It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate; I welcome the Opposition’s bringing it to the House. As I have only five minutes, I will focus on food security. That should come as no surprise to Members on either side of the House, because as the Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire I represent many, many farmers producing first-class produce and contributing to UK food security.
I welcome what Opposition Members have said about companies buying agricultural land for carbon offsetting and about the need to balance tree planting in this country with agriculture. When the food strategy report is published—I welcome the Minister’s confirmation that that will be in weeks rather than months—I ask that we also look at the impact of the devolved Administrations’ policy on UK food security. It is often easy to leave looking at food security to the four nations of the United Kingdom, but we are one great country, so I ask that the UK Government look at the impact.
Although it is laudable that we have a policy to plant 86 million trees in Wales by 2030, I am incredibly concerned that we should work with the local custodians, the farming unions and the people who know which fields would be absolutely horrific to lose from the perspective of our food security. Owing to the targets, there is tremendous pressure to plant trees apace. We all welcome the reforesting of areas of Wales and some of the rewilding projects, but it has to be done with local knowledge and led by the farmers on the many small family farms and larger farms in my community who have generations of knowledge about where it would be a good idea to take forward the Welsh Government’s programmes and plant trees.
Since the Agriculture Act 1947, we have steadily increased our food sustainability under Governments of both colours, although luckily not the colour of the Scottish National party. Some 60% of the food we now consume is produced in the UK, which is great. Welsh lamb is of huge importance, especially in Montgomeryshire. Welshpool livestock market is the largest lamb market in western Europe; I usually frequent it on a Monday to look at the state of the market and the pricing. Lamb is one of the most sustainable meats in the world, so we need to look after the sector.
I want to touch on the international footprint and the London firms coming in, because there is a huge problem with the divergence of policies. Devolution is a wonderful thing. I call it localism, or getting decisions made as locally as possible—I would love to see more power going from Cardiff to mid-Wales, but that is a different debate. However, I want to see the UK Government and the Welsh Government working together to make sure that Welsh agricultural land is not left vulnerable to carbon offsetting by a divergence in policy. I would very much welcome collaboration between UK Government Ministers and Welsh Government Ministers.
This is not an overtly partly political issue. We all want to protect our agricultural land and make sure that decisions are made with the local custodians of that land, but I fear that through party political skulduggery, farmers will be let down. It is always hard to get a UK Conservative Government Minister and a Welsh Government Minister in a room, even harder to get them to agree, and harder still to get them to make a public statement when they do agree. On behalf of my farmers, I would very much welcome the Minister looking at the devolved Administrations’ impact on UK food security and working with Welsh Government Ministers to protect areas of Montgomeryshire, make sure we have the most sustainable farming in the world and get local miles down as far as possible.
Having been born and bred in my Swansea East constituency, and having lived there all my life, I have always been aware of how vulnerable people are to food poverty, but a call from a local food bank during the first week of the summer holiday in 2016 really brought it home to me. The food bank needed me to put out an urgent appeal for donations, as its shelves were running empty. Without the free school meals that keep children fed during term time, demand for the food bank had rocketed. That summer, my team made sandwiches to deliver to free activities around the constituency, which is how my first summer lunch club was born and how I became the sandwich lady.
Each summer since, it has evolved and grown. During the lockdown in 2020, we adapted to feed those who were struggling, isolating or vulnerable. Every Christmas we run our “Everyone deserves a Christmas” project, delivering hampers, hot dinners and festive treats to those who otherwise go without. We reached more than 2,000 households across Swansea last Christmas, and even that was probably not enough.
Like in many towns and cities across the country, financial hardship has hit homes across Swansea. The pandemic certainly has not helped, but it would be naive to blame everything on that. My constituents have had to tighten their belts even more these past couple of years, but I assure the House that those belts were already buckled tightly.
This week’s newspaper headlines tell us: “Rising cost of living leaves 4.7 million Britons struggling to feed themselves,” “‘Deluge’ of families facing homelessness” and “Fears people will freeze to death at home as energy bills rocket.” Some would say these headlines create moral panics and do not reflect what is really happening in our country. They might explain them as media propaganda or fake news, but I promise it is the reality in Swansea East.
Alongside the big headlines, I see the real-life experience of families who are unable to escape food poverty as the cost of living soars and incomes come down. I hear the panic in people’s voices when they talk about their energy bills in the coming months, even people who, up until now, have managed to pay their bills and put food on the table.
I had a message on the evening of the hamper delivery last Christmas that brought home to me what some people are facing:
“Passing on thanks from a family who have just received a hamper. Thank you for making their Christmas this year—not just dinner but their entire Christmas. They usually rely on food banks and…whilst they are extremely grateful to the food banks…they said it felt amazing to…not feel like it’s charity stuff”— tins with black marks—
“they felt overwhelmed at being able to give their children a proper Christmas dinner, without tinned potatoes. Their 2-year-old had never tasted a fresh potato, let alone Brussels and parsnips. One cake is already open, and they are enjoying the sugar rush.”
I defy anyone not to be moved by that text.
My constituents are facing a 54% rise in domestic fuel bills and huge increases in the cost of groceries and road fuel. At the same time, they are paying, on average, £155 extra in national insurance contributions. This is not just Swansea East’s problem; it is everybody’s problem. Somebody needs to step in.
We should not have two-year-olds who have never tasted fresh vegetables. We should not have children arriving at school hungry. We should not have pensioners who are too scared to put on the heating in the winter. And we certainly should not have a Government who react to all these things by taking from those who can least afford it and pushing more and more families into poverty.
This Easter, this summer and this Christmas, my continuing “Everyone deserves…” campaign will reach many more families. Nobody deserves financial uncertainty, fuel poverty and, worst of all, food insecurity.
Once again, I and other Conservative Members are having to rise to oppose a motion from a party that is playing the blame game rather than offering solutions to support families, and overlooking what is really happening.
Over a year ago, the Government promised the British people that we would do whatever it takes to provide security and stability during the pandemic and in getting over it. That is exactly what we are doing, and we are delivering. I am acutely aware of the challenges that my constituents currently face with the cost of living and rising food and energy bills. This is an international issue that countries everywhere are facing.
I am surprised that the Opposition decry the Government for presiding over “falling wages” and a “lack of job opportunities.” Was it not this Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage in 2016? Was it not this Conservative Government who raised the national living wage to £9.50 this year? Stourbridge has seen a 28% drop in the adult claimant rate and a 40% drop in the youth claimant rate since last March.
I am surprised that the motion laments the Government’s supposed “tax hikes”. The Government will continue to be the Government of low taxes. [Laughter.] Don’t take my word for it—just look at our record over the past decade: an effective £1,000 tax cut to 2 million low-income people on universal credit; a council tax rebate for over 86% of households in the west midlands; fuel duty frozen for the past 10 years. The facts are there. The Opposition stood on a manifesto that the Institute for Fiscal Studies said would create the biggest tax burden since world war two, so I will not take any lectures or noises from them on taxation.
It is disappointing that the motion regrets the Government’s
“failure to tackle the energy crisis”.
That is another example of political point scoring. Labour’s short-term sticking plasters are superficial solutions that will do nothing to help families facing rising energy bills in the long term. We need to be honest with people. A VAT cut on energy bills will not be effective—it would disproportionately benefit wealthier households. A windfall tax on oil and gas firms will not cut energy bills—it will merely be passed on to consumers down the line.
I am pleased that this Government are being honest with people by proposing practical policies to support families with rising energy prices. All households will receive a £200 rebate on their energy bills this year. Eight million pensioners benefit from the £2 billion winter fuel payment scheme. Those are facts. More than 2 million low-income households receive a £140 rebate on energy bills as part of the warm home discount, and 4 million vulnerable households receive cold weather payments. Those are real solutions that will provide real support to those who most need it.
Let us not forget launching the £500 million household support fund to support low- income households with the cost of food, utilities and wider essentials to lessen the cost of living pressures. We are a Government who are committed to supporting low-income families, spending £110 billion on welfare support for people of working age in 2021-22 to ensure that the lowest paid are supported.
Covid-19 has tested our economy in a way that few of us, if any, have experienced before. The Government have been operating and developing policy in unparalleled times and at unprecedented speed. They have a keen eye to preserving employment and productive capacity to ensure that the engine rooms of our great economy have the support that they need to recharge our return to economic normality, and that has worked. This Government are providing the tools to enable, facilitate and empower us all. This Government have a sense of fiscal responsibility.
I have lost my last page, which was my power statement, but never mind. Millions of the most vulnerable in our society are receiving billions of pounds in support from the Government. This is a listening Government who offer unprecedented support that will benefit everyone in the country.
The cost of living crisis has been a long time in the making and has not come out of the blue. It is an escalation of a crisis that has been going on for a long time. As households brace themselves for the biggest drop in living standards in 30 years, yesterday we were asked to pass a Government motion in this House that would effectively cut pensions and social security payments by 3% to 4% in real terms. That, combined with the slashing of the universal credit uplift, the rise of the energy price cap and the increase in national insurance contributions, points to the simple conclusion that the Government are knowingly pushing more and more families into circumstances where they have to choose between staying warm and putting food on the table.
Just like the coalition Government with their austerity programme after the financial crash, this Tory Government are visiting the fallout of the covid crisis and the energy crisis on those who are the most in need, with a shocking 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children already living in food insecurity. Two out of five children in my Middlesbrough constituency were in poverty before these latest insults.
