremendous job, often taking the lead right across the United Kingdom in dealing with food banks. The people involved are occasionally rewarded. I was told the story of a little girl in Pontypool in my constituency, who excitedly told a lady that she would have chocolate fingers for Christmas because the food bank was there and had given them to her. That is a very moving story.
The key issue is what an indictment this is. I have been a public representative in my constituency for 40 years, and I have never seen anything like this, other than during the time of the 1985 miners’ strike, when the people of my valley got together as a community to help each other. This is happening again now in a big way, but I never thought that this would happen again in my lifetime. It is an indictment of our society and an indictment of our Government.
The Minister gave an important description of all the different measures we have taken to support those who face the greatest challenges with poverty and low incomes. We are not here—I hope that the Opposition are not—to celebrate food banks, which are not the answer. They must be seen not as a solution or as something that we want institutionalised, but as a transitional support mechanism for families in stress at particular moments. Opposition Members sometimes seem to relish the number of food banks. If they would mention some of the key reasons for the perfect storm hitting those on low incomes and benefits in particular, we might start to arrive at solutions.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a “relish” about this on the Opposition Benches. Is it not the case that, in her constituency as in mine, food banks did not come into being in May 2010? Next year I shall be reading at the 10-year anniversary service for the Winchester Basics bank. The fact is that food banks have been around for a long time.
My hon. Friend is quite right.
Let us return to some of the reasons that lie behind the present situation, few of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). Food prices began to rise in 2008, and since then global commodity prices have risen by 30%. Much of that happened under the last Government. During our first couple of years in office, we linked pensions to inflation and the rise in the cost of living.
We need a solution to the problem of rising global food prices. Why, in 2010, did the proportion of our domestic food production—which would have hedged our exposure to global prices—drop to 48%? This Government are working to increase our food resilience and our long-term food production.
I entirely agree. There are extraordinary people—committed volunteers—in my constituency.
Poorer families in my constituency also face structural poverty. Some families in private rented accommodation have no cookers and are captured by microwaved food, condemned to eat expensive food with no resilience, while others have to feed families of three or four with only one ring on which to cook. We must do something about the quality of our private rented accommodation.
The hon. Lady is raising some very interesting issues. However, I have been told by the Trussell Trust in Cardiff that half the people who have been referred to a food bank in the last six months were referred because of changes or delays in social security payments, unemployment, debt, low incomes, homelessness or domestic violence. Is the hon. Lady not surprised that Ministers are not willing to take a shred of responsibility for that?
That is not so, but the point is that there are numerous background issues for us to address, including education. Where was food education on the agenda before this Government included it in primary school education? It is now at the heart of citizenship. We think it important to build, in the long term, resilient families who can support themselves during a period of change and rising food prices.
Finally, let me say something about the food sector itself. I have campaigned strongly against what we are now seeing throughout the retail sector: shrinking products, promotions that are not really promotions, and even the selling of horsemeat, which is an example of food crime. I urge the Government to set up a cross-departmental taskforce to examine the issues involved in food poverty and develop a resilient set of policies to address the problem that food banks are creating. We need to improve housing and our skills base, and enable the food system itself to support communities throughout the country that are finding prices difficult to manage. We have a wide range of volunteers in the food sector who are supporting food banks in the short term, but we must start looking for long-term solutions. I wish that the motion had focused more on the long term and the strategic problems that we face, and less on short-term tactical politics.
I regret to say that the laughter from some of those on the Government Benches during this debate says more than words ever could. I want to praise the work of those in my constituency who are doing so much to help those in need. The commitment of the volunteers in the food banks throughout Copeland and across west Cumbria in towns such as Whitehaven, Millom and Workington has been remarkable, and I should like to say thank you to them on behalf of my constituents. I also want to thank those who donate the vast amounts of food, without which the food banks simply could not operate.
The final verdict on any Government is based on how they treat the poorest in society during the hardest of times. The rise in the need for food banks is a horrifying indictment of this Government’s record, and it demands urgent action. The complacency of those on the Government Front Bench and of Ministers in the other place is as distasteful and unedifying as anything I have ever witnessed in Parliament. In July, Lord Freud seemed to suggest that the increase in the number of people using food banks was simply a result of the increased prevalence of the food banks. He claimed that he did not know which came first: supply or demand. He also claimed that there was an infinite demand for what he called “free goods”. In order to access the services of a food bank, a person or family needs to be referred by health services, local authorities or other groups that look after their welfare. I am not going to try to second-guess what was going on in the Minister’s mind, but he seemed to be implying that there was somehow an ambition to reach hardship, and a desire and aim for people to reach poverty in order to get a free basket of shopping to get them to the end of the week.
In order better to inform Members on the Government Benches how food banks actually operate, I shall give them a quick rundown. People who are forced to turn to food banks can receive help only a limited number of times. They go to the local food bank not to do their full weekly shop but because they need the bare essentials in order to get by. Many of those people will already have made extremely difficult decisions, such as whether to sit in a cold room rather than go hungry. There is no more harrowing example of that than the fact that one in five mothers in the UK regularly—not just once or twice a week—skip meals to feed their children.
Can we deal once and for all with one particular issue? It is partly right to say that food banks have been around for about 10 years, but the truth of the matter is that the Churches set them up to help refugees who were waiting for their asylum status to be confirmed.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point.
The circumstances in which people have to seek assistance to feed themselves and their families are not usually simple. They often involve a combination of issues, which manifest themselves in a great deal of pain and pressure for those involved. For example, I have constituents who are cancer patients who are forced to use food banks as a result of various combinations of Government policies. I wish I could say that those were isolated cases, but they are not. I wish I could say the situation was improving, but it is not. There are no signs of things getting better.
In the past year and a half, more than 100,000 kg of food has been distributed in the small city of Stoke-on-Trent alone. My hon. Friend talks about the people who go to food banks. Has he seen, as I have, people who are absolutely on their last legs because they are so desperate? Many people who go to food banks are also embarrassed that they need such help.
I have indeed seen that, and it suggests that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the numbers of people who need the services of the food banks. Compared with last year, about 600 more people in my constituency are now using food banks to ensure that they can eat. That brings the total to 1,778, including almost 700 children. That is truly shocking, and it is the policies of the parties opposite that have led to this huge growth in the number of people needing help.
