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House of Commons Hansard
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Child Poverty: Leicester
01 October 2019
Volume 664

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered child poverty in Leicester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.

It is a disgrace that in the 21st century, in one of richest countries in the world—Britain—over 4 million children are growing up in poverty. In Leicester, 40,000 children are growing up poor—up 3% in the last year alone—including almost 12,000 children in my constituency. When housing costs are taken into account, 40% of children in Braunstone are growing up poor. In Abbey, it is 41%, and in New Parks it is a staggering 43%.

Those statistics, however shocking, do not tell us what growing up in poverty really means for children and families in my city. Two years ago, Leicester City Council conducted a major survey of hundreds of children and young people. One in five said they worried about having enough to eat every single day. On one of my recent weekly school visits, a primary school head told me about a child who was struggling to concentrate in class. When the teacher asked what the child had had for breakfast, he said, “Nothing”—and he had had only a bowl of salad cream for his tea the night before, because there was nothing else in the house.

Ten years ago, the organisations in Leicester that work with disadvantaged children focused on helping parents to find employment opportunities, equipping them with new skills, and providing support with parenting or help to quit smoking. Now they say they have to focus on the very basics of decent human existence—keeping a roof over people’s heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table, and the gas and electricity on. The reasons for this change are clear. They include the Government’s welfare policies, including the freeze in working-age benefits, the introduction of universal credit, and especially the five-week wait for it. There is also the shift towards in-work poverty; we have had the longest pay squeeze in 200 years, and more and more people are having to hold down several insecure jobs just to make ends meet. Appalling cuts to local council funding have decimated children’s and youth services, and vital support such as welfare advice. There is also the rising cost of living, and especially of housing. Increasing costs in the private rented sector are pushing so many children into poverty in my city.

These things have a major, immediate impact on children, but growing up poor has long-term consequences, too. When children in the most disadvantaged areas start school, they are up to 18 months behind their better-off peers in their development. They can end up playing catch-up for the rest of their life. If they live in inadequate or overcrowded housing, they often struggle to get their homework done, and are more likely to suffer from health problems such as asthma, anxiety and depression. Poor children are also less likely to be able to go on school trips or to do the extracurricular activities that many families take for granted and that are so crucial for child development.

A combination of all those things means that children growing up in poverty are less likely to do well at school, less likely to go on to further or higher education and less likely to earn the same salaries or to go into the same professions or vocations as young people from more advantaged backgrounds. Child poverty damages their lives and life chances, and it harms our country as a whole because we all miss out on their potential, their talents, their hopes and their dreams.

I am proud of the work we are doing in Leicester to try to tackle these problems. To give just one example, I chair the feeding Leicester programme, which is working to end food poverty in our city. During the recent summer holidays, we provided 32,000 free meals to around 2,200 individual children across the city, predominantly in the most deprived areas. That included fresh fruit, which went down a storm. There were also lots of activities, such as sports, arts and crafts.

Unlike in previous years, we did that without any funding from the Government. We pulled together £40,000 from the city council through crowdfunding with the national Feeding Britain charity and support from De Montfort University. We had incredible help from our amazing community groups, adventure playgrounds and volunteers, without whom the holiday food programme simply would not have been possible. I know that that programme is not within the Minister’s remit, but will he discuss with the Department for Education why we got no funding this year? In fact, the only place in the entire east midlands to get any Government funding was the county of Leicestershire. I am not saying that there are no poor children in Leicestershire, but the idea that the need is greater there than in Leicester, Derby or Nottingham is simply a farce. We have just heard some results from what happened in Leicestershire, and even though it got over £800,000 I am afraid that it delivered fewer free meals to fewer children than we did in Leicester. That cannot be repeated next year.

Tomorrow the organisations I work with in the feeding Leicester programme, and many others across the city, will come together to draw up a new anti-poverty strategy for people of all ages. We know we cannot tackle this problem on our own, and the Government must take action, but we are determined to do everything we possibly can.

One issue that will be raised is the serious risk that the already unacceptably high levels of poverty we face in Leicester will get even worse in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Government’s own assessment—Operation Yellowhammer—says:

“Low income groups will be disproportionately affected”

by a no-deal Brexit because of the risk of rising food and fuel prices. In other words, people who are already struggling to make ends meet will face an even bigger struggle if no deal leads to price rises. Operation Yellowhammer also says:

“Certain types of…food supply will decrease”

and that this

“will reduce availability and choice of products and will increase price, which could impact vulnerable groups.”

Food banks in Leicester have warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to substantial increases in demand for food because more people will be struggling to make ends meet and that that will happen at precisely the same time as the supply of food is reduced, because there will be less surplus food available from the supermarkets on which our food banks depend. And all of this could happen in the run-up to Christmas, which is the busiest time of year for food retailers anyway.

Leicester’s emergency food partnership is already getting through 16 tonnes of food a month—16 tonnes of food for people who desperately need it. Action Homeless estimates that we may need to find another 8 tonnes a month in the event of no deal, yet we have no funds whatsoever to pay for that.