It is both those in work and those out of it who are suffering. In-work poverty has hit new heights, with one in six working households now below the poverty line, thanks to the pitiful levels of the minimum wage, which despite the rise to £9.50 in April is plainly not enough to get by on. Statutory sick pay is so low, at just £96.35 a week, that during the pandemic many workers have been left with no option but to go into work when they are ill. Unlike in Germany, where SSP covers 100% of workers’ salaries, in the UK it is a measly 19%. No wonder we have some of the worst covid death rates in Europe and now this cost of living crisis.
This desperate situation for so many has come about because of the erosion of their rights over the decades since the assault on working people began under Thatcher. From the end of the second world war until 1979, about 85% of workers across the country had their rights protected by collective bargaining agreements. Such agreements bring about great benefits for workers, primarily by preventing the undercutting of terms and conditions by setting minimum standards across a sector. With the changes to Government policy brought in since 1979, collective bargaining coverage has been driven down to about 23% of workers—one of the lowest proportions in Europe, where the average is about 60%.
I think a lot of people would swap now for the 1970s, when people could afford a home and food and had decent terms and conditions. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should recall the clapping for care workers throughout the crisis—the very people who should be benefiting from sectoral collective bargaining and fair pay agreements that give them a decent standard of living. We will take absolutely no lectures from Tory Members on that subject.
With the fall in these agreements, many workers have seen a similar dive in their rights and pay, undermining their ability to put food on the table. Almost four in five workers are now at the mercy of the labour market and the whims of their employer, with no means by which to bargain collectively—a situation only exacerbated by bogus and discriminatory classification of workers. There are a number of categories of worker, with different degrees of employment rights. Some workers—employees—are entitled to all the pathetic statutory rights that are currently available if they have been employed long enough, while others, including the bogus self-employed, limb (b) workers and agency workers, are denied many of the basic rights they should be entitled to.
That is why I am pleased to introduce in this House the Status of Workers Bill, which was guided through the other place by my noble Friend Lord Hendy. The Bill would merge all the categories so they would all be classified as workers with statutory employment rights giving them the freedom to bargain for a decent wage. I implore the Minister to allow the Bill the necessary time to pass through this House to make this fundamental change to workers’ rights, which will bring about the changes we need to solve the cost of living crisis.
Like many in this Chamber, I have been inundated with cases of constituents who are struggling in the present circumstances. Lisa, a single mum, is in terrible circumstances. She has no money left. She has 10 days to go before she can get money to put food on the table for herself and her son, who is suffering from covid. I have pensioners who, proud as they are, refuse to go to food banks. That is a damning indictment of the current situation in modern Tory Britain. It has got to change—there must be fundamental change for the benefit of our constituents.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate following the launch of the levelling up White Paper last week, which provides a framework for delivering the Government’s vision and plan to help everyone in Britain get back on their feet after the devastation caused by the pandemic. We have heard from the Minister some of the mitigating actions the Government have taken to try to ease the situation for the most vulnerable, so I will confine my comments to the national food strategy.
As we all know, the last two years have been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted health inequalities. That is why post covid it is vital that we build back a stronger, more resilient and prosperous country, with a focus on our health and wellbeing. I recently spoke with Lord Bird, founder of The Big Issue, and we agreed that we want a society where we do look not to make the poor more comfortable, but to eradicate poverty. The Conservative approach is to focus on creating more and better opportunities in every region across the United Kingdom, to invest in skills and lifelong learning and to create pathways out of poverty, while also supporting the most vulnerable.
We have been so lucky to live in a country where the vaccine roll-out response has been so unbelievably fast and effective. However, we cannot simply rely on medicine every time we get sick. We need to prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Research indicates that one of the major reasons Britain fared badly compared to other countries was because of the particularly high prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease. The Prime Minister said himself that he believed he almost died after contracting covid mainly because of his weight, and through that experience he introduced one of the most ambitious Government obesity strategies in UK history. However, it still is not easy for most people to enjoy the healthy life, although it is certainly easier for some than others. That is why health is crucial and central to the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
While people in more affluent parts of the country enjoy easy, affordable and convenient access to healthy, tasty and nutritious food, many in Stoke-on-Trent do not have the same choices. Everyone is constantly told about the need to improve our diet and the risk we face from poorer diets, but little consideration is given to how hard it is to make improvements.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically positive and powerful speech, and she talks passionately about the Government’s obesity strategy and the need to access healthy food, but does she agree that part of that strategy is finding opportunities for people to exercise and be involved in sport? A key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is investing in more community facilities, allowing people to take part in sport.
Absolutely—exercise and food go hand in hand in a healthy lifestyle.
There are plenty of fast food outlets in Stoke, but it is quite difficult to find nutritious options. It is not about eliminating all unhealthy choices or making us feel guilty about eating them: it is about increasing the choices available and ensuring that everyone can easily find and afford good food. I am reminded of the words of Lord Woolton, the Conservative party’s food Minister in the 1940s. He said:
“Feeding is not enough, it must be good feeding.”
Those words are as true today as they were back then.
Many colleagues have commented that my social media includes many posts of me eating a variety of what Stoke has to offer, from oatcakes—which are an important part of our culture and heritage—to healthy Sunday roasts. I have been surprised how popular the posts are. I do them to show food choices in our city and to promote local businesses and organisations through the medium of food. Food is central to our society, communities and daily lives. Food brings us together and allows us to share stories, ideas and cultures, and build wonderful memories, but food should not make us sick.
Currently, four out of five leading risk factors for disability, disease and death are related to poor diets. In other words, the British diet is making us sick. While the average percentage of adults living with obesity or excess weight is 62% in England, it is 72.8% in Stoke-on-Trent. The health profile for the area shows that in the majority of health categories—for example, cancer rates, cardiovascular disease, obesity, life expectancy, physical activity, smoking and alcohol—the situation is significantly worse than the national average. I cannot accept this. How can we level everything up if our people locally are getting more sick and dying earlier than people elsewhere?
That is why it is important that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, included the Government’s obesity strategy, and some policy recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy, in the “Levelling Up” White Paper. However, more needs to be done. The “Levelling Up” White Paper sets a blueprint for future White Papers such as the Government’s formal response to the national food strategy. This must set out a bold, brave and ambitious set of immediately actionable policies to help everyone in Britain to eat well. The six non-negotiable actions include the “eat and learn” recommendation that includes mandatory accreditation for food served in school to ensure that high-quality and nutritious food is not a postcode lottery; school curriculum changes such as reinstating the food A-level and Ofsted inspection of such lessons; and mandatory reporting for large food producers and manufacturers so that we know the proportion of healthier versus unhealthy food that companies are selling, as well as other metrics such as food waste.
We need to look at the sugar and salt tax. We need to look at public procurement so that those in our public sector buildings get the healthy food that they deserve. We need to introduce a good food Bill. We need to ensure that all these strategies feed into each other making sure that we are the healthiest we can be. That is absolutely part of levelling up.
Poverty and food insecurity are key elements of the cost of living crisis. More and more working households, including those in receipt of universal credit, are not getting the food that they need, and this will be made even worse after what happened yesterday. Despite it being called an uprating, the Government pushed through a real-terms cut to benefits and pensions that I opposed, just as I opposed the motion on the welfare cap last month when it was before the House. That is because millions of people across the UK are experiencing food insecurity, including an estimated 1.8 million of school age. The use of food banks was increasing before the pandemic and has risen dramatically during the pandemic, and it is very likely that the situation will continue to get worse and worse. In fact, food bank usage represents the thin end of the wedge, with largely only those experiencing severe food insecurity receiving emergency food parcels due to the stigma and level of availability. At the same time, austerity cuts have meant that important services such as meals on wheels and other important lifelines and support services are no more.
Yet as people continue to struggle, I am proud that people have stepped up to fill the gaps. I continue to be in awe of local people organising to protect our communities and support one another, whether that is the Felix Project supported by Islamic Relief UK, with its unique kitchen that collects good surplus food to cook 20,000 culturally sensitive meals and deliver it to some of the most vulnerable families, the volunteers at the food bank run at Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs, or the work of neighbourhoods in my constituency and Sister Christine in Poplar. Those are just a few examples of the community spirit that makes the east end such a special place.
But the truth is that soaring food insecurity and the normalisation of food aid as the solution to a complete failure of Government has important consequences for the future of the welfare safety net. It warns of a future where responsibility for structural failures is increasingly placed on individuals and the third sector. We need urgent action so that, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no one is left hungry. Surely it should not be that difficult. Indeed, it is entirely possible to guarantee that everyone has enough food so that food banks no longer have to exist. This is why I have been supporting the Right to Food campaign calling for the Government to be legally responsible to help anyone in our communities going hungry—to take action to prevent barriers in accessing food and end the crisis of food insecurity once and for all. I want to place on record my acknowledgement of the brilliant work that my hon. Friend Ian Byrne has been doing in this regard. In the long run, I would like to see universal free school meals and the Government bringing the delivery of those and other outsourced food services back in-house, involving all the community in food provision. I repeat that even with the cost of living crisis it is possible to eradicate food insecurity. The question is do the Government really want to do that?
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on an issue that really matters to my constituents and the constituents of Members across the House: the cost of living increases. Contrary to some of the contributions we have heard today, the reality is that the challenges we face in the UK are the same as those facing other major economies—global inflationary pressures as the world economy rebounds after covid. That is undoubtedly causing strain on families and their ability to pay bills, and it is right that we support those most in need. I think it bears repeating that the best way to help people is to support those who can work to move into jobs. Our record is strong, with more than 400,000 people on payrolls now than prior to the beginning of the pandemic. We need to help them to gain skills to move into even more highly paid roles.