It is no coincidence that the wards in my constituency with the highest rise in the number of children being fed through food banks correlate with the wards with the highest rates of child poverty. For example, 41% of the children in the ward of Sandwith are now living in child poverty, and 234 of them rely on the generosity of those who donate to food banks. In Mirehouse, a third of the children are in poverty and more than 200 of them rely on food banks. Child poverty and the use of food banks are inextricably linked, yet the Government have no credible plan to tackle either.
We have repeatedly warned the Government that the legacy of their policies would be felt most keenly by the most vulnerable in our society. The very poorest are bearing the brunt of the cost of living pressures that the Government’s various regressive policies have created, and the consequences are there for all to see. There is a hidden country that is unseen by the Government and dismissed by the Prime Minister, and it shames them both. The working poor are emerging as the Prime Minister’s legacy, as millions of people live in quiet crisis. The explosion in the number of food banks should haunt him, shame him and move him to act, but I doubt that it will.
The quality and quantity of welfare produced by the state has not been good enough for a very long time. It is astonishing and shaming that the welfare state can tax and spend so much, and yet leave people hungry. Some 12,000 children in Buckinghamshire live in income poverty, and one in five children in Wycombe go to bed hungry—that increases to one in three in some parts of my constituency. It is a scandalous indictment of the safety net that is the welfare state that this happens. But I am proud of the One Can Trust, run by Sarah Mordaunt, Kate Vale and more than 100 volunteers in Wycombe, which steps in with emergency food when the state fails.
A mistaken impression has been created in this debate that all that food banks do is distribute emergency food. What they actually do is give financial advice and debt advice to people who have got into difficult situations—emergency food is only part of what they do.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that, and indeed the One Can Trust also provides recipes which help people to get through and use that food effectively. The One Can Trust has delivered 2,859 parcels since March 2012, reaching 3,182 adults and more than 2,000 children—without the trust, poverty in Wycombe would be truly desperate. It operates five pick-up centres, has eight sessions at which people can pick up food and usually delivers within 24 hours. The trust enjoys support from the Big Yellow Self Storage Company, and has matched funding from Barclays and Santander. Warm drinks are provided to volunteers by Starbucks, and the Eden shopping centre provides parking for volunteers. This is an astonishing exercise of social power, and I am very proud of what the trust is doing, particularly because of the story of one young boy.
This is a young boy who about 33 years ago, at the age of eight or nine, bounced down the stairs because his loving father called him down for his tea. This boy bounced joyfully down the stairs but thought it was funny, in his youthfulness and his childishness, to poke the fried egg and say, “Ugh, what’s that?” At that point, his father, with his great working man’s hands, picked up that plate of food and slung it straight in the swing bin, bellowing, “All right, we will both go hungry.” That was my father, a working man who had reached the end of the money and the end of the food. I did not mean to wound my father then, nor do I mean to wound him now, because he loved me and he loves me still. My father did absolutely everything he could, but where was the welfare state? It was not there for him, because it did not know what to do for an independent, self-employed man who had run out of work.
Unfortunately, that went on and on, to and fro, in the legacy of the previous Government; it was tough for a self-employed builder. My father coped by finding further work. My mother took on two and even three tough jobs. I saw her get arthritis in her hands, ageing her early, all because there was no food. What happened eventually is, of course, that they divorced, and my mother went on to live with a man who could at least put food on the table. So I certainly know the consequences—I live with them today—of having too little food in a home.
I am therefore proud of the One Can Trust, because in times of crisis it feeds families. I like to believe that had food been available in my home when I was a child, not only would my father not have had to go hungry, but perhaps my mother would not have had to take on those jobs, perhaps they would not have divorced and perhaps a range of things that ought not to have happened but which did would never have taken place. I am very proud indeed that at this time people across our nation are stepping up where the state is falling that little short. However, I must ask: what is the cause of the crisis? The cause of this crisis—
I will just make this point. The cause of this crisis has been pretending that there is some magic wand: that prices can be declared to be lower; that wages can be declared to be higher; and that if only Labour Members were on the Government Benches the state would be responsive and in times of crisis would quickly leap in. That is not true now, it was not true 33 years ago and it will not be true in the future. It is essential that things such as food banks step in, but I am encouraged by things such as the community store, which go further and make this kind of mutuality and co-operative approach—this charitable endeavour—much more sustainable by making inexpensive food available to the working poor.
I will leave the final word to the chairman of One Can Trust, David Rooke. He has said:
“David Cameron has got it exactly right. Society needs to be empowered to step up. That’s what The One Can Trust is all about.”
I am proud of it.
I was e-mailed last Friday by a woman in my constituency who asked me to attend this debate. She said:
“I would ask if you could attend to represent the poverty and daily struggle that can be found in our area. I am writing as a former user myself of the food bank which at the time was a life-saver for me. At the beginning of this year, the DWP sanctioned me for six months due to an administrative error, which I did not ever receive a written apology for. I had to live on £27 a week for six months until my support worker found out and helped to get me back on my feet. I am not a waster or a shirker but having to receive food parcels because you have nothing in your cupboards is embarrassing for anyone. I also know people who work as hard as they can but because of low wages can’t manage.”
That was powerfully put. If the Minister listens to nothing else today, I hope she listened to that.
It is fair to point out that food banks are not new in this country. When I was elected, there were two in Newport—the Ravenhouse Trust and the King’s Church—and they did an amazing job.
I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable intervention, which speaks volumes.
The difference is that, back then, when I first went to meet volunteers packing food hampers, the number of people receiving them was much smaller. Predominantly, in that dispersal area, the people receiving them were asylum seekers, people with drug and alcohol problems and homeless people. I am glad that the food banks were there, because those recipients were badly in need of our help. However, there are now four food banks operating around Newport; recently, we were joined by the Caldicot food bank and the Trussell Trust. That now has four satellite distribution centres. In Newport, there is a mixture of independent and Trussell Trust food banks. They all work together and they all say exactly the same thing: there has been a phenomenal increase in demand over the past year or two. They have seen a large number of working families on low incomes in need, and a marked increase in referrals from the DWP and jobcentre staff because of the bedroom tax, sanctions and other benefit changes.
The food bank in Chesterfield that opened six months ago has reported that 50% of people presenting to the food bank are there because of benefit changes and benefit sanctions and because the DWP has really messed up. In what way is that not the responsibility of the DWP and the Government, who are actively forcing people into food banks?
