UK Poverty — [Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 4th February 2015.

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Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:30 pm, 4th February 2015

It has been almost five years since the coalition Government took office, so we are far beyond the time when it was even remotely credible to claim that everything that has happened in this country is the fault of the previous Government. The truth is that the choices that we make as a country have an effect. With a few months to go until the general election, this is a good time to assess the Government’s impact on the most vulnerable people in this country and to look again at the Prime Minister’s claim, five years ago, that he would not balance the books on the backs of the poorest. What a joke that statement now seems.

The rise in food banks has been the most visible sign of the devastation caused to towns such as mine, Wigan. In the past three months, my local charity, the Brick, has handed out more than 1,000 food parcels to families who cannot afford to eat. The first thing I want to say is this: be in no doubt that the situation has become much worse under this Government. Ministers have constantly said that food banks are the fault of the previous Government, but let me give them the facts. There were 3,000 food bank users in 2005, and 40,000 by 2010. By 2012, that had exploded to 128,000 people queuing for food parcels in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Under the Labour Government, food banks fed tens of thousands of people a year; they now feed a quarter of a million people in this country, and the numbers are rising.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She may not be aware that we had never had a food bank in Oldham until 2012. In that year, 849 food parcels were delivered; last year, 5,000 people ended up receiving support, including 1,500 children. The numbers are going up inexorably. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on the suffering that those people are experiencing?

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That experience is mirrored in my constituency. The Brick gave out 6,097 food parcels in Wigan last year. I spent a day helping its volunteers to do that. Many of the food parcels were cold boxes—I had never heard of a cold box before I spent the afternoon at my local food bank—for people who cannot afford the gas or electricity required to heat up some soup or a tin of beans. Our credit union, Unify, the charity Compassion in Action and Citizens Advice have given out loans, furniture and fuel payment vouchers in increasing numbers in the past four years. Yet people were told by Paul Maynard that unfortunately their food bank use has become a habit. How utterly offensive.

The real causes are obvious. In my constituency, one can track almost exactly when the cracks in the community started to show. In October 2012, the Government introduced a new sanctions regime that affected nearly

6,000 families in my borough alone. It had an immediate impact. In early 2013, the manager of the Brick, Trish Green, said:

“We have been operating since 2008 but recently we have seen more families, more young people and people who have lost their jobs using the service…It also affects every part of the borough and we distribute food parcels throughout different communities, not simply the more deprived areas.”

That is mirrored across the region: as pointed out by my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams, between 2012 and 2014, the number of people accessing food banks in the north-west exploded, growing by 238%. That was not, as the Conservative Minister for Business and Enterprise, Matthew Hancock said, because

“more people know about them”.

The vast majority of food bank referrals were because of benefit sanctions, although delays, debt, low-paid work, loss of job and family crisis were all common reasons.

Most of my constituents who have used a food bank were referred to it after being refused help by the jobcentre. A quarter of them had been told that they had not participated in an employment programme, and a fifth had been told that they had failed to attend an adviser interview. Let me give the Minister an example. Just yesterday, a man got in touch with me who had taken on temporary work over Christmas. He had notified the jobcentre of the start and finish dates of that temporary work, but was told that he had missed an appointment with the jobcentre to give the information that he had already provided. He was sanctioned. The jobcentre was closed on the day when he was supposed to have attended an appointment, so he was paid just 1p for the whole of January. He found out yesterday that he has been given £26 for the whole of February. Will the Minister tell me how someone in this country is meant to live on a penny a month?

Quite separately, two other people got in touch with my office, one a woman, the other a young man. Both had been sanctioned in the past few months for attending the funeral of a family member. In both cases, the individuals had notified the jobcentre of the reason why they could not turn up to sign on. I was thinking about what on earth people are supposed to do in that a situation. It reminded me of a line from Kafka, which states that

“it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”

When death is not a good enough reason to change the rules, what sort of society have we become?

We find increasingly that people are sanctioned for being just a few minutes late for appointments to sign on. My local councillor, Jeanette Prescott, said that

“several times this year I have had to refer a gentleman with learning difficulties to Denise (the local Reverend) for food due to him having sanctions on him for turning up late (once by 4 minutes). The gentleman can’t tell the time and is a recluse. He has been found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric or gas. He won’t ask for help. Only for the old neighbours watch out for him and contact myself heaven knows what would of happened to him. I was informed he has to get a letter off the doctor for an electric card…The lad turned up at my door the other night. He hadn’t eaten for 5 days. He looked like he was dying.”

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that people who work very hard, and who might be earning very small amounts from working 50 hours a week, have to turn up to work on time. If they are late for their employment, they might be sanctioned by their employer. It is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping, which is an important part of securing and keeping a job.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that taking that sort of patronising tone towards people is exactly why people throughout the country are so angry with the Government. While he was speaking, my hon. Friend Helen Goodman made the point that two Conservative Members turned up minutes late for this debate, but they will still be allowed to participate if they wish to do so. I will come on to the example of a working couple who got in touch with me recently and who have had real problems with the system. Nevertheless, I am happy to give way again if Mr Spencer wants to come back on this point: what would he expect someone with learning difficulties, who cannot tell the time, to do in that situation? He has no one to turn to for help and was sanctioned for being four minutes late.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I think that that emphasises the importance of the education system in solving the challenges that we face as we move forward. We must try to ensure that the employees of the future are in the best place to be able to take on a career and move forward with a job.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The man I am talking about is the fourth case of someone with learning disabilities being sanctioned that I have come across in my constituency office this month. The Minister’s Department holds the responsibility for people with disabilities. I hope that she has listened to the comments made by her colleague and will take the opportunity to condemn them. I also hope that she will ensure that in future no one will be sanctioned for having learning difficulties that prevent them from being able to tell the time.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take the opportunity to mention the fact that the universal credit regulations include the potential for introducing in-work conditionality for people who are in work but on low pay. Mr Spencer should be careful in what he says. Also, people are sanctioned who have done nothing wrong. We repeatedly hear examples of people who did not know that they had appointments because they were made without their knowledge. Of course, they did not turn up to those appointments, so they were sanctioned.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Absolutely. I could not agree with my hon. Friend more.

I want the Minister to understand the complete nonsense of the system. Another of my local councillors, Lol Hunt, got in touch with me last week to help a 53-year-old woman. That woman was awarded maximum points for ESA last year; she got no points at all this year. Absolutely nothing in her health or circumstances has changed. Councillor Hunt said that

“she has very little food in her cupboards and is cancelling her direct debits this week for rent, gas, electric, phone etc. as she simply cannot pay.”

That is just the tip of the iceberg as to the stupidity of the sanctions regime.

The single biggest reason that my constituents were given for being sanctioned last year was that they were supposedly not seeking work. For example, in one family, a couple with two-year-old twins, one of the partners worked as a home care worker on a zero-hours contract—I am sure all Members are familiar with the situation of the many people who work in the home care industry on low pay and with insecure conditions. The hours that she was given were so few that the pay did not even cover the bus fare to work.