As a Conservative, I want to see people keep more of the money that they earn. To help the lowest paid people do that, we are increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour from April for workers aged 23 and over. That represents an extra £1,000 a year for a full-time worker. Nearly 2 million families on low incomes will benefit from £1,000 a year through the cut in the universal credit taper and increases to work allowances. However, we also need to redouble our efforts to help people without a job to move into one of the 1.2 million vacancies across the country. In my constituency, there are 1,800 people on unemployment-related benefits. Although that represents a lower rate than the national average, it still represents untapped potential for individuals. Employers in my area, whether in food processing or in other parts of the economy, are crying out for staff, so I welcome the newly launched Way to Work scheme to match people to roles that exist in North West Norfolk and across the country. It is also important to recognise the direct support through the half a billion pound household support fund to help low-income households with the cost of food and other essentials, as well as the increase in the value of Healthy Start food vouchers, which the Minister referred to.
The motion refers to sustainably high quality food, which is precisely what Norfolk excels in producing. Now we are liberated from the bureaucratic inflexible common agricultural policy, we are free to reform our agricultural sector and champion British produce internationally. I know from my discussions with the Minister that the food strategy, which we look forward to seeing soon, will have much more to say on that, on procurement and on food security.
Turning to the motion’s reference to the energy crisis, it claims that Britain is
“uniquely exposed to a global gas crisis.”
What a load of nonsense. The clue is in the word used by whoever drafted the motion, “global”. Other countries face the same challenges from the rise in wholesale gas prices that we are facing. Some 80% of the increase in the energy price cap here comes from wholesale prices. The motion is silent on Labour’s moratorium on nuclear power, which meant that our nuclear fleet has not been replaced as rapidly as it should have been. I was advising the then Energy Minister in the then Department of Energy and Climate Change when the deal for Hinkley Point C was being negotiated. That power station is on track to open in 2026. With the financing legislation passed in this House recently, we can unlock further investment in the new nuclear we need.
My hon. Friend talks about nuclear power. It is quite interesting, actually, because I wonder if he can recall that, in 1997, the Labour manifesto said, “We can see no economic case for the building of any new nuclear power stations.” Does he think now, moving on 20-odd years, that they regret that?
I do remember and we are dealing with the consequences. Eight advanced gas reactors are coming offline in the next few years and we do not have enough capacity to replace them rapidly enough. That is why the work the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is doing to bring forward the regulated asset base model to get financing into nuclear power is so important.
What did the Government do in the face of increased energy price caps? They came forward with a £9 billion package to help reduce their impact on people. That is the political choice that we made on the Government side of the House. Some 88.75% of properties in my constituency will receive £150 off their council tax bills in April. Then, in October, there will be a £200 rebate through energy bills. For the people in my area living off the gas grid, that will be paid through energy bills, so they benefit too. However, those people are facing an issue with the steep increases in the price of domestic oil, which is not subject to a price cap.
A constituent contacted me last week to say that before the pandemic they were paying 19.6p per litre but last week they filled up at 55p a litre. So I ask the Minister to communicate with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ask whether it can consider a referral to the Competition and Markets Authority to address those concerns about increased costs. Furthermore, councils will get £150 million to give targeted support to people not getting the council tax rebate. Others have spoken about the warm home discount, winter fuel payments, cold weather payments and other support measures that exist. In contrast, the Labour party proposes a regressive tax cut that would benefit the richest households most.
The challenges that individuals and families are facing are real. However, today, once again, we have heard arguments that pretend we can in some way be immune to the global pressures driving increased costs; that somehow we alone can keep energy prices artificially low. The British public are wise and realise that that is fantasy economics. In contrast, this Conservative Government will continue to help people with the day-to-day costs they face and drive economic growth, jobs and investment.
I want to put some human context into this debate. I saw on social media this weekend a comment by a single parent. She said:
“It’s difficult to imagine without experiencing it is how tiring being skint is. How you’re so utterly consumed by financial hardship that it affects every decision you make on a daily basis. It takes up every thought and you can’t escape. No wonder there is a mental health crisis”.
That comes from a single parent and it sets the tone for this debate. The country is badly fractured and, sadly, broken. Kids cannot eat and pensioners cannot eat, yet sales of luxury yachts have gone through the roof.
If we have a look at the grotesque inequality in this country, and at those who have and those who have not, we see that there has been a 500% increase in the number of billionaires since covid began, a £2 trillion increase in FTSE stock market value and £3 trillion increase in housing stock—
UK wages are at the lowest they have been and they are a 15-year standstill. Wages are gone and energy bills are going through the roof—I will come on to that. Poverty is a political choice. Hunger is a political choice. I am sick and tired of debates in this place where people from all parts are basically reducing hungry and cold families and individuals to mere balance sheet statistics—count them as human beings. The debate often gets dragged into whether this is absolute poverty or relative poverty.
That does not matter to people who are suffering greatly in our communities. If they are sitting at the table with nothing to eat in the morning or at teatime at night, they are not aware of whether they are in abject poverty, absolute poverty, relative poverty or overall poverty. They might not even know that they are in poverty, but they know they are hungry. I think we will all probably have experienced being behind the person in the local newsagent who has the key to put £5 on their electricity bill—
Mr Deputy Speaker, that has taken out a minute and a half of my time, but thank you very much for allowing me to continue. I am far from a coward, by the way.
The debate in here is quite often about relative poverty or absolute poverty, but that does not make any difference, man. We live in a country—the sixth richest economy in the world—where we have 4.3 million kids living in poverty, and we have 14 million people living in poverty. It does not matter how or what we claim about poverty, and it does not matter whether we have reduced it by 1 million or whatever. If we have millions of people in poverty, we should be bloody well ashamed of ourselves. It is a political choice and we can do things about it. We could have done something about it last night, but obviously we did not do what some of us chose to do and vote against the benefits uprating.
To move on very quickly, the fact is that there are them that have and them who do not. Is it not really embarrassing to this country when we have chief executives of energy companies, which have just made $40 billion in the last few weeks, suggesting that it is not bragging to say their companies are like cash machines? What does that make people in poverty feel? And we introduce a “Buy now, pay later” scheme and think that is enough support.
Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Deputy Speaker. In concluding, let us tax the super-wealthy, the Tory donors and the corporations—they are the real benefit cheats in this country—because, quite frankly, that is the only way we will start to tackle the inequalities and make life look much brighter for many people in our country.
I rise to speak in this debate, and I do so with great pride—pride in particular in my city of Peterborough, but also pride in some of the things that this Government have achieved and this Government are doing to combat some of the issues mentioned in this motion. For example, there is the £500 million household support fund, which is going to provide food, utilities and essentials for some of the most vulnerable in our society; the £110 billion—I repeat, £110 billion—that this Government spend each and every year on welfare; increasing the value of Healthy Start food vouchers; the £220 million on our holiday activities and food programme for disadvantaged children, helping vulnerable families; and, of course, this Government’s commitment to ending hunger by 2030.
These are all very positive things, but most of all the thing that I am most proud of is the £1,000 tax cuts for up to millions of working families on low incomes through our cut to the universal credit taper rate from 63p to 55p. Many of my constituents on universal credit are working, and this is going to come as a great reward to many of them—to keep more of their own money—and it is going to combat some of the issues that this motion identifies.
I do hate the party political posturing we have seen in this debate, but it is worth noting that no Labour Government—not one—have ever left office with employment lower than it was when they came to power. That is a fact. It is businesses and the private sector that create the jobs that alleviate poverty in this county. To Opposition Members, business is the enemy. The reality is that the Labour party is a job-destroying party. That is the reality.
The reason I am proud to speak in this debate, as I have mentioned, is how proud I am of the people of Peterborough and what they have done to combat food poverty and hunger in my constituency. I spend a lot of my time—and I would recommend that hon. Members from all sides do much more of this—going out and talking to my people, the people in my city, the people I call Peterborough heroes. These are ordinary, everyday people doing extraordinary things for their communities.
There are heroes such as Cocoa Fowler from Food for Nought, who has helped thousands of vulnerable people by distributing food to food banks and community fridges across my city. He was recognised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with a Points of Light award, and recognised as an outstanding UK volunteer. There are heroes such as Carol and Giles from the Millfield Community Fridge, based at the Open Door Baptist church. I met them when I spent a morning working with them and other heroes who were volunteering there. There are heroes such as Erin Tierney from the food bank in the village of Thorney. Others have mentioned the hidden poverty that often exists in our rural areas. Erin Tierney’s selflessness in running a food bank and supporting the most vulnerable in her community makes me proud of her, and proud of her efforts.
Zillur Hussain of the Zi Foundation, pub manager Colin Wilson who provides 200 free meals a week, Rony Choudhury of the Bombay Brasserie, Zeeshan Manzoor from Big Mouth and Touqeer Tariq from the Rizq Peri Peri Grill all do wonderful work promoting and giving out free meals to those who are vulnerable in my city. It is worth mentioning those people, because they work day in, day out. Children of Adam, Unite 4 Humanity, the Westwood community café and the Peterborough food bank, based at Fengate, make me proud of my city as well. They too are my heroes. On Saturday, when I was knocking on doors in Gunthorpe, I was spotted and grabbed by Ken Pullen as I was passing the Open Door community shop. He dragged me in and there I met Ken, Maggie, Polly and Dave, some of the kindest people you could ever meet, working to help those who are struggling in my city.
Those are all examples of a caring city, and this debate has given me the opportunity to thank them once again for everything they do.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would like your advice about the intimidation that I seem to be getting from Lee Anderson. The last couple of times I have been in the Chamber, there have been some absolutely terrible remarks. I am sure you remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, the last time he had to return and apologise. How can this be stopped? How can we tackle it? If Members do not want to give way, they do not have to, but they should not suffer abuse as a result.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I was in the Chair the very last time this happened. That is why I intervened to say that the hon. Gentleman was not giving way. I could not hear what the hon. Member for Ashfield said, because I was talking when he said it, and he then withdrew it. However, Mr Speaker made it absolutely clear at the beginning of today’s sitting, after what happened on the streets of London yesterday, that we must all be temperate in the language we use, not only in the Chamber but outside it. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will take that on board before they stand up, and even when they make sedentary interventions, and that they are very temperate in the language they use.
