Household Support Fund

– in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 31 January 2024.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:44, 31 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Household Support Fund.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate this matter. Since October 2021, the household support fund has provided £2.5 billion in local crisis support. I am delighted that both of the Ministers responsible for setting it up, Dr Coffey and Will Quince, are in their places, as is the current Minister, Jo Churchill. The fund has played a crucial role. At the autumn statement, I asked the Chancellor whether it would be extended into next year. His answer was yes, but it turns out that that was incorrect; the documentation did not bear that answer out, and we still do not know the answer to my question, hence the debate.

In the 1930s, the then Unemployment Assistance Board offered one-off additional payments on top of weekly assistance. From 1988, discretionary payments were centralised in the Department for Work and Pensions social fund. The coalition Government replaced that with local welfare assistance, making the fair argument that local authorities were best placed to distribute the funding. The social fund budget went to local authorities, but it was never ringfenced to the new local welfare assistance. As local council budgets have been squeezed, leading to recent bankruptcy announcements, councils have cut back. Local welfare assistance spending fell 87% from 2010-11 to 2019-20, and 35 councils operated no local welfare assistance at all in 2021-22. That decline was only ended by the household support fund.

The remarkable Liverpool-based charity End Furniture Poverty sent freedom of information requests to every local council about the year 2022-23. Eight said they depend entirely on the household support fund to fund local welfare. In a further 23 councils, the fund provides more than half of their spending. Of the £91 million spent by local authorities on local welfare assistance in 2022-23, only £34.7 million came from councils’ core budgets; 62% came from the household support fund. Failing to extend the fund now, with no replacement, would end vital support in the midst of a continuing crisis, but it would also end a feature of social security that has been supported by every Government since 1934.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Labour, Bradford East

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. He is right to put the situation in context, because it has to be viewed against the backdrop of 14 years of ideological austerity cuts, combined with the worst cost of living crisis. Not only has destitution increased by 61% in the past three years, but local authorities are poorer and cannot provide this support. Does he agree that, should the fund be cut, it would take away the essential lifeline that many families who struggle to put food on the table rely on?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I agree with my hon. Friend, as I do with the press release issued last Friday by the Minister. It said:

“The Household Support Fund is there for anyone who needs a helping hand.”

The question is whether it will still be there in six weeks’ time, which is the subject of this debate.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. In Manchester, the household support fund provides a vital safety net to 60,000 residents, including providing cost of living support payments for 12,500 vulnerable households. Does he agree that, by not guaranteeing funding for the next financial year, the Government are putting at risk essential support schemes for many vulnerable people? After all, our constituents are struggling financially due to the Government’s economic mismanagement, with soaring inflation, a massive spike in energy bills and sky-high mortgage rates.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East

Order. I understand why people want to make interventions, but if they are that long, colleagues will be reduced to around two minutes each.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I noticed that the leader of Manchester City Council wrote to the Prime Minister today, on behalf of the eight core cities, calling for the household support fund to be extended, making the point that it would be “catastrophic” for many people in our poorest communities if it is not. Given your remarks, Mr Hosie, perhaps I should not give way again.

I have no doubt that we will hear examples of the positive impact of the household support fund. At the Work and Pensions Committee last week, we heard from the head of benefits and advice at the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Like many councils, Greenwich has used the fund to support, in the school holidays, families entitled to free school meals. She told us how important it has been to those families to receive that £15 a week per child during the holidays. If the fund is not renewed, those families will have problems buying food in the Easter holiday.

One group that depends on the household support fund consists of hard-working, law-abiding families from overseas—often with children born in the UK—who have leave to remain in the UK but not yet indefinite leave, and who therefore have no recourse to public funds. They cannot claim universal credit, however tough their situation. Many councils have been able to support those families through the household support fund. Without it, there would be nothing.

The household support fund contributed £9.6 million towards essential white goods and furniture in 2022-23. The fridge of a pensioner in my borough, Newham, was not working. She is the guardian for her two grandchildren, one of whom has cancer. She was able to buy a fridge thanks to the household support fund.

The need for the fund to continue is clear. One-off help has always been needed, but gas and electricity prices are respectively 60% and 40% higher today than in 2020. The Trussell Trust, which had a reception in Parliament today, gave out 1.5 million emergency food parcels between last April and September—16% more than in the previous year. The continuation of the fund is crucial.

The current uncertainty is bad for everyone involved. One local authority told End Furniture Poverty:

“Part of the nightmare of this funding is, out of a team of 26, I have three permanent members of staff…we’re constantly onboarding and training people.”

Another said:

“Delaying the decision and failing to give local authorities sufficient notice has made it impossible to plan.”

