Work coaches in Manchester have been working with a food bank since October last year, and feedback shows that this service helps to signpost support for people to move into work and navigate the welfare system. I am particularly keen for all jobcentres to explore how they work with local initiatives in their communities.
My local food bank, the West Cheshire Foodbank, has seen a 6% increase in usage in the past 12 months, including a disgraceful 13% more children coming to use the food bank over that period. Why has there been such an increase? Is that due to welfare benefit cuts, or does the Minister believe there is another explanation?
I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in his constituency, but the Trussell Trust recently found that there has been no overall increase in the use of food banks over the past 12 months. Indeed, the average price of food has fallen by 2.5% over the past 12 months, and average wages have gone up. We continue to spend more than £80 billion on working-age benefits to support those in need.
When I visited my food bank in Rugby I saw advisers who were meeting people’s individual needs and making a big effort to understand the circumstances of the people there, and to provide help, support and some direction. Is it not entirely right that that should happen?
My hon. Friend is right. I have been a trustee of a food bank, and I know a bit about how they work on the ground. Effective food banks are those that partner other organisations, such as Citizens Advice and Christians Against Poverty, to provide debt advice and other support to help tackle the underlying causes of why somebody might be at a point of crisis and dependency and need to use a food bank.
The Government take this issue very seriously, and one thing I am proud of is that we are spending more than £80 billion on working-age benefits, which is the mark of a decent, compassionate society. At the same time, we are working hard to improve the benefit system, precisely to help those who are most disadvantaged and at the greatest distance from the labour market, to give them a much better chance of leading fulfilling lives.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to Department for Work and Pensions questions for, I believe, the first time. I am sure he will make a huge impact. He certainly did when I worked with him—[Interruption.] I do not know what Labour Members are shouting about. Does the Secretary of State recall that when the Labour Government were in power, the existence of food banks was more or less covered up? Since the coalition Government, and now this Administration, came into office, we have advertised and helped food banks to exist and to help those most in need.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am not interested in playing politics. I am encouraging more than 700 jobcentres around the UK to explore fully how they work in partnership with local community initiatives, so that the third sector, working with work coaches, can provide the best possible support and advice to those who need it.
When the Trussell Trust published the figures last month showing record food bank demand over the past year, it stated:
“In some areas foodbanks report increased referrals due to delays and arrears in Universal Credit payments.”
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the introduction of universal credit does not drive food bank demand even higher?
That is one reason why we are using such a careful and controlled timetable for rolling out universal credit. I am much more interested in it being rolled out safely and in a secure way, so as to avoid the kinds of problems that we had under the previous Labour Government, when tax credits were blasted out and huge numbers of people received overpayments and were required to pay back thousands of pounds.
What is the average length of time that a benefit recipient makes use of a food bank? Are we asking individuals who have successfully moved away from food banks what advice they would like to have received when they attended them?
My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion, and peer support and advice is one of the most effective things that can be provided for those who are making that transition from worklessness into work. Using some of the experiences and insights of people who have had to rely on food banks is important.