Food Poverty Strategy

– in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 22 April 2024.

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

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration) 11:48, 22 April 2024

Exactly 10 years have passed since, in April 2014, an all-party parliamentary inquiry was launched to investigate hunger and food poverty in these islands. Led by the great Frank Field—now Lord Field of Birkenhead—who at that time was a distinguished Member of this House, the inquiry’s report contained a powerful rallying cry. It said:

“The simple but devastating fact that hunger stalks this country should confront each of the main political parties with a most basic and fundamental political challenge. With rising national income nobody could have predicted that in 2014 there would be a significant number of hungry people in Britain. But there are.”

In identifying the forces behind that hunger, the inquiry noted:

“Something fundamental is happening in advanced Western economies which throws into doubt the effectiveness of a national minimum below which no one is allowed to fall. It is the erosion of an effective national minimum that has led to the existence of hunger and the rise of the food bank movement in its wake.”

The fact that I will outline some of those same specific forces later in this debate, and the fact that the number of people having to use food banks has increased relentlessly since the inquiry published its report, is a shocking indictment of the UK Government’s response to hunger and food poverty over the past 10years. It is also a reminder of why an effective strategy is so necessary—to prevent yet another full decade of lengthening queues for food banks and rising levels of hunger.

The Government’s family resources survey recently found that between 2019-20 and 2022-23, household food insecurity increased for the UK as a whole from 8% to 10%. Larger families with children are particularly vulnerable to this form of injustice. A survey commissioned last year by Feeding Britain found that although 3% of households with no children reported accessing a food bank, that proportion increased to 6% among those with one child and 7% among those with two children. The highest proportion—13%—was found among those with three or more children. In a similar vein, adults living in a household with three or more children were almost four times as likely to report skipping meals every day because there was not enough money for food than those with one child, and almost six times as likely than those with no children.

The Minister will know that this injustice is felt by people both in and out of paid employment. Among members surveyed by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, the number relying on food banks increased between 2021 and 2023 from 7% to 17%. Those relying on friends and family have gone from 20% to 34%, and those eating less have gone from 35% to 57%. Of those surveyed, 80% are eating cheaper—unhealthier—meals, 55% have been worried about running out of food and 45% have skipped meals.

Even closer to home, the Minister may be aware that food bank usage among staff at the Department for Work and Pensions increased from 8% of those surveyed by the Public and Commercial Services Union in 2022 to 11% in 2023. Perhaps she could explain why so many staff working for the Department for Work and Pensions are only paid the national minimum wage. The Food Foundation’s recent survey showed that in January, 15% of UK households were experiencing food insecurity. Among households with children, 20% were experiencing food insecurity, and 24% of households of non-white ethnicity were food insecure—1.6 times more than households of white ethnicity. Of those in some kind of employment, 15% were food insecure.

Stark health inequalities are highly prevalent, particularly in diet-related poor health. The most deprived communities are affected disproportionately by much higher rates of food-related ill health and disease, from obesity to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dental decay. Recent reports show an increase in hospital admissions for nutrient deficiencies. The data should ring alarm bells. The longevity of the cost of living crisis means that food insecurity has become the norm for many households who are unable to buy staple nutritious products. Anyone who volunteers for a food bank in Glasgow, like in any other asylum dispersal area, will tell of the need to assist those who seek sanctuary in the UK. Asylum seekers receive a payment of £45 a week—equivalent to what a youth trainee received 30 years ago.

How should the Government respond to those alarming figures? Fortunately, there are two recent precedents—from the Biden Administration in America and the Scottish Government under Humza Yousaf, both of whom have published strategies to eliminate hunger and food poverty within the coming years. A consistent thread running through both those strategies is a combination of specific policies to raise household income levels, improve access to nutritional support schemes and accelerate the development of innovative projects that bring affordable food to areas where people are struggling most. It is that threefold combination that I would like to propose to the Minister by way of an effective food poverty strategy that can eliminate the need for food banks in these islands by 2030.

First, the 2014 inquiry identified food bank usage as resulting from

“delays and errors in the processing and payment of benefits, the sometimes heavy-handed issuing of benefit sanctions…a sudden loss of earnings through reduced hours or unemployment, the absence of free school meals, the accumulation of problem debt or, for some, even a lost purse.”