This is no way to govern.

The Government can take some pride in the household support fund, but uncertainty undermines it. At a webinar attended by nearly 200 people yesterday, comments in the chat included:

“Without it, there will be no localised welfare assistance in Warwickshire.”

“In Brighton and Hove, our 50+ emergency food providers will have no way of coping if HSF is removed.”

“On the Isle of Wight we have used some of HSF to provide much needed funds for…food banks so they can purchase sufficient food to keep up with demand as donations have depleted drastically.”

Barnardo’s told us that it will publish a report about this precise issue next week.

Let me conclude by quoting a single mum of three in Greenwich. She said of the household support fund:

“It is a lifesaver…I hope and pray it continues.”

I agree, and I hope the Minister will too.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 4:53, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank Sir Stephen Timms for securing the debate and for his work on this issue as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member. The Committee has heard evidence on the fund, and it is clear that it has been a vital support to families since its introduction.

The fund has been essential in supporting vulnerable households in need with food, energy and water bills, and other associated tasks, with at least 50% of the total funding required being spent on families with children. The scheme was well received by residents in North Devon and across the UK. Recognising that, the Government have extended the fund several times. We all know that it has been a particularly tough time across the country, not least given rising energy prices as a result of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but the scheme’s end in March 2024 will come at a cost to vulnerable families.

Despite the Government’s hard work on bringing down inflation, continued economic pressures on vulnerable families mean that the household support fund is still needed in constituencies like mine. In North Devon, 30% of children live in poverty. The campaign by Barnardo’s to extend the fund has been supported by residents back home, as the fund provides a lifeline for families in urgent need of practical help. Throughout the pandemic, the fund allowed councils to significantly expand local support where households were struggling to afford essentials or facing severe hardship.

I have written to Ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about disparities in rural council funding. Councils and other frontline services report record demand for local welfare support. Devon County Council has warmly welcomed the more than £10 million it has received from the fund in this financial year. In a six-month window, the fund provided help in over 50,000 different cases.

Ilfracombe in my North Devon constituency is the third most deprived rural town in the country, in contrast with the much wealthier south of the county, and I have been continuously presenting a case for more funding in the town. I am not confident that this is the right time to be cutting funding from those who need it most without a replacement. I understand that the Government will continue to keep all their programmes under review, but I would be most grateful if the Minister could set out further steps and tell us about potential replacement schemes, as successful as the household support fund, that will provide a safety net to our most vulnerable families.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:55, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms for securing this debate on such an important issue.

In Salford City Council, the household support fund is run by the excellent Salford Assist service. Last year, nearly 19,000 people accessed emergency funds. As in the example given by my right hon. Friend, the fund also provided vouchers to ensure that children entitled to free school meals had food in the school holidays.

I am deeply concerned that the future of the fund is not secure past the end of March. Salford City Council has had its funding cut by £245 million since 2010. There are literally no funds to fill the gap that ending the household support fund would leave. Eighty-four per cent of councils that responded to a recent Local Government Association survey said that hardship had increased in their area, and in Salford, demand for the fund has increased by 86% in the last year.

Carers are particularly hard hit by the cost of living crisis; according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a third of them live in poverty. Carers Trust highlighted that the household support fund has enabled carer organisations to work with local councils to ensure that carers who are in need of financial help have access to the household support fund.

I will give a couple of examples of how the fund has been used to support my constituents. One constituent had lost everything when she fled a domestic violence situation with her two small children. She was offered social housing but it was unfurnished. The household support fund was essential in helping to provide basic furnishings for her new home.

Another constituent contacted me when a change of job meant she was put on an emergency tax rate. She was living in private rented accommodation with her partner and two children, who both have long-term health conditions. The children’s health issues meant that her partner had to stop work to look after them, and the family was finding it more and more difficult to meet the cost of their rent. She said:

“I have lived in Salford all my life, paid my contributions, provided for my children, maintained a home, but right now with all factors in play, this is becoming more and more unachievable as time passes.”

With the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis, I am contacted by so many people who are in hardship due to rent increases or sudden changes to their salary or benefits. That is where the support of the household support fund is vital. This is not the time to remove that support. I and my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who is here, and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) have raised the matter with the Secretary of State and asked him to meet us and a cross-party group of elected councillors to raise our serious concerns about the potential impact of losing the household support fund in Salford. I hope the meeting can be arranged soon and I hope we get a commitment from the Government to continue this vital fund.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester 4:58, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to Sir Stephen Timms for securing this important debate. As we worked closely when I was a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, he knows how strongly I feel about the subject.