My hon. Friend is right. I wish there were a DWP Minister present so that they could hear her point.
The depressing Wales-wide figures from the Trussell Trust show that, in 2010-11, it supported 4,070 individuals in Wales. This year, just from April to November, it has supported 44,756. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said, it expects that figure to rise to 60,000 by the end of the financial year. Those figures are from the Trussell Trust and do not include figures from the independent food banks.
The unmistakeable message that I have been told time and again is that there has been an explosion of working people using food banks. Unemployment may be down, and I definitely welcome that, but the use of food banks by working people has dramatically increased, which should tell the Government something.
Whatever the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says, the truth is that the proportion of people using food banks as a result of benefit changes is sharply increasing. The Government have shamefully—and it is shamefully—altered the form used by Jobcentre Plus staff when referring clients for food parcels by taking off the tick box that records that they are referring them because of benefit changes. No wonder the Secretary of State can play down the fact that benefit changes are driving the increase in demand—he has stopped his staff collecting the data that prove it.
I thank all those involved in food banks for the work they do in my constituency, not least our churches, which are also running night shelters, and the street pastors. They should be praised for the work that they do. I also thank King’s church in Newport, which partners with FareShare to reduce food waste and feed people at the same time, and businesses such as Newport Bus, which has been collecting for Ravenhouse this Christmas.
Does my hon. Friend also wish to thank those people who are donating to the food banks? Today, my office took a phone call from someone who said that they had won a food hamper in a raffle. They cannot eat that food knowing that people are starving, so they are taking the hamper to a food bank.
I thank my hon. Friend for her valuable contribution. We should thank those who give to food banks.
However raucous the debate and however characteristically chippy the Minister's response, it is worth reminding ourselves about the people behind the figures. Two young boys came into a Newport food bank recently with their social worker and asked whether they could have one packet of cereal and one packet of drinking chocolate as a treat. Sad stories, real lives.
At the end of last month, I was privileged to visit the West Cheshire food bank in my constituency. Like all food banks, it is run by a group of hard-working volunteers and supported by generous donations from across Cheshire. My visit to the food bank was an opportunity not just to see the fantastic volunteers who make it happen but to hear first hand the reasons people are using food banks. The results were striking. Figures from my local food bank show that 59% of those who have used the food bank since April have visited because of changes to benefits and a growing number of people are visiting because of sanctions.
The hon. Gentleman mentions his food bank. The food bank in my constituency, run in a joint venture by the Trussell Trust and Blythswood Care, has seen a six times increase in the number of people using it this year alone, mainly due to benefit changes. The Government will not listen to us on the benefit changes, but, given the wonderful start to his speech, will he put pressure on his Ministers, who have been deplorable in this Chamber this afternoon, to make them see sense and make changes so that people do not starve this winter?
I shall come on to that point.
The Department for Work and Pensions is the front-line organisation dealing with people in that position and that is why I support wholeheartedly the Government’s decision to allow jobcentres to advertise and refer people to their local food bank. That is also why it was such a big mistake for the previous Government to ban jobcentres from referring people, depriving people of the information they needed to get food at times of emergency.
Let us make no mistake about it: food banks were not created by, for or because of this Government. They predate the Government, they predate recent welfare changes and they reflect deep long-term problems with our benefits system. As the majority of people who need food bank assistance are those who face changes to benefits, the clear long-term solution is a more joined-up benefits system. The solutions proposed by the Opposition in their motion do not tackle the root cause of the problem. They are short-term sticking plasters that merely cover up the cracks in the welfare system. We need a long-term solution to fix the problem once and for all.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help us with a puzzle. When the Government took office, Ministers perfectly properly made a lot of the announcement that in the future jobcentres would be able to refer people to food banks. However, that appears now to have changed. I received a written answer from the former Minister, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), which states:
“Jobcentre Plus …does not refer people to food banks or issue vouchers.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 373W.]
Can the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) help us to understand why there has been that change?
Jobcentres offer signposting and advice and point people in the right direction. Unlike Opposition Members, I think that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions knows what the problem is. That is why he is pushing so hard for universal credit, which will transform welfare, solving many of the issues that still haunt our welfare system and that we have heard about today.
As well as the long-term solution of universal credit, there are some short-term actions that we can take. First, we need to find out more about food banks and I back the call from the Trussell Trust and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) for an inquiry into their use. We need a clear picture of the role and extent of the banks and we need to know who uses them and why. Then we can have a debate based on the facts. Otherwise, this important debate will always run the risk of being hijacked by politicians hoping to score cheap political points, which does absolutely nothing to help those in need. The university of Warwick has produced a report for DEFRA on household food security and the provision of food aid. I hope that it will be forthcoming.
Secondly, I am a passionate believer in school meals. In my constituency I have seen the real difference that providing a hot, nutritious meal every day can make for children. I therefore congratulate the Government on introducing free school meals for infant pupils. By opening up free school meals to all children, we can put nutrition first.
Finally, we need to give food banks the support they need. Too often people suggest that we should be ashamed of food banks, but I disagree. Food banks play a key role in a caring society. Dozens of people in my constituency volunteer at the Wesley Methodist church and hundreds, if not thousands, donate food. I am proud that so many Chester residents want to help their neighbours and local communities when they are in need. I offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone who helps the West Cheshire food bank. They are doing a truly fantastic job.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it a discourtesy to the House that the two Work and Pensions Ministers who have responsibility for this debate have not been in the Chamber for some time, and neither has any DEFRA Minister, even though the debate is on food banks?
The organisation of the Bench rota by the Government is a matter for Ministers to decide. I note that the hon. Gentleman regards it as unusual, and that view might be widely shared, but it is not within the power of the Chair to change the situation, even if the Chair were minded to do so. It is beyond my physical powers. Perhaps we can leave it at that.
It is disgraceful that the junior Minister, having made one of the nastiest Front-Bench speeches I have heard in my 43 years in this House, has now sloped off and not bothered to listen to the views of the House.
Last Sunday I attended a carol service at New Covenant church in my constituency, where a leaflet of activities distributed to the congregation read,
“Food bank to alleviate poverty among the unemployed and low income earners.”
