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Baby Banks: Government Support

Volume 724: debated on Friday 9 December 2022

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

Children are expensive and wasteful. The amount of stuff they go through and the cost to a parent’s pocket is horrific. In this country, it should be our collective mission to put food banks out of business, because nobody should go hungry in a modern, dignified democracy. But would we have the same ambition for baby banks? What, Madam Speaker, do I mean by baby banks? I promise you that this is not about a very strange form of deposit, or loan or even withdrawal. This is about how we change the stigma that somehow says that sustainability is a middle class indulgence, because in the time of a cost of living crisis, we cannot afford to do anything but for our parents’ pockets and for our planet.

To date, those efforts about being green have focused on things such as jobs and wind farms, but now it is time to focus on the role of give and take. I would venture that everybody in this Chamber—those who are left—probably remembers that from being a child. I was the youngest of a number of cousins. During the 1980s, I did not want for leg warmers, because I had multiple pairs of those donated to me. The truth is that for parents facing those costs of children, sharing is absolutely integral.

Research from the Child Poverty Action Group shows that it costs around £160,000 to raise a child. For single parents, it is £190,000. Every penny matters. But it is not just about the costs; it is about the cost of carbon and the waste that it means when a parent has to buy new things for every individual child. Parents are facing a cost of living crisis as never before. Since 2020, the costs facing new parents have risen by a third, as the cost of living and inflation have pushed up the price of essential goods such as nappies. Indeed, over the last two years, the price of a pack of nappies has risen by a shocking 75%, meaning that, for most families with a new baby, the spend on nappies alone has gone up by £41 a month. The prices of other consumable goods have also gone up, with baby formula costing an extra £12 a month, and baby wipes up 16%.

It is not just about those everyday costs when someone has a new baby; it is also about the one-off, massive purchases. Car seats and pushchairs cost 38% and 25% more respectively than they did in 2020. Yet, during the same period, statutory maternity pay has risen by only 3.6%.

The hon. Lady is making a good case. I wonder whether safety is a big aspect where children are concerned. If parents cannot afford to buy new all the time, the children’s safety might be compromised. That is where food banks, by providing safe alternatives, could be helpful.

It is precisely this issue about how parents make sure they look after their child, which is what every parent wants to do well. That is why baby banks need to become the norm; I want to put food banks out of business, but I want baby banks to become the norm.

One of the issues for us in the This Mum Votes campaign is that we need to understand the pressures on families across the country and to join up Government action. Baby banks provide a solution by giving parents the opportunity to swap and reuse equipment, toys and clothes, as well as access to vital support networks. They are a response to two challenges at the same time: the deepening poverty we see in our communities and the need to care for our environment through the greater reuse of items. There are currently around 200 baby banks in this country. They are often run by women—by volunteers—who have recognised the need to join up the dots to help everybody share. That is as much about bringing those new parents together as it is about the practicalities and the costs that families face.

Half of the 4.2 million children living in poverty in this country live in a family with a child under the age of five. Younger children, in particular, who go through so much stuff and need so much stuff so quickly, are expensive. That is why having the This Mum Votes perspective and understanding should be part of our policymaking. Some 1.3 million of those 4.2 million children are babies and children under the age of five. The total number of children in poverty is predicted to rise in the next year alone to 5.2 million—that is an additional 1 million children, many of whom will be of that younger generation.

We know that investing in the early years reaps a reward, but we do not always invest in helping parents with those early years. That is why fantastic organisations such as Little Village, which supports families with children under five living in poverty across London, are such a godsend, and why I am calling on the Government to make sure that every community has a baby bank—somewhere that collects and distributes pre-loved clothes and equipment. As Little Village’s amazing chief executive, Sophie Livingstone, points out, it fixes the systems that trap families in poverty.

Since launching in 2016, Little Village has supported over 25,000 children. Last year alone, it supported over 6,000 children, including 1,000 new-born babies. It takes referrals from across our statutory sector, because anyone working with young families knows about baby banks. In my community, we have a brilliant baby bank run by the Lloyd Park children’s centre, and I make referrals to it, as do midwives, social workers and health visitors. Baby banks aid the work of our statutory sector.

Baby banks also help at that immediate crisis point. We have maternity wards saying that they have mums without anything and that they will not let them leave the hospital. It is the baby banks that step in to help, providing vital goods for those newborns, whether it is the nappies, wipes, creams, clothes, blankets or hats that people will not be allowed to leave the hospital without.

Baby banks are also often a vital link for parents who are sceptical about the statutory sector. These are organisations that those parents can trust and that definitely have their child’s best interests at heart. They can also be a bridge to further services.