In 2020, my right hon. and learned Friend Victoria Prentis—then a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and I set up a small ministerial working group on food and essential items. We recognised that despite the significant support given to the most vulnerable during the pandemic, including free school meals, healthy start payments and the holiday activities and food programme, on top of the additional support specifically relating to covid, some families were still struggling, especially during the school holidays. We wanted to design a scheme that provided targeted support with a focus on food and bills. We also believed, as the right hon. Member for East Ham rightly pointed out, that local councils were best placed to understand which groups needed extra support and to get to the families most in need.

We initially started with £63 million secured from the Treasury for local welfare assistance. That then morphed into an additional £170 million through the covid winter grant scheme and then became, in October 2021, what it is today, which is the household support fund, with £842 million. Indeed, I understand that, so far, more than £2 billion has been distributed. As the right hon. Member for East Ham rightly set out, it has already helped millions of people and families, and like him I urge the Government to continue it so that it can continue to support millions more.

I understand that the fund is the Minister’s responsibility, but ultimately it is down to the Treasury. She is an excellent Minister, for whom I have so much time, and I have no doubt that she will point rightly to the considerable support currently available to families. However, we know that despite that there will sadly continue to be households that will struggle; they will struggle to afford the essentials and face severe hardship. The household support fund allows councils directly to target help to the hardest-hit families and individuals, as well as providing food for children who need it over the holidays.

I gently say to the Minister that, as the right hon. Member for East Ham pointed out, any family or household could be in crisis with energy, food and other essential items, such as the unexpected breakdown of a boiler or white goods breaking. I also gently say to her—noting that I have very little time—that the fund is a targeted safety net for when families and individuals have nowhere else to turn. When I look back at my time in the Government, it is one of the things that I am most proud of, because it has made a huge difference to millions of families up and down the country. I urge the Minister and the Treasury to ensure that the scheme is continued, so that it can go on to support millions more.

Photo of Nick Brown Nick Brown Independent, Newcastle upon Tyne East 5:01, 31 January 2024

I will take up the theme of Will Quince, but I first thank my friend Sir Stephen Timms for the able way in which he introduced the topic. Views are probably widely held and similar across the Chamber.

I thank the Minister for replying to the letter that I sent to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up. The reply arrived this morning, and it gets straight to the heart of the matter. The question, of course, is: will there be a continuation of the scheme? The Government’s position as of this morning, set out by the Minister in the letter, is as follows:

“No further decisions have been taken on the Fund and the Government continues to keep its existing programmes under review in the usual way.”

Apart from thanking the Minister for her candour, I have two observations: this is not fair, and we are running out of time. Local authorities must plan ahead for the rest of the financial year, and there is absolutely no chance whatsoever of them finding the money from their own resources, particularly in the metropolitan districts, whose budgets have been constrained yet further.

I have been an opponent of the Conservative party all my life, but at least there was an element of it that believed in social justice and helping those who, through no fault of their own, needed extra help because they were the poorest. This is not doing such a thing. I usually argue my case in practical terms, but this is immoral and wrong. The Minister should announce a reversal of the policy, or at least a further implementation —that might be a better way of putting it—at the end of the debate.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 5:03, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I thank Sir Stephen Timms and very much agree in particular with the starting point of his contribution. It has been my experience—I speak as a councillor in London for 24 years—that local authorities know their communities best and are always in a stronger position than anyone in central Government to deploy resources in a way that reflects the needs of a particular community.

My constituents have had the benefit, for many years, of a local authority that has worked both with its own resources and with a network of charitable and voluntary organisations, ranging from some that are relatively new and sprung up to support refugees, such as the recent one in response to the arrival of large numbers of people from Ukraine, to those that have long-standing roots, such as Charlotte Gell’s Ickenham coal charity, which was established to give a free bag of coal to people in need of heating and today provides grants to those struggling with energy costs. It is that range and depth of resources that is so important. The local authority adds to that the ability both to identify households that are in acute need and, often, to signpost those who may not qualify for a particular type of support to another organisation that may be in a position to assist.

As we know, it has been part of the mission of local authorities, since their very inception, to address the relief of poverty. That is one of the reasons why, in my time as a councillor, I was keen to support the efforts in the late 2000s to establish the food banks, such as the Hillingdon food bank in 2009. However generous a safety net of benefits system we think we have, there will always be individuals and households that are at risk of falling between the cracks.

I have had the benefit of extensive research that has been carried out by both the Local Government Association and London Councils. I thank them for the work they have done to draw attention to the benefits that come with local authorities taking the lead on this issue. I hear from constituents that one of the weaknesses in the current fund relates to the ability to deploy resources outside local authority boundaries—individuals who may find themselves in temporary accommodation are an example of those who may be falling between the cracks. It is clear that we could be doing more work to ensure that resources are addressed flexibly.