Listening to Conservative Members, one would think that the cost of living crisis was something natural, like bad weather or a freak accident. They have said that the Government have done everything they can to help, but that soaring living costs, cuts in support and the fall in the real value of wages are beyond their control. That is simply not true. Britain is facing a cost of living crisis not in spite of the Government’s political choices, but because of them.
Millions in the UK are struggling because of whose side this Conservative Government are on. Last week the Tories took the side of the bankers, voting to hand them a tax cut worth £1 billion a year. Last night they voted to slash social security for millions of people by roughly 4% in real terms. Last week, they took the side of fossil fuel giants, refusing to back a motion for a windfall tax on companies like Shell and BP. Then, just a few days later, they gave the green light to energy bills soaring by nearly £700. As the Government refuse to bring forward a wealth tax on the super-rich, they are hitting workers with a national insurance hike.
Time and again, the Government take the side of the wealthy few, not the struggling majority. They scrap the £20 a week universal credit uplift, but hand contracts worth £880 million to a handful of Tory donors. They dump the pensions triple lock, but let the likes of Amazon get away with tax dodging on an industrial scale. They allow Britain’s billionaires to add an extra £106 billion to their fortunes in the pandemic, but stand idly by as poverty gets worse and worse, with nearly 5 million children now in poverty, including around 7,000 in Coventry South.
This is not inevitable. It is not a natural disaster. It is about whose side this Government are on: the many or the few? Do they hand bankers a tax cut while hiking national insurance for workers, or do they do things differently? [Interruption.] I can tell that some Members want to carry on doing the same: supporting the wealthy few. The alternative is taxing the richest and funding a proper safety net. It is about bringing in a windfall tax on fossil fuel giants and stepping in to bring down energy bills. That is what the French are doing—not letting bills soar by 54% like our Government, but capping the rise at just 4%.
There has been a lot of focus on the Prime Minister, and he should have resigned a long time ago, but it is not just him. Whether it is Boris Johnson, for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) or for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), they have all voted to slash taxes for the richest, while cutting support for the rest. They are all in it together and they all need booting out.
Over the past few days, Nestlé has been confirming to its workforce in Fawdon that it will be closing its factory, with the loss of 500 good manufacturing jobs in Newcastle upon Tyne North. It is nothing short of a devastating blow to our community, especially to the workers, their families and the businesses around about that rely on their custom. My thoughts are with all those currently grappling with what this means for them and their families.
It is an incredibly sad end to well over half a century of proud chocolate making in Fawdon, during which time we have created and produced some of the most loved brands in this country, and it could not have come at a worse time for the workers and their families, with a cost of living crisis hitting household finances and a community still recovering from the devastation of the covid pandemic.
Since news of the potential closure emerged last year, I have met with Nestlé, and the GMB and Unite unions, which I know remain in discussion with Nestlé to negotiate the potential for jobs at alternative sites and enhanced packages for those who will be made redundant. I put on record my tribute to the unions for the work they put in to create alternative proposals to keep those jobs where they belong—in Newcastle. There is huge disappointment and anger that the proposals were rejected by Nestlé.
Unfortunately, it is not just those who are directly impacted who will feel the impact of this closure. It will have a huge effect on the wider community, with shops, businesses and supply chains that rely on the factory and the workforce losing that business and perhaps also becoming unviable. It has ripped the heart out of Fawdon, and we will need to work together to rebuild from this, but we need Government support.
The Minister should be aware that Nestlé’s UK CEO is a member of the UK Investment Council and a Government adviser on levelling up. Last week, we heard so many bold promises from the Government about levelling up communities in the north, yet here we have one of their own advisers taking jobs from one of the most disadvantaged communities in Newcastle. Many are understandably questioning why Nestlé, one of the world’s largest food companies, needs to close a profitable factory and offshore those jobs away from an area of the country that needs levelling up, not levelling down.
We do not want more households to rely on food banks. Food bank use was already unacceptably high before the covid-19 outbreak and it has sky-rocketed. Households are feeling the strain of the pandemic and we will see the cost of living crisis only grow as a result of this decision.
We also know that households with children are particularly affected, and how important it is for them to have regular healthy meals for their physical and mental development. So it is unfortunate that 11% of pupils eligible for free school meals in the north-east currently do not even claim that support, often due to the fact that it is a complex process and some are unaware of their entitlement. I would like the Minister to confirm that the Government intend to do something to put that right and that they will take forward the recommendation of the Dimbleby review to introduce automatic registration for free school meals.
Children in the north-east already face a double whammy of rising child poverty and the cost of living crisis. Introducing that one recommendation would be a simple step that would make a huge difference to hundreds of thousands of families across the country and put right some of the inadequacies of the free school meals system. The Minister has mentioned the upcoming food strategy White Paper, which is the perfect opportunity to do it, so it would be excellent if she could confirm that today.
While constituents at the Nestlé factory in Fawdon and in the supply chain face an uncertain future, with the added challenges of the cost of living crisis, and while many are already forced to use food banks to feed their children, the Government are hitting those same families with a rise in national insurance contributions and a total inability to tackle rising energy bills. I beg the Minister and the Government to plough less energy—indeed, no energy—into saving the Prime Minister’s political career and to get a grip on the cost of living crisis that is crippling our households. They should do more to level up, not just talk. We want to see action in Newcastle, but we are seeing the opposite at the moment.
Wales has the highest poverty rates of the four parts of the state, with almost one in four people living in poverty. Worse still, Wales has the worst child poverty rates, with 31% of our children living in poverty. My party is determined to solve the crisis and to end that gross injustice through its work in the Senedd and at local level.
To give one example of our efforts, under the recent three-year agreement with the Welsh Government that I referred to in an intervention on Jim McMahon, school meals will be free for all primary school children; they will be phased in from September. That is a substantial step forward. It has been an ambition of my party and the Labour party in Wales for many years. Indeed, it has been long-promised by Labour. I am glad that Plaid has made sure that we have at last acted on those fine words.
More generally, families across Wales have been failed by the Westminster welfare system, inadequate as it is in meeting the cost of living crisis. Universal credit is the main tool of support for a third of Welsh families but it is just insufficient. Nearly a third of Welsh adults in poverty are actually in work. I agree that getting into work is a good way to get out of poverty, as Conservative Members have already noted—I have no argument with that—but when wages are so low, the effect is lessened to say the least. Universal credit is just not good enough.
Citizens Advice Scotland saw a 20% increase in sanctions-related advice from March to December last year compared with the same period in 2020. The Department for Work and Pensions’ stats show that the number of people sanctioned while looking for work increased fivefold in August compared with June. Does the hon. Member agree that imposing further sanctions on those looking for work will only compound financial hardship unnecessarily?
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. The sanctions regime has increased misery for many people over many years, and I wish it were not applied as sternly and as regressively as it is. We need another way forward.
One of the things I most regret—I am sure many hon. Members regret it, too—is the Chancellor’s cruel £20 cut to universal credit. Forty-three per cent. of households across the UK in receipt of universal credit are food insecure, and it is worsening. In Wales alone, the Trussell Trust distributed 145,000 emergency food parcels in 2020-21—that is the number of emergency food parcels, not the total figure, which gives an impression of the scale of the crisis people face—which is 88% up on the level at the height of austerity five or 10 years ago. It is now much worse.
On a local level, I draw attention to the efforts of my constituents in Caernarfon. The Porthi Pawb scheme, which means “feeding everyone,” has distributed hot meals throughout the Caernarfon area for many months but, of course, it is not enough, despite its great efforts. I will burden the House with another example. Plaid Cymru has a very successful food share scheme in Bangor. It opened its doors at 10 o’clock on Sunday, and it was cleared out almost immediately, such is the scale of the demand.
Universal credit and, in many cases, employment are simply not paying enough to keep people out of poverty or to put food on the table. Poverty and its consequences for food security are, as has been said many times, an inevitable, direct and foreseen effect of Government policy. Where the benefits system is, to a degree, devolved, as it is in Scotland, the national Government can act for the good of all the people. For us in Plaid Cymru, and for Wales, having parity with Scotland and Northern Ireland on welfare powers is the obvious next step towards defeating and, indeed, eradicating poverty from our country—that and a proper allocation of money from Westminster to support this laudable objective.
In the meantime, I urge the Government to restore the £20 universal credit uplift immediately, to end the two-child limit and to increase local housing allowance back to the 30th percentile of market rates. Labour in Wales does, and indeed should, support Plaid Cymru’s proposal for rent controls to stop the spike in rents in Wales. Many more measures could be taken. Such measures, partial as they are, would boost hard-pressed families’ purchasing power, boost local economies and help to eradicate poverty and the curse of food insecurity from our country.
I was pleased to contribute to last week’s debate on rising energy prices, shortly after which the energy price cap was increased by 54%, adding more financial woe to millions of families across the country. If we listened to the Conservatives, everything is hunky-dory in the garden, everything is fine and great, there are no problems and we should move on. That debate provided important context for this debate on food insecurity and the cost of living.
Some 22 million households will suffer because of the Government’s failure to invest in cheap, green energy generated on our shores—fact. The Chancellor’s announcement that the Government will force people to take loans will do nothing but prolong their financial misery—fact. Both energy insecurity and food insecurity are related to the dramatic increase in inflation over which the Government have presided, which is now a painful concern to millions of people—fact. But it is important that we put these issues in a wider context.
