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House of Commons Hansard
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Food Poverty: Scotland
07 May 2019
Volume 659

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)

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I want to start by reflecting on a scene from Ken Loach’s 2016 film “I, Daniel Blake”, where Katie Morgan, overcome with hunger, begins to eat cold baked beans from a can in her local food bank. Hayley Squires’ powerful performance as Katie struck a chord with people. It was a stark reminder of the real impact that food poverty has in communities across the UK.

In 2015, NHS Health Scotland conducted its initial research on the nature and extent of food poverty in Scotland, finding that food poverty was because of individuals being on a very low income or facing destitution. That restricts their choice of what food they can buy as well, as when and where they can buy it. The research highlighted that food poverty also had negative impacts on an individual’s health and wellbeing. Other research undertaken in the UK has found a link between food poverty and certain medical conditions or illnesses.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. It is appropriate that he cited “I, Daniel Blake”. Does he agree that many of those on low incomes find themselves working in the public sector for UK Government Departments, where they have had a public sector pay freeze for at least 10 years, and are having to rely on food banks because of the poverty pay they are on?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and I would agree with that point, because the wages have not matched the rises in food prices.

International research has also found that the more severe a person’s experience of food insecurity, the more likely they are to seek help from healthcare services. Further international studies have shown that going hungry just a handful of times can lead an individual to develop poorer mental and physical health. Both this domestic and international research emphasises that food poverty is a public health issue. I welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition of food poverty being a public health issue. The inclusion of questions on food insecurity in the 2018 Scottish health survey was a positive step. The survey revealed those who are most likely to find themselves living in food poverty across Scotland; 18% of those in deprived areas live in food poverty, which compares with a figure of just 3% in the least deprived areas.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. In my constituency and across Northern Ireland, we have some of the highest levels of poverty among children and families. Does he agree that it is essential that we seek to protect the most vulnerable in our society, who are having to choose either to eat or heat? The Government must do more on pension credit. Does he agree that they should put more emphasis on the accessing of pension credit by vulnerable people to enable them to deal with the poverty they clearly have? May I also say that it is nice to see the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and that we look forward to a good response from him?

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I was actually coming on to that point about heat or eat. It is a very well used phrase, but perhaps it should be used more often. Some 13% of 16 to 44-year-olds live in food poverty compared with just 1% of those over 65. A total of 21% of single parents also live in food poverty—what a shameful situation. The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, yet the Scottish Health Survey revealed that one in 10 Scots lives in food poverty.

The Independent Food Aid Network had identified 2,000 food banks currently operating in the UK, 212 of which are in Scotland. I pay tribute to the volunteers at all food banks, particularly to those at the Coatbridge community food bank and the Viewpark food bank in my constituency. They work tirelessly to support families who find themselves in food poverty as a result of the austerity policies pursued by this Government. I have previously supported the Coatbridge community food bank to secure an additional warehouse, and I will support those volunteers looking to establish a food bank in Moodiesburn as well.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. He quite rightly praises the food bank volunteers and provides me with the opportunity to praise the great work of the Glasgow South West food bank, but does he agree that if it were not for the generosity of his constituents and my constituents, these food banks would not exist? It is the community that should be thanked for its generosity.

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I agree wholeheartedly. Where would we be in this country without the volunteers? Let us ask the volunteers to take a day off and then see how this country survives. I say thanks to all the volunteers who get involved.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point in thanking the volunteers and those who donate to food banks. The ones who are listed in the numbers do not cover the full gamut of people who provide help. The mosques, the churches and the gurdwaras in my constituency are also very generous in making sure that people can get a hot meal when they need it. Does he agree that those are also a valuable part of the community that contributes so much?

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Yes, I do agree. In fact, I was in Bellshill West Parish Church last week and spoke to the ladies who are involved in this work in the community. These are people who are not recognised as helpers, but they do a tremendous job helping out to fill the gaps—no, they do more than that.

I wish that we did not have to live in a country where food banks are needed in constituencies such as mine across the country. NHS Health Scotland recognises that food banks are a symbol of a food poverty crisis in Scotland. It states that

“the existence of emergency food aid provision reflects the growth of chronic severe food poverty.”

The Trussell Trust is the single largest food bank provider in Scotland. It distributed more than 170,000 food parcels in 2017-18, which meant that Scotland received the second highest number of food parcels distributed in the UK by the Trussell Trust. In their recent research, the Independent Food Aid Network and A Menu for Change also examined the role of independent food bank providers in Scotland. They found that the Trussell Trust and the independent food banks collectively distributed more than 480,000 food parcels across Scotland in 2017-18. Let me repeat that figure—480,000 food parcels across Scotland.