Recognising the exceptional contribution that the fund and others, such as the holiday activities and food programme, have made to supporting the relief of poverty, and also recognising the fact that the fund does not sit on its own, my key plea to the Minister is that, once this policy comes to an end and a new iteration is developed, its successor respects the local knowledge and expertise of our councils. They are in the best position to identify the individuals who are the most in need and most able to benefit from the support that the fund offers.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 5:06, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms for securing this crucial debate.

Salford City Council recently commissioned Greater Manchester Poverty Action to research the impact of the household support fund. That research showed that the fund has been a vital lifeline for people in Salford. As my colleague stated, nearly 19,000 low-income households access the scheme. That is a staggering 86% increase from the year before and is set to increase even further this year. Therefore, both the Salford City Mayor and all three Salford MPs were extremely concerned that the autumn statement seemingly omitted to clarify the Government’s position with regard to the continuation of the fund.

The Minister must understand that to withdraw this fund at a time when the cost of living crisis is demonstrably outstripping so many incomes will have disastrous consequences for our most vulnerable residents, families and children who simply cannot make ends meet. For so many, cutting this vital lifeline will mean that they are quite simply catapulted into further destitution, hunger, fuel poverty and worse. For many, their health will be put at extreme risk.

Given that the Government are supposedly consulting on the next provisional local government finance settlement, will the Minister provide financial clarity today by confirming the extension of the household support fund? Will she also commit to formally ringfencing financial measures such as the household support fund and the ongoing revenue support grant calculations for local government, to support the most deprived residents during the cost of living crisis? Will she confirm that she will not cut the current services grant for local government, and that she will instead increase it by inflation to reflect the financial pressures that local authorities face at this time? Will she work with the local government sector to urgently address the acute financial pressures facing local authorities?

Finally, as my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley said, will the Minister meet me, along with the Salford City Mayor and Salford MPs, to urgently address these issues?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 5:09, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on securing it. He will recall the situation that we were faced with in the middle of covid, when covid was continuing for longer than we had initially expected. Recognising the challenges that families and pensioners were facing, it was right that we took that action then. I give credit to the Prime Minister, who was then the Chancellor, for working with me and my Department to establish the household support fund. It was with great pride that I formally announced the fund on 30 September 2021.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to raise local welfare assistance. Indeed, it was the Department for Work and Pensions that handed money to councils—it was not ringfenced, but the Department took a localist approach. That funding was kept in as part of the baseline grant for many years; I think it was not until 2020 that it was removed from the information that was formally published on the transfer, recognising that councils were still being funded on local welfare assistance.

I am conscious that covid was a challenging time. In particular, we wanted to make sure we went to the upper-tier unitary authorities that had statutory responsibility for children and adults. We made sure the funding was ringfenced, and we also imposed reporting conditions to ensure the money went either directly into people’s hands or to agencies that could make a difference.

I am conscious that quite a lot of councils resorted to vouchers for funding, but I commend Telford and Wrekin Council, and others like it, for thinking ahead. Instead of just handing out vouchers, the council identified the children who were struggling at home and started buying coats for people—they considered the long term. I would have loved to have seen more innovation in some of the ways the money was spent—whether that concerned bed poverty or similar issues—so that the local elements could be identified. It was important to increase funding for pensioners too; they did not have any opportunity to increase their economic income and were struggling.

I hear what councils are saying, and I do think the Government should extend the household support fund—whatever they may choose to call it in the future. We should challenge councils more to work with, for example, community foundations, whereby significant tax relief is given to local philanthropists to make the money go further. At the same time, we still have the holiday activities and food programme. That was established in October 2021 and was deliberately targeted at young children who were receiving free school meals. Those are the sorts of initiatives in which I am proud to have played a part. I urge the Minister to look further at how we can make the most of the money we distribute.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 5:12, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on securing this important debate.

I will focus my remarks on children and the lifeline that the household support fund provides to so many children living in poverty. Many Members will be aware that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a report that estimated that approximately 1 million children in this country are experiencing destitution. That is 1 million children growing up not knowing the comfort of a warm home or where their next meal will come from. The household support fund has enabled councils, which know their local populations’ needs best, to provide local welfare support to those families who are on the edge. It is vital that that funding continues beyond March.

As we have heard, many councils up and down the country, including my own in Richmond upon Thames, have used the household support fund to ensure that children eligible for free school meals are able to access them in the holidays through vouchers or cash support for families. School holidays are a time of real hardship, and children go hungry. Across London alone, councils are providing school holiday food support to almost half a million children over this academic year.