The previous Sunday I attended a carol service at St Chrysostom’s, also in my constituency, at which Canon Ian Gomersall always makes an appeal. In previous years it has been about alleviating poverty abroad—helping a Romanian orphanage, for example. Last Sunday he made an appeal for food for hungry people in the area around the church. He said that the prospect was that there would be soup kitchens—soup kitchens in my constituency! He is not political, but he felt that he had to say that to a crowded congregation.
My constituents who are going hungry do not study the foreign affairs pages. They want to know why, after three and a half years of this appalling Government, they have got no food, so the hon. Gentleman should not make silly and useless debating points.
The Salvation Army has sent around an appeal stating:
“In the present economic climate, many families will struggle to feed and clothe their children, let alone afford presents and treats.”
Is the right hon. Gentleman not detailing the symptoms of the massive inequality in our society? Professors Stiglitz and Krugman have detailed how the gains of productivity have gone to the top 1%. We are living in the fourth most unequal society in the OECD. Successive UK Governments have failed to address that, which is one reason why I want Scottish independence, but that argument is for another day. What he is seeing in his constituency is the result of the massive inequality that blights society.
The hon. Gentleman is of course absolutely right.
The information provided for me by Tesco, which is conducting food banks in my constituency, tells the whole story. It refers to
“Tesco’s third National Food Collection”,
which means that within this Government’s period in office it has started to help to address food poverty, and to
“32,000 thousand shopping trolleys…the equivalent of 4.3 million meals.”
That is Britain today.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue for just a moment?
In my constituency we have widespread poverty and deprivation. Today’s unemployment figures show that we are No. 42 for unemployment out of 650 constituencies. This has not come about by accident. It is the direct result of this Government’s policies: the deliberate creation of unemployment, the bedroom tax, which is causing so many people to suffer, the benefits cuts, and the housing shortage. My city has been hit hardest of all the major cities by the Government’s cuts. We are having redistribution from the poor to the affluent.
Last week I visited Kids Company in Southwark and saw the industrial-scale packing of food bags that were then piled into vans and delivered to vulnerable families across London. When I asked Camila what had changed in the past few years, she said that she is still seeing the same number of abused kids but is now getting hungry kids coming to her directly because they are starving. Does my right hon. Friend think that is a damning indictment of this Government?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. If I may say so, as powerfully as she made it, it was made much more powerfully by St Matthew, who said in his gospel:
“Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
That is the precise policy of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government. I note that the only Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Manchester has not even bothered to turn up to this debate. That will be noted by his constituents.
At our Gorton Philharmonic concert at Christmas, we sing “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”. Well, it will be a little Christmas for a lot of people but it will not be merry for many more.
I am pleased that this debate has entered a calmer, cooler stream, because I felt very uneasy that some of the most vulnerable people, such as those I have met in my constituency, were being used as a political football across this Chamber. They would not have wanted that. They often feel a sense of indignity about going to food banks. They feel that it is in some way their own fault, but in many cases it is not their fault at all. I look to Members on both sides of the House to come forward with considered ideas about how we can best address this matter.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. [Interruption.] I am being encouraged to say that the Government intend to meet the Trussell Trust. I am pleased about that.
Food banks have come rather late to my constituency, but I really welcome them. I went to the New Life church in Llandrindod Wells and was very impressed by the number of volunteers who were working there. They were members of the church and other volunteers who had gone there particularly to distribute food. I then went on to Tesco. I do not often compliment Tesco on its work, but on this matter it was doing very good work indeed. The church had a stall near the store’s exit and people were encouraged to donate some of the food they had bought. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of people—some of whom were on low incomes themselves—who were prepared to give a little away in order to help others. Tesco also made a 30% contribution.
I share my hon. Friend’s sentiments in relation to the food banks I have visited. Does he agree that, even though food banks came to his constituency more recently, during each of his 16 years in this place, in good times and bad, there will have been constituents who would have benefited greatly from the availability of the services of food banks if they had been there at the time?
I have not quite achieved 16 years, but that is my intention if I am successful at the next election.
My hon. Friend is right. I am sure that every hon. Member will agree that it is not just lately that people have come to our surgeries because they have had problems with their benefits and find themselves in desperate and dire circumstances. Before the food bank was established in my constituency, I had no organised place to refer people to; I had to find churches or philanthropists to help them to get out of trouble and to get them through it. At least now I can direct them to somewhere they will get help.
On benefits, does my hon. Friend agree that the best way out of poverty is through work? Is it not also the case that the perverse incentives of the dog’s dinner of a benefits system that we inherited mean that someone who gains part-time work could end up worse off than if they stayed on benefits?
I am sure that is the case. I am trying to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I believe that the current benefits system is not fit for purpose and that this Government are making progress to make it better, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done. The conditionality of so many benefits leads to difficulties. In my constituency, Jobcentre Plus seems to be using different criteria in different towns to impose sanctions on people. Obviously, when sanctions are imposed, people are left in great difficulty.
I have already written to a Minister and I am going to meet them to find out why the sanctions in different jobcentres have different criteria; why they have different systems for writing to and contacting people in order to encourage them to attend meetings; and why, if people do not attend those meetings, they get sanctioned.
No, I will not. I am terribly sorry. I would have, but I have almost run out of time. I have been very generous.
I think that this country needs a food policy. Huge spikes in food prices add to the difficulties faced by people trying to budget. We need a system to ensure that we have a secure supply of food with levelling prices.
This coming week I will meet the pastor of Elim church in Brecon and I hope we will be able to work with that church to set up our second food bank. I will do so with a heavy heart, but I know it will provide really good help for my constituents.
Government Members have often cited the use of food banks on the continent, and in my short contribution I want to suggest two things. The first is that there are now movements in western economies that are disadvantaging the poor, and we need to think of solutions to that. Secondly, I want to suggest to the Government where their policies have made this position much, much worse. We may not yet understand the basic forces to which we may want to apply policies, but the Government could raise questions about their own policies and ask how they are impoverishing people. I hope the reason for the absence of the whole of the DWP ministerial team is that it is thinking about what sort of reply it is going to give to this debate, with these possible concessions in mind.
Fifteen months ago the Trussell Trust said that by the general election it would be feeding half a million of our constituents. I asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time what he was going to do to prevent that prediction from coming true. I did not get a comprehensive answer, to put it mildly. We have learned from today’s debate that that point has already been passed a year and a quarter, or a year and a third, before that general election, and the number will continue to increase.