There are many long-running flaws in how our community is being run. After all, food insecurity is not a new phenomenon in the United Kingdom. In 2014, the coalition Government continued their deep cuts to state support, and the United Nations found that 8.4 million people were living in households in which someone did not have enough to eat. Since then, food bank queues have increased, as in my constituency.
Last year, the Trussell Trust provided 2.5 million three-day emergency food parcels across the country, and 40% of them were for children. Of course, inflation is intertwined with this crisis. According to the Office for National Statistics, food and beverage prices made the largest single contribution to inflation in December, but we have to look at the root causes, which include, under this Government, the longest fall in real pay since the Napoleonic era. That has left real wages at 2008 levels, and has been supplemented by repeated attacks by the Tories on public pay. There is also the tearing up of the social security net, which millions relied on to provide the bare minimum, and the slashing of funding for local authorities that try to cope on the frontline.
Those were the wrong choices, with the Chancellor asking workers earning only £9,000 to pay more national insurance while the wealthy were left untouched. There has been policy after policy attacking ordinary working people. Many just do not have enough money to put the food that they need—the right food, quality food—on the table. Inflation is not a single factor that is driving insecurity. This is a crisis of low pay, of insecurity, of our safety net. It is about much more than the cost of living and we cannot continue to ask working people to pay the price of the Government’s mismanagement. We must now get the response right.
Last week, the Governor of the Bank of England suggested that working people should moderate their pay demands to avoid, in effect, a wage price spiral. In an interview, when asked whether the Bank was effectively asking workers not to demand a big pay rise, he told the BBC:
“Broadly, yes…In the sense of saying, we do need to see a moderation of wage rises…that’s painful…I don’t want to in any sense sugar that: it is painful”— said the Governor, on £575,000 a year. That is exactly the sort of blinkered response that we have come to expect.
It is worth repeating that the 1.25% increase in national insurance is, in effect, an 8% increase in total—not 1.25%. If that is not adding to food insecurity, I do not know what is. There is a fairer way: not the Government Wonga scheme being introduced by the Chancellor, but real solutions that put money in the pockets of the poorest households, ending food insecurity once and for all. I am talking about a windfall tax on the big oil and gas companies; taxing wealth at the same rates as work to raise billions towards a permanent uplift to universal credit; and an end to austerity in the public services that we all rely on when times are so hard. The British public has paid too much under this Government. It really is time that the Conservatives asked their wealthy donors to pick up the tab.
Finally, I plead with Tory Members, of whom only three are in the Chamber at the moment: if they do not have the wherewithal and decency to rid the country of food banks, they should have the decency to stop visiting them for a photo opportunity. It is unseemly.
Order. I will have to reduce the time limit to four minutes in order to call a few more Members in, but we will not get everybody in, sadly.
Last year, I spoke about one of my constituents who was fearful that the Government’s cutting the universal credit uplift would mean that they had to choose between heating and eating. They lost £80 a month due to that Government cut, and their energy prices had already risen by £95 a month. That was in November, but the outlook is even more bleak now and we hear more and more often of that choice between heating and eating. The next few months will see too many people already under great stress plunged beneath the poverty line. Inflation is set to rise at almost double the rate of benefits, which means that the Chancellor’s support package will not protect those most at risk of hardship.
I have a family in my constituency who receive universal credit, who are subject to the benefit cap and who already have rent arrears. The mother has told me that she is really struggling to pay her bills and is finding it difficult to feed her five children. The financial pressures mean a continued strain on her mental health and wellbeing. Every week, I and my team deal with so many cases like that.
A year ago, I joined a small group of people in Salford, along with my hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey, who wanted to find a way to give additional support to local families in need. Led by Antony Edkins, who has been a headteacher in my constituency, we set up the Salford Families in need Meal Project. Across the year, we have raised funds to enable a food club to be run every week in partnership with the social food charity, the Bread and Butter Thing. Our food distribution hub, run at Barton Moss Primary School in my constituency every Wednesday, provides a bridge between food bought from supermarkets and the crisis food given out by food banks. The families in my constituency who use the food distribution hub are among the 20,000 people across the north who now get affordable food distributed by the Bread and Butter Thing. Membership of that charity has grown by 270% in the past year, which shows just how much the levels of food insecurity have increased.
A report from the cross-party think-tank Demos says that the Government are failing to ensure that there are longer-term interventions to help people move out of food insecurity. Families in food insecurity can also have need for other types of help. Mark Game of the Bread and Butter Thing said:
“it’s about so much more than food. People need access to healthy, nutritious, affordable food within an ecosystem of local services providing employment, mental health, debt counselling, housing support and more.”
That range of needs was underlined by Victoria Unsworth, the local primary school headteacher, who helps run the food distribution hub in my constituency, when she said this to me recently:
“I cannot begin to tell you how, in the last few weeks, the need has increased. We have families with food shortages, removal from houses, living in houses with no toiletries, no heating, no electricity…parents splitting up, homeless. These are just the ones we know of.”
It is shameful that the Government are forcing people into these conditions. Families are breaking apart. How can the Government talk of levelling up when this is happening on their watch?
This cost of living crisis will have an impact on health, as we have heard earlier in this debate. Not being warm enough and not having enough food have consequences for our health, both physically and mentally. The Government have said that they want to reduce inequalities in healthy life expectancy, but that is impossible when 1 million adults go whole days without eating, and 9% of the population are experiencing food insecurity.
Today, the Manchester Evening News focuses on the fact that, for the first baby born in 2022 at a Bolton hospital whose family live in my constituency, life expectancy will be more than 10 years less than it is for a child living in a more affluent suburb in the south of England. The paper quite rightly says to the Government on behalf of those babies born in Salford and other northern cities in 2022, “Don’t leave us Behind”.
Food insecurity will get worse and it will have an impact on the affordability of food for everybody. This is something that farmers know and, sadly, this is something that consumers will soon discover. It is because of the Government’s direct policies. Most in the House agree in principle with the transition from the basic payment scheme to environmental land management schemes, but the botching of the transition means that farmers lost between 5% and 25% of their income in December, and most of them will see a decline to nothing before they are able to access anything like an equivalent amount of money through the ELMS. That will mean the closure of family farms, the reduction in Britain’s capacity to feed itself, and, inevitably, a spike in the price of food.
On that issue of feeding ourselves, in North East Fife I am seeing problems in attracting agricultural workers. Migrant agricultural workers are vital and, without them, we will see fruit rotting in fields, farmers making losses and the cost of remaining produce skyrocketing for consumers. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to see more joined-up working between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office to support our farmers to recruit and therefore ensure our food supply?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and believe that, in so many ways, the Government are getting it wrong when it comes to the availability of visas to allow people to work. Many businesses in rural communities are not able to function at all because they simply cannot access staff.
In rural areas, the poverty we face is in-work poverty. There is very low unemployment in places such as the Lake District, and I am sure that the same is true in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The issue is businesses that cannot function; they cannot recruit the staff because the Government’s visa rules are so incredibly foolish and damaging. It is also worth pointing out that the BPS to ELMS transition is an accidental mistake that the Government are making, but the deliberate mistake they are making, as I mentioned earlier in an intervention, is their decision, through ELMS, to reward wealthy landowners for kicking off their land hard-working tenant farmers so that they can turn the land over to seed, therefore reducing food production capacity and wrecking rural communities in the process. That is not just morally unjust; it is incredibly stupid for a Government who are meant to be putting food security at the heart of their policy, and clearly are not doing so.
Energy bills are of huge significance. The rise in energy bills for the average household in two months’ time is expected to be £700. I can tell the Minister that Eden in Cumbria has the second highest rise in fuel bills anywhere in the country, while my own district of South Lakeland has the ninth highest. Rural communities are hit hardest, and as Catherine McKinnell mentioned, the costs for families with children, people with serious health issues or disabilities and elderly people are higher still.
Shell’s £14 billion profit and BP’s £10 billion profit were unexpected, unearned and clearly unnecessary. It might be a desperate measure at a desperate time, but it would be entirely logical to decide to employ a windfall tax on those huge profits so that people up and down this country could get through this incredibly difficult time and the appalling energy increases could be wiped out.
I know that some Government Members are climate sceptics and think we should get rid of all green taxes and what have you, but I suggest that there is one Brexit benefit that the new Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency might want to take on board: we could cut VAT. That is the only useful thing that we could do as a result of leaving the European Union—the one silver lining—but the Government will not deploy it. Why not cut VAT on fuel bills and give people the relief that they desperately need?
Too little is being done to help those whose need is greatest. With inflation at 7.25%, the 3.1% benefits uprating will lead to utter destitution. It is not just about physical hardship, but about the misery, shame and lack of dignity that go with it and the stress and mental health problems that go with abject poverty, when people cannot afford to feed their children, pay the rent or put fuel in their car to get to work—if they are lucky enough to have a car.
Kendal in my constituency is not a huge town by most people’s standards, yet Linda Sutherland’s wonderful team at King’s food bank in Kendal provided 48,225 meals last year, which was 50% more than in 2020. The massive demand for services from people in desperate need tells us that we are doing something seriously wrong as a country. The local housing allowance is not remotely keeping up with people’s needs, particularly in areas where the cost of living is that much higher. In constituencies such as mine, hundreds of families have been kicked out of private rented accommodation. Council house waiting lists in South Lakeland have increased by 50% in five years; there are now more than 4,500 families on them.
This is the opportunity for the Government to intervene. I understand what it is like to be criticised in government: it is natural to be defensive. I encourage Ministers not to be defensive, but to consider ways to make the lives of people in this country better in these most appalling of times.
