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Economy and Jobs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 7:24 pm, 20th January 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this vital debate. Over the last 10 years, under the Tory Government, pay has stagnated, while poverty and insecurity have disturbingly risen. Under the Conservatives, we have seen the emergence of the “left behind”—those people whose lives are defined by a constant state of uncertainty and unease. For those families, work no longer guarantees a route out of hardship. Nine million households where at least one adult works now live in poverty. Such families are often only a handful of pay cheques away from destitution, hunger and despair. These families cannot plan for the future, and many have lost all hope. The fact that this injustice exists in the sixth richest economy in the world is a stain on this Government. We must do better than this.

Last Friday I visited St Mellitus church, which operates a food bank in my constituency, and I was shocked and distressed by what I saw. Recent research by the Trussell Trust has shown that food bank use has increased from 61,000 distributed parcels in 2011 to a record 1.6 million parcels last year. Last year’s figure represents a staggering 20% increase on the previous year. Even more shocking is the fact that a third of last year’s parcels went towards feeding young children. At my local food bank, I spoke to a volunteer who told me an all-too-familiar story. She said that the vast majority of service users at St Mellitus do not wish to use it but are forced to do so by a combination of low pay, food insecurity and bad luck. People are struggling due to the simple reason that they cannot afford to buy food. Many suffer from severe stress and anxiety from their situation and feel embarrassed as parents. The volunteer I spoke to said that parents who access food parcels often skip meals to ensure that their children have more to eat. Some can go several days without eating properly. In London alone, 400,000 children are food-insecure, which affects their educational, physical and social development. What kind of Government would not want all children in society to fulfil their potential?

My local food bank at St Mellitus church—with support from other churches, gurdwaras and mandirs in my constituency—does superb work under huge financial constraints, but surely our Government should accept their responsibility and end this scourge. One key reason for the increase in food bank use in recent years is the introduction of universal credit. The five-week wait to receive the first payment is pushing many into debt, food bank use and the hands of those willing to exploit the vulnerable. The Government must scrap the five-week wait, which is distressing for so many families.

While the Government have pledged to increase the minimum wage, they must go further and meet the living wage of £10.75 in my constituency. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that secure and fair incomes for employees result in increased workforce motivation and reduced staff turnover and sickness. A living wage will not only tackle the injustice of food insecurity, but address our economy’s productivity crisis.

Finally, we must provide greater investment for on-the-job training and strengthen labour laws to protect people from exploitation and zero-hour contracts. We must also champion the creation of highly skilled and well-paid jobs for the next generation of young people, such as the commitment to create 10,000 apprenticeships at Heathrow airport. The Prime Minister may be too frightened to make up his mind on Heathrow airport, but he must show some real leadership to end the tragedy of in-work poverty and deprivation in our society.