If we look at the data, we find that in our country the proportion of income the poor now have to spend on food, utilities and rent is rising. I think that gives us an answer to Lord Freud, who said that if we supply a free good, people will turn up and claim it. It might be that if people are worried about not being able to meet their rent or that their electricity will be cut off, and there is the possibility of people giving them food, they will take that opportunity so that they can meet other basic requirements from their budget.
The figures for food banks are only the tip of the iceberg, of course, as there are many other locations to which people go to get free food, such as soup kitchens. They have also seen a big increase in attendance over the last few years, and that is part of the picture as well.
I totally accept that point and I am going to come back to it by talking about how inaccurate our data are on this whole issue, but the House needs to take into account that something very important is going on in our economy which is disadvantaging the poor the most.
I do not think my right hon. Friend actually knew Friedrich Engels, but Engels prophesied that as countries become richer, the proportion of income spent on food declines. That law has been reversed, so on that score something fundamental is happening. If we combine that with the changes resulting in a greater proportion of income now having to be spent on fuel and rent, we can see that that is difficult for many people, but it is a disaster for the poor.
I will not because so many Members want to participate in the debate.
These are the questions I would like to ask the Government. First, why are they so frit of having a serious inquiry into the causes of what is going on? Are food banks a passing fancy, or are they the outward visible sign of something very serious happening in our economy? We ought to get an answer to that. Secondly, if we listen to the food banks and the other bodies that are handsomely filling the ranks of those giving help in our society, they say the two things that are increasingly important in driving people to food banks are the sanctions regime and the sheer incompetence of the DWP in relaying benefits. Could the Minister—whoever it is and wherever they are—tell us how many of the exceptional payments the DWP is making are the result of benefit delays?
Also, will a twofold instruction go out from this Government? First, will they ensure that anybody who has waited for more than a week for their benefit gets an advance on the benefit they are entitled to? No one is disputing that it will be clawed back later. That would abate some of the demand for food banks. Secondly, given what is happening to those people who are being sanctioned, where the sanctions are later overturned, will the Government urgently review how just their sanctions policy is?
Due to the time limit, I have had to reduce significantly what I intended to say, but I will ensure that a full version of my speech is put on my website.
In following the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), may I commend to the House the report published by the Church Urban Fund in September, entitled “Hungry For More: How churches can address the root causes of food poverty”, which can be found at www.cuf.org.uk/research? As part of their mission to the communities they serve and as part of their mission as the national Church, thousands of parish churches around the country play an active role in their local community, including by running food banks, the majority of which have been set up in the past two years. The report suggests that if churches are to contribute to a long-term solution to food poverty, there is a need to rebalance church-based activity away from emergency crisis support and towards long-term work that tackles the underlying problem.
There is a policy conundrum that I think the whole House has to recognise. Food banks do not tackle the root causes of food poverty, and they do not aim to resolve any of the underlying problems of food poverty. I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members would agree that we should view food aid only as a short-term emergency response to problems of food poverty.
The right hon. Gentleman is enunciating what food banks do, and they also give advice on how to recover from debt. Christians Against Poverty is an example of what food banks in Northern Ireland are doing. Does he recognise the good work that they are doing in advising people how best to manage their resources and how to get themselves out of the benefits trap?
I will make some progress.
If the situation is to be resolved, the root causes need to be tackled. In April, an online survey was sent to 3,000 Church of England incumbents. The Church Urban Fund asked clergy in parishes right across the country questions about their perceptions of food poverty and what was going on in their parishes. The respondents were invited to indicate what they considered the causes of food poverty, based on their experience of running food banks. These figures come to more than 100% because some clergy selected more than one topic, but 62% chose low income, 42% chose benefit changes and 35% chose benefit delays. As it happens, these three issues match those identified by the Trussell Trust as the most common reasons for food bank referrals last year. It is also worth noting that some respondents believed that individual behaviour was a contributing factor, with 27% selecting poor household budgeting as a significant cause of food poverty.
Alongside others set out in the report, those results suggest that if churches are to contribute to a long-term solution to food poverty, church-based activity needs to be rebalanced away from emergency crisis support and towards long-term work to tackle underlying problems. In its recent report on monitoring poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has observed:
“Making comparisons of people using food banks over time is not easy, as there simply are more food banks now than five years ago. They may well be meeting need that was previously going unmet.”
However, there is obviously a need to look at the impact of benefit changes and, in particular, benefit delays.
If I may, I will make my own speech in my own time. I am conscious that many right hon. and hon. Members want to take part in the debate.
I want to say a word of caution about all this. Whoever is in power after the next general election, public spending is going to be difficult. Indeed, as far as I can discern, all three main parties are agreed on public spending limits until at least 2016-17. Although the Labour party has opposed every single welfare change made by the Government, I do not think that the Opposition are suggesting that they would, if elected, significantly increase the overall welfare budget. In those circumstances, it is disingenuous to suggest that a future Labour Government would increase welfare spending, just as it is disingenuous to suggest that they would have the ability to control food and commodity prices.
The Church of England has just embarked on a one-year joint research project with Oxfam, in partnership with the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty, with the aim of exploring why people are using food banks and identifying interventions that would reduce the need for food banks. The findings will be published in September next year.
It is not an adequate policy response simply to say that because people are using food banks there needs to be a massive increase in welfare spending, particularly at a time when everybody is in agreement that the nation has to get welfare spending under control.
Thirty-three food banks operate in Wales and there are two in my constituency: one in Caernarfon and one in Bangor. In 2011, 11,000 Welsh people were dependent on food banks for limited help. The figure is now 60,000.
People often go to food banks because their benefits have not been paid, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said. There are mistakes, benefits are paid late and people are sanctioned, sometimes wrongly. A man came to see me on Monday who had been sanctioned and had no money. He had been called for an interview, but was not able to go because he had to take his seriously ill wife to hospital for cancer treatment. He could not be 30 miles away at the same time.
The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point about the harshness of the current system.
Significantly, about 20% of the people who go to food banks are the working poor. They are not the scroungers and shirkers who are cited so enthusiastically by some hon. Members and by the popular newspapers.
