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Merseyside MPs Debate Food Poverty

Today MPs from all over Merseyside took part in a debate secured by Stephen Twigg MP on food poverty in our area. You can read my full speech below setting out just how damaging this problem is for members of our community. 

You can read the full debate and all contributions here - Food Poverty in Merseyside

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I will begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing the debate. It is tremendously important that this issue, which is of long standing and is worsening, is highlighted as regularly as possible. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we repeatedly held Opposition day debates in the main Chamber on this matter. I remember those debates going back to 2012-13, yet the Government, as far as I am aware—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—are still not collecting statistics on the amount of food bank use and the reasons behind it.

I find it amazing and disgraceful that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world—although we are slipping down the league—do not care enough that many of their citizens have to feed their families by going and collecting food given to them to make them research why it is happening and what can be done about it. I must say that that does not seem to stop Ministers writing to those of us who raise these issues with them, asserting that the Government are not at fault, and that benefit delays and changes are not at fault; my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby read out an example. How Ministers can say that, when they do no research into what the reasons are, is utterly beyond me. I have been calling for the Government to research this for years, but so far as I am aware they have still not undertaken to do so.

I welcome the new Minister to his place; I predicted that he would respond to the debate, because it is always the newest Minister in the Department who draws the shortest straw and has to deal with these debates. I sympathise with him. In my experience, these debates are always a hot potato for the Government; they cannot decide which Department should answer, because nobody in government is responsible for food poverty. ​The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not want to do it, the Department for Work and Pensions does not want to do it and the Cabinet Office does not want to do it. The short straw used to be drawn by the Minister with responsibility for volunteering, but that post appears to have disappeared from Government. However, we have not yet had the updated list of ministerial responsibilities—a week after the reshuffle—so we do not know for certain that that is the case. It looks like, at least for the present, the new Minister has drawn the short straw and caught the hot potato and will have to deal with the matter.

He will have to deal with it, because those of us who represent constituents who have to go to food banks regularly in order to feed their families will never stop raising the issue with the Government until something is done to alleviate the problem. It is not good enough for the Minister to say—I hope he will not do so today —that it is just one of those things, that it is nothing to do with the Government and that they have reduced the number of benefit delays. The fact is that the biggest reasons by far for people resorting to food banks, certainly on Merseyside, are still changes in their benefits, sanctions on their benefits and so on.

The other big reasons why people go to food banks, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referenced, are that, even though they are in work, their income is not regular enough, they do not have guaranteed hours or they are on zero-hours contracts. They do not know when the next pay cheque is coming and they have fixed costs, such as rent and other bills, which means that there are times when they simply cannot afford to feed their family.

If the Minister has anything in his speech about the best way out of poverty being work, I suggest to him right now that he crosses it out. I see him getting his pen out now; that phrase will be in his speech a lot. It is not the case in Liverpool that the best way out of poverty is work, because many people who work hard still cannot afford to feed their family. If that is the Government’s only response, they are simply complacent. In fact, if the Minister commissioned research about why people use food banks, he might actually have some real evidence that that is the case, instead of the anecdotal evidence that we get at our constituency surgeries.

The South Liverpool food bank in my constituency has seen ongoing increases in people asking for help over the years. Not only was there a 10% increase between 2015 and 2016 but last year it went up again. In 2015-16, 3,890 people in the Liverpool end of my constituency accessed a food bank. The figure last year went up to 4,076, more than 1,700 of whom—almost half—were children. In 2005-06, 2,894 accessed a food bank across the entire country, but there are now more than 4,000 just in my constituency, so when I say it is a disgrace that the Government do not collect statistics and research why this is happening, I mean it. It is a problem that they appear not to care about, because they do not seem to be finding out why it is happening and coming up with a policy for dealing with it. When we talk about our constituents going hungry or children not being able to concentrate at school and losing weight over the summer because there are no school meals, it is simply not good enough that that is our Government’s attitude.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that, even though the Government do not do any research, the Trussell Trust and those people who actually provide food and collect food for food banks do. Their research proves conclusively that benefit delays, changes to benefits and low pay are the main reasons why people resort to food banks. Will she acknowledge that, as universal credit comes to my constituency and is introduced into the Wirral, my local food bank has said it will have to collect an extra 15 tonnes of food to deal with the 30% increase in food bank use that its research suggests accompanies the introduction of full universal credit in any area?

I agree with my hon. Friend on the impact of the roll-out of universal credit. One reason why I say that this crisis, which is already worsening and has been over the past few years, is actually set to get even worse is that we have not yet had the full service roll-out of universal credit in Garston and Halewood and across much of Liverpool. It will be rolled out at some time during this year, although it has been delayed again.

The Trussell Trust says that it has noticed a 17% increase in food bank usage across all its food banks where universal credit is rolled out, against an average—where the roll-out is not a factor—of 6.5%. That is a significantly increased extra risk where we have universal credit roll-out, and that is about to happen in Liverpool and across Merseyside this year. We expect, as local Members of Parliament, a big increase in this kind of problem coming to us and our advice surgeries.

The Liverpool Echo’s Share Your Lunch campaign has, over the last 18 months, raised more than £73,000 and fed more than 36,000 people across the city region with fresh and nutritious meals. It has done a tremendous job within the very fine tradition of self-help that we have in Liverpool and on Merseyside. However, that initiative is now over. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referenced Can Cook, which is also based in my constituency, although it works across the city region.

Although Can Cook is moving on to try to do more good work, the fact that, over the last year or so, its initiative has fed many local children who do not get their free school meals during Christmas and the school holidays shows definitively the importance of the initiative my hon. Friend referred to, of passporting free school meals and making free school meals available in school holidays. For many children in my constituency, it is the only good meal they are guaranteed in a day. During the summer vacation, many young people in adventure playgrounds, such as the Garston “venny” in my constituency, were kept fed with fresh and nutritious food from Can Cook and Share Your Lunch.

My hon. Friend also referred to Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an organic campaign that has grown up among football supporters, of which there are many in Liverpool. Home matches are used as an opportunity to collect food for food banks, such as the North Liverpool food bank, which is of course based around the two football grounds in Liverpool. Again, they are in the finest Liverpool tradition of self-help and of making a difference to the lives of neighbours. Unfortunately, it reminds me too much of what was happening in the early part of the 20th century in Liverpool—of the Clarion soup vans, of the initiatives organised by the early labour and socialist movement and of Bessie Braddock and her mother, Mary Bamber, who used to go around cooking food for unemployed people, who were in a desperate state at that time. We should not be going back to that.

The Minister has to make sure that his Government try to stop this happening and do not simply ignore the problem, refuse to collect statistics on it, blame the victims for what is going on and insinuate that because food is free, of course people go and access it. We have a large and growing crisis of food poverty in our city and in this country. It is my contention that the Government are doing nothing to tackle it. They will not collect statistics on why it is happening, and things are set to get worse this year, with the roll-out of universal credit.

It is not enough for our Prime Minister to stand on the steps of Downing Street and assert that she is going to do something for people who are struggling or just about managing, and then do absolutely nothing to help people who cannot feed themselves or their families, not through any fault of their own but because this Government have removed support for them via the local authority and the benefits system. The Government are not trying to make sure that work pays and that if one works for a living, there is enough in the wage packet to feed a family. That is where this Government are falling down. It is a disgrace, and I wait to hear from the Minister that he at least is going to do something to tackle it.

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