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Poverty in Liverpool — [Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Wavertree 2:30 pm, 24th October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered poverty in Liverpool.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to be joined by my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Liverpool. Together we will speak up for the communities of our great city and bear witness to the terrible realities for too many of poverty in Liverpool. I know that sadly we will hear some heartbreaking stories of avoidable deprivation, unfair disadvantage and incredible resilience in the face of some insurmountable odds. I hope that the Minister will listen closely and pass on what he hears to his ministerial colleagues, not least because Monday’s Budget will afford his Government an opportunity to put some things right.

I am very proud to call Liverpool my home. It is a vibrant, proud, creative and dynamic city. We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Liverpool being the European capital of culture. Just last month the Giants came to Liverpool, attracting more than 1.3 million people from around the world to our streets. When we talk about poverty in Liverpool, we are talking about poverty in a hard-working, proud and resilient city. It is a global city that takes knocks and bounces with a smile and a joke. The ancestors of the people of Liverpool sailed the oceans to New York and Sydney and back again. They fled famine, and forged new lives on Liverpool’s streets. They are the people—many still with us—who kept the docks working as bombs fell all around them, and ensured that Britain did not starve.

How dare some people do Liverpool down. I reflect on the comments—I have made him aware that I would mention him—of Boris Johnson, who has accused the city of wallowing in victim status, and of having

“an excessive predilection for welfarism”.

Let me be clear that Liverpool’s people are not victims. Liverpool does not want welfare, and it certainly does not want charity. Liverpool wants jobs, homes, skills, investments and opportunities—and the people of Liverpool will do the rest. As the right hon. Gentleman’s great hero Winston Churchill once said:

“Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

Liverpool’s strength is its people: the entrepreneurs, writers, artists, actors, poets, musicians, designers, restauranteurs, architects and filmmakers who have carved out a place in world history, and our teachers, shop workers, careworkers, street cleaners, bus drivers and so many more whose hard work and grit give the city its beating heart and soul. However, Liverpool is also a city mired in poverty, which saps the ambitions of our young, mars the autumn days of the elderly, denies opportunities, and can fray the fabric of our city.

A couple who bought a house in the Picton ward of my constituency wrote to me just the other month, saying that they had witnessed something horrible. They wrote:

“'As we walked up the street, I saw two boys who must have been around 10 years old. They were opening people’s bins and seeing what they could find.”

The couple approached the children—it was 11 o’clock at night—and discovered that they had collected a discarded hoody and some half-empty bottles, including shampoo and shower gel. The couple wrote:

“This is not the Liverpool we know and has left us angry, outraged and very upset.”

Those constituents of mine have a right to be angry. We should all be angry. Let me not mince my words, because poverty kills. Infant mortality is a key indicator of poverty in our country. In 2014, across England and Wales the death rate of babies under the age of one was six in every 1,000 births. In Liverpool, the figure was nine in every 1,000 births—50% higher. In Liverpool, the avoidable death rate from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes is 326 people in 100,000; in the Chilterns, it is 138 per 100,000. Life expectancy is 10.1 years lower for men and 8.1 years lower for women in the most deprived areas of Liverpool compared with some of the least deprived.

Let me briefly set out some city-wide context. I am grateful to the always excellent Commons Library, and Liverpool City Council’s policy team, for collating some of the facts that I will present. Liverpool is the fourth most deprived local authority in our country. Alongside Middlesbrough and Manchester, Liverpool is ranked joint most fuel poverty deprived local authority in England—that refers to people being unable to afford to keep their homes adequately heated, which is particularly relevant as we embark on the winter months.

Since 2012, Trussell Trust foodbanks in the city have fed 108,635 people, 36% of them children. Last year alone, more than 6,700 children had to rely on the generosity of our city’s food banks, and in the same period Liverpool City Council has made more than 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel and clothing. That was a 6% increase on the previous year. In fact, the council spends £23 million a year dealing with a range of issues surrounding poverty and homelessness to try to prevent that poverty from turning into destitution.

Despite those enormous efforts, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that Liverpool was second in the city rankings on destitution. Let us be clear about what we mean when we talk about destitution, because it is the most extreme form of poverty. It means someone sleeping rough for more than a day, not eating properly for two days, being unable to heat or light their home for five days, going without proper clothes or toiletries, or receiving an income so low that those basic essentials will stay out of reach. That is the reality for too many. Sustained low income coupled with a financial shock were the most significant triggers for a plunge into destitution, against a backdrop of benefit, health and debt issues.