This week, we have seen the worrying reports from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service of families who are watering down their baby formula to save money. Little Village’s work shows similar horror stories about what is happening right now in this country: a family that was using sanitary towels as nappies because they did not have the money to buy nappies; a mum of three who could not afford to heat her home was coming to the baby bank with her child to keep warm; a child with grade 3 pressure sores due to the extreme rationing of nappies; a parent who was reusing nappies that had already been soiled in order to save money; and a family rationing Calpol in order to get through the day.

Despite the amazing work that baby banks do in this country to try to tackle these problems, not every local authority welcomes them. Some refuse to provide access to community spaces that are vacant because they do not want to admit that that kind of poverty exists in their local community. Space is crucial. Any parent knows that new children take up a lot of space, so just imagine a baby bank having to find space for multiple buggies, cots, baby baths and jumperoos. Having local authority support with space is crucial, as is taking into account the costs of running these places, including the costs of energy and of buying things such as nappies to hand out.

Ministers and people listening may think that this is a debate about poverty, but it is not just about that; it is also about the planet, because an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill every year. Even if we ended poverty in this country tomorrow, we would still want baby banks to exist, in order to tackle that problem at the same time and to promote the reuse, repair and sharing of items. Little Village gifted 26 tonnes of clothing, 26 tonnes of furniture, 3.5 tonnes of small electricals, 2 tonnes of books and more than 1 tonne of small plastics last year alone, and that is just one baby bank. That saved 85 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions , which is the equivalent of taking 18 cars off the road. More than 8.5 million new toys are thrown away—they head to landfill or incinerators—in the UK every year. There is a mountain of clothes, toys, plastic and tat that every family acquires and then no longer needs because their child has grown out of it and is then abandoned on an almost weekly basis. These things also represent a cost that a lot of families feel they have no choice but to incur.

We saw that most clearly in Walthamstow with our amazing “swap shop” project. I wish to pay testament to it, because it shows a model of a way forward. We have been running swap shops in our local community, where parents bring items they no longer need and take the items they do need; we have helped thousands of parents since we started doing this in August, enabling them not only to take items out of our landfill and our incinerators, but to manage the costs that they face. I wish to say thank you to my local Salvation Army; The Mill community centre; Waltham Forest Council; our amazing Walthamstow toy library; all the volunteers; the 17&Central shopping centre, which hosted us so that parents could find us easily; and, in particular, the members of my team, Safa, Jess and Ashley, who helped to run that project, which meant that during the weeks it was open nothing that came into our centre went to a landfill or an incinerator.

Failing to reduce waste and deal with climate changes often hits the poorest in our communities, as we have seen with those who have been repeatedly flooded out of their houses or from the evidence that shows that incinerators are three times more likely to be sited in areas of deprivation than affluent regions. Yet asking the public to look ahead to that green future and to be more climate conscious is impossible to do when they do not know where the next meal is going to come from for their families or they are thinking that they cannot afford to put their baby in warm clothing that evening.

If Ministers will not listen to me about why we should make sure that every community has access to baby banks, please listen to the Princess of Wales, because she has been championing them. She has visited Little Village and she is bringing together 19 British brands to donate to these baby banks so that they have items to hand out. The Minister may be wondering and saying, “This is all very well, but what does this MP want the Government to do?” There are some simple things they could do. First and foremost, we should invest in baby banks as a way of saving money, because this country is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds every years on sending things to landfill and to incinerators. Baby banks are not recognised in this country in the way that food banks are. That is what we have to change, because this is as much about the donations and the networks that come from that, as it is about the people who need their support. The Trussell Trust does amazing work for food banks; it is an almost £60 million a year organisation. We need to invest in baby banks in every community as a way of matching that, so that it becomes the norm to reuse, repair and support your local community and other local parents in the same way.

Little Village, the Baby Bank Network in Bristol, Save The Children and the Ark are working together to create a new national baby bank network. I ask the Minister to put on record the Government’s support for that process, along with a commitment to do what they can to roll it out as quickly as possible. It is not enough for these organisations to be scrabbling around for funds with which to do the work they are doing; we should be investing in them. There are some minor things we could do to raise the money, because we are not talking about hundreds of millions of pounds, and we are not talking about a state-run initiative. The brilliant volunteers do not need us to do it for them; they need us to work with them.