It added:

“A further group of factors similarly exposes the vulnerability of many poor families. The poor are penalised for their poverty with a raft of disproportionate charges for basic utilities. They pay more for their energy through prepayment meters, are more likely to be charged to withdraw cash from their local machine, and often are unable to take advantage of the best mobile phone contracts—meaning they are likely to be just one bill away from needing to use a food bank.”

Today, around half of all households in receipt of universal credit are having an average of £60 a month deducted from their income, much of which is to repay the loans needed to cover the five-week delay at the beginning of a new claim. In my Glasgow South West constituency, almost a quarter of a million pounds per month was being deducted last year. At this stage, I would provide similar figures about the impact of the Government’s sanctions policy in Glasgow South West, but the Government decided last year that figures would no longer be made available to Members of this House on the amount of money being sanctioned in the constituencies that we represent. However, thanks to Dr David Webster at the University of Glasgow, we know that a total of 538,842 universal credit sanctions were imposed in the year ending October 2023, and 419,219 individual universal credit claimants received at least one sanction.

Food banks across these islands have identified those two policies as the two big recruiting sergeants for emergency food aid, so the first plank of a food poverty strategy must be to reform or get rid of those deductions and sanctions, which are applied so harshly as to leave people hungry. I would place the abolition of the two-child limit on social security payments in a similar category, as well as the introduction of a formal mechanism for advising the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the benefit levels that are required each year to safeguard all households from hunger and food poverty, and the payment of fair wages throughout the public sector and the economy as a whole so that a fair day’s work genuinely delivers a fair day’s pay to all. We need to end the scandal of those working in hospitality not being able to buy food for themselves. We need to end insecure work and guarantee workers their hours of work. We also need firm action against the poverty premium, which still results in poorer households missing out on the best and fairest deals for essential living costs.

Secondly, there are different programmes available specifically to make nutritious food available to people who are at risk of food poverty, but awareness and take-up of those programmes has never been as high as it could be. As such, can the Minister tell me whether the Government will undertake to work with all devolved Administrations and local authorities to ensure that they have the tools they need to automatically identify and register all eligible households for those programmes? That is something that featured heavily in the Biden strategy, and could extend much-needed help to hundreds of thousands of children across these islands.

Thirdly, I am proud to have set up the Good Food Scotland programme, which now runs seven affordable food larders and community shops across Glasgow, including those in Nitshill, Cardonald and Linthouse in my constituency. They serve 2,000 members with fresh, nutritious food at a low cost, helping to fill the gap between big supermarkets and food banks. That approach protects those members from food poverty with dignity and choice, and we expect to be running 10 across the city of Glasgow by the end of this year.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution on the importance of the need for a food strategy. He has highlighted the volunteers and groups across Glasgow that he works with; will he join me in also celebrating the volunteers in Midlothian who help to run the Mayfield and Easthouses Development Trust pantry, the Woodburn pantry, the Gorebridge Beacon pantry, the Newtongrange Development Trust pantry, the Steading community fridge in Rosewell, and the Food Facts Friends pantry and community fridge that I recently visited, along with the Midlothian food bank at Gorebridge parish church and various pantries run by Cyrenians across Midlothian, which all make such an amazing contribution?

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

I am glad to join my right hon. Friend in thanking his organisations in Midlothian. He will know, as I do, that the case studies from these organisations can be very illuminating, and I will mention one now.

Case studies from these projects show how much difference they can make. A couple using the Linthouse Larder used to do their weekly shop in Asda at a cost of £80 a week. Buying the same items in the Linthouse Larder has reduced their weekly shop to £30 a week—a saving of £50 a week. That helps many people in Glasgow South West and in the constituency of my right hon. Friend. Those are the kind of savings that can be made, and I want to thank all those community organisations in Glasgow South West and beyond, across these islands, who are tackling hunger and food poverty. On a bigger scale, and with the appropriate resources, these affordable food programmes could play an important part in eliminating food poverty across these islands.

I propose to the Minister that the Government commit as soon as possible to a cross-sector summit, with the aim of helping communities to secure the resources they need to deliver such programmes at the scale that will be necessary in the years ahead. In addition to that, much of the food required to sustain such programmes could be made available if the Government introduced the mandatory reporting of food waste and surplus in retailers’ supply chains—a measure that would trigger much-needed action by those retailers to ensure that edible surplus arising in the farms and factories that supply them was recycled for human consumption rather than put to waste. When Baroness Boycott proposed such a measure in the other place in 2021, the Government rejected the idea on the proviso that voluntary efforts within the food industry should first be given a chance. I would argue that, three years on, it is surely time to reconsider that idea with urgency.

