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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood 3:02 pm, 24th October 2018

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Luciana Berger on securing the debate. She will see from the turnout that we are glad that she secured it and that we are keen to support her. I also congratulate her on the way she set out our basic concerns as representatives in this place of the great city of Liverpool.

The Prime Minister said something very important to her party conference: she said that austerity is over. I always like to listen to what Prime Ministers say at their party conference—it is always a very important speech. We will have the chance soon to judge the political coherence of this Conservative Government and how worthwhile or otherwise were the Prime Minister’s words at her party conference, because next week we will see whether the Chancellor acts on the declaration that austerity has ended. I can certainly say that at this time in Liverpool it does not feel like austerity has ended. If it is over, we in Liverpool will expect the Budget to deliver real relief for those in the city who are in poverty and hardship. We will expect the incomes of the poorest to improve as a direct result of the Budget measures that we will see from the Chancellor next week.

Many people in Liverpool really need the Chancellor to deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise to end austerity. Some of them are the most vulnerable people in our society—people who need the most support and who have endured eight long years of that support and their income being systemically removed and reduced by measure after measure from Governments that, from their perspective, do not seem to care about their lives or wellbeing.

I have said before that the use of food banks is an indication of a major crisis and desperation, often amounting to destitution. People do not go to food banks for fun; food banks are an indication of crisis. People are reluctant to go to food banks because they think it is humiliating and an indication of a personal failure to feed their families or to be able to live. No matter how compassionate and helpful the volunteers and staff who distribute food at those distribution points are, it does not take away the humiliation and pain felt by those who have to resort to food banks. Many of my constituents who have been in such a position have made that very clear when I have talked to them about it.

Last year the scale of the food crisis increased, as could be seen at the south Liverpool food bank and at the Knowsley food bank, which covers the Halewood part of my constituency. It is possible to extrapolate from those two centres’ figures that, just in my constituency, in 2017-18, 3,933 people were given emergency food packages to enable them to feed themselves and their families. Some 1,457 of those helped were children—the figure increased from the previous year, which itself had increased from the figure for year before, which had increased from the year before that. There have been increases for many years.

Last year, there was an 8% rise in the number of vouchers presented at the south Liverpool food bank and at distribution points in the Liverpool part of my constituency. In the Halewood part of Knowsley, which is in my constituency, the number of people who were helped increased by more than 20%. The number of children who were helped was up by more than 50%. In my constituency alone, more people were helped in one year than were helped by food banks in the whole of the UK in 2005. That is the reality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree was correct to make it clear in her remarks that this should not be something that we accept as inevitable. There is nothing inevitable about having to use a food bank. It could be fixed by ensuring that people who are currently in that position have the income to look after themselves. I should make it clear that other, non-food bank, help is available in my constituency, but is not counted in the figures that I just set out. It includes organisations such as Can Cook, a charity based in Garston that provides free, freshly cooked meals to those in food poverty who need help. Although it ranges much more widely than Garston and Halewood, last year Can Cook provided 18,000 free, fresh meals to hungry people in the Liverpool city region, some of them in my constituency.

Things are worse than the Trussell Trust figures imply; the scale of the need is greater. The experience in my constituency is that the need for emergency food help, including food bank use, is increasing, and that the poverty that it represents is deepening. In a parliamentary answer to my question this week, the Government have yet again refused to take any action to begin to collect official statistics about the causes of such an increase in dependency on food banks, suggesting only that they will review existing sources of information to fill data gaps.

In my view, that is just not good enough. The Government seem to not want to know the truth, and so they do not bother to do research or collect statistics. I have been asking them for years to do that. I can tell the Minister what the main causes of food bank use are in my constituency: in the south Liverpool food bank, 49% of those who were helped said that the main cause of their food crisis was delays in the payment of benefits to which they are entitled, or changes to their benefits. Some 32% said the main reason was low income because of low wages, underemployment and not working enough hours to make ends meet at the end of the week or month. In Halewood, the figure for benefit delays and changes was also 49%, while the figure for low pay and lack of hours was lower, at 19%. Those figures are not untypical of Trussell Trust food banks around the country. When Ministers tell me, as they did in a recent parliamentary answer, that

“People use food banks for many reasons, and it would be misleading to link them to any single cause,” they do not want to accept that the main causes of this increasing food crisis include their administration of the social security system and their austerity cuts to our safety net.