The Food Foundation found this week that more than 1 million people have reported
“that they or someone in their household have had to go a whole day without eating in the past month because they couldn’t afford or access food.”
The north-east and north-west of England have the highest levels of food insecurity. I echo my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley in celebrating the brilliant Salford Families in need Meal Project. I also thank For the Love of Food, Salford food bank, Emmaus, Salford Food Share, Mustard Tree, Salford Loaves and Fishes and so many others. They are brilliant organisations, but the fact is that they should not need to exist. As Oscar Wilde once said, charity is not a solution to poverty, but
“an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
As one of the richest economies in the world, we have the economic means to sustain everyone, but if we cannot find the political will to achieve that, we will not live in a civilised society; we will live under barbarism. We can see that barbarism take form and the stark inequities of our system laid bare every single day.
Today, amid an energy crisis that will cripple households across the UK, oil giant BP has reported its highest profit for eight years, yet we are seeing no political action from the Government—no windfall tax on energy companies to help those who struggling. Yesterday, the Government forced through a real-terms cut to social security and pensions at a time when inflation is skyrocketing, despite more than 30 charities and organisations stating that a real-terms inflation rise is needed for people to keep their head above water.
Then, of course, there is levelling up. Levelling up required a reversal of austerity and significant funding pledges for local government, whose budgets have been slashed in the last 10 years. We saw nothing but warm words in last week’s White Paper. Those warm words will not feed my constituents, so today’s motion is right: we need a national strategy for food. But we need to go further. Food, the basic building block of human existence, should become a legal right.
Salford is already a right to food city. As the right to food campaign suggests, putting that right into UK law would make the Government legally responsible for helping anyone in our communities who was going hungry, for taking action to prevent barriers to accessing food, and for taking steps to tackle the crisis of food insecurity in the UK. That would require the Government to respond by setting out funding, tasks and responsibilities for the public bodies that would need to take action. Action should also include addressing the economic causes of food insecurity, for example, through improving people’s incomes with a real living wage, increasing social security to a level people can actually live on, implementing controls on everyday costs such as utility bills and, longer term, lowering energy costs by bringing energy into public ownership.
Food insecurity in our country is not some abstract horror created by an unknown force beyond our control that can be addressed by benevolence. It is a political choice. The Government can make the political choice to end it and I hope that they take on board these points today.
Today’s debate on the cost of living crisis and food insecurity is vital because this Government’s actions are hammering working-class people and driving more and more people into poverty. It is difficult to address the scale of the crisis in the short time available because people’s incomes and living standards are under attack on so many fronts.
Rising inequality, poverty and hardship in our country cannot be better illustrated than by the shocking increase in the prevalence of food poverty in the UK: 11 million people are experiencing food insecurity and an estimated 2.5 million children in Britain are at risk of malnutrition as a result of living in poverty. Those are staggering figures. In Wales, there are now 129 Trussell Trust distribution centres and last year, the Trussell Trust distributed 146,000 emergency parcels. That was the seventh annual increase in a row.
The national situation is mirrored in my constituency of Cynon Valley. My local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf, has the highest number of Trussell Trust distribution centres—18, which distribute more than 15,000 parcels. Behind all those figures and statistics are real people—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children—who are going without. They are people like Eirlys, as I will name her, in my constituency, a single mother with a young son who runs her own business. She told me that she has not had the central heating on for a whole week since she received a gas bill and since the rises in energy prices have been announced. It is not only fuel bills that are rising. She is particularly concerned about the national insurance rise and the cost of food shopping. She is devastated at the increases and does not know how she and her family will survive. There was pure desperation when I spoke to her.
That is just one story that is replicated not only across my constituency, but throughout Wales and the UK, as we have heard today. We should be angry that we, the fifth richest nation in the world, have allowed this situation to arise. It has become normalised and it has got to be challenged. I am pleased that those challenges are happening.
In the short time remaining, I want to refer, as others have done, to the national right to food campaign, led by my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, who is doing outstanding work on tackling food poverty and insecurity in the UK. The campaign calls for the right to food to be enshrined in law to end the scandal of hunger and food banks. There is a movement building of trade unions, grassroots groups, and of cities and towns becoming right to food cities and towns across the UK.
I want to refer briefly to the motion passed at the Labour’s party conference last year in support of embedding the right to food in the Labour party’s next general election manifesto. I look forward to that happening. The Welsh Government are also doing a lot, as others have mentioned. The co-operation agreement between Plaid and Labour includes a commitment to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils and to develop a food strategy to encourage the production and supply of locally sourced foods in Wales.
Hunger is a political choice. We can and must choose to do things differently. Rest assured that I am determined to continue to work alongside others in this House and outside to make the scandal of hunger end.
The fear currently being felt across this nation is palpable. Millions are worried that they will freeze or starve in their homes. In the fifth-richest country in the world, how has this injustice been allowed to happen? That is the position that so many face due to political choices taken in this House. Research by the Food Foundation in 2020 showed that 20% of adults in the UK—around 11 million—face food insecurity each year. A survey of food industry workers by the bakers union showed that more than a third went without to make sure that others in the house got a meal. They are the ones who produce the food in this country.
Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition and obesity. Poverty destroys the life chances of future generations in our poorer communities. It affects children’s educational attainment and life chances. How can we accept in this House that we have more food banks than McDonald’s outlets? When do we collectively accept that the system is broken and is failing the people we are elected to represent? Hunger is a political choice; fuel poverty is a political choice. They are both choices made by the present Government, like the cut to universal credit, benefit sanctions and the erosion of workers’ rights, all alongside a decade of Conservative austerity, which has cut our vital services to the bone.
It is three years since the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty issued his powerful report on the UK, in which he described the horrific impact of the Government’s dismantling of the social safety net and the political choices that have led to the injustice of where we find ourselves today. Nothing was done and his warnings were dismissed. The time for sticking plasters, such as a reliance on thousands of food bank and pantry volunteers and donors, is over. We need systemic change so that all our people might live with the opportunity of health, happiness and dignity. This is a humanitarian crisis that demands permanent solutions, not tinkering with a system that is broken.
If reliance on charity alone were considered a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling and the national health service—solutions to fundamental problems which have transformed this nation for the better. That is why we need to legislate for the right to food. We need enforceable food rights to ensure that the Government of the day are accountable for making sure that nobody goes hungry and are prevented from making decisions that lead to people being unable to afford to put a meal on the table. Ministers should be under a duty, when setting the minimum wage and any relevant social security benefit, to state how much of the prescribed sum has been calculated for food, because right now it is not enough. How can this be allowed?
We should also legislate for universal free school meals: a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch for every child in compulsory education. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 should be in school, why do we break from that principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to their meals during the day? What a difference that would make to the 4.5 million children going hungry today.
Things must change. With so many trade unions, councils and community campaigners across the UK calling for the right to food to be put into law, will the Minister listen to those voices from across the political spectrum and impress on the Chancellor that the buck stops with him? The richest man in Parliament must find a solution and include the right to food in his spring statement, because hunger is a political choice.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to follow my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, who I know is doing excellent work leading the campaign for the right to food.
We have all seen the catastrophic rise in food poverty at the hands of this Government and their decade-long cuts, and now we are faced with rising food prices and energy costs. Too many people in Pontypridd are at their wits’ end trying to deal with the crisis. In my local area, people are going above and beyond to help support those who are struggling the most with this Government’s catastrophic lack of action on the cost of living crisis. Food banks in Taff Ely and Pontypridd are incredibly busy and are supported by an army of incredible volunteers across the community, who work tirelessly to help people put food on their tables. Community groups, including some of Ponty and our city’s excellent rugby and football clubs, have been doing fantastic work in collecting food to be distributed to those most in need, but it should not be that way.
While it is of course a privilege to be able to highlight the incredible work of my constituents, it is a privilege that comes with real frustration and, to put it bluntly, sheer exasperation. I simply cannot believe that their actions are necessary in a modern, developed nation such as ours. Food bank use has skyrocketed around the country, and it is shameful that everyday people, who are desperately worried that they will not be able to put food on the table to feed themselves and their families, are getting in touch with my office. While the Government are spending their time chasing their tails and trying to defend the indefensible, campaigners such as Jack Monroe and volunteers around the country are working all hours of the day to tackle food insecurity. Raising prices and a reduction in the number of products in basic ranges has an unimaginable impact on people struggling, and while I know that in recent days some retailers have agreed to protect those products, they must all commit to making sure that those products are available and affordable for everyone who buys them.
While the Government’s £20 a week cut to universal credit may not seem like a huge amount of money to some people or our billionaire Chancellor, for many living on universal credit it is the difference between being able to put food on the table for their families or going hungry. At the bare minimum, the Government must urgently reintroduce the uplift to support those most in need. They must also set out a national strategy for food, making it clear how they will ensure access to high-quality, sustainable and affordable food for all.
When talking about food insecurity, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the controversy that surrounded the UK Government’s disastrous attempt to cut free school meals for children in England, a policy I would hope that Members from all political persuasions could see was an appalling idea from the get-go. I am a proud Welsh Labour MP, and I am proud that in Wales the Welsh Labour Government have consistently provided parents with the vital cash needed to put food on the table for children in the school holidays.
In December last year, they went one step further and committed to extending free school meal provision to all primary-aged children. There are important and wider benefits to that approach, such as giving children access to healthy food across the whole school and helping to improve social skills and attainment. I should not have to put that in terms for Conservative Members: they should know that it is simply wrong for any child to go without food. But sometimes it feels as though we are banging our heads against a brick wall.
