Thank you, Sir Graham. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. It is always an intense pleasure to follow Fiona Bruce. There is probably not a debate she leads that I am not at, and I suspect there is not a debate I lead that she does not attend. We have kindred interests, and this is one of them, so I informed her that I would put my name down to speak in support of what she does. I commend her on her hard work on families and relationships, and on the alcohol strategy and how we address that issue. She takes on nitty-gritty issues that are commonplace but very important, and I thank her for that.
I, too, am from a very close community where everyone knows everyone else. It is common for me to walk down the street and be able to name all the people I meet. That is probably because I am of a certain age, so I know lots of people. I know the parents, I know the children, and now I know the grandchildren—that is how life is. That is what my constituency is like, and I suspect it is what other Members’ constituencies are like. If we live long enough in an area, we get to know the area and its people, and we can name most of the people we meet on the street.
However, it is clear that we do not know all the troubles in people’s hearts, minds and lives, or the struggles they face daily. I recently read in one of my local papers, “Be kind to people—you do not know the struggle that lies behind that smile.” When I first opened my advice centre as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a lady gave me that quote, which I kept on the wall for a great many years until I redecorated the place. That is the thrust of what I have always said: “You’re never quite sure what troubles that person has. That smile just may hide the cataclysmic problems they face.” The problems I see in my office are the tip of the iceberg of what people face.
I will talk about family hubs from the perspective of the church groups in my constituency, because that is where family hubs come from. The hon. Lady knows that, as does my hon. Friend David Simpson, and I hope at the end of the debate other Members will know it, too.
From illness to losing a job, from grief to unexplained depression—I have found that the number of people who look like they have no problems but in fact have depression has greatly increased over the years, and how to help them and get them beyond where they find themselves is probably one of the greatest issues I face in my constituency office—and from a life of plenty to a life of poverty, I am amazed by the difficulties that so many people face. We face them every week in my office. I am sure others do, too. I am thankful that so many people volunteer to help others face those difficulties.
I work closely with the local food bank and Christians Against Poverty group, which work out of the specially designated compassion centre at Thriving Life Church in Newtownards. I have had a very good relationship with that centre over the years. I helped it with its planning application when it moved to where it is now. It took over a car sales place and totally renovated it to make it a really good compassion centre—the name was chosen specially. The centre supports people who need short-term and long-term help, of whom there are many in my area. That food bank was one of the first to be established in Northern Ireland, and its impact has been great. There is also a clothing bank, groups for elderly and young people, a coffee shop and a breakfast club. The Church is very community-orientated. Clearly, its work is based on its beliefs and its faith, but it works with lots of single parents, and it is involved in charitable fundraising, too.
My area is second only to County Antrim, which contains Belfast, in terms of people’s need for three-day emergency food packages from food banks. The biggest cause for food bank referral in the Province is recorded as
“low income—benefits, not earning”.
I fill in forms with those categories when people come to see me, and I always ask whether they have no benefits, their benefits have been delayed, they have low income or they have been through relationship break-up, so I get a fair idea of what people experience. Low income accounts for 45% of referrals in Northern Ireland, and benefit delays and benefit changes, which each account for 12%, are also significant reasons for referral.
People need help, and that Church in particular helps to put food on the table and provides people with life-changing support to deal with debt and learn better money management, which is really important. The debt charity Christians Against Poverty reported that its clients had run up average debts of £4,500 on rent or utility bills, forcing them on to what the charity described as a “relentless financial tightrope” on which they juggle repayments and basic living costs, which leaves many acutely stressed and in deteriorating health. Lots of problems follow from the debts. What is important is helping people to learn to manage their money, stepping in and maybe even sorting out the repayments as well. In our office we have been personally involved with that and I know that the Church group has too.
The pressure of coping with low income and debt frequently triggers mental illness or exacerbates existing conditions, with more than one third of clients reporting that they had considered suicide and three quarters visiting a GP for debt-related problems. More than half were subsequently prescribed medication or therapy. We may see the physical outcome of the problems they present to us, but what we maybe do not see is the emotional and mental issues that are just underneath.
Families are under immense pressure and Churches are stepping into the breach. The local Elim Church in Newtownards runs a cancer care club that provides support, encouragement and a listening ear for those suffering from cancer or their families. I have been to those groups a couple of times to meet some of the people; it gives me a focus on the problems that people have. The Church also runs an addictions night, which brings in some of the local addicts, feeds them and tries to offer help. I have met those people over the years. They are good people who just need someone to guide, support and help them at a time when they are at their very lowest.
Scrabo Hall runs a women’s ministry to help vulnerable ladies and offer support, as well as youth work to give children an alternative place to safely hang out. There are kids’ Bible clubs galore right through the summer in the major town of Newtownards and across the whole Strangford constituency. We have a lot of Bible clubs where young people come in, and it perhaps gives parents a chance to get a wee break or respite.
It is not possible for me to highlight all of the services that are offered in our Church, all voluntary and all out of a love for families, and I want to thank all those who so sacrificially give of their time, energy and resources to help struggling families. It would also be remiss of me to forgo mentioning the tremendous work that is carried out in our community groups, which connect older people through craft clubs or tea dances and provide homework clubs as well as youth clubs. There are so many people—I ask each right hon. and hon. Member here to think for a second about the volunteers who do so much in our constituencies and provide those in need with a listening ear. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to, and it is important that they can always call in and know someone is there for them.
I will finish, because I am conscious of time and I want to give Ben Bradley a chance to make an equal contribution. Life is tough, and tougher still for struggling families; Churches and community groups are doing a good job, but they want to and could do more if they were better funded and had a larger support base. It is on us as individuals to do that. The family unit and family hubs are an essential component of a functioning community. Offering tax breaks is great, but not enough. We need support for working families, and that can only be done through targeted funding. I implore the Minister, who I know will be responsive to our comments and requests, to address that need and to help the sterling work that is already being done.