Things are about to get worse. My hon. Friend Dame Louise Ellman spoke about the roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool, which is beginning to happen. The Trussell Trust tells us that where universal credit goes live, there is an average 52% increase in food bank use over the following year, compared with a 13% increase in the areas where universal credit has been operational for three months or less. The increase is there even after accounting for seasonal and other variations. In my constituency, only 13% of the households who are to be placed on universal credit have yet been put on to it, only 10% of the children who will be in households on universal credit have yet been affected, and only 2% of the households on sickness or incapacity benefits have yet been placed in that position. That amounts to a looming tsunami of further hardship, misery, poverty and hunger that the Government are about to unleash on some of the poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents. Like my hon. Friend, I urge the Government to stop and not to roll out universal credit in my constituency. I can tell the Minister now that it will cause more poverty, hardship and desperation if they press on as they have told us they will.

Riverside, a registered social landlord that covers my constituency, has been surveying some of its tenants about the impact of universal credit roll-out. It says that 7% of its tenants are on universal credit, but that their rent arrears amount to 18% of the rental debt owed. Average arrears for universal credit tenants are £600, compared with £218 for households not on universal credit. That is yet more evidence that Government policy is imposing hardship and poverty on some of my poorest constituents through their social security policy. Universal credit roll-out creates more debt and hardship and an inability to meet the basic expenses of living. That is clear from the experience of some of my constituents, who have come to be on universal credit ahead of the roll-out. I have given examples before in this Chamber and in the main Chamber—egregious examples of real hardship and pain caused by universal credit, administrative failures and by other problems with the benefit.

The Church of England and Children’s Society’s recent report “Not making ends meet” highlighted that poverty is not being caused by universal credit alone, and I agree. The lowering of the benefit cap, restrictions on help with housing costs and sustained low income, including in-work poverty, are also increasing problems. I sometimes wonder whether Ministers understand the degree to which multiple changes to benefits, with cuts that were planned and announced years ago but are only now being implemented, and loss of support from other sources, such as the local authority, can affect already vulnerable and poor individuals and families, for whom one more blow might be the final straw. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “Destitution in the UK 2018” made that point. It estimated that in 2017, across our nation, 1.5 million people were deemed to be destitute—unable to access the bare essentials to eat, stay warm and dry and keep clean. Food, clothing and heating were the most common essentials that people were without. Such destitution was found to be clustered in London and northern cities such as Liverpool, with Liverpool second only after Manchester in exhibiting the worst rates. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also made reference to that study.

Since 2010, Liverpool has had the highest level of cuts in local authority funding. By 2020-21, almost 68% of its money will have been removed by central Government. That is £444 million-worth of cuts, despite increasing demand for the help that the city council provides for its poorer citizens. It provides a lot of help beyond the amount of money it is given by the Government to provide such help. The Liverpool citizens support scheme has seen a 5.7% increase in awards, mainly due to increasing demands for urgent needs awards. The main reasons cited were that the individual was waiting to receive a state benefit or had no funds due to an unforeseen crisis. Universal credit roll-out will increase the need hugely. I know from my own case load that if not for the Liverpool citizens support scheme, many of my constituents would have had nowhere to turn.

Similarly, discretionary housing payments have increased by 35%, and the city has to put more money in than it is given by the Government to support that. The Mayor of Liverpool tops up the money because he is unwilling to let vulnerable people go without help and have nowhere to turn and become homeless, thus imposing an even higher financial burden on the state. Universal credit roll-out could push the resources and schemes beyond the Mayor’s capacity to continue to fund them effectively. Unless we see significant measures in the Budget to alleviate poverty in Liverpool and really end austerity, the trends we are discussing will worsen. We will judge the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about ending austerity by the impact of the Chancellor’s Budget next week on the lives of our most vulnerable and poorest constituents.