It is nothing short of shameful to have to bring to this House yet again the issue of hunger as a form of injustice that continues to blight the lives of millions of people in the UK, exactly a decade after the launch of an all-party inquiry that gave the Government a set of proposals to make it a thing of the past. Just imagine a society where no one goes hungry; just imagine a society with a proper social security system; just imagine a society where work pays; and just imagine a society where food is accessible for all and at a fair price. That should be our rallying call. We cannot afford to let even more time slip by without a strategy to achieve that objective. With the numbers of hungry people continuing to rise, now more than ever we need to tackle this emergency, and I await with interest the Minister’s response.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 12:03, 22 April 2024

I congratulate Chris Stephens on securing this important debate on the potential merits of a food poverty strategy. I would like to start by saying that no one wants to see people struggling in our constituencies right across these islands, and I understand fully the passion that drives the contribution on these important subjects. I would like to add my voice to those of the hon. Gentleman and Owen Thompson in extending thanks to all those charities, and more broadly to institutions such as the Church that do lunches and so on. They not only provide food but are part of that cohesive societal network that helps people at times of need.

Food insecurity is highly complex—the hon. Gentleman explained very clearly how complex it is—covering not only my own Department but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Business and Trade, His Majesty’s Treasury and so on.

The annual statistics on incomes and living standards were published by my Department last month. They cover the year when the war in Ukraine and global supply chain pressures led to exceedingly high inflation, averaging 10% over the year. Food price inflation linked with the consumer prices index peaked during this time, reaching a high of 19.1% in March 2023. Thankfully, however, the latest figures show that it has dropped again, to about 4%, with upward forces bringing the rise in February and March to 0.2%, down from 1.1% since a similar period last year. According to statistics, food bank use during this period has remained relatively stable, although I agree that it is higher than any of us would want.

Since 2022-23, the period covered by these statistics, we have taken firm action to help families on the lowest incomes. We will spend about £306 billion in the coming financial year through the welfare system, including £138 billion on families and those of working age. The Government provided an unprecedented cost of living support package worth £96 billion during 2022-23 and 2023-24, including £20 billion for two rounds of cost of living payments targeted specifically at those who were struggling the most. That helped to shield people from the impact of inflation, preventing some 1.3 million households from falling into absolute poverty after housing costs. Since 2010 the Government have overseen significant falls in poverty, with 1.1 million fewer people in absolute low income after housing costs in 2022-23 than in 2009-10.

I am not suggesting for a minute that things have not been, and are not still, difficult for many. Food poverty is complex, as I have said, and it cannot be tackled through welfare alone. The levers for tackling this issue sit with a number of Government Departments, which is why we are not only working across Government to bring down food inflation, but meeting external anti-poverty stakeholders through our Departments and talking to other Departments about what more we can do. That includes encouraging retailers and those involved in local ecosystems.

Through regular engagement, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to work with food businesses throughout the supply chain to explore a range of measures that they can take to ensure the availability of affordable food by, for instance, maintaining value ranges, price matching and price freezing. However—the hon. Gentleman would expect me to say this—it is not for the Government to tell retail outlets how to set their food prices, or to tell companies what to do. Retailers have introduced incentives for customers, such as reward cards offering small discounts, and a number of stores are offering meal deals either in-store or in their cafés. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, many use local or national groups to redistribute food at the end of the working day, and many interact with FareShare, among other charities.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

A scandalous amount of food is being wasted and going to landfill, and I think we should do something about that. It is not a silver bullet, but will the Minister ask her colleagues in DEFRA to sit down with those of us who care passionately about this subject, and discuss addressing the fact that we have food poverty on one hand and a large amount of food waste on the other?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Funnily enough, earlier today I was talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, about exactly that issue. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there was no mandate three years ago, and I was discussing how the reporting and so on was going. We know that not only are there the benefits of redistribution for individuals but there is a significant environmental benefit for not putting that food in landfill and creating methane, so arguably there is a double win. When done sensibly, redistribution enables others to do the same as charities such as the Felix Project, which freezes food and makes it available to people.