The wider family tried to help out, but the stepfather is out of work and the grandmother on a small pension. They were even refused a doorstep loan. The twins were living on a tin of beans and a few potatoes a day, while the adults went for days on only tea and the occasional biscuit. Relatives of mine remember such conditions in our family a few generations back, but that was before the war. One of my constituents—one of the parents—told me that

“asking for food was so humiliating but the alternative was to go hungry. We were so grateful for the help of the Brick and they made us feel like it is not something to be ashamed of.”

Contrast the actions of that local Christian charity with the words of Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, who said that

“food from a food bank…is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1072.]

How utterly insulting to a family such as the one I am describing. They had built up £1,000 in rent arrears, because they were not earning enough even to cover the bus fare to work. At a loss as to how to help them, the only advice that a local charity could give them was that the partner should leave her job, because it was pushing them further into debt. Reluctantly, they went to claim jobseeker’s allowance, but were told that she had left the job voluntarily and were sanctioned for three months. The mother said:

“We were receiving 15 minutes of work a day that is around £1.10 a day. If this…wasn’t a good reason for leaving a job, I truly do not understand what is.”

That is not an accident of the system, that is the system.

The level of confusion in the Government is astonishing. The Department for Work and Pensions website states:

“We expect claimants to do all they reasonably can to look for and move into paid work. If a claimant turns down a particular vacancy (including zero-hours contract jobs) a sanction may be applied, but we will look into the circumstances of the case and consider whether they had a good reason.”

Only a couple of weeks ago, however, I had a letter from the Minister stating:

“It may be helpful to explain that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants are not required to apply for a zero hours contract job and cannot be sanctioned for refusing to accept employment under a zero hours contract or for leaving such employment voluntarily.”

She even went to the trouble of underlining some of the words in that sentence. When she responds to the debate, will she tell me how that fits with what happened to my constituents only recently? Will she tell us what the policy is? Perhaps she would like to explain it to people who are trying to navigate the system and work within it, but who find that there is no safety net.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Surely the hon. Lady has to accept that in a complicated welfare system, with officers working in jobcentres, on occasion a mistake will be made. That may happen at times. The question is, how do you put that problem right? If the rules are being set by the Government, but sadly on occasion being misinterpreted or misunderstood, we have to find a system that puts that right. Accidents will happen, but it is a question of how we put them right quickly.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be listening: the rules are the problem and make no sense. I have just quoted two examples, one from the Minister and one from the Minister’s departmental website, that contradict one another. Neither makes any sense in the context of what happened to my constituents. I have written back to the Minister to ask what on earth is going on, though I have not had a reply yet. I hope that I will get a reply, and that all the people stuck in the same situation as the one my constituents just went through will get any reply at all.

In “The Trial” by Kafka, the hero of the novel, K, said:

“But I’m not guilty…there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty?”

The priest replied:

“That is true…but that is how the guilty speak.”

That is exactly what is happening to people in the system. There is nowhere to turn, there is no way to fight their way out of the system. That is not an accident of the system, that is the system, and it is time that the Government did something about it.

The saga for the family in my constituency continued—that was not the end of it. After the sanctions were lifted, they were told that they had to sign on every day at an unpredictable time, and that for a family with two-year-old twins. One of the parents said that once her partner

“had to take our two sick, contagious children who were suffering (from hand, foot and mouth disease) with her to a job centre appointment as the adviser said you must come in, bring them on the bus with you. Even when we replied but they have a temperature of over 40 degrees his response was if you don’t come in we will have to issue a further suspension. We live in fear that our money will be stopped and this hell will never end.”

That is indeed a hell.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

I have great sympathy for some of the individual cases that the hon. Lady has talked about, but I want to introduce a note of perspective based on my own constituency experience. The last time I checked with my jobcentre, just before Christmas, fewer than 5% of all the people seen there had been sanctioned over the previous 12 months. We are talking about a minority, and she is talking about a very tiny minority of an already small minority. I also want to put in a word for the sanctions regime, because from the experience of what I have seen, the threat of sanctions has been of assistance in galvanising people to maintain their appointments and genuinely to seek work.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for trying to bring statistics to the debate, but they do not reflect the reality. Glasgow university has found that across the country, one in five have been sanctioned, and 6,000 families in my borough alone. In the past few weeks, research from Oxford university shows that the majority of people who have been kicked off benefits due to sanctions have not gone into work. So it is simply not true to say that we are talking only about a minority.

Furthermore, although I know that the hon. Lady fights for people and against injustice—I have seen her do so on behalf of her constituents—if such things happen to families, they must be stopped. We should not tolerate what happens to families who are trying to find work and do their best. They might have to drag ill two-year-old twins across town because of the inflexibility and inhumanity that we have somehow managed to build into the system. It is a hell of low-paid jobs, zero-hours contracts and rising living costs. Frankly, the system lacks any compassion or understanding.

Can the Minister comprehend the social isolation being caused? A 39-year-old mum got in touch with me. She is struggling to walk because of spina bifida, which has deteriorated in recent years, and she has three kids. She applied for a personal independence payment, but was told—this is common—that it could take a year. She said:

“We don’t leave the house and I need help.”

A local reverend contacted me about a parishioner who had been sanctioned. She told me:

“He was living on one bowl of porridge a day and glasses of water to stave off the hunger. He sold his TV and most of his valuables. He’s a very gentle man who cannot understand how this has happened to him.”

I was contacted by a woman who took a cleaning job for 25 hours a week in Warrington, involving two buses, a train journey and a four-mile bike ride simply to get to work. It was a minimum-wage job and the travel alone came to £45 a week. When money was missing from the first pay packet—a common experience for many families who work in that industry—she was hit with rent arrears and threatened with eviction. She said:

“We only have £3 a week after out bills are paid meaning we can’t afford any shopping or gas once again.”

People are trying, but their Government quite simply are not on their side. When they ask for help, they are sanctioned. Nothing is done to stamp out the scourge of exploitative zero-hours contracts. There is no action on low pay; the Minister’s own Department accounts for more than half of the directly employed or contracted Government workers who earn less than £7.65 an hour. What could be more symbolic than the fact that her own Department has one of the worst records in Whitehall on paying the living wage? This crisis is of the Government’s own making.

We know what the real problem is: the lack of good, sustainable jobs that command decent pay. But because the Government have absolutely no answers to that problem they hit people hardest. Instead of tackling underemployment, they hit the underemployed. Instead of tackling low pay, they hit the low paid. They pick off those people who are least able to complain and while doing so they haemorrhage money on contracts to the private sector that do little to get people into work but create the living hell that my constituents have written to me about.

We are storing up so many problems for the future. The situation is pushing more and more people in my community into debt, and one of the biggest causes of that debt is the bedroom tax, which affects 4,500 households in my constituency alone. Rent arrears have gone through the roof and the vast majority are caused by one factor only, that callous, ineffective policy. Those families have never been in debt before in their lives. And it is not simply the same households—more and more people are being affected as their circumstances change, including 817 new families in my borough last year. There is quite simply nowhere for them to move to. In towns such as Wigan we built family-sized properties on purpose, because that was what people wanted and needed. We move people into those properties and then hit them with the bedroom tax and tell them to move, but there is nowhere for them to move to.