On energy prices too, this Tory Government would do well to follow Labour’s example. The Welsh Labour Government have just doubled the warm homes discount, and Labour’s plan would see the worst-off in society receive £600 to support them in paying their energy bills—real support, not words on a piece of paper or a loan to be paid off in the distant future. The Government have the chance to take action now to stop kids and families going hungry and shivering in their homes. I sincerely hope the Chancellor, the Secretary of State and the Minister in her place today grab the opportunity while they still can.
The UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe and the highest levels of in-work poverty this century. The Trussell Trust recently revealed that food banks in its network distributed at least three parcels every minute of every day between April and September last year, which was an 11% increase on the same period in 2019. Emergency food provision remains well above pre-pandemic levels. Some 68% of working-age adults in poverty in the UK live in a household where at least one adult is in work. That is the highest rate of in-work poverty since records began, so I trust that the Minister will not tell me that the only way out of poverty is work. People need jobs that pay a decent living wage, not the Government’s pretendy living wage.
Statutory sick pay also needs to be increased so that people who are ill can heat and eat. This is the 21st century, but we are back in Dickensian times. This is not worth it. Some £15 was added to the price of groceries last month, with the rate of food price increases set to soar further this year, just as national insurance contributions are set to rise. Let us not forget that the Prime Minister himself promised to cut energy prices during his botched Brexit campaign. Another broken promise. Perhaps Mr Rees-Mogg needs a long rest after his labours as Leader of the House. Perhaps that is why he has been appointed Minister for Brexit opportunities.
Disabled people will be disproportionately impacted by the higher cost of living and by food insecurity. Trussell Trust data shows that 62% of working-age adults using food banks are disabled. The Food Foundation says that levels of food insecurity are 12% higher for households with a disabled person. Pre-pandemic, the figure was half that. Disabled people did not even get the £20 universal credit uplift, and they are suffering even more during this cost of living crisis. If you are disabled, you need more heating; if you are ill, you need more heating. All of this is a complete disgrace.
In Scotland, the SNP Scottish Government are mitigating this Tory poverty crisis and supporting low-income households using the limited powers available to them to support folk. They have provided £65 million in direct financial support to over half a million households. The Scottish child payment is helping families in poverty in Scotland and it will be doubled in April. The Scottish Government have also introduced a winter support fund, and the winter heating allowance will replace cold weather payments. Why are the UK Government not doing something about that? They do not do anything.
Instead of hanging about, why will the UK Government not tackle fuel poverty properly? Giving folk who are already getting council tax rebates a further rebate does not work. Giving loans to folk who are already so poor that they cannot heat and eat, and making them repay them, does not work. It is time this Government did something. However, as long as Scotland is under Westminster control, we will always be vulnerable. Only with the full powers of independence can Scotland rid itself of these cruel Tory policies and build a fairer society.
I am trying to squeeze in as many speakers as possible, but it will not be possible to get everyone in. I am reducing the time limit to three minutes.
We regularly hear in this Chamber about choices between heating and eating. That is a tough reality for many, but it does not have to be like this. The cost of living crisis and food insecurity sit at the Government’s door. Over the last two years, the Government have had to take some serious action to deal with the furlough scheme and the speedy NHS roll-out of the vaccine, and those were indeed the right outcomes. However, the £4.3 billion in covid loans written off by the Treasury as wasted money, the £37 billion wasted on track and trace and the Government contracts given to their mates are all unacceptable. While public money is not being managed well by the Government, we have seen individuals and families attending food banks and asking for food that they do not have to cook, so that they do not have to use their ovens. Imagine it—no heating, no hot food and no excess money to buy white goods, furniture or clothes. Universal credit just does not go far enough.
Low-wage earners are squeezed to the maximum. They are experiencing rises in private rents, in fuel prices, in national insurance contributions and, of course, in food prices. Universal credit has been reduced at a time when it is needed the most. The Salvation Army in Catford has said:
“Money is not going as far as it should be to cover all expenses.”
We know that, but the question is: do the Government care? If they care, what are they doing about it? The Government have a track record of increasing poverty, or poverty being increased while they are in government.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is an outrage that this Government have just voted for a real-terms cut to social security and pension payments while giving the bankers a £1 billion tax cut?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s track record is one where they are not doing what is needed for people in poverty and experiencing poverty. They are actually helping their own, and that comes down to one rule for them and another rule for everyone else.
The Government are not fit to govern our country due to their failed promises and decisions time and again. The Prime Minister promised that we would take back control when we leave the EU, with lower fuel prices, control of gas and oil and having more to invest in our NHS, but this could not be further from the truth. There are solutions to eradicate the burden of hunger and improve the standard of living to keep families warm and fed, but this Government lack the political will to do so.
As the inspiring James Baldwin once said:
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor”.
My constituents in Leicester West, Leicester residents and people across the country are facing an unacceptable squeeze on living standards that will increase already shockingly high rates of hunger and food insecurity. Between sky-high inflation, stagnant wages and the energy price crisis, households across the country are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis. Inflation has already reached its highest level in almost 30 years—5.4%. This means that the cost of food and everyday essential items is getting more expensive. Worryingly, the chairman of Tesco warned that the worst of the food price rises is yet to come. This is after the managing director of Iceland said that his stores were losing customers not to rival supermarkets but to food banks and to hunger.
Hunger is not inevitable. In one of the richest countries in the world, we have more than enough resources to eradicate hunger for every resident across the UK. While so many have suffered, billionaires and the super-rich have increased their obscene fortunes during the pandemic. Yet this Government raise funds only by squeezing the struggling many while allowing the astronomical wealth of the few to continually grow. Figures released by the Trussell Trust show that use of its food bank in Leicester has risen by more than 300% during the pandemic. The number of children on free school meals in Leicester has increased by 31% since 2016, meaning that over one in five schoolchildren in our city are reliant on free school meals.
I have volunteered with many food banks in my community and I know from first-hand experience the incredible selflessness that is involved. However, the Government have created a scenario in which food banks are normalised and paper over obscene inequality and endemic instability. It is appalling that in one of the world’s richest countries workers are paid poverty wages and are forced to live on the generosity of others. While food banks are currently necessary due to widespread poverty in Leicester and across the country, the over-reliance on them is a symptom of our unsustainably inequal society. Our priority must be to fight for a future that is built on solidarity and dignity, and in which poverty, hunger and food banks are a thing of the past.
Millions of people in this country are living with food insecurity, and this appalling state of affairs is the result of a decade of levelling down by this Government. Some 313,000 food parcels were given out in the north-west by food banks such as the Trussell Trust, which I commend for the excellent work it does. Relative poverty in Blackburn has jumped by more than 25% since 2014. Over 11,000 children are living in households that are struggling with the sad and unthinkable trade-offs that we are hearing about. This crisis has been a result of political choices, and that is shameful. It is shameful that we see such levels of relative poverty, child poverty, in-work poverty and food insecurity in one of the world’s richest countries.
The Minister spoke of people in work, but I remind the House that in Blackburn over a third of people in work are in receipt of universal credit. It is not ending poverty. The Food Foundation found that almost 9% of households experienced food insecurity in the past month. Millions of children are living in households where they do not have healthy and affordable food, giving parents sleepless nights. Pensioners are struggling with this cost of living crisis, making tough decisions on whether to eat or heat. But this is an opportunity for the Government to act—to act fast and go further.
I am concerned that on numerous occasions the Prime Minister has had to be reminded about what he presents as facts in this Chamber. Perhaps he really believes the statements he makes, but policy decisions to improve the situation have not been based on sound data. If his decisions are not based on sound information, he will inevitably get them wrong. That is what is happening now.
I know that we are short of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, so thank you for fitting me in.
The cost of living crisis has been years in the making, and the blame lies at the door of successive Conservative Governments. Communities like mine have been devastated by a decade of austerity. The number of people using food banks has increased every single year that the Conservatives have been in government since 2010. Now, in the fifth largest economy in the world, there are more food banks than there are branches of McDonalds. Almost 1 million people are on zero-hours contracts and hundreds of key workers earn less than the real minimum wage. These jobs are simply failing to put enough food on the table.
Nottingham already has about 15,000 children eligible for free school meals. To make matters worse, last year this Government implemented the biggest overnight cut in social security since the founding of the modern welfare state when they ended the universal credit uplift. Some 14,250 households in Nottingham East have lost £20 a week. The national insurance hike in April will mean that workers lose an additional 1.25% of their income. This is a flat tax, of course, which will hit the lowest paid workers the hardest.
The cost of food and bills is soaring. Rising inflation has a disproportionate impact on people in poorer households. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe has exposed how the prices of cheaper food products have soared as availability has fallen. For example, the cheapest pasta in their supermarket has gone from 29p to 70p—a 141% price increase. When I visited Himmah, a food bank in Nottingham East, in November last year, I was told it was already seeing a steep rise in the number of people relying on its services. I dread to think of the demand from April, as tax hikes and energy bill increases kick in.
The cost of living crisis was created by the political decisions of a Government who have chosen to protect the interests of the wealthy and huge corporations, not those of working people. Amazon paid only 7.5% of the value of its income in the UK in tax in 2020, despite sales increasing by almost £2 billion, and the wealth of British billionaires increased by £107 billion during the pandemic. To end the cost of living crisis we should be raising taxes on those who profited from the pandemic at the expense of those who got us through it. Ministers must increase the minimum wage, end zero-hours contracts, and abolish all anti-trade union laws to give workers power to negotiate better pay and conditions.
