“it is ridiculous to say that the rise in the need for food banks is attributable to this Government”—[Official Report, 23 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 80.]

I contest that 100%, and that is what motivated me to make my film, to carry on campaigning and to have this debate, although I should add that several other Members also called for it.

I want to reflect on people’s stories about why they have to access emergency food aid. In my film, I spoke to Patricia, who had been employed her whole life after leaving school. In her last job, she had worked for 22 years as a bookkeeper. She has only ever contributed and only ever wanted to play her part and to work. Having been in her post for 22 years, however, she was made redundant because of the cuts to local authorities. Of the past 13 months, she has worked for just two, despite making literally hundreds of applications. She cannot afford the internet, but she is in the library every day trying to seek employment, and she goes for interviews and all the rest of it. I went to Patricia’s small flat, and I saw at first hand that it was cold, that the cupboards were bare and that there was nothing in the fridge. She had £3.60 in her wallet to last her for the week. It is people such as Patricia—the strivers, who want to make a contribution and who have worked all their lives— who have to hang their heads in shame and go to a food bank.

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I met a man who had been in hospital having heart surgery when his benefits were stopped. When he came out, he found that his electricity pre-payment meter had run out; he had left a light on, but someone had burgled his home anyway. A district nurse issued him with a food voucher because he had no food in his stomach and had not eaten for two days. Although still recovering from heart surgery, he walked four miles in the freezing cold and rain to access emergency food aid.

In addition, I met a single father of three who was trying to do the best for his family. Someone had said, “Here’s a food voucher so you can feed your children.” He had gone without food for more than two days to feed his kids. That is the reality that too many of our constituents face. I hope the Minister will not give us a similar response to his colleague, who told us that it is “ridiculous” to say this problem is attributable to the Government. I do attribute the blame to this Government, and the fact is that all those charities have to step in and fill the gap.

I was looking through the press, and I want to mention some of the stories and headlines. In just the past three months, we have seen headlines such as “Desperate people facing 20-mile hike for food” in the Metro. The Sunday Express—these are papers we would not expect to talk about these stories—had the headline, “3m people starving in the UK: Parents having to choose between eating or heating.” In the Daily Mail, we saw the headline “Schools teach cookery on Fridays so hungry children from families too poor to eat have food for the weekend.” Another headline referred to the fact that 10% of families do not have enough food. Other headlines included, “Mum starves herself to feed kids—and re-wraps their toys as Christmas presents” and “Demand for food parcels explodes as welfare cuts and falling pay hit home.” The Yorkshire Post ran the headline, “Rising food prices raise fears of a ‘hidden hunger epidemic.’” The list goes on. It is a really sad indictment.

I have mentioned some of the organisations involved. FareShare does a fantastic job of providing food to 722 community food members. The Trussell Trust has 270 food banks, and there are other food banks that are not included in that figure. The trust provides three days’ worth of nutritionally balanced non-perishable foods, and 90% of the food given out by the food banks is donated by the public.

I reiterate that people cannot just turn up at a food bank and ask for food; they need a food voucher issued to them. I and a number of other MPs are in the difficult position of being able to issue food vouchers to our constituents if we feel that they are in need. It is a difficult and sensitive situation to broach; sometimes when I meet constituents I feel that I really have no choice but to softly ask whether they want food vouchers. I can tell that constituents are ashamed and embarrassed, but they take the voucher because it means they will get to eat properly.

Stephen Doughty: If I might reflect on what my hon. Friend has just said, food parcels are extremely basic: they include basic rice and basic pasta—there is nothing glamorous in them at all. Other charities are doing equally important work in offering hot, nutritionally balanced meals, with meat, veg and everything else, rather than just what we find in a food parcel. I note

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that the audience includes colleagues from the Salvation Army, which runs a fantastic community café in my constituency called Grub In A Tub. The café provides nutritionally balanced meals for £3, and people go there every day to get warm and to get a hot meal inside themselves. I commend the work that such organisations do on top of the work being done by the food banks.

Luciana Berger: I thank my hon. Friend for commending the work of the Salvation Army. I mentioned Magic Breakfast. He is right to suggest that the food from a food bank is non-perishable and not fresh; it is tinned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as pasta, cereal and UHT milk, so it is nothing glamorous. I also commend the work of FoodCycle, which provides fresh meals for people across the country. Its network of three cafés is growing, and it does a great job using food that would otherwise go to waste.