Many of those families have survived the past few years by claiming discretionary housing payments—in my constituency, the number is over 3,000. But that is senseless. We are burning money—we spent £412,000 on that in the last year alone. So what do the Government do? Instead of reversing a cruel and vicious policy that is ripping people out of their communities and pushing them into debt, they announced on Friday that they are slashing the money for discretionary housing payments by a quarter. Not that long ago, additional money for discretionary housing payments was being announced—with loud fanfare—and was aimed at disabled people and foster carers. I am really interested to hear from the Minister what assessment she has made of the potential impact of the cut on the 14,000 children who are waiting for a foster home or on people with disabilities.

The bedroom tax is senseless. It does not work. The DWP’s own analysis has shown that between May and December 2013 just 22,000 of the 500,000 households affected by the bedroom tax had downsized. It has done nothing to reduce private sector rents, either. The DWP’s figures show that rents have gone down by 76p a week, but the rent shortfall is over £6. The problem does not hit landlords; 89% of the cuts to housing benefit have hit tenants, and just 11% have hit landlords.

What is worse, on top of all that, is that many families—12,000 in Wigan—now have to pay council tax who did not have to do so before. As a result, arrears have gone up in my borough by 91%. To give hon. Members an illustration of the human cost of that, only last week my office staff were on the phone trying to stop bailiffs entering the home of an elderly couple who had got into difficulties with their rent and were desperately frightened.

The impact of all this can be seen right across my high street. Where there used to be shops, charity shops, small cafés and small businesses we now have loan sharks—people who lend at extortionate rates to those too desperate to go anywhere else. Loan sharks used to be seen as a blight on our society, but now it seems the Government are their best agent, stimulating demand and creating business for them. The signs are visible.

I will tell the Minister about the reality. It is not, as Baroness Jenkin said, that poor people do not know how to cook, but that poor people cannot afford the gas or electricity to do so. Many of my poorest constituents are on pre-payment meters. They get charged more and are cut off even if they have young kids. Once they get their benefits back they have to repay the debt before they can get the meter back on. My local reverend said:

“One family we found had no gas or electricity over the Christmas period. I put £20 on their gas card and they got only £8 of gas because it took the rest in fines and arrears.”

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

I want to put on the record the context of the quote that the hon. Lady attributed to Baroness Jenkin. She said it as a comment on society as whole, because she felt that cooking skills had been lost from one generation to the next—that was the context in which she made that remark. The hon. Lady may know that Baroness Jenkin does a huge amount of work on poverty reduction.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

At the very least, Baroness Jenkin took an interest in the issue, which is more than I can say for the Prime Minister or most of his Front-Bench colleagues. But I would say that that remark came in the context of a stream of remarks made by different Government members and Back Benchers from the hon. Lady’s own party that are hugely offensive to people who are stuck in the position I have described and are trying their best, only to find that the Government are not doing the same.

The head teacher of a school in the same area as the family whose £20 gas card was immediately eaten up by debt got in touch with me to say that the school is now having to use the pupil premium to employ learning mentors not to support children in the classroom but to go to family homes to try to sort out problems with vermin, lack of electricity and all the other things those families are not able to deal with themselves, or to find the families food or refer them to food banks. The former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, said in 2013 that those families were

“not best able to manage their finances.” —[Hansard, 9 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 681.]

That beggars belief. He was the Government Minister responsible for child welfare at the time; the fact that he even thinks that those families have finances to manage absolutely beggars belief.

The reality is that children and young people have been among the hardest hit. Barnardo’s got in touch with me when it saw I had secured this debate to tell me that increasingly it sees numbers of families in its projects who are reliant on food banks because their income is not keeping pace with the cost of living. What a waste that is. I know Barnardo’s really well. I used to work for the Children’s Society and worked closely with Barnardo’s on some of its projects for young people across the country. Barnardo’s unlocks the talent of children and young people, and helps them to develop, thrive and use their energies, passion and commitment in their local communities. Instead, in 2015, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is diverting its resources to simply feeding and clothing our children.

Barnardo’s told me that the sanctions regime had had a particular impact on young people, especially care leavers, young homeless teenagers and teenage parents—arguably, those young people to whom, as a society, we owe the biggest responsibility. That is especially the case for young people leaving care: we are their corporate parent and hold responsibility for them. Homeless Link told me that 58% of young people seeking help because of sanctions have a mental health problem or other problem. Nationally, 42% of all sanctions relating to JSA affect 18 to 24-year-olds, including over 1,000 young people in my town.

That generation’s wages have fallen by 10% since this Government came to power. Those young people have lost the education maintenance allowance and the future jobs fund. They have seen tuition fees hiked to £9,000 a year and a record 1 million are out of work, yet their Prime Minister has the nerve to tell them that they should be “earning or learning” or they will lose their benefits. How can they? That is my question.

Barnardo’s told me about a young mum who was sanctioned for six weeks because she was attending a school appointment about her child’s behaviour. After she turned to a loan shark, her children, who were desperate to help, went shoplifting to feed the family. Do Ministers have any idea of the desperation that their policies are causing? A local police officer said to me that

“we used to find kids nicking stuff to sell but nowadays it’s more likely to be bread.”

Police forces in Lancaster, Cleveland, Northumbria and my own area of Greater Manchester have said that food and grocery thefts are on the rise. The local chamber of commerce said

“this crisis has been…caused by excessive debt.”

To echo the words of UNICEF:

“It is no accident…It’s possible to make better choices than we’ve made.”

Under the previous Government the number of children in poverty fell by 1.1 million—I know that because I was working with children and young people in the voluntary sector at the time. It also fell, as Ministers are fond of telling us, by 300,000 in the first year of this Government, but please let us not pretend that we do not understand that those figures lag two years behind Government actions.

There is no longer any twisting the facts. Child poverty is widely predicted to rise by 2020 on relative and absolute measures—it does not matter that the Government have made all of us poorer, because poverty is still on the rise. The latest estimates show an increase of half a million children living in relative poverty under this Government and 800,000 more in absolute poverty. None of the figures takes into account rising housing costs. It is not just the lack of material means, but the gnawing anxiety that goes with waking up every day, not having enough food to eat and not knowing what will happen and what the future holds. If Government policy does not change course, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that child poverty will have doubled between 2010 and 2020. The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act 2013 alone could push 200,000 more children into poverty.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

I very much appreciate the list of anecdotes that the hon. Lady has given about people who have fallen on really hard times. There is a need for Government to act in certain ways, but surely she must understand that some responsibility lies at the door of the previous Government who caused the 7% drop in GDP and the massive deficit that the Government are trying to correct. Unfortunately, because of their mistakes, tough decisions have to be taken, but I am yet to hear anything from her about how more money can be made available from some sort of magic money tree somewhere that would allow her to reverse the decisions that the Government have taken.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That would carry more weight if the Government had managed to do anything like balance the books in the past few years, but the economic stupidity of this sort of policy is clear. In constituencies such as mine, when money is taken out of the pockets of the poorest, they will not spend in local shops and businesses. We have seen exactly what happens in that case: shops and businesses lose trade, then staff, and the vicious cycle continues. It sounds like the hon. Gentleman has just offered the best possible defence of trying to balance the books off the backs of the poorest.