I thank all those who have spoken in this debate and I welcome the Secretary of State—I presume it means that he has not been reshuffled and can hear the end of the debate. I thank all those who spoke in the debate, particularly my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris, the first Back Bencher to speak from our side. She described her inspirational social action, which we all think is fantastic. My hon. Friend Apsana Begum spoke of the brilliance of the east end of London, and my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) rightly paid tribute, in the week before HeartUnions week, to the role of our trade unions in our country in supporting working people.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), Hywel Williams, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) all, in their different ways, made the simple and direct point that poverty in this country is a result of political choice.
I want to refer to a song my grandfather wrote called “In my Liverpool home”. Many Members in this House may know it. Unfortunately, a version of it is sung on the football terraces and I hope you will not mind, Madam Deputy Speaker—I think the language is just about parliamentary—if I repeat it to make a point. It goes like this, “In your Liverpool slums, you live in the gutter with nothing to eat, you find a dead rat and you think it’s a treat, in your Liverpool slums.”
That chant is horrible. I hate hearing it. Lots of other football fans sing it and not just about Liverpool. In fact, I heard it on Sunday when it was sung by Cardiff fans about Swansea. The chant stings and it is meant to hurt. I quote it because it describes something we all know in our hearts to be true: poverty in this country is associated with deep shame. Football crowds choose the abuse because it is the ultimate indignity that they can hurl at the other side. So when I hear the Minister, in response to my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, explain that the reason we have food banks in this country is because housing and energy costs are fixed and food costs can therefore be supported by charity, I have to tell her that I cannot accept it. I cannot accept that the answer to a failed Tory decade is charity, not change.
As we have heard time and again in this debate, the indignity of being unable to provide for yourself and your family is exemplified nowhere better than in the exponential growth of food banks in the last decade. Even before covid hit, 2.5 million food parcels were handed out to our fellow citizens—up from just thousands in 2010. In 2019, with the help of great organisations around the country, I wrote a report on how we could make ends meet and end the need for food banks in this country. I can never forget the women I met in Fife who started a food co-operative precisely because both of them had fallen foul of the two-child policy in universal credit and ended up at the food bank door. They were horrified to be there, so they found a way to provide cheaper food for local families to buy and give them back the dignity of choice. Their starting point was that the shame of begging was no way to help any family. That is why the phenomenon of food banks in this country cannot be allowed to continue. We applaud the community spirit of volunteers who help, but we have to ask ourselves: how long can this generosity be allowed to paper over the cracks of 11 failed years?
For every family in this country, whether or not they have ever needed a food bank, have ever sat around the dinner table and worried about paying their mortgage, or have ambitions for their children that they worry will not come to pass, we have to get to the cause of our country’s failures and put them right. In order to do that, we have to get to the root cause, which is a lost decade of economic growth that has been far too low. We have had low growth and it is now exacerbated by a broken Brexit deal, which promised a great deal and has delivered so many problems. Those problems have led to 4.5 million people in food insecurity and to 3.5 million people in insecure work, with terrible contracts that mean that they do not know how much they are going to earn from one month to the next. Even worse, the Office for Budget Responsibility is telling us that 18% of people, nearly one in five in this country, are working below their skill level. They could be doing more, they could be earning more, but they are not. That has led to low productivity, exacerbating the problem of low growth, which has been going on and on for far too long.
So what should the plan for change be? As many Members have said, we need a windfall tax on oil and gas to support the expansion of the warm homes grant. We could take action now: we could take action on VAT and we could help people with energy prices. I am at a loss to know why the Government do not do that. Of course, we need a long-term plan on energy, too. We need proper investment in sustainable sources that will help to ensure we can keep the lights on and help bill payers, too.
Again, I am at a loss to understand why the low-growth Tory party would also want to be the high-tax Tory party—and that is what you are. I am at a loss to understand why they want to compound the problems in our economy without the more fundamental changes to the tax system that we need. Madam Deputy Speaker, my apologies for the use of the word “you” there.
We do need fundamental reform. As I mentioned, 3.5 million people are in insecure work; that cannot go on. We need a very different labour market, with the Low Pay Commission able to get to the root of these problems: not just low pay itself but the poor pay progression that stops work helping people do better tomorrow and even better after that. Central to that is trade union membership. We need more people to have the help and support of a trade union membership card in their pocket and a union rep when they need them. We know that trade union membership helps people at work and helps to increase pay. We have to fix that problem in our labour market. We need to look again at the broken Brexit deal that is holding us back and we need a DWP that can actually help people to improve their prospects at work, not constant initiatives like kickstart and restart that underdeliver again and again, wasting the time and efforts of all the excellent work coaches up and down our country.
Finally, we need to really help people to move on and move upwards. Instead of the “Levelling Up” White Paper, which has a huge number of pages but promises very little, we need actual rebalancing, giving proper powers to regional mayors and others so they can deal with the labour market in their area, which they know best. We need to fix our infrastructure, from public transport to childcare, so that those people who at the moment are able to do little in work can be supported to move onwards and upwards. That is a plan for people’s incomes that will mean not only that they will have a better working life, but money in their pockets.
In so many ways, I felt today this debate has been kind of ludicrous. It is bizarre to have to explain to the party supposedly of free trade that, when supermarkets are giving away food to stop it going to waste and workers do not have enough to pay, so the price of huge amounts of valuable food is effectively zero, that is a market failure. Surely even the Tory party understands that the existence of food banks themselves is a failure. For our side, we know and see the indignity of vulnerable families sent to food banks. It is not just market failure; it is social failure, too. Our country deserves so much better and the time for change is now.
With the leave of the House, I would like to thank Members from across the House for sharing the experiences of their constituents this afternoon.
I will start with my hon. Friend Craig Williams, who made some very important points about growing enough food. We will answer them in the food White Paper and much more in our future farming policies. I undertake that I will continue to work with the Welsh Agriculture Minister, as he suggests.
I thank Carolyn Harris for being the sandwich lady everyone deserves. That is a great initiative. She knows that members of my family have been involved in those deprived areas of Swansea for many years. I applaud everything she does.
My hon. Friend Suzanne Webb spoke powerfully on the effects of covid interventions on the economy. My hon. Friend Jo Gideon, who runs the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, referred to a very important quotation from Lord Woolton:
“Feeding is not enough, it must be good feeding.”
My hon. Friend James Wild shared his experience and spoke with real authority on nuclear energy. My hon. Friend Paul Bristow again spoke of his pride in his city and the Peterborough Heroes. I thank them too, as I thank all volunteers working in the food charity space, although I say to Alison McGovern that we share many of her views on ending the need for food charity, but we do applaud the volunteers who take part in those endeavours.
To Catherine McKinnell, I say that this is a very worrying time for employees at the Fawdon factory. I am told that the Minister for Employment would be delighted to meet her as soon as possible to discuss what support can be put in place for them.
I have met Ian Byrne many times to discuss his important work in this space, particularly Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which is another great initiative. I will continue to work with him on his pleas for a right to food, although I am not promising yet. If only we could pass a law that would bring food poverty to an end, it would be a wonderful thing, but I am afraid that the challenges before us are more significant than that.
I will make some progress.
As the Chancellor said last week, we cannot do anything to control some drivers of cost increases, but we can lessen the blow. As a Government, we have put in place a range of measures to help people who are struggling because, really, of the covid pandemic. It is important to remember that the Treasury spent £400 billion on direct economic support during the pandemic. Universal credit has been a vital safety net for about 6 million people during this time. I also put on record my thanks to DWP staff in Banbury and across the nation, who continue to deliver that benefit and who have worked so hard during the pandemic to ensure that it reaches those who need it.
During the pandemic, we learned that targeted support is often best delivered by local authorities. Our £500 million support fund provides help to the most vulnerable with essential costs such as food. Last year, we spent £220 million on the holiday activities and food programme. It is good to see my hon. Friend Will Quince on the Front Bench, who worked very hard with me and other Ministers to try to get that provision in place.
We are taking action to support the most vulnerable and low-income households over the winter months with the warm homes discount, the winter fuel payments and cold weather payments. When it comes to energy bills, which many hon. Members raised this afternoon, we are introducing a £200 rebate for all households. We are delivering a non-repayable £150 cash rebate for homes in council tax bands A to D, which is equivalent to 80% of all households. We are also giving £144 million in targeted discretionary funding for local authorities to help them to support homes that do not qualify for the rebate.
As we have said many times this afternoon, the best way out of poverty is work. Our plan for jobs is helping people into work. We have heard what has been said about the levels of pay, which the Government take very seriously. The national living wage has been boosted to £9.50 an hour and we continue to work on that area. That is a 6.6% increase, which means an extra £1,000 a year in working people’s pockets.
We now have 32.4 million people in employment and 380,000 fewer children in workless households. What we now need to focus on is filling the vacancies, of which we have 1.25 million. We heard something about them this afternoon, but in my sector of agriculture, we have vacancies today in processing, picking, haulage and packing. The Minister for Employment will be delighted to help hon. Members on both sides of the House to assist constituents into work, as will their local DWP offices.
The UK economy is roaring back to life. We are set to enjoy the fastest growth this year of any nation in the G7. I want everybody to be part of that and to benefit from the economic recovery as we come out of the pandemic.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
is concerned that households are bracing themselves for the biggest drop in living standards in thirty years;
notes that the cost of living crisis includes steep price increases in everyday and essential food items, making the situation worse for the 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children already living in food insecurity and risking more people experiencing food insecurity;
regrets that the Government is making the cost of living crisis worse through tax hikes, low growth, falling real wages, and a failure to tackle the energy crisis;
condemns a decade of Conservative-led governments for leaving Britain uniquely exposed to a global gas crisis and failing to create high paid, secure jobs;
and calls upon the Government to set out a national strategy for food including how it intends to ensure access to high quality, sustainable, affordable food for all and meet the United Nations goal to end hunger by 2030.