Richmond is also using money from the household support fund to support looked-after children and care leavers with food and fuel payments. These are some of the most vulnerable children and our young people in our society, and the Government’s welfare system has allowed them to fall through the net. But the household support fund has enabled councils to catch them and ensure they are not left destitute.

The need is growing: Richmond is projecting an overspend in the current round of HSF allocation because of rising need. Demand for support remains at unprecedented levels, and with the Government withdrawing energy bill support, this winter is set to be even tougher for many families.

I am sure the Minister will refer to other measures, such as the uprating of benefits and the local housing allowance, but they do not credibly replace the HSF and will benefit only specific groups. The beauty of HSF is that it affords flexibility to local councils, and the partner organisations they work with, to target support at those who need it. I pay particular tribute to Richmond AID and Citizens Advice Richmond for their work in administering grants.

What will happen come April? We all know that local authorities throughout the country have finances that are in an extremely precarious state—indeed, many local authorities are on the brink of bankruptcy. There is no alternative funding stream. The reality is that without the HSF, councils will be forced to make difficult decisions about what essential support to families in greatest need they will have to cut. Once again, children and young people are in the firing line, so I implore the Minister to make the case to the Chancellor to extend this lifeline to our most vulnerable constituents.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 5:15, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms on securing this extremely important debate.

We have to look at who is in most need with regard to the household support fund. These people are so desperate. What are they after? They are after food. It is 2024, and we have people pleading—begging—for food. The people in receipt of the support are people who are on the breadline, as other speakers have explained. It is a lifeline—it is a lifesaver. Why on earth the Government are considering not continuing the fund, or have possibly already made the decision not to continue it after the next month or so, is beyond me.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

Is my hon. Friend, like me, seeing more and more people coming to his constituency advice sessions who are in desperate need, pushed into penury and really struggling to make ends meet? What they need now is certainty that the Government will say, “Do you know what? Yes, we’ll extend the household support fund and we’ll do it now.”

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

I totally agree. These people are after food; they are after soap powder; they are after sanitary products. Potentially, they are after heat, warmth and light. This is 2024, for goodness’ sake! We all understand it; we all have people in our constituency surgeries who are suffering greatly as a consequence of this.

As politicians, we all have decent lives and we are all very comfortable, but we see constituents who are in desperate need of help. They are not after luxuries; they just want to keep themselves clean and feed their kids. That is what the household support fund is for.

I place on the record my massive thanks to Northumberland Communities Together. It is led by Julie Leddy, who is getting into the community and has been able to speak to people. The people who need support the most are the hardest to reach. Julie and her team have been absolutely fantastic.

The household support fund needs to be funded adequately and needs to be renewed on a multi-year basis. We need to encourage non-digital applications. Most of all, we need to ensure that the fund continues in the best interests of the people who, sadly, we all see in our constituency offices on a regular basis, who have got absolutely nothing.

Photo of Sarah Edwards Sarah Edwards Labour, Tamworth 5:18, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and to be making my first Westminster Hall speech in a debate secured by my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms.

I am not alone in this Chamber in expressing deep concerns for my constituents, who face a cost of living crisis that they neither asked for nor deserve. Just this afternoon, I was speaking in Parliament with the Trussell Trust, which warns of an unprecedented level of demand for food banks across the country. In my constituency, the demand for its food banks has risen by 44% since 2022 and by an alarming 101% since 2018.

I have been heartened and genuinely inspired by the community spirit shown in Tamworth during these tough times by the work of the Community Together CIC, led by Lee Bates; the Tamworth Co-operative Society, which donated stock to produce 450 food parcels for children and their families at Christmas; and the Heart of Tamworth community project, which runs weekly lunch clubs for those who are lonely, isolated and vulnerable. The Manna House project has played a crucial role in our community, offering counselling services, a food bank and many other initiatives. My constituent Liz Wadsworth created the community-run Tamworth Pantry, which has repurposed an old bus into a mobile community support station.

Now is not the time to withdraw support from struggling households. We need assurances from the Government that the household support fund will continue past March 2024. Between April 2023 and March 2024, Staffordshire County Council will have received just over £11 million from the household support fund. If the fund is not continued, it is extremely likely that councils will not be able to afford to replace that funding. A Lichfield District Council cabinet member wrote to me on the state of the council’s finances:

“How can councils fill in the gaps when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable, when they are struggling with the pressures of providing statutory services under the extreme cuts of the last 10 years?”