There is an alternative. Germany, Poland, Canada and Australia have all seen child poverty fall in the past four years. The UK is one of only four countries where there has been an unprecedented increase in material deprivation among children. The truth is that those are political choices. I will also say to the hon. Gentleman that we were all present for the 2012 Budget, which had devastating effects in communities such as mine. That Budget, which slashed tax credits and benefits in real terms for people who were in or out of work—some of the poorest people in the country—also handed a tax cut worth nearly £2,000 a week to people who earn more than £1 million a year. Those are political choices and to pretend otherwise is to deny the facts.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. I guess there will always be a difference in politics between the two sides in this debate—I think that 1% of people paying 30% of income tax is actually quite a good deal for 99% of people, but let us put that to one side. What alternative is she offering? How will she pay for any of the reverses in policy that she is asking for? There has been no suggestion at all. Every time that the Opposition find an imaginary pot of money, whether it be from stopping tax avoidance in some scheme or whatever, they spend it 12 or 13 times. Give us one single way in which the Opposition will find money to spend on these schemes, please.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I will give the hon. Gentleman not one, but several. First, put money back into the pockets of the poorest, because they will spend that money and the economy will grow. That means stamping out things such as zero-hours contracts that exploit people in the ways that I described. Secondly, raise the minimum wage, which will give people greater security in their homes—jobs that pay the rent and cover travel costs.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

That is all money out and no money in.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That is not money out. I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman, because he obviously needs to understand but does not at present. In this country we are unique in having major structural problems in our economy, which means that poverty is higher than in most other countries even before tax and spending decisions are taken into account.

First, it is the Government’s failure not to tackle root causes such as low pay and zero-hours contracts that causes the level of poverty to be so high in the first place. Secondly, because we then need to spend so much money in income transfers to compensate for that, unfair decisions are made that benefit richer people at the expense of poorer people, which compounds the problem. That is why we have had the explosion of food banks in recent years and why, 30 years after the miners’ strike where the community in my constituency had to come together to feed and clothe our children, because of this Government we are having to do that once more.

I will tell the hon. Gentleman this as well: people are not just being caused distress, anguish and despair, but having their health and safety put at risk. On Monday, a paediatrician, Dr Colin Michie, spoke out about the increase in malnutrition-related hospital admissions in children aged under 16. Hospital admissions for malnutrition doubled between 2008 and 2012 and last year 6,520 people—a seven-year high—were admitted to hospital because of that. The Faculty of Public Health’s John Middleton said that food-related ill health was getting worse

“through extreme poverty and the use of food banks”.

People cannot afford good quality food, so malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent. It is almost inconceivable that in this country in 2015 we are seeing the return of Victorian diseases. Hospital admissions for scurvy have doubled under this Government since 2010.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I wonder whether the hon. Lady could help us by giving a definition of the types of food that she means. Products such as potatoes and fresh carrots are actually the cheapest sources of food available.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman went down to a local food bank in his constituency and explained to his constituents that they should be buying carrots and potatoes, they would thank him for that in May. That is the sort of attitude to people whose poverty has been caused by the Government that does his party so much harm, and deservedly so.

I will say this to the hon. Gentleman: food prices have increased by 12% in the past few years, but wages have fallen by 7.6%. Those are the facts and that is why families do not have enough to feed and clothe their children. The British Red Cross is more used to working in countries torn apart by war, famine and disaster, yet, because of the Government’s actions, a couple of years ago it had to launch an emergency appeal to feed and clothe our children.

It was Nelson Mandela who said:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”, yet here we are, forcing parents to drag ill two-year-olds across town on buses. Children have to grow up in cold, damp conditions without gas, electricity and enough to eat. Children are admitted to hospital because of hunger. Schools, vicars and charities are stepping in to help and finding themselves overwhelmed. If that is the measure of our soul as a country, what sort of society have we become under the Government?

The truth is that it could be so different. I tried to explain that to Chris Heaton-Harris a moment ago, but I will try again—perhaps he will understand. We have got one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe—second only to Ireland—because of factors such as low pay and that is before anything is done through the state to try to tackle that. Once decisions on tax and welfare such as those that the Government have made are taken into account, child poverty goes through the roof.

The IFS shows that tax and benefit changes made by the coalition have hit the poor and families with young children hardest and reduced household incomes by £1,127 a year. Professor John Hills from the London School of Economics said it was true that the very rich, with incomes of more than £100,000, had lost out more than the average, but, when viewed as a proportion of their income, it was the poorest—those who could least afford it—who had lost the most.

It is the abject failure to tackle the root causes of these problems—low pay, under-employment and insecure work—as well as tax and benefit decisions that hit the poor hardest that is pushing more and more children into poverty. I say this to the Minister: even those flagship measures that are held up—usually by the Liberal Democrats, who are not here today—as ways of tackling poverty, such as raising the personal tax allowance, do little for the lowest paid. Many of those people do not pay tax anyway, so those measures do not help them at all. Others keep just 15p in every extra pound, because in-work benefits such as housing benefit get withdrawn.

The director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has said:

“All the EU countries with much lower child poverty rates than us use income transfers for poverty prevention. If they can do so much better for their children, then so can we.”

The legacy this Government are set to leave is one of rising child poverty and Budgets that have made the poor much poorer and many wealthy people wealthier still. As a country, we used to know about these things. The previous Government got more lone parents back into work. Like many other countries, we used the tax and benefit system to give families a basic income. Under this Government, however, real spending per child on early education, child care and Sure Start fell by a quarter in just three years. If the Government do not want to use the tax and benefit system to tackle child poverty, they could tackle the root causes. They could learn from Denmark or Slovenia—countries where child poverty is already relatively low, so the state has to do less heavy lifting through the tax and welfare system.

It is typical of this Government that, instead of seeking to deal with the causes, they attack the symptoms: they attack the people, not the problems. Instead of tackling child poverty, they get tough on children in poverty—and not just children, but those who try to help them. The Work and Pensions Secretary accused the Trussell Trust of publicity-seeking and scaremongering for daring to tell the public how many people it was having to feed in 21st century Britain. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 gags charities and campaigners and prevents them from speaking out, but it does nothing to tackle the problems in the lobbying industry and in politics. Special advisers threaten charities. The Justice Secretary takes to the Daily Mail—that bastion of social justice—to attack charities as left-wing single-issue groups, and he restricts their right to challenge the Government’s appalling actions.

That sums up exactly what this Government is all about: if you have a problem with unemployment, attack the unemployed; if you do not know what to do about immigration, attack immigrants. Bobby Kennedy once said:

“there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men…This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”

That will be the Government’s legacy: an attempt to loosen the bonds that bind us, through indifference, inaction and slow decay.