In North Lanarkshire, 27,000 food parcels were distributed by food banks in 2017-18. The Trussell Trust also revealed that 5,000 of those food parcels were three-day emergency supplies. I want to send my best wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the birth of their baby boy, but have to reflect on the fact that there are many children in my constituency who will not enjoy the same chances in life and who are living in food poverty.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The points that he is making are very important. I also congratulate the food banks in my own area in Ruchill Kelvinside Parish Church and Gairbraid Parish Church, which distribute food on behalf of the Trussell Trust. Does he agree that, when we talk about support, it is not just the quantity of food that people have access to that is hugely important, but the quality of food? They need the right kind of nutrition, and that is particularly important when we think of free school meals for younger children. It should not simply be food for fuel, but food that properly nourishes them.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very important point. It is not about the price of the food, but about the quality of the food.

Indeed, the Trussell Trust revealed that three-day emergency supplies were sent to 1,800 households with children in North Lanarkshire. I agree with Dr Mary Anne McLeod of A Menu for Change when she says that these figures are truly shameful for Scotland. They are, and I hope that they will serve as a call to action.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is being very generous. Like me, does he have evidence from food banks that the demand for their services rockets by as much as 30% when universal credit kicks in or is rolled out in a particular area?

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Yes, I agree with that. The demand has gone through the roof. In fact, Coatbridge food bank has now doubled the size of its unit—I helped them to achieve that. That is not what I was going to say, but that is what has happened anyway.

We must look at the underlying causes of food poverty in Scotland. Oxford University carried out research into food bank users across the UK in 2017. It found that every two in five food bank users were waiting for benefit payments, with the delay in receiving payments being the primary cause of their food bank use. One in six households using food banks had at least one person in work, but that was often insecure employment, such as a job on a zero-hours contract. Food bank users were also found to have monthly household incomes of no greater than £500. Some 16% were even found to have no income at all in the month before they became a food bank user. The food poverty crisis is clearly driven by low pay, insecure employment and the Government’s welfare reforms.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the causes of food poverty that are driving people to food banks. Some of my constituents have been designated as having no recourse to public funds and, despite being in work, they cannot earn enough money to feed their families and are forced to go to food banks. Does he agree that no recourse to public funds is a policy that this Government should ditch?

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Yes, I do agree. I also believe that the Scottish Government could act as well. It is time for both the UK and the Scottish Governments to act. The devolution of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament allows the Scottish Government to make different choices. They could listen to Scottish Labour’s calls to scrap the two-child cap and top-up child benefit by £5 per week. They could choose to not delay the implementation of the income supplement until 2022. Scots living in food poverty now cannot continue to suffer because of the Scottish Government’s inaction.

The UK Government have made a welcome commitment that they will seek to include an official measure of food insecurity in the annual Department for Work and Pensions survey of household incomes and living standards, but I have concerns as to whether the data collected will then be assessed by the Government to help them develop policies to combat food poverty. Data about the level of food bank use in Scotland already exists, thanks to the work of organisations such as the Independent Food Aid Network. I asked the Government whether they used that data to make an assessment of the level of food bank use in Scotland and how to address it, but I was told that the Government had made no such assessment. If the Government will not use the data that is already available, how can we be sure that they will use data collected in the future to help them develop policies to tackle food poverty?

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There has been an 18% increase in the use of food banks in my constituency because of delays and reductions in benefit payments, and an increase in debt. Does the hon. Gentleman agree those who are involved in the food banks are often forgotten in these debates? In my constituency, all the churches come together and make contributions collectively. Is it not time that we recognised the contributions of all the good people who make such efforts?

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Yes. I repeat: where would we be without the volunteers and the people who help to support the food banks?

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I pay tribute to the many organisations in my constituency—the gurdwaras, churches and mosques—that do so much to address this issue, and to the tremendous volunteers who assist. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish Government are trying to address food poverty and sort it out without having the powers to address the welfare cuts and benefits freeze from the UK Government that lie behind so much of the food poverty, and that they are really operating with one hand tied behind their back?

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I disagree; both Governments can do more to address food poverty across the UK.