Liverpool was the first council in the country to carry out an assessment of the combined impact of the Government’s changes to various welfare policies. It found that 3,400 households across the city with a long-term sick or disabled resident have been hit by the bedroom tax. It found that families with children have been hit the hardest by the combination of a freeze in child benefit, reductions in housing benefit rates in the private sector, the introduction of the bedroom tax, and the benefit cap—policies introduced by the coalition Government and continued under the current Administration. It found that young people aged 16 to 29 account for one in three applications for council emergency payments, that single private tenants aged 25 to 35 have seen a cut of around £34 a week in their housing benefit, and that women in our city account for 60% of those affected by a cut in council tax support, and 65% of those hit by the bedroom tax.

By 2020, £444 million will have been slashed from our council’s central Government support since 2010. When adjusted for inflation, that equates to a cut of 64% of the council’s overall budget over the last decade. Of course, times have been tough everywhere. Can we be accused of special pleading, or parading our poverty? No. Government policies have created more need, while at the same time Government cuts have made it harder to meet those needs. The Government have changed the funding formulae that once helped to support the most deprived cities such as Liverpool with historically high rates of poverty and low council tax bases.

Central Government support has been slashed and councils such as Liverpool have been told to make up the difference from business rates and council tax payers. However, we are unable to replace that funding with higher demands on our hard-pressed council tax payers and businesses, because such a high proportion of our properties are in the lowest band: council tax band A. In fact, council tax across the city raises just 11% of the council’s annual spending on its vital services. If Liverpool had experienced the average cut for local authorities across the country from 2010 to 2020, our city would be more than £70 million better off. Instead, it is having to deliver services with 3,000 fewer staff.

According to End Child Poverty’s analysis, 32,000 children are growing up in poverty across our city. In my constituency alone, 6,129 children—one in three—live in poverty. In one ward, Picton, more than half of children are growing up in poverty, while in nearby Kensington and Fairfield ward the figure is 45%. Figures from the Children’s Society show that approximately 3,300 children in my constituency live in families who experience problem debt; I do not need to tell the Minister all the pressures and challenges that come with that. Across Liverpool, more than 17,000 children receive free school meals, and there are continuing concerns that during school holidays too many of them are going hungry.

I congratulate Liverpool City Council on ensuring that all our children’s centres have stayed open despite Government cuts. Picton and Kensington children’s centre has been working with the Granby Toxteth Development Trust to provide meals during the school holidays. It says:

“We are dealing with huge issues of food poverty, and as of September we have also built in after school play sessions with a meal included to tackle this.”

I anticipate that hon. Friends will want to talk in more detail about how our amazing football fans are collecting every week for their city’s food banks. They do not just sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”; they prove it with their generosity—and not just the Reds, but the Blues, too.

Not long after I was elected in 2012, I became the first Member to secure a debate about the food banks popping up across the country to patch the holes that the coalition Government’s decimating policies had created in the safety net for those most in need. But let us pause for a moment and ask: why, in 2018, in one of the richest countries in the world, do we have food banks at all? Why have more than a million people had to access emergency food aid on their own or their family’s behalf in the past 12 months? That is an incredibly sorry state of affairs and we should all be ashamed of it.

Food banks stand as a testament to the generosity and decency of everyone across our country, but the citizens of Liverpool in particular. Like many hon. Friends, I have joined the biannual food collection co-ordinated by the Trussell Trust in local supermarkets. At a recent collection in Tesco, I was told that the people of Liverpool have been the most generous donors in the country. Whenever I have been involved in food collections, I have been struck by how many people stop and say, “This could be me one day—I know that I am just one weekly or monthly pay cheque away from being in that situation.” It takes just one financial shock to affect a household’s income, because so many are living literally from month to month.

Food banks also stand witness to the fact that Ministers are losing sight of their responsibility to protect the welfare of citizens in our country. Kensington and Fairfield ward in my constituency had the largest Trussell Trust food voucher count this year. In just two wards—Kensington and Fairfield, and Picton—more than 2,700 adults have been fed by food banks in the past year. Issuing food bank vouchers during my constituency surgeries and via my caseworker is a regular occurrence.

I am grateful to the Liverpool Echo for its campaigning work on poverty. An article quotes one of my local food bank volunteers, Kathleen Quayle:

“The foodbank gets busier as the weather changes. From about October, when it gets colder, people are having to choose between heating and food. A lot of the people who come are ill and hungry. They’re exhausted…You can see it in their faces and that’s a travesty in a society like ours.”

I echo that sentiment. I have made several food bank visits, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will talk about similar experiences. It is just appalling to bear witness to people having to rely on emergency food aid, through no fault of their own.

We face the spectre of universal credit arriving in Liverpool this autumn. Just this weekend, the Liverpool Echo published a story about “James”, who is originally from my constituency and now lives in another part of the city. He lost his job and was put on universal credit. He is just 31, but his experience was so traumatising that he considered suicide and his wife turned to sex work to bring some income into the family. With no money for three months and all their possessions sold, they were up to their eyes in short-term high-interest loans and left destitute and abandoned by our Government. That is happening now, not just in Liverpool but in other cities. It is absolutely appalling.