I know that supermarkets have to play their part, but I would like to take a moment to commend their recent work on making food collections, which several of us will have been involved in. At the start of October, Sainsbury’s, in partnership with FareShare, did a national collection, collecting 2 million meals from its customers. As customers came into its stores, they were given a list of things to collect, and they donated them afterwards. Six hundred volunteers helped in that exercise. Only last week, the Co-operative group teamed up with the ITV breakfast show “Daybreak” and the Salvation Army for the “You CAN Help” food campaign. I went to my local Co-op store and saw the cans being collected, and I made a contribution myself. The final figure for the collection is not known exactly, but it is expected that more than 110,000 cans will be redistributed across the country.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I commend the work supermarkets are doing in partnership with charities—I had hoped to make this point later—but they must make sure they are not part of the very problem she talks about by paying people poverty wages or giving them zero-hours contracts and only part-time work. Obviously, it is commendable that supermarkets are doing something to try to deal with the problem once it is created, but they must make sure they are not part of the problem in the first place.

Luciana Berger: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree. Some supermarkets are a lot better than others in terms of the contracts they give out. Not every supermarket has taken part in food collections. It is important to add that Sainsbury’s and Tesco both made sure that they did not make any profit from the collections that they made. Of course supermarkets have a massive role to play in many ways, including ensuring that their staff are not living on poverty wages.

I was at the Tesco collection in my constituency last week, at the store that collected more than any other in the country. People were incredibly generous. We collected 15,000 meals at the store in Allerton road. Tesco collected 2 million meals and gave a 30% top-up. The public have shown tremendous generosity, but we should not have to have such collections.

I want quickly to reflect on the future. I have spoken about people in work who are in poverty and mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures of the other

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week. There are in this country more people in poverty who are in work than there are out of work. That is important, and the Government should reflect on it. We have had the autumn statement; we did not get an answer from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but we know from analysis done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that 60% of the people who are most affected are those in working households and that the poorest 10% of the population will have the biggest percentage drop in their incomes because of the autumn statement. Many organisations have raised serious concerns about how that will affect what happens. Barnardo’s talks about families that currently exist on only £12 per person and are worried about the future.

Yesterday, as reported in column 152 of Hansard, I asked the Chancellor whether he was ashamed that by the end of this year, on his watch, 250,000 people would obtain emergency food aid. I was disappointed that he did not want to reflect at all on the substance of my question and the serious issue that people face. He referred only to having to deal with the economic challenges. I urge the Minister to think long and hard, particularly now that we are in the run-up to Christmas, about what the Government can do to help not only the people in our society who are most in need but the people we least expect to find suddenly in desperate and difficult circumstances.

I do not know whether the Minister has visited a food bank. Perhaps he will tell us whether he has been able to see one at first hand and speak to people who must obtain emergency food aid. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made a good point about the role that supermarkets should play in redistribution and in preventing the waste of food. That important issue needs to be dealt with. However, I would like to know what the Minister is doing and what conversations he has with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, particularly about delay in benefit payments, which is the largest contributory factor in the need to get emergency food aid. What conversations has he had or what representations has he made to his colleagues in the Treasury, in the light of the autumn statement, about the fact that the poorest in society will be hit hardest? My concern is that the situation will only get worse if the Government do not do something serious about it soon.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): We have had a full debate so far, and the hon. Lady was generous in giving way more than 20 times. The subject is important, and five hon. Members have written to ask to take the floor. I must call those Members, but the two Front-Bench Members must also speak, so if there are any interventions, can they be brief, and will those called to speak try to leave a little time for their colleagues to make their points?

3.23 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for obtaining it. Everyone will be shocked at the explosion in the number of food banks that have opened. On behalf of my party as well as myself, I thank charities, Churches and faith organisations that run food banks and particularly volunteers and donors who enable food to be made available.

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Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what the hon. Gentlemen says about his party; but does he condemn the Conservative party for not having a single person on the Benches with him?

Roger Williams: All I can say is it was a bit of a surprise when I turned up to the debate and I was the only coalition Back-Bench Member who had come to make a speech; but let that be as it may.

We have heard about the Trussell Trust. Giving out food is not a simple thing; there are all the hygiene regulations that go along with it, and the trust does a lot of work to support the banks to ensure that their work is properly organised.

Poverty is distressing wherever we see it, and food poverty never goes alone. The question whether to eat or heat has been asked for many years, and Parliament has addressed fuel poverty since 2001, when I was first elected. Food poverty is not a new issue, either. In February 2009, I asked a parliamentary question about the proportion of income spent on food by the poorest 10%. The answer that came back on 5 February 2009, as published in column 1451W of Hansard, was that they spent 22% of their income on food. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree gave a figure of 15%, which may be the result of a different form of statistics; I am not trying to make a point of that. The point that I want to make is that the issue is a growing one, which has had to be addressed for many years.

