Food Poverty In Merseyside Debate

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On Tuesday 16th January, Stephen led a debate in Westminster Hall with other MPs from around Merseyside on food poverty. 

You can watch Stephen's contribution here

Alternatively, you can read Stephen's contribution below:

I beg to move that this House has considered food poverty in Merseyside.

I want to start this debate by thanking all of the selfless and dedicated foodbank volunteers, not just in Merseyside, but across the country. For the last two years, I have been volunteering at a local foodbank in my constituency, the North Liverpool Foodbank Network, at St John’s Church in Tue brook, and I have seen first-hand the fantastic work that they do.

Can I welcome my Hon friends from across Merseyside.

My neighbour, the Hon. Member for Liverpool Wavertree has been a longstanding campaigner on this issue, and my other neighbour, the Hon. Member for Liverpool Walton used his first PMQ to ask about schools providing free meals during the holidays. Unfortunately, they both have other duties at the moment.

This is a debate we should not be having. For a first world country, it is shameful to see the use of foodbanks increase exponentially across the country. According to the Trussell Trust, 128,697 people were provided with a three day emergency food package in 2011. Last year, this number had risen to over 1.1m packages, an 8-fold increase.

Before Christmas, ITV’s Granada ran a special report on food poverty in  Morecambe which was seen by over 7m people. Merseyside is facing the exact same issues.

The Department of Health defines food poverty as the ‘inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet.’ The United Nations found that between 2014 and 2016, 4.2% of the UK population, which is nearly 3 million people, were deemed to be severely food insecure. This suggests that there are nearly 2m people in the UK who are suffering from food poverty who have not, through one reason or another, been able to access a foodbank.

Across the North West and Merseyside last year, the Trussell Trust network provided 175,000 emergency food packages, the most out of any region in the country. This doesn’t take into account independent foodbanks who are also providing vital food aid across Merseyside including the Hope Food Banks, The Orchard, and the Merseyside Youth Association Food Bank. Last Friday, the Orchard Food Bank, which is in my good friend the Hon Member for Garston and Halewood’s constituency, opened at 10am and handed out 49 bags of food in 25 minutes. They had to close the food bank at 11am because they had run out of food packages to give out.

Across Liverpool, the two biggest factors driving people to food banks are low income and benefit changes or delays in payment.

In the six months between April and September 2017, 27% of people in Liverpool said the main reason they were being referred to the foodbank was due to low income.

Food prices have increased significantly since 2015. Last year saw the highest rate of food price inflation in 4 years. Together with significant wage stagnation and increasing job insecurity, many people are taking home less and less money. Real wages have barely increased since 2005. Last year alone, real wages in the UK fell by 0.4%. This has created a perfect storm where the price of food is increasing much more quickly than people’s wages. I urge the Government to focus more on measures to tackle low pay.

Nationally, the main reason people are referred to foodbanks is low income, in Liverpool the primary reason is benefit changes. 51% of people in Liverpool who used a food bank last year did so because of changes or delays with their benefits.

Since 2010, there have been over 20 major changes to working age benefits. This has affected nearly 55,000 households in Liverpool. Liverpool City Council undertook a cumulative impact assessment of the changes since 2016. Can I ask the Minister to work with Liverpool City Council and other local authorities to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the impact of benefit changes?

A report by Sheffield Hallam University looked at how the risks and costs had been passed from the Government to local authorities. This has happened at the same time that Liverpool City Council’s central Government funding has been cut dramatically.

Universal credit also has an impact on food poverty. In an article I read at the weekend by my Hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, she suggested some positive changes the Government could make to Universal Credit that would have a real impact on my constituents and those across Merseyside who’re moving over to the new system later this year. She suggested that the Government follow Labour’s example and commit to passporting every family on Universal Credit to free school meals, to avoid cliff-edges as household earnings increase. She also suggested allowing claimants to choose to receive their UC payments fortnightly to stop households running up debts while waiting for payments. When the Minister replies, can he respond to these suggestions?

In a letter from the former Minister at Work and Pensions to Liverpool City Council, the Minister wrote ‘The suggestion that benefit delays are responsible for an increase in foodbank usage is unfounded’. This is completely at odds with the information from foodbanks and conversations I’ve had with people in my local foodbank. Does the Minister agree with the Trussell Trust that changes to benefits and Universal Credit are forcing people to turn to food banks? If not, what is the alternative explanation for the eight-fold increase in people at foodbanks?