Maggie O’Carroll, who leads our local enterprise hub, says that more than 425 businesses have been established by unemployed people and nurtured through the hub since 2016. As I said, ours is a city of creative and determined people, but Maggie warns:

Universal Credit poses a very real barrier to those who depend on benefits and wish to become self-employed to launch their own start-up business.”

I ask the Minister to respond to that point in particular, because it has so many implications that have not been addressed.

Just last month, Liverpool City Council published its own forensic analysis, “Universal Credit: Unintended Consequences”, which should be in every Minister’s red box. It shows that it is the poorest, sickest and most disabled people—who are living in the city’s most deprived wards and have already been hit hardest by the bedroom tax, failed personal independence payment assessments and housing benefit changes—who will suffer most from the dangerously out-of-control roll-out of universal credit. Debbie Nolan, health programme manager at Liverpool Citizens Advice, says:

“Payment delays and high rates of deductions once UC is in place will cause unprecedented hardship for the most vulnerable”.

To those who are looking for work, it is unfathomable that in the past year the Government have closed jobcentres across our city. In my constituency, Edge Hill and Wavertree jobcentres have both closed, which follows the closure of Old Swan jobcentre in 2012. More than 3,000 people in Liverpool, Wavertree are being denied the local help that they need to find work. I have highlighted in debates and campaigns the distances that my constituents have to travel—another barrier that makes it even more challenging for them to get on with finding work—but it has fallen on deaf ears.

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that nationally, from May 2017 to April 2018, 359,000 universal credit claimants were referred for sanction decisions, of which 71% related to attending or participating in work-focused interviews. Looking at the jobcentre closures in my constituency, it is not hard to understand why so many people have been affected. I am already hearing from single parents who want to get to their jobcentre but cannot afford the bus because they have not been given their payments. They are having to walk for miles, and they cannot get childcare. I have raised those very real challenges with the Government but they have not been addressed. The latest statistics show that 5% of universal credit sanctions lasted for 27 weeks—more than half a year—with no access to support. That is not acceptable.

Increasing numbers of people are homeless on our streets in Liverpool, despite our council spending £12 million to alleviate the worst distress. That situation is replicated in other cities, including here in the capital. Other constituents of mine have found themselves shut out of work after episodes of ill health because our NHS regularly misses its targets for cancer and other treatment. Families are giving up work to look after elderly parents because our social services cannot afford to provide support. Parents are losing work to look after children who are too ill to go to school, but have been told that they are not ill enough to meet the rising thresholds for mental health and social services.

For example, there is the case of Ms M, a single parent of a young son with autism, who is working three days a week and was making use of 30 hours’ free childcare, only to have it withdrawn because she got lost in a bureaucratic maze. She was trying to do the right thing, but is now facing the risk of having to give up work. Where is the humanity? Where, indeed, is the cold, hard economic realisation that failing to properly and flexibly support people such as Ms M and her son to stay out of poverty raises costs for everyone?

What needs to be done? When the Chancellor delivers the Budget he needs to restore funds to our council and recommit to future Budget allocations that reflect the depth of deprivation experienced by cities such as Liverpool. Today, Liverpool City Council is forced to spend money that it should be investing in the future on patching up the holes in the Government’s botched welfare reforms, including £3.5 million on protecting 42,000 people from the full impact of Government reductions in council tax support and £2.7 million on more than 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel, clothing and furniture. A total of £9.2 million has been provided since dedicated Government funding was withdrawn.

Secondly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must invest in Liverpool and its people. I anticipate that the Minister will tell us today that employment is up but will not mention how precarious much of that employment in our city is, thanks to the widespread and increased use of zero and low-hours contracts. He will not mention that unemployment rates across Liverpool are consistently above the national average and wages below the national average. The median household income for Liverpool is £20,373, which is nearly £11,000 below the UK median of £31,310.

We need a proper industrial strategy, including a regional investment bank, real apprenticeships and lifelong skills training to grow jobs, grow incomes and let our people grow tall. We need to devolve real economic powers to the city region. Liverpool City Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has made a great start in bringing our communities together, but now the Government need to get behind his and the combined authority’s efforts to transform our regional economy.

Those of us who call Liverpool home are proud of our city, but we are shamed by its poverty. We are not looking for a handout or even a hand-up. We want a fair deal to allow us to be in charge of our own destinies. Instead, the Government are largely responsible for the poverty of too many of my constituents.

The Prime Minister told us in her conference speech the other week that austerity is over. Ministers need to set out what that will mean for the people in Liverpool. They need to acknowledge the challenge that we face, do everything possible to apologise for it but also, most importantly, help us to do everything possible to turn it around.