From about 1995 to about 2005, we were in a halcyon period for food prices, which reduced in real terms, and the amount that families spent on food as a proportion of their income was reducing, but we have had a change since 2005 and food prices have gone up for many reasons. Other countries have become more economically capable and have achieved higher incomes. There has been greater demand for meat and dairy products, for instance, from countries that previously relied on grain and rice. That has had a huge effect on the price of food over the period in question. There has also been an increase in world population. According to the Foresight report, which is an excellent book about food and food prices, if we have a world population of 9 billion people by 2050, we can expect even more pressure on food prices.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree set out today’s problem comprehensively, and she is right that it has two aspects, the first of which is obviously lower incomes in a time of economic problems. People are on lower wages and salaries. Many people’s salaries have been pegged for three, four or more years, and there have been problems with benefits as well; but I believe that we could also deal with rising prices. My speech, which will last just a few minutes, is mainly intended to tell the Minister that this country must play its part in ensuring that global food production can feed the world at a price that people can afford.

The period 1995 to 2005 was typified by low food prices, on the back of a huge amount of agricultural research done from the 1960s to the 1980s that gave us the capability to produce food. As food prices fell during that time, Governments and commercial organisations did not invest as much as they could or should in agricultural research. We have lost that driver, which would have ensured a secure supply of food to keep prices reasonably low and certainly affordable for

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the poor around the world as well as in this country. The Government need to play their part to establish such research once again.

I want to mention that the fluctuation of food prices can be very damaging for not only consumers but producers. The Foresight report states:

“High levels of volatility in global food markets are an issue because of the adverse effects they have on consumers and producers, because of the disruption they cause to the global food system, and, when particularly severe, because of the general economic and political instability that can occur. These effects will be most severe for low-income countries and the poor”—

in more developed countries—

“and spikes in food price can be a major cause of increased hunger.”

Stephen Doughty: The hon. Gentleman is making important points, which I welcome, about the wider challenges of food prices in the world. Does he have any thoughts about the impact of speculative commodity trading on food prices and biofuel targets driving up the price of certain foods both here and abroad?

Roger Williams: If I had more time, I could deal with those issues. I was going to speak briefly about speculation and food prices. Some people say that forward buying and hedging on foods may lead to more level prices, but others argue exactly the opposite. The Government need to find out the exact effect of speculation on food prices.

The Government should also consider, certainly in a global context, having strategic reserves of staple foods. For instance, the amount of wheat now in store has been greatly reduced from what it was 10 years ago. It is not surprising that wheat costs about £220 a tonne on the market today, whereas 10 years ago the cost was certainly less than £100. Huge spikes and fluctuations have caused real difficulty for people on low incomes.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree on her speech. We must see food banks as a temporary measure—I hope that it is only temporary—to address food poverty in this country. In the longer term, we must look to more strategic approaches in playing a part to ensure that global food production is sufficient not only for this country, but for the whole world.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. There are still four Members plus the two Front Benchers to speak. If colleagues helped one another, that would be very good.

3.32 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I will be as quick as I can, Sir Alan. I want to add a few points to the comprehensive introduction given by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).

Food poverty is becoming an urgent safeguarding issue for children in this country. Not only are malnutrition-related illnesses—anaemia, scurvy, diabetes and rickets—on the rise, but teacher surveys increasingly show that children come to school hungry and dirty. About half of teachers now admit to bringing in food for them from their own home, and about a quarter of teachers now say that they have given them money from their wages to buy food.

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My police force—Greater Manchester police—has said that children shoplift simply to get food. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned a similar situation in Bristol, and the Metropolitan police have said the same. Recently, Save the Children launched its first ever UK-wide appeal for feeding and clothing children in the United Kingdom. In 2012, surely we can do better than that. I agree with Save the Children that that quite simply should not happen here. There is also the appalling spectacle of Jobcentre Plus referring people directly to food banks. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree that food banks are now seen as part of the welfare state.

How on earth have we got here? I can tell the Minister that we have got here for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend—a combination of rising food prices, which have risen at three times the G7 average, and benefit delays, high unemployment, part-time work and poverty. At the same time, the Government are stripping away support for children and families. We have seen cuts to the early intervention grant of about 40%, coupled with cuts to children’s services. We have seen changes to free school meals that will take 350,000 children out of that entitlement, although one in four children rely on free school meals for their only hot meal of the day. The Institute for Fiscal Studies now predicts that, by 2020, child poverty will stand at 2.4 million. In this country, that is a damning indictment of what this Government are doing to communities and children.

We are seeing not only a response from charities, but from Labour councils. Where the Government will not step in, they are doing so. In Islington and Newham, the councils have introduced universal free school meals, and in Hull, the council has reduced the cost of school meals to just £1. I want the Minister to take away this point: if the Government do not care about child poverty, fine—they do not care—but food poverty threatens completely to derail their own outcomes, such as education improvement and the other stated outcomes of the Secretary of State for Education. There is no chance that children who arrive at school so hungry that they cannot think straight can achieve the sort of outcomes that he talks about.