The Government must act to prevent the existing child poverty crisis from getting even worse in the short term, and to take the action that we desperately need to reduce child poverty in the medium to long term. There are four things that they need to do. First, we need immediate action to support our food banks. I have already raised this issue in Parliament with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is in charge of no-deal preparations. He said to me that he had seen no evidence that no deal would increase pressure on food banks, but I am meeting him tomorrow, along with Action Homeless and FareShare East Midlands, to raise our concerns directly with him and to ask for specific funding in the event of no deal. I ask the Minister here today: will he raise this issue with the right hon. Gentleman, too?

Secondly, the Government must make urgent improvements to help those who are already struggling on benefits and who face an even greater nightmare if Brexit leads to rising prices for food and fuel. In particular, the Government should lift the freeze on working-age benefits, which is currently due to last until April 2020, and end the five-week wait for universal credit. Leicester was one of the later places in the country to have the roll-out of universal credit. Ministers insisted that the lessons had been learned, but I can tell them that the evidence from my own eyes, from my own constituents and from our food banks is that those lessons have not been learned, and that families simply do not have the money or the savings to afford that five-week wait. If they lose their jobs or reduce their hours, they have to go on and off universal credit.

Thirdly, the Government must do much more to tackle the endemic low pay and insecure jobs that dominate too many sectors of our economy. I know they have just pledged to increase the living wage to over £10.50 an hour in five years’ time, but my constituents cannot wait for five years, especially if there is a no-deal Brexit, to get a genuine living wage to make ends meet. So I ask the Minister this question: what more are the Government doing to tackle this issue?

Lastly, we need serious and sustained action to tackle the cost of living. In particular, we need a long-term strategy to tackle this country’s housing crisis, with a massive programme to build more social and affordable housing, and to reform the private rented sector, the cost of which—as I have already said—is one of the major factors driving child poverty in Leicester today.

I realise that some of these issues are beyond the Minister’s remit, but let me just say this to him: the Government are spending over £6 billion on preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Imagine the difference that £6 billion would make to the lives of the 12,000 children growing up in poverty in my constituency. Imagine how their lives and the future of our country could be transformed if this money was spent on giving them the best start in life, and not on a damaging no-deal Brexit that the Government do not even have a mandate for. This is not a matter of necessity; it is a matter of political choice.

It is a disgrace that the Government are even contemplating a no-deal Brexit, which could make the poorest people in our country even poorer. They must change course—and now.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for securing this debate, and for her very passionate and compelling speech on this issue. I am conscious of the fact that we probably do not have enough time in this short debate to cover this important subject in the detail that both she and I would like, but I will stress that my door is always open and she is very welcome to come and see me to discuss this matter or any other matter at any other time—and that offer extends to all other hon. Members across the House. In the somewhat limited time available, I will do my best to answer as many of the points that have been raised as possible.

Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this Government. I have been in this role for just over five months, and my key priorities have been tackling poverty and the support we can give to vulnerable groups. I am pleased that poverty in the east midlands, whether on an absolute or relative basis, or before or after housing costs, is lower for all individuals and children than in 2010. However, the hon. Lady knows me well enough to know that I consider one child in poverty to be one child too many. I will continue to work with hon. Members on both sides of the House to identify and tackle the root causes of poverty and with counterparts in other Government Departments to ensure that our efforts to tackle poverty, particularly child poverty, are joined up.

Our ambitious welfare reforms are driven by a firm conviction that the benefit system must work with the tax system and the labour market, so it supports people into employment and higher pay. That is the only way to deliver a sustainable long-term solution to poverty. It is also the best way to give everyone the chance to succeed and share in the benefits of a strong economy.

Tackling poverty and disadvantage is not, however, something that the Government can do alone. The hon. Lady is passionate about the issue and I welcome the innovative partnership approach taken by Feeding Leicester. I understand that she was disappointed that the bid of Leicester City Council and Feeding Leicester to be part of the holiday activities and food programme this summer was not successful.

I am sure that the hon. Lady appreciates that we had a huge amount of interest in being part of the programme but have only a limited amount of money. Barnardo’s, which works in the east midlands, put together a strong bid—the highest scoring in the region, and it covered Leicestershire county, as she pointed out. Although it did not specifically include the city of Leicester, it operated in some parts of her constituency.

We will continue to build our understanding of how free provision can be co-ordinated, which will provide valuable information about what support works for the sector. The hon. Lady’s contribution is noted, however, and I will make sure that her words are shared with my counterpart in the Department for Education. I praise the excellent partnership work taking place between the Leicester JobCentre Pluses and Leicester City Council in support of care leavers in particular, which ensures that they move smoothly on to universal credit and supports them into work, including through bespoke civil service internships, which are truly excellent.

I try to get out of the Department as much as I can. In the most recent recess, I spent four days travelling around the midlands and the north-east. I visited several organisations that work in close partnership with our JobCentre Pluses. I am absolutely clear that I want to encourage more co-location and collaboration between our jobcentres, their staff and those organisations. Such coalitions of local organisations, including charities, community groups, local authorities, social enterprises and others, show us what can be achieved when we all come together to take joint action to help to eliminate hunger and its root causes in our communities.