Five years ago, Conservative Members talked about broken Britain. I used to think that was an analysis; now, five years on, I have come to realise that it was actually a manifesto. This is the broken Britain they talked about, and they created it. I say this to the Minister: in the end, this will not work. It started as an attack on just the poor, but it is pulling in more and more people, and it is tearing apart communities.

The situation was summed up for me by a woman of 60. She has never been in debt in her life, but she got into arrears after her daughter moved out and she was hit by the bedroom tax. She simply cannot afford the extra rent, so she is trying to move, but she has nowhere to move to, because there are no one-bedroom properties spare in my borough. My local reverend, Denise Hayes, told me, “She has all her friends and community here. She is someone we need on the estate. She is a good example for others.”

People can be in work or out of work—half the children living in poverty today are from working households. This is not about just the poor anymore—it is about children, cancer patients and pensioners. Let me tell the Minister this though: the Government should be worried. New bonds of solidarity are forming, just as they did in the 1980s, when these things happened before. Those bonds are forming in communities such as mine, as more and more people are affected and more and more refuse to give in. They can see that what is happening is an attack not just on the poor, but on our basic decency as a society. Like me, they know that Britain can do so much better.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.40 pm. That gives us 25 minutes. If Members can keep their remarks to about six minutes, I will be able to call everyone.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood 3:15 pm, 4th February 2015

I pay tribute to Lisa Nandy for calling the debate and for the passion with which she delivered her speech. Interestingly, in the 45 minutes she took to do so, she did not give us a single indication of what a future Labour Government might do to address some of the concerns she raised. She did not even look at how she might solve the challenges we face.

It seems fairly straightforward to me that the best way to solve an individual’s financial difficulties is to get them into work—to give them a job and let them earn their own money, so that they can provide for their family. That gives them not only the cash to improve their lives, but the self-esteem and quality of life they deserve. We should do that as a Government. If we do, we get a double whammy. If we take an individual out of the welfare system and they succeed in the workplace, more of the pie is left for those who are genuinely in difficulty and who need the support of the welfare state.

Let us look at what the Government have done over the past four and a half years. Some 1.7 million more people are in work. We have tried to get people out of the welfare system and into the workplace, so that they can improve their own lives.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

It is all well and good saying another 1.7 million people are in work, but what type of employment is it? Some of the statistics that have been published show that up to 1.4 million people are on zero-hours contracts, which, in effect, provide less than benefits.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Zero-hours contracts are not something that happened under this Government; they existed before we came to power. The Labour Government did nothing about them when they were in power.

I have met individuals in my constituency who have been offered a zero-hours contract. They took it up, went to work and became very successful. They were then offered a full-time career; they progressed through the management structure; and they are now earning a substantial salary. Zero-hours contracts can therefore sometimes be a gateway to a career.

The Government have to find a way to create such gateways, so that individuals can aspire to make their way through the system. One way of doing that is to create apprenticeships, and 2 million have been created under this Government. That is a way to give the next generation the skills they require to take up a career in the future.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I missed all the heat about part-time working. Does my hon. Friend recognise the official statistics showing that 74% of the new jobs created under this Government have been full time? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has shown that job satisfaction among those who are on zero-hours contracts is the same as for any other employee.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Absolutely. Those statistics stand on their own.

The second way to help people, once they have succeeded in getting a job, is to cut taxes for those at the bottom of the pay structure, so that they pay no tax at all. The Government have been very successful in lifting those people completely out of the tax system.

The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned the friction between wages and inflation. Following the enormous crash under the previous Government, it is fair to say there were some severe challenges in terms of how inflation was moving forward and the ability of the economy to recover. We are now in a position where, of course, inflation is below the rate of increase in wages, so we have turned that corner and we are going in the right direction.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Why did the Conservative party support the Labour Government spending plans up to 2007, and never, as I recall, suggest that changes should be made to avoid a recession?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Of course, the Labour party now supports our funding pledges, so there is friction between what is being said about reversing some of our changes and other statements about supporting our spending regime. It will be interesting to hear the Labour Front-Bench justification of that.

In another life, I was a farmer, involved in food production and supply. Interestingly, the OECD says that 9.8% of people had difficulty affording food in 2006-07, but the figure had fallen to 8.1% in 2011-12. That shows we are going in the right direction. There will always be individuals who get themselves into difficult circumstances and where the system has frankly gone wrong. The hon. Member for Wigan raised several such cases and I have encountered some in my constituency office, when clearly the system has broken down and some incorrect decisions have been made. It is my job as a Member of Parliament to try to help people through the system and solve their ills, and we have succeeded on a number of occasions in helping individuals in difficult circumstances to work their way through the system to the right point.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I will not give way any more, because other people want to speak.

I want the Government to continue to reduce the deficit, and to make sure that the economy continues to grow and that we generate more jobs and help people out of poverty through employment. I want them to continue to cut taxes at the lowest end, so that we can raise more people out of tax altogether. I want them to create more jobs and back businesses—particularly small businesses that create real-life careers for people. I want a continuation of the welfare cap, so that we can control immigration and make sure people in work are better off and so that people who decide to go into work and get a career and who can move forward aspire to overcome their difficulties. I want better schools, to make sure that the next generation have the education that will deliver them a future, make them ready for the workplace and enable them to take careers and move forward. The only way to solve the problem is to give people the aspiration and ability, so that they can aspire out of their difficulties.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. We have only 16 minutes left before the Front-Bench speeches. Four hon. Members want to speak, which means four minutes apiece. Perhaps I could have co-operation on that.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Fisheries) 3:23 pm, 4th February 2015

I shall try to adhere to that limit, Mr Crausby. I congratulate Lisa Nandy on securing the debate and making a powerful case about the impact of Government policies on her constituents. I am a wee bit disappointed that Members are so thin on the ground for this debate. Many folk living on very low incomes feel abandoned by politicians in the present context. Today’s turnout will not dispel those impressions.

Poverty, deprivation and exclusion take many forms, but living on a low income for any length of time has long-term consequences for individuals and society. The Government’s austerity measures have made things worse for folk who are already struggling. The cumulative impact of austerity in the six years to 2016 is estimated at about £6 billion in Scotland alone—three quarters of which has come from the pockets of women. That has had a disproportionate impact on families with children and people with disabilities and health problems.

Indeed, one of the Government’s flagship austerity measures, the bedroom tax, has fallen disproportionately on low-income disabled people. In Scotland 80% of the households affected were the home of a disabled person. I believe that the proportion is slightly lower in the rest of the UK, but it is still about two thirds of the people affected. In Scotland we mitigated the bedroom tax, but we could do so only by diverting resources from other policy areas—and it remains on the statute book. The people affected by the bedroom tax are, in many cases, the same people whose support will be reduced with the introduction of personal independence payments, and who face enormous barriers in getting access to the labour market. The cumulative effects are important, and are a key reason for the symptoms that we see in communities.