The Trussell Trust has rightly highlighted the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms on the level of food bank use. Even the Secretary of State herself appears to accept that there is a link between universal credit and food bank use. I hope that she will now respond positively to the calls of the Trussell Trust and immediately end the five-week wait for universal credit payments. I also want the Chancellor to end the benefits freeze immediately. The Government have the responsibility to end low pay and insecure employment in the UK economy.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue to the House. I also thank all the excellent food banks in my constituency, including Loaves and Fishes, Greenhills Methodist church and Calderglen food bank. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the callous cashline providers are not helping in this scenario, as they are charging people—particularly people in rural poverty who have no means or very limited funds to travel to other areas—to access their own cash, and that those providers are actually exacerbating food poverty and poverty in general?

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, because I have seen this happening a lot in my own area recently. There are some deprived places in my constituency, and the shops are starting to charge money at the ATMs. It is okay for me—I can walk away and refuse to use that ATM—but I understand that some people are trapped, and instead of getting £10, they are getting £8. It is an absolutely scandalous practice that has to end. That issue could be another huge debate in itself.

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The hon. Gentleman made a very important point about the five-week wait for universal credit payment. Will he confirm that he has constituents like I have in Glasgow South West, who are scared to take the advance payment of two weeks’ universal credit because it will only exacerbate their debt?

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Yes, I know people who worry about borrowing, and try to borrow from their family and friends rather than having to pay back this loan, which I believe also accrues some interest and puts them back even further.

Professor Philip Alston visited the UK back in November, and spoke to volunteers and food bank users as part of his research into poverty in the UK. His report for the United Nations concluded that food banks were a symptom—a symptom of this Government’s complete denial of the impact of austerity on the poorest in our society. I hope that the Government will snap out of their denial and start showing willingness to act. I stress that that goes for the Scottish Government as well.

I pay tribute to Labour-led North Lanarkshire Council’s fantastic Club 365 programme, which is free to attend for primary school pupils who receive free school meals, and ensures that they do not go hungry at the weekends or during the school holidays. North Lanarkshire Council helps to feed our children 365 days a year. I remember attending a meeting that looked at the positive impact of Club 365 on the lives of children in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, as well as across North Lanarkshire. A Conservative councillor was moved to tears at that meeting; he never realised that the problem was so big.

Club 365 highlights that food poverty can be tackled when the political will exists. I hope that both the UK and Scottish Governments will now show that they have that political will. Let us not make “Oliver” a reality for more of our children: “Please Sir, can I have some more?” I say no more—no more children and their families going hungry in Scotland. If the UK Government can remove the smokescreen of Brexit, and the Scottish Government can remove the distraction of indyref 2, 3, 4 and 5, maybe we can end food poverty.

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I call the Minister—and I welcome you to the Dispatch Box.

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Thank you for your kind words, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing this debate on this important issue. He is a passionate campaigner on this issue, and he knows me well enough to know that I share his passion for reducing poverty, food insecurity and disadvantage.

I must confess that I have not yet, in the handful of weeks in which I have been in this post, had the opportunity to visit Scotland. I hope to correct that at the earliest available opportunity, perhaps even alongside the hon. Gentleman or a number of the other representatives from Scotland who are here. I am absolutely keen, new in post, to get out and about as much as possible, meeting DWP staff, charities, claimants, vulnerable groups, and, of course, Members of this House to gain a better understanding across the country of what is working well, what is working not so well, and, in the case of the latter, identifying what steps and interventions we need to put in place to tackle all forms of poverty and disadvantage.

I share the concern that has been expressed about what the latest statistics tell us about poverty levels in Scotland and in the UK as a whole. It is absolutely right that any Government are held properly to account for the effectiveness of their policies in tackling poverty and disadvantage. Underpinning this Government’s commitment to tackling all forms of poverty is our firm conviction that delivering a sustainable long-term solution means building a strong economy and having in place a benefits system that works with the tax system and the labour market to support employment and higher pay. We believe that this is the best way to achieve better long-term outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children. We are proud, as a Government, of the progress we have made. We now have a record-breaking labour market with over 3.6 million more people in work across the UK compared with 2010. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since the 1970s, having fallen by more than half since 2010.

We are also delivering on our promise to get more people into work in Scotland. Since 2010, the employment level in Scotland has risen by about 250,000, with unemployment down by 126,000. In fact, Scotland has a lower rate of unemployment, at 3.3%, than the UK national average of 3.9%. Wages are now outstripping inflation—in fact, they are rising at the joint fastest rate in a decade—and about three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work, which evidence shows substantially reduces the risk of poverty.