The growth of food banks in Wales is a symptom of a much more fundamental problem: growing inequality and the failure of wages and incomes to match the increasing costs of living, particularly food inflation. That is a particularly acute problem in Wales, where gross value added in some areas is about 60% of the UK average.
Has the hon. Gentleman found that the working poor are finding it difficult to get basic products as well? My food bank has told me that people sometimes talk to staff quietly to ask whether they have toilet paper or sanitary products. It is not just food that people cannot get, but other expensive products.
The hon. Lady makes a fine point. I was at the food bank in Caernarfon recently. It provides a range of goods, and at Christmas it provides a few extras, which is very welcome.
Food banks provide a vital short-term service and they deserve our support. However, they must not be a general long-term solution for the individuals who go to them and they must not be a permanent aspect of public policy. Food banks, if we have them at all, should supplement public provision. It is astonishing and shameful that, in the second decade of the 21st century, one of the richest countries in the world cannot ensure that its people get sufficient food.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the importance of welfare benefits advice? We have heard that many food banks provide such advice, but many do not. Given that one of the reasons for the growth of food banks is the paucity of welfare advice, is that not an important consideration in this debate?
It is indeed. I pay tribute to the services that do exist, but they are patchy. Sometimes they are provided by local authorities and sometimes by volunteers. I mention in passing that the Child Poverty Action Group has made a pertinent point about the value of advice and the level of under-claiming, which is a persistent problem.
In Wales, there has been a consistent decline in economic performance and in people’s ability to buy the food that they need. The figures are stark. Wales’s GVA per head compared with the UK average was 78.1% in 1997. In 2011, it was 75.2%. That is a decline of three percentage points. For west Wales and the valleys, which the European Union recognises as some of its poorest areas, the figures were 67.2% in 1997 and 65% in 2011—a further decline. This is a substantial historical problem, and it is growing. I am sure the remedies are easy to list, and we have heard some already: better economic growth, better income distribution, particularly in the poorest areas, a living wage, and ending fuel poverty.
I must conclude my remarks; I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
We call on the Government to publish the report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on food bank use, and to commission further wide-ranging research into the rocketing need for food banks. I say to those on the Opposition Front Bench, however, that I cannot see how regional benefits would help.
My final point is brief but important and has not been mentioned so far. Wales is not a unique case in the UK, and certainly not in the European Union. We must look beyond our borders and those of Europe, and fight to provide food security for people all over the world.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to this welcome debate, which provides the opportunity to analyse the role of food banks, their background, and why they are growing at the reported rate. I am extremely disappointed, however, at how the debate has been proposed, and the way political capital is being sought from some of the most vulnerable people who genuinely need support. We need to analyse, understand and get to grips with the longer-term issues that have led people to need to turn to food banks. The tone of the debate, and the motion, undermines the good work that food banks do, and the excellent support given by very many volunteers who work hard for some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my regret that, sadly, the Minister chose to make out that we should be grateful that more people do not have to go to food banks, rather than recognising that this debate is not about economic statistics but about the fact that our fellow men and women in this country need to go to food banks to feed themselves? The tone of this debate is disgraceful and shameful.
I absolutely recognise that the tone of this debate is disgraceful, but the issues need to be analysed and addressed in an adult way so we can understand the longer-term issues that have got us to this position. That has not happened since 2010; the issue goes back well beyond that and must be addressed in a proper, adult, consensual way.
Does my hon. Friend support the volunteers, and particularly Church groups in Braintree and throughout the country, who are doing a tremendous job in supporting food banks? On the point he has just made, this is a long-term problem and the inconvenient truth the Opposition will not accept is that there was a tenfold increase in food banks from 2005 to 2010. The problem did not begin in 2010, and we need a long-term solution.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful point, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to those who work and organise food banks in the Vale of Glamorgan: Coastlands Family church, Bethesda chapel in Dinas Powys, and Bethel Baptist church in Llantwit Major. For me, food banks play an extremely important role in bringing people back into the state system of support, or pointing them in the direction of the relevant charity that can help and support them to address an underlying long-term issue that has been missed, or the situation in which they find themselves.
We must recognise that food banks and the Trussell Trust, which facilitates those in my constituency that I mentioned, rightly limit the provision they make available. First, people must have a voucher that comes from a recognised body such as the social services, a GP, or a women’s aid or drug support group. People find themselves in terrible situations, often because of the breakdown of the family or changes that they simply have not been able to manage. We need to recognise that the food bank and the Trussell Trust give food provision for three days only. Food banks are not the soup kitchens that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has described. They rightly limit provision because they do not want to create that culture of dependency. They are about bringing those people back into the state support system and the charitable groups that need to address those problems.
Only three parcels can be distributed in a six-month period. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton spoke of soup kitchens. If his suggestion was right, there would be no such limitations. Our focus must be on getting people the right support from the right place. That might be from their MP, a charitable organisation, a local authority or the state sector.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that food banks and soup kitchens are symptoms of a structural problem, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has said? From 1971 to 2011, productivity rose 80%, but workers shared only 10% of that. Income changed from labour to capital. The economist Paul Krugman has said that if that had not happened, workers would be better off by 30% or 40%. A fundamental, structural shift in society is causing those ills.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, but given the regrettable limit of four minutes on speeches, I cannot address the structural economic debate over that period.
I ask those who are responsible for food banks, who play an exceptionally important part that we should recognise, to refer information to their MP, first, because we might well be able to intervene if there is a benefit delay—we can help in some cases—and, secondly, because it is important information with which we can try to influence policy. However, when policy is debated and discussed in the way in which many Opposition Members have done, it undermines the credibility of the strong arguments that need to be addressed. Hon. Members might be in a positive position to intervene, and I am sorry the debate has progressed as it has.
The background is longer-term economic decline. Thankfully, today’s unemployment data show we are turning the corner. That will make a significant difference. Those who are pointing the finger the most need to recognise that that decline has taken place over many years.
I want to speak only briefly. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) mentioned the tone of the debate. Many of my constituents will be disappointed that the Minister, who is back in her place, showed no contrition whatever for the acceleration of food banks on the Government’s watch. The issue is not whether food banks existed four or five years ago, but the sheer explosion in the number of food banks and demand for them in the past 18 months.
My hon. Friend is right. I have an excellent charity, the Irish Youth Foundation, in my constituency. It is using its capital money to set up emergency food banks, and to provide emergency aid and relief for desperate young people who are going without food. That has happened as a consequence of this Government’s policies.