The key point that I want to make today is about child poverty. There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that children who grow up in poverty experience poorer long-term outcomes than their wealthier counterparts, not just in educational attainment and career prospects, but because they are likely to have poorer health throughout their lives, and significantly lower life expectancy. After housing costs, just over one in five adults in the UK are living in poverty, but the proportion of children living in relative poverty is 27%. That is a scandal of missed opportunities, thwarted potential and long-term problems being stored up.

Child poverty was coming down in Scotland at twice the UK rate, but according to the Child Poverty Action Group it is now projected to rise to 100,000 children by 2020, almost entirely because of the effect on families of the Government’s austerity measures. Huge cuts to tax credits and the freeze in child benefit have eroded family incomes, with parents in low-paid work among those worst hit by the Government’s austerity programme. It is critical that we understand that the vast majority of children growing up in poverty have at least one parent in work. In-work poverty is the scourge of low-paid families. The reality is that a family in which both parents work full time in minimum-wage jobs, paying an average private sector rent, will be below the poverty line. For people in low-paid jobs, work is simply not a route out of poverty any more, and a full-time salary can fall far short of a decent income.

I see that in my constituency. Even though unemployment is only about 1%, there are large numbers of people in low-paid work, and consequently there are pockets of deprivation. In the past year or two, a number of food banks have sprung up, run by church volunteers who have recognised the increasing need in the community—need that is clearly linked to benefit changes and rising living costs, and which affects people who are in work as well as those who are not. In 2012 in Scotland only 14,000 people depended on food banks, and the vast majority of those had chronic alcohol and substance abuse problems. Now the figure is more than 70,000 people —a 400% increase. I pay tribute to the people in the churches who pick up the slack in the social safety net, but we should not be in this position in the 21st century. That is why tackling low pay needs to be a priority.

In Scotland, the areas of the public sector that are devolved responsibilities now all pay the living wage, but there are still thousands of people in other economic sectors earning wages that do not cover the basics. Many employers have become living wage employers, but there is still some way to go. We should not forget that many of the low-paid sectors are still those where jobs are predominantly done by women, such as cleaning, catering and food production. The concentration of women in part-time, low-paid and often insecure work compounds other social and economic inequalities.

Improved child care is also necessary to tackle child poverty and strengthen our economy. I have no doubt that the higher levels of women participating in the labour market in Scotland and the falls in child poverty were linked to the greater entitlement to child care introduced over recent years. I hear from parents in all income groups that the problem of getting affordable child care is the major barrier to the labour market; and for women it is also a barrier within the labour market to the jobs that they are qualified for. There is an economic problem of women taking jobs around which they can juggle their family life. That holds back the economy, and it holds back people in the work force. Sanctions have been mentioned in the debate, and evidence has emerged that they hit single parents in particular. The challenge is the same as it is for people in the workplace—it is extremely difficult to juggle child care with any other commitments if there is no one who can watch the kids while someone is tending to other responsibilities.

In a country as wealthy as ours, allowing children to grow up in poverty is an abdication of our responsibilities as citizens. The inequalities that we have allowed to become acceptable have a long-term impact that leaves us all impoverished. I think that voters understand that asking those on the lowest incomes to carry the can for past economic failures is a cowardly, wrong choice. The Government badly need to change their priorities.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Hon. Members are now down to three minutes each.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 3:29 pm, 4th February 2015

Across the House, it is accepted that employment is a good thing and that it helps people to improve their standard of living, but the problem is that it is not sufficient; it is a first step. The last few years, above all, have shown us that for very many people, it is only a preliminary step that still leaves many living in poverty. That is why we are seeing so many people who are in work having to claim housing benefit to meet their housing costs, which pushes up the overall housing benefit bill, and why so many people are still dependent on some form of help when they go into employment. The route out of the low-paid, low-hours economy is not as easy as is sometimes suggested. That is one aspect of where we are at the moment—yes, work is good, but it has not proved to be sufficient to get people out of poverty.

Dr Whiteford mentioned issues relating to single parents. It is important to say that some measures that were helping single parents have been removed. The number of single parent specialist advisers in jobcentres, who knew the particular difficulties faced by women in that position—mainly women, but it could be men—has been reduced. There are very few such advisers. Others have reported that the flexibilities that used to exist for jobseeking and job finding have been removed or reduced, or people claim not to know about them. One of my constituents was asked, “Why can’t your mother come and help?” Her mother lives 300 miles away. She could not simply come and help while my constituent made herself available for what the jobcentre wanted, which was an evening job. The lone parent flexibilities mean that that should not happen, so again, that change appears to have happened in practice, and it is making it difficult for that particular group.

Yes, there are choices—there are always financial choices to be made. Constantly talking about raising the tax threshold is all very well, but three quarters of the gain from doing so went to earners in the top half of the income range. A lot of money has been paid out in that direction, and apparently the Conservative part of the Government—I am not sure about the other part—wants to increase that further, without telling us at all how it will be funded. The problem is that it may be funded by things we do not know about, such as a VAT increase. I notice that the Prime Minister, pressed on the matter week after week, does not say “No”—he talks about “no plans”. A VAT increase would affect those whose earnings are already under the tax threshold and who would gain nothing from any further increases in it.

Such people have lost tax credits and income in all sorts of ways. Some might seem small-scale, but family household income has gone down. There are people who have to leave work due to illness. Take a family, for example—a couple, perhaps, whose children have grown up. They may have two incomes, or one and a half incomes. If one person loses their job through ill health, their income is in that position slashed as they go on to benefit under rules introduced by this Government. After a year, some of those people are losing even their employment and support allowance, because they have a partner who is in work, although that partner may only be working part time. That loss of income, meaning that a one-and-a-half-income family becomes a family getting barely half a wage, is catastrophic for their well-being.

Many of those people had been moving towards what they hoped would be a slightly more comfortable retirement. A lot of them are older, because that is when ill health strikes— in people’s late 40s and 50s. Such people are now having, in effect, to eat up the savings that they had hoped to keep until their retirement. In my view, there are a whole lot of different ways in which people are being directly affected by this Government’s policies.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton 3:34 pm, 4th February 2015

I will be as quick as I can, Mr Crausby, and try to stick to your time limit. First, I welcome the debate, even though Lisa Nandy made a number of political points—

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

How does he know? He wasn’t here.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I was here for the end of the hon. Lady’s speech—[Interruption.] I would be happy to take an intervention from her if she wants to make a point of substance, but we are very pressed for time.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

Not at the moment—I said on a point of substance.

The key point is the systemic challenges that our economy faces. The fact is that our economy sank to 13th place from fourth place on the global competitiveness rankings, and has now climbed steadily but surely back up to 10th. That is the reason why we have job creation at a record high. If we really care about not just the economy but the most socially disfranchised, we have to care about the unemployed—the most vulnerable in our society.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I am not going to; I will make some progress. The hon. Lady spoke for a considerable amount of time and we are very pressed for time. Unemployment has fallen from 8% to 5.8%. Youth unemployment is down. Overall, there are 1.7 million more people in work. If we care about the most vulnerable in our society, that is the critical section of society.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I was simply about to say to the hon. Gentleman that had he been here for my speech and not been 45 minutes late, he would have heard that many of the families whose stories I recounted for those who were present are actually in work, or were in work when those problems arose. A story that he missed was about one of my constituents who was sanctioned for three months for being four minutes late for an appointment. The hon. Gentleman was 45 minutes late for the debate, and he does not seem to have suffered any adverse repercussions at all.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I was following the debate, but unfortunately I was in a Committee, and I did give advance warning to Mr Crausby.

