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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:16 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 3:16 pm, 24th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. Earlier this year I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on food poverty across Merseyside. I will start today as I did then by saying that this is a debate that we simply should not be having in a wealthy country in 2018.

Liverpool City Council, as we have already heard, faces the near-impossible challenge that when services are needed most they have fewer and fewer resources to respond. I join colleagues in praising the Mayor and the city council for their efforts to mitigate the impact of central Government policy. The citizens support scheme to help the most vulnerable in Liverpool during a short-term crisis has provided a lifeline for some of the most disadvantaged citizens, following the coalition Government’s scrapping of the social fund. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said in her opening speech, last year more than 13,000 crisis payments were made from the fund, which is a 6% increase on the previous year. It has provided a lifeline for some of my most vulnerable constituents.

Earlier this year a family of four in my constituency were served with a section 21 notice when their landlord decided to sell the property, forcing the family to look for another privately rented property, but they were not in a position to pay the one month’s rent and deposit up front. My constituents are both in work, but in low-paid jobs, so they lacked the means to provide the payment. As they faced the threat of homelessness, I referred the family to the mayoral hardship fund, and a contribution towards their deposit and rent was provided.

Another constituent was recently forced to move properties because of the bedroom tax. His personal independence payment had been stopped, so he had no available funds to purchase furniture for his new home. We referred him to the mayoral hardship fund, and funds were provided to enable him to furnish his new home.

A week before Christmas last year, a young mum contacted me, having recently been transferred on to universal credit. She was not due to receive her first payment until 11 January and her gas and electricity were due to run out that evening, just before Christmas at the height of winter. In the face of that dire threat, the local authority stepped in and, through the citizens support scheme, she was provided with a three-week award of almost £300, energy vouchers and a PayPoint cash voucher of £170.

A review of the scheme presented to the council’s cabinet in May this year set out a very stark warning, stating that the scheme

“cannot mitigate the multiple impacts of the government’s programme”.

The same report also warned that more people face greater hardship once the full raft of changes to the benefits system begins to bite, as my hon. Friend Maria Eagle has said. Of course, as we know, disabled people often bear the brunt of such changes.

Last month Liverpool City Council published an excellent report, “Universal Credit: Unintended Consequences”. Its key findings were that universal credit risks forcing households into debt, increasing severe poverty and leaving too many people, including children, facing food insecurity, destitution and eviction. The report brought together community leaders, civic figures and politicians across the city to urge the Government, as I join my colleagues in doing today, to rethink the roll-out of universal credit before it is too late.

That call is echoed by people at the north Liverpool food bank. They told me:

“We don’t want to be feeding people emergency food, so we need to fix the system that lands people there in the first place.”

The food bank’s modest suggestion—I would go further—was that the current north Liverpool roll-out date of 5 December should at the very least be moved to new year, to avoid the Christmas period, so that claimants do not have to wait weeks for their benefits before Christmas. I urge the Minister, as a bare minimum, to give a commitment today at least to consider that proposal, which might give some reassurance and comfort to some of the most vulnerable families in Liverpool in the run-up to Christmas.

As has been said, the main reason people are referred to food banks in Liverpool is benefit delays and changes. The Trussell Trust has repeatedly warned that changes to benefits are forcing people to turn to food banks. One in three working-age social housing tenants in Liverpool who receive housing benefit has been affected by the bedroom tax, and there is no doubt that that has pushed many into hardship. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, the city council last year undertook a cumulative impact assessment of more than 20 major changes made to working-age benefits since 2010. I urge the Government to work with Liverpool City Council and other local authorities to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information about the appalling cumulative impact of welfare reforms, including universal credit.

The other reason for people being referred increasingly to food banks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, is low income. Yes, unemployment has fallen, but in my constituency and the rest of Liverpool it is consistently above the national average, and for many people who are in work, that work does not pay enough for them to get by. Much of the increase in employment is insecure and low paid.

I have seen at first hand the fantastic work that food banks do in my constituency, and I pay tribute to their selfless and dedicated volunteers. In the year up to last month, the north Liverpool food bank provided food to more than 3,000 of my constituents, including almost 1,300 children. That represented a 10% increase on the previous year. Once a month I volunteer at the north Liverpool food bank at St John’s church in Tuebrook in my constituency. I was there last Saturday. In September we helped 137 people. While I was there I talked about the debate we are having today, and we discussed issues I might raise. The two main points that came out of the discussion, including with the vicar, were the increase in use during the several years that the food bank has been at St John’s, and the change in the profile of the people who come to it. There are still many single people—mostly men—but increasingly there are families with children. Some are people in low-paid work, and some are waiting for benefits.

I also want to pay tribute to a food bank in another part of my constituency. At Dovecot food bank there is concern about the unseen numbers of people not receiving the support they might need. The food bank has been working with local schools to identify vulnerable families and ensure that support is available to them. One of the most disturbing trends that is identified is having to serve food to hungry children because their families cannot afford to feed them. Most schoolchildren in Liverpool are enjoying the half-term holiday this week, but for many low-income families school holidays represent financial stress, hunger and even malnourishment, because of the absence of free school meals. Croxteth Gems was originally set up to provide play and youth services, but increasingly over the past few years the people there have been serving food to hungry children because their families cannot afford to feed them. During the school holidays, Croxteth Gems hosts a play scheme, including a free breakfast and lunch for the children. Sometimes they serve food to almost 100 hungry local children.

The charity Feeding Britain, set up by my right hon. Friend Frank Field and my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck, has established local pilot areas for programmes that provide free meals and activities for children during school holidays. Earlier this year the Government provided £2 million of funding for families to benefit from free healthy meals and activities in the summer holidays. That meant that organisations such as Feeding Britain could reach many more families. It was welcome, but it was a modest step in the right direction. I take the opportunity today to urge the Government to increase the funding provided to those programmes, so that no children should go hungry in the holidays—particularly the long summer holidays—simply because they do not have access to free school meals.

I want to say something about education, and will echo what my hon. Friend Dame Louise Ellman said. More than 32,000 children in Liverpool are growing up in poverty. Education has a central role to play if we are to achieve a fairer society with less inequality and tackle poverty. Like my colleagues, I pay tribute to the city council for keeping children’s centres open despite austerity. Good-quality early education has a big impact on children’s development.

An area of controversy at the moment is the Government’s potential plans for nursery schools. There are two fantastic nursery schools in my constituency—Ellergreen and East Prescot Road. Both were judged outstanding by Ofsted, but at both there is concern about long-term funding. I know that the Minister responding to the debate is not an Education Minister, but I seek assurances from the Department for Education that the concerns of nursery schools in Liverpool and across the country are being listened to. Those schools equip children, often in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods, with the education and skills they need to have the best chance later in life.

Schools need to know that they have reliable funding so that they can offer the best quality education. There is concern in Liverpool, as there is in many parts of the country, that once the national funding formula is adopted it could disadvantage schools in our city. I implore the Government to ensure that such factors as deprivation, pupil mobility and prior attainment are at the heart of the national funding formula.

Finally, on further education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, equipping young people aged 16—and adults—with the skills they need is vital. Last week there was a Love our Colleges campaign lobby of Parliament. I met the principal of Myerscough College, who told me about the great work it is doing, and that it faces tough financial circumstances. Investment in FE would make a big difference in tackling poverty in Liverpool. I hope that the Minister can take that message back to his colleagues at the Department for Education.