My hon. Friend makes his point with great eloquence.
Sadly, too many areas of my constituency appear too high up in the various deprivation statistics, and we have had an increase in demand for food banks. The Open Hands food bank in Highfields says it is doubling the number of food parcels it hands out. In the Saffron Lane area, there is an increase in the number of women going to food banks. Primary schools hand out food parcels to parents who are too ashamed to go to the food banks on their estates.
No one denies that there is a problem, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Government are doing everything possible to alleviate it? That is why they have introduced free school meals for children in the first three years of primary school and extended free school meals to poorer students who go to further education colleges. That is why they have frozen council tax and fuel duty, are trying to cut energy bills and are linking the basic state pension with earnings. Are those not real examples of how the Government are helping with the cost of living?
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is a huge cost of living crisis because of the downward pressure on wages. Increasingly, people in work, and people on benefits, are turning up at food banks because of a series of social security cuts implemented by the Department for Work and Pensions. The food banks in my constituency report increased usage because of the bedroom tax, and not just for food parcels—people who have had to move into private rented accommodation but do not have the appropriate furniture are going to food banks that provide furniture. Food banks report increased usage because of sanctions, delays in appeals and delays in benefit decisions. The Atos centre in my constituency does not have suitable disabled access, so people on employment and support allowance have to go to either Nottingham or Birmingham for their assessment. They cannot afford to do that, so they end up going without the ESA they deserve and turn up at the food banks in my constituency. That is a sad indictment of the condition of Britain under this Tory Government.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that figures released this week show an increase in diseases such as scurvy and rickets, and an increase in malnourishment? The Government should acknowledge that in the context of today’s debate. Frankly, it is disgraceful that we have not had a Minister from either of the main Departments sitting on the Front Bench for the whole of the debate.
I am sorry to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not going to give way again.
Of course, it is not just the food banks. I am proud to represent a tremendously diverse constituency, where all the gurdwaras report an increase in uptake by non-Sikh people who go to them daily for the food that they hand out. Our Muslim organisations and mosques are collecting food to be handed out in our food banks. For Government Members to say that that is all just a continuation of a statistical trend that has been going on for the past few years suggests that they are all completely in denial.
The Minister, who is now shaking her head, boasted that the Government have commissioned a study and a review. I hope that when the Minister with responsibility for the voluntary sector, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), responds to the debate—it speaks volumes that the Minister with responsibility for the voluntary sector will be responding to this debate, not a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—he will undertake to produce that study, so that Members on both sides of the House can study it. I hope he will also tell us—I am sure the officials in the Box have the statistics—whether the Government, in their considered view, think that demand for food banks will increase or decrease in 2014 and 2015. That would be an interesting statistic and I look forward to the Minister outlining that in his summing up.
We are seeing a series of changes to the way social security works from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who stumbles around Whitehall with a bleeding hole in his foot and a smoking gun in his hand as all his different reforms collapse—universal credit and so on. A whole series of changes are affecting our constituents and driving the increased demand for food banks in our constituencies. For the Government not to acknowledge that suggests that they are completely out of touch and completely in denial.
The Black Country food bank in my constituency is a faith-based organisation that serves the whole of the black country area of the west midlands. It is run by an incredibly dedicated range of staff and volunteers. Having volunteered there myself, I know the focused way in which they approach serving the people who come to their doors. As other hon. Members have pointed out, food banks offer three days of emergency help. That means that the service the Black Country food bank provides is not a replacement for welfare; it is integrated within the welfare system itself.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, because many other hon. Members want to take part in the debate.
The Black Country food bank gives food only to people referred to it by an approved agency, including social services. When I volunteered there, I met people who had been identified as suffering from serious mental health problems; I met women who had been victims of domestic violence and who had been abruptly removed, or wanted to be abruptly removed, from their homes; and I met victims of family breakdown. Every single person I met had been referred to the food bank with a unique set of circumstances.
The Black Country food bank plays a vital role in fighting poverty in my constituency. It is true that usage of it has increased, but that is partly due to increased awareness of what it does. Inevitably, when people get to know that it is providing a vital resource, linked in with other agencies within the welfare system, they will start to use it more. Better links are also being created between food banks and local agencies. Local health services are aware that the food bank is on hand to help people who have serious mental health issues. As people are more aware of the vital service it provides, it is not surprising that its use has risen.
My hon. Friend is paying handsome tribute to the Black Country food bank. Will he join me in paying tribute to his own food bank and many others, including mine in Gloucester, run by the excellent Anneliese Sterry and her volunteers, which provide a fantastic service for many people? My office hands out vouchers and appreciates the help they are giving.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the valuable work being done in his constituency.
The Black Country food bank does other vital work in the community. Like the food banks that other hon. Members have mentioned, it helps families learn how to prepare cost-effective and nutritious meals. Such courses and information can have a greater impact in the medium term than the three-day supply of food it initially provides to those referred to it. Like other poverty-fighting organisations in my constituency, such as the Hope centre and the charity Loaves ’n’ Fishes, it provides vital work experience and apprenticeship opportunities for many people in my constituency, particularly those in long-term unemployment. That, too, is linked to jobcentres and the whole welfare system. Such organisations provide valuable skills and work, and not just on a voluntary basis; they provide real work experience and apprenticeship opportunities that are helping the local economy.
The food bank is providing not just essential food support, but community facilities and skills that are vital to my local area. I agree with other hon. Members that to try and make political capital out of, and fight political battles over, groups such as the Black Country food bank and the work they do in my community is very disappointing. Those who run such food banks deserve our respect and support for the committed and dedicated work they do for some of the most vulnerable in my community.
There is no desire among the Opposition to make political capital out of those who have set up food banks or use them; we are representing our constituents. In my constituency, there has been an exponential growth in the use of food banks since 2010, and I and other Opposition Members are giving voice to those constituents. It is disgraceful for the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) to suggest that we are trying to make political capital out of this.
I listened carefully to the Minister earlier, but what we heard from her was a striking combination of denial and complacency. Both the tone and the substance of what she said today failed to meet the scale of the challenge that communities up and down the country face.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw our attention to that.