The key point that the hon. Lady needs to address is that all the policies that the Labour party is coming up with will stifle job creation. I gently point out to her that in her constituency, according to the House of Commons Library, unemployment doubled between 2005 and 2010, but has fallen by 63% between 2010 and the present day. Frankly, those facts tell us everything we need to know. When it comes to income tax—[Interruption.] She might want to listen as well as speak, because this is a debate, and I have listened very carefully to what she was saying—[Interruption.]

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

If someone is earning between £10,000 and £15,000 under this Government, they are paying 54% less tax than they were under the last Government. If someone is a millionaire—we get lots of jibes on the Government side of the House about that—they are paying 14% more. When do we ever hear that referred to?

A lot of people have talked about poverty. If we look at the inequality Gini coefficient, we see that on elderly poverty, fuel poverty, the number of people not in education, employment or training, and child poverty—on every single statistical benchmark—the level of poverty or inequality is lower now than what the last Government left behind. Where is a little bit of honesty about that?

When it comes to affordable homes, the average annual rate of the creation of affordable homes is 50% higher under this Government than the last Government. The hon. Lady might have mentioned that in her speech. What about inflation, which eats away at incomes?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I will not, because I have very limited time before we come to the wind-ups, and we have heard a huge amount from the Opposition side. It is important to hear the counter-arguments to puncture some of the myths that the Labour party is putting around—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Mr Raab did give notice that he would be late. If I am going to call Mr Lavery as well, Members are going to have to give Mr Raab the opportunity to speak.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

Thank you, Mr Crausby, I appreciate that.

Inflation is the other key indicator. It was at 3.4% in May 2010, but it is now down to 0.5%. That is not unalloyed good news—it is tough for savers—but it is incredibly relevant to dealing with cost of living issues, which I believe the hon. Member for Wigan cares strongly about. There is still much to do, but if we care about things such as energy prices, we should not be backing reckless interventions in the energy market that will just create spikes in retail prices. We should be investing in nuclear and shale—but was it five or six nuclear plants that were closed down under the last Government? Labour is going slow on fracking as well. Again, if we are serious about long-term issues relating to poverty in this country, those are the things we should be dealing with. If we care about food prices, we should welcome the competitive supermarket price wars that we have been seeing recently. We should be concerned about the £400 that the common agricultural policy adds to the average annual family food bill, but when do we ever hear from Labour MPs about that? We should be looking for freer trade and reform of the EU.

In conclusion, I welcome the debate, but it is important to shed some light, not merely some heat, on this contentious issue, which afflicts the most vulnerable in our society. The hon. Lady can shake her head all she likes, but the fact is that on almost every official indicator and almost every policy lever, this Government have done better than the previous Government. Not only is the economy doing better, but life is fairer for most people in terms of the things that Government can reasonably control. Those are the facts, like them or not.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

I did say that I would call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm. It has now turned 3.40 pm, but I am going to give Ian Lavery one minute. If he goes past it, I will interrupt him.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 3:40 pm, 4th February 2015

Thank you for your extreme flexibility, Mr Crausby.

We live in a different world here in Westminster. People in the rest of the country live in a broken society. Children are suffering because of poverty. Disabled people are suffering because of poverty and the introduction of the bedroom tax. Mentally ill people are suffering greatly because of the situation in this country. Single parents are being singled out because of the situation that the Government have imposed on them. Old people are suffering because of poverty; many of them are huddling together because they cannot even afford to put money in the electricity meter or food on the table.

We live in a broken society. Poverty is preventable. Poverty is a political choice. It brings shame on the Government and on politicians to allow poverty to continue as we are experiencing it here in food bank Britain. People in work cannot afford to put food on the table—

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:41 pm, 4th February 2015

What a delight it is to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Crausby.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, who has secured an important debate. She made a passionate speech, in which she described eloquently the impact of poverty on her constituents. Because she has given us so many concrete stories about real people, I will give an overview and talk about the national picture. However, I remind the Minister that this is the second time in the space of a month that she has been asked about sanctions. We asked her to do a number of things about sanctions during a debate in the north-east, and to check what was going on. When she winds up the debate, I would like to know whether she has done those things.

During the previous Parliament, I was privileged to be the Minister who took the Child Poverty Act 2010 through Parliament. Because of the complexity of measuring child poverty, we had four measures: relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty, and combined low income and material deprivation. The Bill was passed with all-party agreement, and everybody agreed that we wanted to make progress on all those fronts. What has been the record? The record of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 was a reduction of 1.8 million in the number of children in absolute poverty. The record under this Government, according to the DWP’s own statistics, which the Minister published last summer—I hope that she is listening to this—is that the number of children living in absolute poverty has gone up by half a million.

The next measure is relative poverty. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of children living in relative poverty fell by 1.3 million. The number fell by 200,000 between 2009 and 2013, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts an increase of 400,000 by the time of the election in May. Government Members have to ask themselves why absolute poverty has increased and relative poverty has reduced. What is going on here? The explanation is this. The median income in this country has dropped by 8% under this Government, whereas the income of those in the poorest decile has dropped by 5%, so everybody is poorer; it is just that those at the bottom are not quite as much poorer as are those in the middle. Mr Raab can shake his head, but those are the figures that the Government published only in July, and the Government should think about that.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. A Parliamentary Private Secretary should be seen and not heard, Mr Elphicke.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The response that we have had from Ministers and Tory Members today is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury describes in the book “On Rock or Sand?” as “wilful blindness”. If we are wilfully blind to the real problems in this country, we will not be able to deal with them. That is the major problem. The Government are responsible for a large number of the measures that have pushed the poorest further down.

What are we going to do instead? My hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore pointed out that in-work poverty is now exploding as well. That point is also made in an excellent book by Julia Unwin, which I recommend to all hon. Members. In-work poverty is the new feature of poverty. It is caused by rising prices, a cost of living crisis and falling incomes. The Government will continue on that exploitative path, which will, in fact, increase the benefits bill by £9 billion, as my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves pointed out this morning. However, this morning the Secretary of State was bragging about something that Barnardo’s has complained to me about, namely the taking of £50 billion from the children of this country during this Parliament.

Hon. Members have asked, “What would Labour do?” I will tell them what Labour will do. The first thing that Labour will do is to abolish the bedroom tax.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Paid for by taxing the hedge funds, as was discussed during Prime Minister’s questions only this lunchtime, when the Prime Minister refused to do that. [Interruption.]

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The bedroom tax bill of £3,800 over the next Parliament will be visited on the poorest people. Two thirds of those who pay the bedroom tax are disabled. If a Tory-led Government are re-elected, those people will face having to pay another £3,800. That is why the first thing that a Labour Government will do, if we are elected, is to abolish the bedroom tax.

