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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 3:38 pm, 24th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Luciana Berger on securing this important debate.

Liverpool is a place I have got to know well, like many others who have spoken today. Part of my constituency lies within the Liverpool city region, and many of my constituents travel to work or visit Liverpool each day. Many—including my wife—have recent personal or family heritage in Liverpool, and people are well aware of what colleagues have already noted. Liverpool is a city with incredible culture, buildings, beauty—Scouse pride, as my hon. Friend Dan Carden pointed out—and history. It is also a city that has places that are suffering deep and scarring poverty and, disgracefully, 32,000 children are living in poverty. That poverty is made even worse by the Government’s austerity measures, and it looks set to deepen further as a result of the roll-out of universal credit across the city and region.

This afternoon we have heard many examples and arguments for why the roll-out of universal credit must be halted and the policy radically reformed and fixed. We heard many more in the main Chamber last week—in fact, we have heard many over the past few months. Of course, universal credit is not the sole cause or trigger of poverty—I will talk about some of the other causes later—but it is certainly not scaremongering to suggest that rolling out universal credit across Liverpool is likely to make the issues worse and the suffering even greater. There are many reasons why the Government should stop the roll-out, but surely the evidence that more people will be forced to use food banks— 69,000 used them last year alone—simply to feed themselves and their children is reason enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said that people in Liverpool want jobs, skills and investment. They certainly do not want to root through bins for food and vital goods. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton rightly pointed out that austerity is a political choice, and that it is driving what we see on the streets of Liverpool. My hon. Friend Dame Louise Ellman pointed out that only 16%—a stark figure—of young people aged 16 to 24 are in work. My hon. Friend Maria Eagle made a strong case that the end-of-austerity cheque should deal with the growth in food bank use and the decimation of public services in Liverpool. My hon. Friend Stephen Twigg pointed out that this is a debate we really should not be having today—or on any day—and said that universal credit is exacerbating the crisis on the streets of Liverpool.

My question to the Minister is this. If the unacceptable delays, the growing rent arrears in Riverside and elsewhere, and the numerous tales of mistakes and misapplications are not enough to make the Government stop and think again, what will it take? It seems that the prospect of children going hungry in Liverpool and elsewhere is not enough to stop universal credit. That should shame the Minister, the Government and all of us in the fifth richest country in the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby said.

Of course, poverty is not caused solely by universal credit, although it often rises as a result. Good, well-paid, fulfilling and decent jobs can help to tackle poverty, and we have often heard Conservative Ministers talk about work being the best route out of poverty. The question, however, is, what kind of work? We hear lots of spin from the Government about jobs and employment, but beneath the headlines lies a story of insecurity, low pay and wages falling far short of decent expectations. Real-terms weekly pay is £11 a week lower than it was a decade ago. Business surveys suggest that there are 1.8 million people on zero-hours contracts in the economy, and almost 800,000 consider such posts to be their main job. The draconian cuts to in-work allowances from universal credit is a retrograde step. The National Audit Office says that there is no evidence that it leads to employment growth.

Having focused on what little the Government are doing to tackle poverty, I want to take the opportunity to welcome what Liverpool City Council and many other councils across the country are doing to blunt the ever sharper knife of Tory austerity and to support those in need. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others mentioned the work of Liverpool’s Labour Mayor, Joe Anderson. The Labour council and its city region Mayor are helping to tackle poverty. They have spent £12 million on services for homeless people, £3.5 million protecting 42,000 people from the full impact of Government reductions in council tax support, £2.7 million on almost 13,000 crisis payments to help people with the cost of food, fuel, clothing and furniture, and £2.2 million on 8,300 discretionary housing payments to people affected by welfare reform and hardship. They have set up a £2 million hardship fund that will run from 2017 to 2020 to help struggling residents. As has been rightly pointed out, all children’s centres remain open. There is a demand for real powers to transform the economy into one that offers high-quality, decent and fairly paid jobs—something that Whitehall control has so far failed to deliver.

My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Garston and Halewood mentioned those actions in the main Chamber last week, and they are welcomed by all Members from Liverpool. Once again, it is left to our councils—usually, our Labour councils—to help those most in need. They have already faced draconian cuts—Liverpool’s budget has been cut by 64%, or £440 million, in a decade—and yet the Liverpool Mayor is still determined to tackle the root causes of this shocking poverty. Meanwhile, the Government have cut taxes for the richest and wealthiest businesses and corporations—a £110 billion giveaway.

We accept that eradicating poverty requires more than one approach. It requires many partners inside and outside Government. We also know that two key elements are fundamental to the approach: a genuine desire from the Government to do it and the willingness to prioritise that desire and make decisions to underpin it. The Government’s record show that they have neither.