I would like to draw attention to some of the fantastic things happening in Liverpool to address the crisis of food poverty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said earlier that food banks demonstrate both the good and the bad in our modern society. I want to thank all the volunteers who have made a success of food banks in my constituency, and I refer specifically to the North Liverpool food bank, which has 90 volunteers who see about 150 people a week. It opened two years ago in November 2011, and now has eight separate distribution centres in north Liverpool, including in my constituency, in Croxteth and Norris Green. Norris Green is the council ward in Liverpool that has the largest number of households directly affected by the bedroom tax—more than 1,000 households in that single ward—which the food bank tells me is one reason for the increased uptake.
Another food bank was set up by Labour councillors in the Dovecot area of my constituency, providing crucial support. There is also the Next Steps project, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) referred, which was set up by Councillor Peter Mitchell, one of my constituents. Next Steps provides both food banks and support for people to get back into work. Peter told me earlier today of a wonderful example of a 58-year-old man who used the programme to find a job after a long period of unemployment. He was so happy at the support he had received that he burst into tears when he got that news. In December alone, the food bank will feed 1,000 people and expects to have fed 7,000 people this year.
Finally, let me refer to a brilliant initiative by Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool. He set up, with Tesco, the mayor’s Hope fund, which is to launch an innovative project to aid the relief of poverty in Liverpool. Anyone shopping in Tesco can make a donation to support the running of the food banks across Liverpool. That is a practical example of a Labour local government leader working with the private sector to deliver and support food banks. I finish by appealing to whichever Minister we are to hear from at the end of the debate to listen to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said when the debate opened.
Absolutely. Those among my constituents who do not have to use the food banks look in disbelief when they learn about the scale of the increase in their use over recent years, so I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. I appeal to the Government to publish the DEFRA report and to do what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said the Government should do, which is to have a proper inquiry into the causes of the growth of food banks, so that in future we see not further exponential growth, as we have seen over the last three and a half years, but a decline in the use of food banks, which surely we could all support.
Poole food bank does a valuable job, supported by a wide range of people, largely from the churches, but including people across the political spectrum. They are all dealing with what must be a very difficult personal crisis for many when they cannot put food on the table. As a parent, one cannot conceive what it must be like to worry about what can be provided for children in an evening meal. In some respects, food banks provide a perfect example of the third sector at work, doing what it can to plug a gap at a particularly difficult time.
When all this started, I was sitting on the other side of the Chamber, watching the Budgets and the economic management of the country. At that time I was told that boom and bust had been abolished, yet we had one of the biggest busts ever—nearly 7% of GDP. However we look at it, if GDP falls by as much as that, living standards will take a hit.
Let me make an important point. It could have been a lot worse if people in work had gone for high pay increases to compensate for high bills, but they did not; they priced themselves into jobs. It could have been worse if people had been irresponsible, but they have not been irresponsible. Given the scale of the bust, it is a miracle that only 7.4% of people in the country are unemployed. The figures in Germany and Holland are lower, but, among European countries, Britain is not doing too badly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we should all support churches, charities and organisations such as the West Northumberland food bank in my constituency, we should praise the Salvation Army in particular, because it has been providing food assistance for generations?
That is a very good point.
We all know that many people in work, as well as those who are out of work, have experienced a big drop in their living standards, and we know that that is because of the economic crisis, but the good news is that there are still a great many people in work and we have a growing economy. It is inevitable that living standards will start to recover as incomes rise, the market recovers and we start to export more.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s description of the macro-economic picture is not as connected to the micro-economic picture as he may assume. According to volunteers at the food bank in my constituency, they have been told that the need for food banks has been caused by the move from benefits to work. People’s weekly benefits stop and their pay cheques come at the end of the month, which is too far away. I fear that the recovery will not reach all parts of the economy unless we make it do so. Can he tell us what we can do to ensure that that happens?
One of our purposes in introducing universal credit is to make the transition from unemployment to work much easier. The scheme is complicated—we all know that—but I think that it is a worthwhile venture, because anything making employment easier must be a good thing.
I will not, because my time is limited. I have already taken two interventions.
I am sure that, as the economy recovers, living standards will recover as well, but there is a short-term problem and a long-term problem. The short-term problem is the need for us to recover from the recession, which, as we all know, will take several years. The long-term problem is that, while those in the western world who have benefited from globalisation—particularly people at the higher income scale working in, for instance, financial services—can secure large rewards, many people in ordinary jobs have not managed to increase their living standards. That is a feature of the United States economy and it may be a feature of ours, which is why the Government are interested in apprenticeships and are trying to make our education system far more robust and resilient.
Statistics issued by the OECD the other day demonstrated the importance of ensuring that people are proficient in English and maths and that we have a skilled work force, because that enables those people to generate income and higher living standards. I think that the Government have the right instincts and the right answers, but the fact is that it will take a long time to sort the problem out.
There is an argument to be had about the impact of that. Certainly it helped people with assets rather than those without assets. Nevertheless, I think that progress is being made, and that this morning’s unemployment figures represent a good staging post.
We need to do much more to educate and skill our work force so that we can compete in the global race and improve everyone’s living standards. All the statistics show that some of the more equal societies in Scandinavia are happier societies. What any Government must do in this country is ensure that, as the economy recovers, all sections of the community can earn a living, and can enjoy rising living standards.
At the moment, Aberdeen is doing well. Despite the recession, the economy there is booming. There is so much activity in the North sea oil and gas sector that we are experiencing a labour shortage, and today’s unemployment figure in my constituency is down to 1.5 %, which comes pretty close to full employment. In spite of all that, something else is booming: the use of food banks.
The Secretary of State said this morning that the rise in the use of food banks was a result of decent people wanting to help those who found themselves in temporary difficulty, but I do not think that that is the case. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), I think that there is something fundamental going on.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a real worry that the demand for food banks seems to be related to the targets relating to social security sanctions? That is certainly the experience in my food bank in Oldham. One of my constituents has been waiting for an appeal against a sanction for four months without any money. For him, the food bank has been a lifeline.
My hon. Friend, like me, has been lobbied by a number of organisations saying that failures in the benefit system are causing much of the increase in food bank use.
If the use of food banks were just a passing phase born out of the global banking crisis and the recent years of austerity, we would not be seeing their growth in places such as Aberdeen. If their use is temporary, why is it still growing when the Government say that the economy is picking up? If their use is nothing new, why are more families depending on food parcels than at any time in history?