The Government must extend the household support fund.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East

I call Preet Kaur Gill. Is that Preet? [Interruption.] Apologies! I call Yasmin Qureshi.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East 5:21, 31 January 2024

It’s okay. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms for securing this important debate.

The household support fund is worth £5.5 million for people in Bolton. Following reassurance in the autumn statement, it was understood that it would continue, but of course we have heard nothing from the Government. Bolton Council has had to hold back a further half a million pounds to bolster its local welfare provision service and mitigate the impact of possibly losing that £5.5 million. Today, another blow has been dealt to Bolton Council with the announcement that its service grant is going to be cut by a staggering £2.4 million.

Withdrawing the household support fund is taking away £5.5 million from desperate households in Bolton, which we need to support vulnerable people and pay for their clothes, food and other essentials. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that Bolton is now in the top five for child poverty in the north-west. The household support fund is a lifeline for my constituents. I urge the Minister: please do not cut the fund. It is a great safety net for the families and individuals facing the greatest hardships.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East

I call Sarah Maskell. Sorry: Rachael Maskell. Forgive me—it’s been a very long day.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 5:22, 31 January 2024

We all make mistakes, Mr Hosie.

I have to ask: what do we come to Parliament for? It brings real shame that in this day and age we are sent here to beg the Minister to provide essential funding for our constituents living on the poverty line. It is not only that they are already in poverty, but that just five weeks out from the Budget, we have to stand up in this place and call for emergency support funding. Of course, the fund is not a solution to the deep deprivation that we are seeing across all our communities; it will take a Labour Government to get into the root causes and address the poverty that, shamefully, we see across our constituencies because of the inequity in the economy that the Government have driven.

The household support fund is a lifeline for many of our constituents. That is why it desperately needs funding today. It cannot wait for the next Budget. Local authorities certainly cannot wait that long to plan how they are going to support their communities. With the housing disparities in York, with low wages and with the highest housing costs across the north, my constituents really struggle.

I stand here on behalf of all councils in Yorkshire, especially North Yorkshire. Across Yorkshire, 1 million awards were granted between October 2022 and March 2023; £94 million is needed. That is why we need the Government to come forward with an announcement today. We know there are many people out there who are going to exploit our constituents if that money is not forthcoming, so we need to do it to safeguard their interests. We also need to ensure that we stave off the cold and the hunger for the families we are here to represent.

I have to say that it is simply not good enough to stall us further. We have written to the Chancellor, we have had the data, we know the statistics and now we need the answers. I trust that the Minister will announce exactly what the Government will do to help those most in need. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that the welfare support that our constituents receive is nowhere near enough for the essentials. We need that to be addressed, too, but today we need this money coming forward, because this is the last thread of the safety net on which our constituents depend. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:25, 31 January 2024

I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on securing the debate and on setting the scene so well. We have had marvellous contributions from right hon. and hon. Members. From the outset, I want to be clear that Northern Ireland has a different method of allocation —it is a different system. Our access to the household support fund ended with the energy costs support, and our constituents are directed to find equivalency in the discretionary support fund, as we have no existing household fund.

The funding in Northern Ireland is deliberately so pared back that people can claim discretionary support for only a small number of reasons. Simply being unable to cope is no longer one of them. It should be, but it is not. Those who suffer domestic violence and have to leave all their goods in the middle of the night cannot access good enough support. That is just one example.

Yet again, the ordinary person in Northern Ireland is still paying more to be part of the Union. If only we got all the benefits of being part of the Union! I am very supportive of it, but I think it is time that that was looked at. The Government committed today in the Chamber to looking at the Barnett consequentials and seeing whether we can have the equivalent of the Welsh provision. If we do, that will be a step in the right direction.

I have outlined in another debate how money in the local economy shrinks. Sarah Edwards mentioned food banks; I will speak about my food bank, to give some equivalency. Take a middle-class family with two working parents who perhaps used to take a wee weekend holiday once every quarter. The hotel now misses out on its income from them, so it cuts back the hours for the cleaner it employs, and the cleaner loses their income. The family no longer go to the restaurants they used to go to, so that money is pared back. Where do they end up? I will tell you where they end up, Mr Hosie: they end up at the food bank.

An answer has to be given to explain why the cost of gas and oil is substantially lower, and yet the savings are not being passed on. As an example, one family I know have paid £250 for their gas bill. They are a small family with two children. If they cannot manage it, there is no way in the world that pensioners can. The Government must step in with help for energy costs, not simply for those on benefits who need the help, but for all people who are struggling in every working and non-working capacity.