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I thank the Minister for the excellent points that he is making. No debate on this subject would be comprehensive without referring to the fact that people with disability are affected more than anyone else in relation to poverty. What more can be done to get people with disability into work and to make sure that they do not fall foul of the benefits system, and certainly do not have to struggle with the benefits system for access to support that they deserve and that the most vulnerable people in society should have?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we do not want anybody, particularly those with a disability, to struggle in terms of accessing our welfare system. I can assure her that I will be working very closely alongside my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to ensure that our welfare system does deliver in that regard.

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As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I welcome the Minister to his post. We look forward to questioning him in his current role. If, as he has said, the economy is so strong and wages are so great at the moment, that surely tells us that food prices, and fuel prices, are rising higher than wages. Is that the case, or is he suggesting that food poverty exists for another reason?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I look forward to appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee in due course, and I hope that our relationship will be robust and, no doubt, critically constructive. He raises some good points. I have already set aside time to meet the Scottish National party’s spokesman on these issues, and I also look forward to sitting down with the hon. Gentleman to look at them.

A working-age adult living in a household where every adult is working is about six times less likely to be in relative poverty than one living in a household where nobody works. A child living in a household where every adult is working is about five times less likely to be in relative poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. There is only a 7% chance of a child being in relative poverty if both parents work full time, compared with 66% for two-parent families with only part-time work. That is why we will continue to reform our welfare system, so that it promotes work as the most effective route out of poverty and is fairer to those who receive it and to the taxpayers who pay for it.

Universal credit is, of course, at the heart of these reforms and will help tackle poverty by helping an extra 200,000 people into work. It is a modern benefit with one monthly payment that adjusts to earnings, avoiding the cliff edges associated with the legacy benefits that it replaces. It will also be £2 billion a year more generous than the previous system. A number of Members across the House have raised concerns, and as a Government, we have responded to those concerns by making changes to remove waiting days and make bigger advance payments available. In the last Budget, we announced a £4.5 billion cash boost, which will make a huge difference to the lives of working families and provide extra support for people moving on to universal credit.

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I thank the Minister for that, but the problem with the advance payment is that it is very much seen as a loan. Is the Department, as it previously indicated to the Work and Pensions Committee, looking at whether the advance payment could become the first payment, which could relieve the reliance on food banks and deal with food poverty?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his further intervention. As I said, we have made improvements to the initial UC assessment period, including the removal of waiting days and advances of up to 100% of the indicative first payment. It is important to say that the advances are 100% interest-free, and people only have to pay them back over 12 months; as of 2021, it will be over 16 months. However, he makes a fair point. We need to ensure that claimants are working with their coaches and are absolutely clear about what they are taking on. It is not a loan; it is an advance. We have to ensure that work coaches are advising appropriately and ensuring that options are available to the claimant. They do not have to take it all in one go, for example; they can take a small amount as per their needs at the time. I am willing to discuss that with him in further detail.

I mentioned the concerns that were raised and the changes that were made in the last Budget. In particular, we have put an extra £1.7 billion a year into work allowances, increasing the amount that hard-working families can earn before the taper is applied. That is an extra £630 a year for 2.4 million families, many of them in Scotland.

We are also working in partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland to provide a consistent UK-wide service and assist claimants to successfully make their universal credit claim. The Citizens Advice Help to Claim service offers tailored, practical support to help people make their claim and receive their first full payment on time. That service is available online, over the telephone and face to face through local Citizens Advice services. We are also working closely with the Scottish Government to help them achieve their goals on UC flexibilities. For example, UC Scottish choices are now available to all claimants in Scotland on full service who are not in receipt of a DWP alternative arrangement plan.

No one in the Government wants to see poverty increasing or reported increases in food bank use. The recent poverty statistics are, of course, disappointing. However, child poverty in Scotland has remained the same or decreased across all four of the main measures in the three years to 2017-18, compared with the three years to 2009-10. The statistics published in March this year represent a year—2017-18—when some families struggled to keep pace with rising costs, including a higher level of inflation, which the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) referred to, but since then, there has been a year of real wage growth. Earnings have outpaced inflation for 13 months in a row, with real wages growing 1.6% on the year. The statistics do not reflect the substantial additional funding for our welfare system announced in the last financial year, which are only just beginning to take effect.

Increasing the rate of employment is not, however, the limit of our ambition. The Government have gone much further than previous Government to support working people and have set out their ambition in the Chancellor’s spring statement to end low pay across the UK. UC works alongside other policies introduced by this Government to promote full-time employment as a way out of poverty and towards financial independence. In particular, it offers smooth incentives for people to increase their hours, and we are confident that as UC reaches more working families, we will see more working full time.