If we were to make a small increase—0.2%—in the stamp duty paid on second homes to provide for our nought to two-year-olds, we could raise £880 million a year. We could invest all that and have a baby bank overnight. I know that that may not be something to which the Minister would want to commit herself, so let us look at something a bit simpler. The landfill tax is currently set at £96.70 a tonne, and is raising £660 million this year. Even an increase of a mere £4 would raise £687 million, creating an additional £27 million that could be put towards funding baby banks and could help to remove items from landfill and incinerators altogether.

There are other things that local authorities could do with the Government’s help. For many parents, it is the size of the item that they want to donate that creates the risk of their not donating it. Those who are dealing with fly-tipping are often taking out goods that could be reused for children. We could also advertise those services. The point is that this is a win-win for all of us. Kids may be expensive and wasteful, but they are going to inherit this earth, and right now millions of them in this country are living in poverty. Baby banks are not the only solution, but they are absolutely the one investment, the one deposit, that the Government could make that would give a better future to millions of us overnight.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing it.

This is a time of—understandably—great public concern about the cost of living. I personally was so grateful, as a new mum, for the advice that I received, along with the bargains, hand-me-downs, products, ideas and insights on what really matters in that bewildering time. Who knew that you needed a Bumbo seat? I never thought I would use that term here in the House of Commons, but it is an infant seat to help babies to sit up when they are taking their first solid food, especially during baby-led weaning.

My mum’s Poundland box, of which she was incredibly proud, was an absolute marvel. We still have it, with all of the paraphernalia inside. The hand-me-downs mentioned by the hon. Lady, such as smocked dresses, came my way. I was very proud when I arrived home last night to find my oldest doing a shoes and clothes clear-out to help others, mindful of both need and the environment. There is currently a coat exchange to help people in my town of Haywards Heath. There is huge pressure on new parents to have new things and buy new things, and to make sure everything is perfect, but we know that our lovely little terrors get their sticky mitts on everything and draw on everything, and they do not really care. Sharing advice, products and information about what really works makes a big difference.

As Minister responsible for social mobility, youth and progression, I fully understand the hon. Lady’s point about “invest to save”. It is my mission in Government. I also note the points that she made about the landfill tax, fly-tipping and other matters. I will keep this debate in mind when we come to the next stage of the design of the household support fund, and will think about how we can reach parents and understand the pressures they experience.

Let me reassure the hon. Lady and the House that the Government are committed to providing key support for families with new babies and very young children through targeted support and more general schemes, and by expanding both employment and skills opportunities for parents. Many mums, as we have heard, use the opportunity to grow their thinking and turn things they have learned into future businesses—never more so than in the mum arena.

The support schemes available include the Sure Start maternity grant, the NHS’s healthy start scheme, family hubs, our childcare offer for recipients of universal credit, cost of living payments, the household support fund and the wider universal credit payment system, which got a significant uprating from April 2023. However, I take the hon. Lady’s point and, as a former charities Minister, I always admire the great work people take on for causes that matter to them, nationally, internationally and locally.

Baby banks are independent charitable organisations that help local communities to come together to support people nearby and are another example of the generosity of spirit in our great country. They are very welcome as a support network, as the hon. Lady mentioned, and as a showcase of community kindness. They are also environmentally friendly and positive. In researching for this debate, I found it eye-opening to see just how many brilliant organisations and individuals are aiding mums in that time of need.

On that point about environmental damage, one of the things the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) mentioned was the impact on the environment when she spoke so movingly about mothers reusing nappies. I find myself, in this recycling age, doing things my mother did, such as having glass milk bottles and paper bags in shops. Would there be a way of encouraging the comeback of reusable nappies such as those we used to have when I was a child? I remember, although it was a while ago now, just how expensive and what a drain on someone’s income the constant buying of nappies can be.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Speaking to many mums and grandmums, having baby in the garden in the pram and pegging out the reusable nappies—those lovely white nappies—is a moment of pride: “I’m getting this right and it’s going well.” It is extortionately challenging to try to balance the environmental problem with nappies and also reusing; I know many mums who have managed to do that successfully; I must admit, to my shame, that that was not me, but I was very admiring of anyone who did manage it. We need to make those schemes more acceptable and understandable. Some people think they are strange and that the only option is disposable.

I hope the Minister will agree perhaps to meet me and representatives of Little Village and my own local baby bank to discuss this point. Many of our environmental organisations, particularly within local government, have schemes to encourage reusable nappies and recycling. However, that does not join up with a recognition of how that can help to tackle poverty, and it is baby banks that are doing that joining up. I am pleading for Government to do that joining up as well, so that is not just brilliant volunteers at a local level saying, “Actually, there is a scheme for reusable nappies from our local environmental charity”, but Government helping to make that network happen. If she meets the organisations I mentioned, she will find people who would be fantastic advocates to take to other Government Departments on these issues, for example.