The Government believe that tackling poverty requires a collaborative approach that goes beyond providing a financial safety net through the Department for Work and Pensions and addresses the root causes of poverty and disadvantage to improve long-term outcomes for children and families. That is why we have taken wider cross-Government action to support and make a lasting difference to the lives of the most vulnerable—people whose ability to work is frustrated by issues such as a disrupted education or a history of offending, mental ill- health or drug and alcohol abuse—who often face complex employment barriers. It is also why our jobcentre work coaches work with external partners to offer individualised specialist support to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society to turn their lives around.

The Government, and certainly I, take the issue of child poverty extremely seriously. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. There are 730,000 more children in working households compared with 2010. Not only are those children less likely to grow up in poverty, but they have significantly better life chances. The data is clear that 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. Children growing up in a workless family are almost twice as likely as children in working families to fail at all stages of their education.

The hon. Member for Leicester West mentioned Brexit. I am conscious of the fact that she is passionate about the issue and has spoken about it many times. The Government have been clear that leaving the EU with a deal is absolutely their preferred option. However, as a responsible Government, we continue to plan for a range of exit scenarios, including a no-deal. As part of the process, we continue to monitor the effects of EU exit on the economy. Rates and benefits continue to be reviewed in line with the relevant legislation for uprating. The Government have rightly put in place contingency plans for a range of exit scenarios. These contingencies ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions can continue to provide our vital services, and that individuals will continue to be able to access DWP benefits and services on the same basis as they do now.

The hon. Lady raised a number of other points—housing, food banks and universal credit in particular. I will touch on all of those, but I have to talk about this Government’s employment record, which is vital to our success in helping people out of poverty. We are rightly proud of it. There are now over 3.7 million more people in work compared with 2010, and unemployment is at its lowest rate since the 1970s, having fallen by more than half since 2010.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of in-work poverty. It is important to point out that around three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. As the evidence shows, that substantially reduces the risk of poverty. Full-time work in particular dramatically reduces the risk of being in poverty. There is only a 7% chance of a child being in relative poverty if both parents are working full time, compared with 66% for two-parent families with only part-time work. The absolute poverty rate of a child where both parents work full time is only 4% compared with 44% where one or more parent is in part-time work.

The hon. Lady mentioned universal credit. Universal credit supports full-time work through smooth incentives to increase hours and a general expectation that lone parents and partners should work if not caring for young children or a disabled person. It also offers generous childcare subsidies. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also reported that universal credit is likely to help out of poverty an extra 300,000 members of working families, the majority of whom will include someone who works part time. Over three-quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work.

The hon. Lady also rightly mentioned support for working families. We have taken a range of broader steps to help families keep more of what they earn, including the delivery of another rise in the national living wage to £8.21, an increase in a full-time worker’s annual pay of over £2,750 since its introduction. This has delivered the fastest pay rise for the lowest earners in 20 years. The hon. Lady rightly referenced the recent speech made on September 30th 2019 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying that the minimum wage would rise to £10.50 within five years.

That is not all. Tax changes have made basic rate taxpayers over £1,200 better off since April, compared with 2010. The most recent changes mean that a single person on the national minimum wage is now—from April—taking home over £13,700 after income tax and national insurance. That is £4,500 more than in 2009-10.

Considering universal credit more broadly, as rightly raised by the hon. Lady, we know that there is more to do to support working people. But we have already gone much further than previous governments. In his statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out our ambition to “end low pay across the UK.” Universal credit is at the heart of our reforms. It works alongside other policies introduced by this Government to promote full-time employment as a way out of poverty towards financial independence. We know that universal credit is working. It is getting more people into work, and more people are staying in work. It supports those who need it while providing a springboard into work, with every extra hour worked being rewarded, and each claimant receiving tailor-made support from a work coach.

There are lots of areas that I did not manage to cover in detail, and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to do so. She touched on food banks. I will, of course, raise the issue referenced by her in her speech in relation to food banks and Brexit with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

I will speak with the Trussell Trust, as I do regularly, and other food bank providers, to hear their thoughts on the issue.

On the point that the hon. Lady raised about universal credit and the five-week wait, I stress that, on day one, people are able to get a full advance payment of up to 100% of their indicative award. That is repayable over 12 months, interest-free. That is an important point.

The hon. Lady touched on housing, which is probably one of the biggest issues that we face as a country. We have an issue with providing enough low-cost, affordable homes for social rent. I am working very closely with my counterparts at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that housing for social rent, and in particular affordable housing, is firmly on its agenda. The Government have a firm commitment to delivering on house building, but when we look at our housing benefit bill and the number of people who are waiting for social housing we must not forget the importance of ensuring that we build sufficient social housing. Changes have been made that support the further building of social housing, but, yes, we absolutely need to do more.

In conclusion, I reaffirm our view that our long-term approach is the right one if we are to deliver lasting change and tackle poverty in all its forms. This Government believe that work provides economic independence, pride in having a job, and improved wellbeing. We want to empower people to move into work by giving them the opportunities that they need to make the most of their life, and to improve the life chances of their children. It is that belief, based on clear evidence about the value of work, that will drive us as we continue to reform our welfare system, so that it better supports working people, while continuing to support those most in need.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.