The economy has turned a corner. Inflation has more than halved and is forecast to fall below 2% in 2024-25, while wages are rising in real terms and have done for the last consecutive nine months. Prices for food and non-alcoholic beverages rose by 4% in the year to March, easing for the 12th consecutive month. However, we recognise the financial challenges that many are still facing, which is why as inflation comes down to the 2% target we are continuing to provide support for the 2024-25 period. This includes uprating working-age benefits by 6.7%, well ahead of the current inflation rate, and uplifting the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile of local rents, which will benefit about 1.6 million private renters by, on average, £800 a year, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, alleviating financial pressures throughout the system for individuals.

Further, there is additional support for families, including free school meals, which are being claimed by some 2 million of the most disadvantaged pupils; the £40 million that the Department for Education has put into stimulating the breakfast clubs; and healthy food schemes, such as Healthy Start, which provide a nutritional safety net to more than 3 million children. I looked after the Healthy Start policy when I was at the Department of Health and Social Care, getting the uplift to £4.25 a week, so that pregnant women and children over one and under four receive £4.25 every week. For a child under one, it is £8.50 every week. This can be used to buy, or be put towards the cost of, fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables; fresh, dried and tinned pulses; milk and infant formula. I remember well meeting Daisy, who spoke to me very clearly about the difference it made having fresh produce, as the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, come into her life and those of her children, and the nutritional benefit it gave them.

For those who still need extra help while inflation continues to fall, we are providing an additional £500 million to enable the extension of the household support fund for a further six months, including funding for the devolved Administrations through the Barnett formula, meaning local authorities in England will receive an additional £421 million to support local people, with the rest being distributed to the other nations. Independent charitable organisations do fantastic work that also helps in this space, whether they are our local churches or organisations providing lunches and community pantry schemes. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, they all help individuals and families when they are in need.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

I thank the Minister for giving way again; she is being extremely generous. One concern that has been reported to us is that the Department for Work and Pensions is no longer helping with food bank vouchers. Can she confirm that that is now departmental policy? That would be a very real concern for someone who is in difficulty, having a conversation with a work coach, for example, who is now being denied that food bank voucher or discussing that sort of support that someone in absolute poverty requires.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to put to bed completely the idea that there has been any change in our policy. We have always signposted that support. The only thing the DWP has done is brought in a new slip to replace the one used previously. There is no change to the existing policy, but the new slip allows us to improve our existing practices and to comply with our departmental responsibilities under GDPR. Our jobcentres continue to provide customers with guidance to find that additional support, including signposting to emergency food support where appropriate. We stand ready to help people when they are most in need.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the two-child policy. The latest statistic that we have for households in receipt of universal credit is that the majority of families—some 78%—have fewer than three children. Surely it is right that all families, whether in receipt of universal credit or not, should face the same financial choices when deciding whether to grow their family.

While our actions have shown that we remain committed to a strong welfare safety net—particularly during challenging economic times—we know that the best way we can help is through support to move into work. That approach is based on clear evidence on the role of full-time work in substantially reducing poverty. The latest statistics show that working-age adults in workless households were about seven times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs. Children living in workless households were more than six times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those in families where adults work. There are now over 1 million fewer workless households in the UK than in 2010—that is 680,000 fewer children growing up in a home where no one works. That is a cause for some gratitude.

There are more than 900,000 vacancies across the UK, and through our core job centre offer we are firmly supporting people to get into work. We support them with travel costs through the flexible support fund, with face-to-face time with work coaches, and help with interviews. The voluntary in-work progression offer is in all jobcentres across Britain, providing an estimated 1.6 million low-paid workers on universal credit with access to personalised work coaches.

We have also reduced the taper rate from 63p to 55p in the pound. We provide childcare costs, capped at £1,000 for a single child and more than £1,700 a month for larger families. We can even help with the advance.

To ensure that work pays, we have put the national living wage for people aged over 21 up by over 9.8% to £11.44 an hour, as the hon. Member mentioned. That makes sure that people are rewarded for the work they do, and it means an extra £1,800 for someone working full time. We are also providing a tax cut for 27 million people by further reducing the main rate of class 1 national insurance contributions.

Our focus continues to be on providing opportunities for people to be supported and to succeed in work, based on our firm belief that this is a sustainable way of tackling all forms of poverty. At the same time, we understand the challenges that people face, and we will continue to work across Government and party to ensure food security and that the broader welfare system will support those who need it.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I wish to inform the House that the message to the Commons from the Lords is that the Lords do not insist on their amendment to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill to which the Commons disagreed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.