The hon. Lady makes in important point: the cost of living, nappies and the environment, Healthy Start and ensuring that those most in need know where to turn and are not overlooked are all cross-Government issues. I will take her point away across Government to look at the right way to take forward what she is asking for. I hope that is helpful to her.

I want to mention the work that many people do knitting hats and supporting newborns. One of the biggest things I learned as a new mum is how much warmth newborns need. People in this space add so much that, whether through knitting, advice, or creating baby banks. I was certainly quite surprised to see just how much the sector has grown. I understand the hon. Lady’s passion for and interest in this particular area, and this debate has certainly sparked my interest, so I thank her very much for bringing it to the House.

The Sure Start maternity grant provides £500 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for costs associated with the expenses of caring for a baby—as we have heard, becoming a parent is a very expensive business—if there are no other children under the age of 16 in the claimant’s family. The Sure Start maternity grant was devolved to Scotland in December 2018, and the Scottish Government have established alternative support through the Best Start scheme.

The NHS Healthy Start scheme also provides £4.25 a week to eligible low-income families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, with recipients also eligible for free Healthy Start vitamins to help them to boost their children’s long-term health.

To give families holistic support, family hubs are bringing together services for children of all ages. I am particularly interested in how that links into the start for life offer, which is at the core of those. The Government are investing more than £300 million jointly with the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to transform our start for life services from conception to age two. That includes boosting family support services in 75 local authorities in England.

The Government are providing a network of family hubs. I note that that is not the same thing that the hon. Lady talked about, but that is how we assist positive parent and infant relationships, support perinatal mental health and infant feeding, and boost and help people with their parenting skills. In addition, the DFE will ask all those 75 local areas to publish their start for life offer and will provide funding on innovative trials of workforce models for a smaller number of authorities. I wonder whether that is a way to link in some of what has been discussed today.

I reiterate that the Government’s universal credit childcare offer aims to make it easier for low-income families to choose to work, stay in work and progress in work, so that after the baby comes, parents can move to a point where they can be more financially resilient. I remind people that eligible UC claimants can claim back 85% of their registered childcare costs each month, regardless of the number of hours that they work, compared with 70% in tax credits.

Additionally, those who need extra financial support with their first set of childcare costs or when moving into work or taking on additional hours can apply for further help from the flexible support fund. That discretionary, non-repayable payment will pay their initial childcare costs directly to the provider. Help is available for eligible universal credit claimants through budgeting advances.

I say to anybody struggling, listening, or helping and advising in the sector, “Please look at the benefits calculator on and at the cost of living website. Please make sure that you are claiming everything that you are entitled to, because there may be further help out there that you are not aware of. There is also the Help for Households campaign. We are helping with £37 billion of support for cost of living pressures between 2022 and 2023, and an extra £26 billion was announced for that purpose in the autumn statement, so please make sure that you reach out. For households on eligible means-tested benefits, up to £900 in cost of living payments is available for people to take up.”

The Minister is setting out the help that the Government believe there is for those on low incomes. Baby banks are a big boost for tackling poverty, but there is an environmentally sustainable element. We want to encourage everybody, whether they are wealthy or not, to donate, because families do not need a cot or a pushchair for that long. They will be perfectly serviceable for someone else to use. One of the benefits of baby banks is that they ensure that the quality of the items is such that people will want to reuse them. That revolution in thinking is not one for those on the lowest incomes alone but for everyone if we are to save the planet as well as saving parents cash.

I absolutely agree. This is not revolutionary thinking but old-fashioned sensible thinking that is suitable for our environment and our families. An issue that parents often worry about is quality, and sharing and responsibility when it comes to reusing items. I take the hon. Lady’s point about safety. We have seen that particular charities are willing to take some products but not others. That means that, as she pointed out, sometimes very large, useful products are the things that you see stuck on the side of the road, creating fly-tipping problems. But they could be incredibly useful for young families if they can be accredited.

I want to reassure the House that the Government are taking action to support families on low incomes. We will continue to remain vigilant about what people need in these challenging times, particularly those who are most vulnerable, or indeed those who are on the just-about-managing list—a lot of people who have come into focus due to the impact of the covid pandemic. I urge those people to reach out and know that there is help for them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her work and for securing this debate on the value of baby banks. I remind people of the Sure Start maternity grant, Healthy Start, family hubs, the childcare offer, cost of living payments, the household support fund and our benefit uprating. We will tackle the root cause of poverty, but it is right that, where communities can, they do everything they can to help families in need.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.