The Newtownards food bank, which is based at the House church in Newtownards in my constituency, is the first ever Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland. The stats tell a story—I will finish with this point, Mr Hosie, because I know you are looking at the clock. The food bank helped to feed 1,272 people in December 2023, compared with 988 in December 2022. That is an increase of almost 29%. Many of those were new referrals: people who had never been before. That shows where we are. Poverty in Northern Ireland has risen, and people who have never had to claim before simply cannot meet the escalating costs. Action is needed, and action is needed now.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 5:28, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms on securing the debate, and I thank him for his invaluable work as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. This debate is hugely important, as we can see from the number of Members present. I am frequently grateful for the rigour with which the Committee conducts its inquiries and for the superb job that it does of holding the Department to account.

The question that all Members are asking today—I started writing down individual Members, but it was literally all of them—is “Will the household support fund still be there?” That is a question to which I hope the Minister can respond today. As we have heard, since its announcement in September 2021, the household support fund has provided much-needed short-term support to many vulnerable households. However, as we head towards the Chancellor’s spring Budget, its future remains uncertain.

All hon. Members have outlined why the fund is so needed at the moment. Mr Brown and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned the financial challenges that local authorities are under and the vital support that the fund provides. My hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey outlined research on why it is such a vital lifeline.

As shadow Minister for disabled people, it concerns me that the future of the household support fund is in doubt while we are still in the grip of a cost of living crisis. My hon. Friend Sarah Edwards spoke for the first time in Westminster Hall—I have to say, I could not tell—and outlined the cost of living pressures her local constituents face: higher energy bills and the extra costs that disabled households face. My hon. Friend Barbara Keeley highlighted devastating cases of people fleeing domestic abuse and the way in which the household support fund has supported them.

I would like to highlight an issue I have come across in my constituency casework. My office is trying to assist a young person who lives in one borough and attends a school in another. Both boroughs are using the household support fund to pay for free school meal vouchers during the holidays—many Members mentioned this issue—but the home borough bases support on a pupil’s school address, while the other bases it on their home address. This frustrating situation means my constituent is missing out on support that both boroughs are, in theory, happy to provide. It is worth noting that, while local authorities are best placed to spend the money how they see fit, the variation in how one qualifies for support can lead to problems.

This debate has made it clear that the Government must carefully consider the future of the household support fund. Local authorities, such as my own in the London Borough of Lewisham, are being left in limbo as they try to plan for their 2024-2025 budgets, which may lead to interruptions to service provision and job losses. In an ideal world, we would not consider the future of the household support fund in isolation. When the fund was announced, my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds, who at the time was our shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said:

“Temporary and inadequate sticking plasters are no substitute for a proper social security system that offers security to families in hard times.”

That remains true. However, for now, it is for the Government to say whether or not the fund will continue for next year. Labour’s plan for a new deal for working people, for affordable energy, for safe and dry homes and to get people better jobs and better pay is the long-term plan that we are focused on delivering, but today we need to hear the Government’s plans. As my hon. Friend Ian Lavery said, the people who rely on this fund are desperate. They are pleading—begging—for food and we must give certainty on the future of the fund.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 5:33, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. First, I would like to add my voice to those of others in thanking Sir Stephen Timms for securing this debate. As Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, I know he is not only passionate about supporting those in need, but very thoughtful in the suggestions and the comments that he makes. I think we both recognise—indeed we have heard it from virtually every Member—the significant help that the household support fund has provided to people across England and, via Barnett consequentials, more broadly across the nation since its inception and during these challenging times. At this point, I feel it is only right for me to thank my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey and my hon. Friend Will Quince for their diligence and grit in ensuring that this reached those people who need help the most, as we have heard from every constituency. The attenuation of this scheme, and the fact that it is directed at those who need help the most, is a mark of its true success.

The right hon. Member for East Ham showed how beneficial the household support fund was, and how its local nature and adaptability was part of its success. Since its launch in 2021, the Government have provided more than £2.5 billion, including Barnett consequentials, to support those most in need. This includes last year’s provision of some £842 million for England plus Barnett consequentials, bringing it to £1 billion in this year. The additional funding has enabled the latest and longest extension from April 2023, with those funds currently being delivered incredibly effectively by local councils. Across England, 153 local authorities have used this funding to provide—[Interruption.]

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East

Order. Unfortunately, there is a Division. I will have to suspend this sitting for 15 minutes for the first vote, and then for 10 minutes for any subsequent vote. Let’s hope we can be back here at 5.51 pm.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 5:51, 31 January 2024

I hope I am picking up where I left off.

Across England, 153 local authorities have used this funding to provide a variety of support to help households with their essential costs. As we have heard from across the Chamber, that support has included—not exhaustively —vouchers for food and energy costs, warm clothing, and enacting simple energy-saving measures. Since April 2023, councils have also been able to fund advice and guidance services as part of their offer, helping to direct individuals towards longer-term help and support.