We will also increase the minimum wage. We will tackle the zero-hours culture. We will tax bankers’ bonuses in order to get young people into work. We will sort out the energy market. We will do something about rents. We will take steps to improve child care, so that lone mums and other mums can get out to work and support their families. We will build more houses, which will help to bring down housing costs and provide more jobs. It is a comprehensive picture, and it is a real choice for the British people.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 3:48 pm, 4th February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. This is an incredibly important debate, and I thank Lisa Nandy for securing it. I begin by putting what I have heard today in context. Every story that has been brought here is important, and it is important that we listen to them, but let us look at the independent figures on inequality, which show us what is happening. Income inequality is lower now than it was at the election. There are 600,000 fewer people in relative poverty than at the election. Why do I use relative poverty? There are various measures, but relative poverty is Labour’s preferred measure against which it set its targets. Labour said that it would halve relative poverty by 2010, but it missed that target. [Interruption.]

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Ms Nandy, you have had your opportunity to speak. Let us listen to others who want to speak.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

There are also 300,000 fewer children living in relative poverty.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way for a while, because I would like to put these figures on the record.

The top 1% of income tax payers will contribute nearly 30% of this year’s income tax bill. We talk about the richest helping most to get us out of the financial situation in which we found ourselves after Labour left office, and that is what is happening. The top 20% of income tax payers are paying 80% of the bill, which is key. We also have 390,000 fewer children living in workless households, and in-work poverty has fallen by 300,000. In fact, in-work poverty rose 20% between 1998 and 2008.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way for the moment.

It is also key to know that 1.75 million more people are in work. When my hon. Friend Mr Raab talked about what sorts of jobs those people are doing, he was right to say that, since the election, three quarters of them are full-time jobs. In fact, in the last year 80% are full-time jobs. What sorts of jobs are they? The vast majority, 75%, are skilled, managerial and professional. If we want to look at the figures from the other point of view, we could say that, at the election, 600,000 more people were in relative poverty and there were 670,000 more workless households. We could say that there were 300,000 more children and 200,000 more pensioners in relative poverty. We could also say that there were 50,000 more households in which no member had ever worked. That is what we were picking up. As my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris pointed out—I hope this is a point of consensus for all of us—there had been a financial crash and the GDP of the whole country had shrunk by 7%. The truth of the matter is that everybody had to bear the brunt of the crash that we had from the Labour party, but we have ensured—





Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Please allow the Minister to respond.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

We have ensured that the richest are paying the most. We are ensuring that the richest people are now paying more than they ever paid under Labour. The hon. Member for Wigan talked about working for Barnardo’s, and I congratulate her because I am a child of Barnardo’s. When we talk about poverty and how we take people out of poverty, the key building blocks have to be education and employment, and the Government are creating those key building blocks.

When we look at this, what have we done? We have record rates of women into work. We are increasing and supporting lone parents into work. We have put £2.5 billion into the troubled families initiative, and we have put the same amount into the pupil premium. We have ensured that 3 million people are out of tax altogether and that 26 million people have had their tax reduced. We have increased the minimum wage to £6.50 an hour, which is the first real increase since 2008—a 3% increase—and which benefits more than 1 million people. People in full-time work on the national minimum wage are getting an extra £355 a year. All those things are key, and we are doing them.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Would the Minister like to comment on her point about the reduction in inequality? The OECD’s report before Christmas and the International Monetary Fund’s report from a similar time show that inequality has actually increased. In fact, we have the worst rate of inequality in 30 years. The reports show that inequality is harming growth and that the trickle-down economics to which the Government are absolutely committed do not work. They actually stifle growth and hurt human beings.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I never recognise where the hon. Lady gets her figures. I have given the independent facts, which are correct. The only thing I will say is that here is a party that delivered the biggest financial crash in living memory. This is the party that said there would be 1 million more unemployed people now, but we are near to having 2 million more people in employment. [Interruption.] Labour Members would do better to listen for a change, rather than charging forward with things that really are not true. It is sometimes worth listening, rather than talking, especially when the Labour party delivered such a disaster for the UK, which we are all now having to cope and deal with. It is worth remembering that, because of our long-term economic plan, we are the fastest-growing developed nation. The UK has delivered more jobs than the rest of Europe added together. Those are the facts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton read out a list of facts about the constituency of the hon. Member for Wigan. He talked about the unemployment figures and the claimant count rising by 100% between 2005 and 2010, but let us look at what is happening in Wigan now: the employment rate is up by 7.9 percentage points; the claimant count is down by 49%; the long-term claimant count is down by 44%; the youth claimant count is down by 70%; and the long-term youth claimant count—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. The Minister must be allowed to respond.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

The long-term youth claimant count is down 80% on the year. In fact, youth unemployment across the country has had its biggest fall in living memory. More than 170,000 more young people now have jobs. Those are just the facts. In the north-west region, the number of workless households is down by 41,000 since 2010, which is a decrease of 1.7%.

Last week, the local paper in Wigan stated that the number of apprenticeship vacancies in Wigan has hit a record high. There has been a 72% increase in the number of apprenticeship vacancies in Wigan posted online, and the paper said:

“An upsurge in firms willing to take on apprentices has been credited with bringing about a dramatic fall in young people not in employment”.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

One reason why we have managed to get young people into apprenticeships is because the council has taken exactly the opposite approach to the Government. The council pays the living wage, has stamped out zero-hours contracts and has created apprenticeships. If everything is going so well across the country, why does the Minister think that the incidence of scurvy and the number of hospital admissions for malnutrition have exploded under her Government?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

The numbers I have given are for private enterprise. Equally, I do not know what the answer was when the hon. Lady stood up to explain why there was a 100% increase in the claimant count between 2005 and 2010, but our claimant count has come down. The increase in malnutrition is a debate for another time.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is not a debate for another time.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I think it is. Many people who have gone to hospital with malnutrition have actually put on weight, which is down to a poor diet. That is a much bigger debate for another time. What we can talk about is what is happening, how we are getting people into work and how worklessness is falling in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wigan. [Interruption.] Obviously she does not want to listen to these answers because they do not play to the things she was talking about. Equally, her local paper celebrated that Wigan has received the pupil premium award. A headmaster said:

“We couldn’t be more pleased to win the award”.

The award is key to helping young people to go forward.

I listened to the hon. Lady’s stories about sanctions, and I would like to know about the specific instances. I replied to a letter the other week—I hear that she has sent me another, to which I will be writing back in due course—but if she gave me the names of the people, rather than keeping them anonymous, I could find out what happened at the jobcentre. If someone wanted to go to a funeral, it would be good cause. Somebody with learning difficulties is a vulnerable person and has good cause. There is a booklet that the hon. Lady can download from the website that outlines the guidance, which is substantial. It is a heavy document that says how people will be given good cause. Equally, there have always been sanctions in the benefit system. This is nothing new—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I am pleased to say that we will now move on to the next debate.