Our national living wage, which is among the highest in the world, is expected to benefit more than 1.7 million people; and the increase to £8.21 from April this year will increase a full-time worker’s annual pay by more than £2,750 since 2016.

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The Minister makes the point about the living wage, but it is not a real living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation. Also, it is not available to people under the age of 25. Why does he think that a 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 or 24-year-old in the same job as a 25-year-old is not entitled to the same wage?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She has long campaigned on this issue. The national living wage that we have introduced will make a huge difference, but referring to the wider point of poverty, I want to be clear that it is not just a Department for Work and Pensions issue. As part of my role, I want to work across the Government with my counterparts in other Departments—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care—to tackle poverty in all its forms. We all have a part to play. I hear what she has to say, and I am happy to meet her at a later stage to discuss that issue at more length.

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The Minister says that he will end low pay and increase the living wage. Will he end zero-hours contracts?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The answer is no, because zero-hours contracts work for a large number of people. I have spoken to people in my constituency who find huge benefit in zero-hours contracts. They give them the flexibility that they need in the work place.

Our tax changes will make basic rate tax payers more than £1,200 better off from April, compared with 2010. Taken together, the most recent changes mean that a single person on the national living wage will, from April, take home over £13,700 a year—£4,500 more than in 2009-10. The Government remain committed to providing a strong safety net for those who need it. This is why we continue to spend more than £95 billion a year on welfare benefits for people of working age. I would say gently to the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members that the Scottish Government can tackle poverty in all its forms through its devolved skills, education, health and employment programmes such as those introduced to support disadvantaged pupils within the education system. The UK Government have also taken similar steps to support the most vulnerable by providing free school meals and our healthy start vouchers. We are also investing up to £26 million in school breakfast clubs and £9 million to provide meals and activities for thousands of disadvantaged children during the summer holidays.

We have also heard from the hon. Gentleman about the impact of food insecurity on health. The UK Government are taking action. For example, chapter 2 of the childhood obesity strategy announces a bold ambition to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030. I will ensure that my counterpart in the Department of Health and Social Care is aware of some of the wider issues that have been raised in this debate. The Government also want to build a better understanding of food insecurity.

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I recently met a representative of a lobby group that, along with Sainsbury’s, is carrying out a project in a number of communities that involves schools, better eating and more careful eating. It is intended to address obesity and to involve young people of five to 15 in activities during the summer months. A great many people out there are doing great things, and sometimes we need to recognise them.

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The hon. Gentleman is right: we should learn from things that are being done really well across the country and seek to share that best practice. I join him in thanking the organisations that make such a big difference.

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Will the Minister give way?

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One moment.

As I said, the Government also want to build a better understanding of household food needs, to ensure that we are targeting support at those who need it most. That is why we have worked with the Scottish Government, food insecurity experts and the Office for National Statistics to introduce a new set of food security questions in the family resources survey, starting from April 2019. In future, we will be able to monitor the prevalence and severity of household food insecurity across the UK, and for specific groups, to better understand the drivers of food insecurity and identify which groups are most at risk.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill also spoke about the recent trends in food bank use. I reassure the House that I am very much alive to the issue. I have already had an introductory conversation with the chief executive of the Trussell Trust, and I plan to visit a number of food banks to understand more about the experiences of food bank users. I echo comments made by hon. Members thanking volunteers across our country and those who donate to food banks.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I want to finish on food banks. My Department is also exploring whether, building on existing good practice, working more closely with food banks can help us to identify and better support any customers who may, for a variety of reasons, not be receiving the full formal support to which they are entitled.

I want to come back on two comments made during this debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked about those with no recourse to public funds. I hear her point. Those people and how they are supported is a matter for the Home Office, but I will take her point away and have that conversation with my Home Office counterpart. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned pensioner poverty. The percentage of pensioners living in poverty has fallen dramatically over several decades. Relative poverty among pensioners has halved since 1990. The Government will be spending £121.5 billion on benefits for pensioners this year, including £97 billion on the state pension. We are absolutely committed to the triple lock for the rest of this Parliament.

In conclusion, I would like to reaffirm our view that the long-term approach that we are taking is the right one if we are to deliver lasting change. However, we are not complacent: this is an area of real focus for me and the Department. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House, the devolved Administrations and charities to tackle poverty in all its forms.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.