Since its inception, the household support fund has provided help to millions of people in a wide variety of circumstances. There were more than 26 million individual awards of support across the first three schemes, which ran from October 2021 to March 2023; indeed, totting it up roughly, over £100 million of support was given to councils in the constituencies of Members sitting here. We know that around two thirds of the funding from these schemes was used to support families with children—that was heard very clearly—and that was in addition to other support that we have made available, including the £200 million per annum holiday activities and food programme, which will carry through into 2024-25. We have also extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government in the past half century.

Many Members have raised concerns about the end of the current household support fund on 31 March. Some have even suggested that the Government have cut the fund. I re-emphasise the remarks I made in a debate in this place two weeks ago. To be clear: the Government continue to keep these matters under review. No decision on the future of the scheme has been taken, and the current scheme runs until the end of March.

Although the household support fund does important work, and we have heard about much of it, it is only a part of what we are doing. As I am sure the right hon. Member for East Ham will agree, over the past two years in particular, in the light of the pandemic and Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, we have provided one of the largest cost of living support packages in Europe, and further support is still to be delivered in 2024-25. For example, over 8 million households across the UK on eligible benefits have received two of the three cost of living payments, which will be worth £900 in total this financial year, and the third cost of living payment—a further £299—will be made to most eligible households next month.

To put things into context, the annual welfare spend in Great Britain will be £276 billion this year. Having uprated benefits in line with inflation for 2023-24, we have announced a further increase of 6.7% in working-age benefits for 2024-25, subject to parliamentary approval—as we know, that order began its journey through the Commons today. On top of that, we are increasing local housing allowance from April, which will benefit a further 1.6 million low-income households by, on average, around £800, and we are increasing the national living wage for people aged 21 and above by over 9.8% from April. That means there will be an annual increase in gross earnings of more than £1,800 for someone working full time on that wage. Those workers who are at the younger end—at 21 or 22 years old—will see an increase of some 12.4% on average, as we extend the national living wage to them.

Additionally, we have reduced the main rate of class 1 national insurance contributions to 10% from this month, providing a tax cut for a further 27 million working people. Nevertheless, we rightly remain committed to that strong safety net for those who need it, particularly during challenging economic times and when lives get a bit turbulent. We have always believed that the best way to help people improve their financial circumstances is through work and support, and that approach is based on the clear evidence around the beneficial role of work, and especially full-time work, including the part that it can play in lifting people out of poverty.

Data from 2021-22 shows that there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs compared with 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children. With more than 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus is firmly on helping people take their first steps into work and progress towards financial independence. We know that for many, many people, that can be a challenge in itself. We therefore need to make sure that there is the right support to help people on that journey, which is why we have introduced WorkWell, the back to work plan, Access to Work and many other schemes. We have heard today that the fund is ringfenced, goes to upper-tier authorities, looks towards local attenuation and looks to make the best of all those charities that do so much for our communities. I thank hon. Members for those positive words.

In summary, the household support fund has done much to help those in need, providing billions of pounds through millions of individual awards. Local authorities have used the funding to help those most in need. As I have said, the current round will end on 31 March, as planned. However, we remain committed to a sustainable long-term approach to supporting vulnerable individuals and tackling poverty, alongside inflation-matching increases to benefits and the state pension, increasing the national living wage and reducing national insurance, as the Government continue to empower people to move into work and have control over their own lives.

I have heard everyone’s comments, both on the success of the scheme and the local focus. Hon. Members will be aware that there is a fiscal event on 6 March. It is not for me to pre-empt what may be included. However, I will ensure that the comments from today’s debate are passed to No. 11. On that note, I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House to continue to support those most in need, and I again thank the right hon. Member for East Ham for calling this very important debate.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 5:58, 31 January 2024

I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate. I particularly welcome the robust cross-party support for the household support fund, not least from the two former recent Ministers responsible for it, Dr Coffey and Will Quince. I also welcome the positive tone the Minister has taken in her remarks about the household support fund; perhaps we should all wish her well for her discussions with the Treasury in the next few weeks so that the fund gets extended.

We heard a powerful case being made across the Chamber. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Tamworth (Sarah Edwards), who all spoke powerfully.

I want to make a final point. The household support fund was initially announced for six months. The longest it has ever been in place for was a year. Each time it gets changed, the goalposts have shifted. Local councils really need a longer-term commitment so that they can plan to make the most of this very welcome funding. I very much hope it will be extended.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the Household Support Fund.

Sitting adjourned.