Food poverty is a growing concern for public heath bodies. A lack of access to the nutritious food needed for a balanced diet increases the burden on the NHS through complications and illnesses associated with eating unhealthily. Liverpool has seen a significant rise in the number of fast food outlets coincide with a rise in food poverty, with Liverpool having the 34th highest outlet density out of the 325 local authorities. The areas with the highest outlet density are often the most deprived areas of the city. One of the strongest measures of a healthy diet is how often people manage to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day. Liverpool had the 29th lowest proportion of the population who managed 5 portions a day. Manchester was the only core city which had a lower proportion.

Liverpool City Council have tried to address this issue by teaming up with a local social enterprise; Can Cook. Can Cook have produced their own food packages using donations which contain ‘predominantly fresh food, accompanied by ambient goods and recipes….feeding them with nutritious food for 5 days’. Can I praise the work of Can Cook for their efforts in trying to make healthy food parcels available for people and can I also thank the Liverpool Echo, who teamed up with Can Cook in 2016, for a significant fundraising campaign. This is just one of a number of ways in which people across Liverpool and the Council, even in the face of huge budget cuts, are striving to help the poorest in the city.

The Liverpool Citizens Support Scheme was set up  by the council to help the most vulnerable in Liverpool during short term crisis to meet their needs for food and essential items. The average award is £91. Liverpool Council have made over 10,000 awards of which 8,000 were Urgent Needs Awards, which help cover people’s basic essentials such as food and fuel.

The City Council is also helping with Discretionary Housing Payments for people who need extra help with their rent when their Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit does not meet the full value of their rent. The original budget for the scheme was £2.7m, but due to the number of applications for support, the council has had to add a further £0.6m to its budget. This highlights the impact of the bedroom tax on communities across Liverpool.

Mayor Joe Anderson has established the Mayoral Hardship Fund, a special £2m fund over three years which has been set up specifically for the council to be able to respond to the ‘exceptional and growing pressures on Liverpool residents on a low income’.

These schemes have become a life support system for the most vulnerable in Liverpool because of years of austerity, wage stagnation and benefit changes. Can I ask the Minister what the Government will do to support Liverpool’s efforts to protect the most vulnerable? Will they encourage other local authorities to set up similar schemes?

I want to finish by talking about one of the fantastic community organisations in my constituency; Croxteth Gems. Before Christmas, I teamed up with them to help with their 12 days of Christmas campaign. The campaign was born out of a story that Jean Hannah from the Gems told me. Just before Christmas a couple of years ago, Jean was visiting a family in Croxteth who had fallen on hard times. When she arrived, Jean was shocked to see that this family was having to use a picture of a Christmas tree in place of a real one because they couldn’t afford a tree or decorations. The 12 Days of Christmas campaign was a huge success. It was originally aimed at 100 families but we managed to deliver food, clothes, Christmas trees, decorations and presents to 136 families with 354 children.

Croxteth Gems do work like this all year round. Although they were originally set up to provide play and youth services, they’re increasingly having to serve food to hungry children because their families can’t afford to feed them. During school holidays, the Gems provided 53 days of play to children in the local area and gave out close to 8,000 meals. They’re now helping to support a local school to provide a breakfast club for over 70 children 5 days a week, 40 weeks a year, which is nearly 14,000 meals. The additional work that the Gems have undertaken is only possible through generous donations from the local community, as they receive no Government funding for this work. I know that my Right Hon. Friend, the Member for Birkenhead has done some excellent, cross party work on providing free school meals for children during the school holidays. Can I urge the Minister to support this proposal?

There are organisations up and down the country like Croxteth Gems and the North Liverpool Food Bank, who are stepping in when the State won’t. Can I also thank ‘Fans Supporting Foodbanks’, which has brought together the Everton Supporter’s Club and the Spirit of Shankley to mobilise fans in support of local foodbanks.

I want to see an end to food poverty in Merseyside and across the whole of the UK. This requires a fundamental change in Government’s policy on benefits, on wages and on local authority funding.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity today to highlight the scale of the challenge and to pay tribute to the amazing response in local communities across Merseyside.

Local people have risen to the challenge.

I urge the Government to change course so that we can defeat food poverty once and for all.