Similarly, the autumn statement has recently been delivered by a Chancellor who seeks to make a distinction between strivers and scroungers. Oxfam says that 60% of the families using its food banks across Greater Manchester are in work. About half the children now growing up in poverty have parents who work, in many cases with both parents working. That makes an absolute nonsense of the distinction between strivers and scroungers. If the Government will not feel shame from the moral case that is made about child poverty in this country, will they at least understand that it threatens their own outcomes and that action must be taken?

3.36 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I will be briefer than I had intended, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for securing this debate, her excellent speech and her campaigning outside Parliament, which has been noticed and appreciated by many people.

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As a society, we want to look after our children, nurture them and make them happy and healthy. Everyone in the room surely finds the idea of children going hungry truly shocking. However, the evidence all around us is that many families find it increasingly difficult to give their children enough to eat.

It is worth pausing for a minute to let that idea sink in. In 21st-century Britain, when we carry around more technology in the mobile phones in our pockets than it took to get to the moon, when we can cure diseases that were deadly a generation ago and can pay our sports stars £250,000 a week, how can it be that any child goes to bed or to school hungry? That is shocking, and it should be shocking.

I agree that we have to admire the Church groups, charities, volunteers and groups such as the Trussell Trust, which have stepped in to run food banks to help the most vulnerable. Across the country, thousands of people have appreciated their help. They do tremendous work, and I would definitely pay tribute to their commitment, hard work and dedication. However, I am also deeply concerned that many people are forced to seek such help. I hope that this debate, and some of the personal stories that we have heard, will encourage the Government to take another look at what is happening here in the UK.

With food and energy prices rising more quickly than wages, more and more working families are finding themselves edging towards food poverty. They often struggle simply to get by from week to week. Many of them just do not have enough to spare when something unexpected happens. Any sort of unanticipated crisis—whether redundancy, bereavement, delays in benefit payments or even the breakdown of a freezer—leaves them with nowhere to turn but the food bank.

My local citizens advice bureau tells me that the majority of people needing food parcels in my area are in that situation because their benefits have been stopped or their expected payments have been delayed. That should particularly be in our minds when we consider the transition to universal credit. Other examples of reasons given by the CAB include people leaving prison who have had to wait for their benefits to start, someone who lost their job because of mental health problems after working for 23 years, and a woman whose husband had just died and was not able to access his bank accounts until after probate.

Many people who have received such help appreciate it, but I agree that in nearly every case they have exhausted every other option before having to turn to a food bank. We should acknowledge—I am pleased that other Members have said this—that it is never an easy option to go to a food bank. We should not underestimate the stigma that people feel when forced to do that. As our economy fails to recover, unemployment remains high and prices increase, I fear that it will become increasingly routine for the most vulnerable to have to turn to such help.

Last month, I joined Church leaders and volunteers collecting groceries from shoppers in my local Tesco store, for a food bank in east Tameside that has just been set up by the Trussell Trust. I was struck by the incredible generosity of people, many of whom are not enjoying the best of times. In only two days, the charity

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collected almost 2 tonnes of groceries from shoppers in Stalybridge, an incredible amount given that people are tightening their belts. That shows how determined we can be to help those most in need when we come together as a community.

It is appropriate that this debate should follow yesterday’s discussion of the autumn statement in the main Chamber. Government policies, whether it is the increase in VAT, the real-terms cuts to tax credits and benefits or decisions that have led to people losing their jobs, are hitting the most vulnerable people in society. As families struggle with higher living costs, lower wages and changes to welfare, the situation will only get worse, especially after April when some of the welfare benefit changes come into force.

If the Chancellor had come to the Chamber yesterday with an autumn statement that uprated benefits and asked everyone to give more, that would have been one thing, but the autumn statement represented a net give-away for the next three fiscal years. There was money for tax cuts for millionaires and for corporation tax cuts for banks, but the money has to come from the people who get up and go to work for some of the lowest wages in this country. How come that is not an economic necessity as much as lowering corporation tax is? That is the question that the Government must answer. I think, though, that we know the answer. It is a sick and cynical political game that is designed to be some sort of political strategy. We need to know from the Liberal Democrat MPs whether they think that is a good thing to go along with.

Finally, I agree with the points made about the long-term future of food banks. We know from America, where food banks operate very widely and often on a huge basis, that they are essential in the short term but are not a long-term solution. I do not want to see them publicly funded, as in some American states, and we should recognise that if that happened, it would be an erosion of the state’s responsibilities to its own people. To rely on food banks as a long-term policy solution would be to gloss over the underlying causes of poverty and falsely to give an illusion of security.

Rising food poverty should be of concern to us all. But up and down the country tonight, as families struggle with lower incomes and the squeezed cost of living, we all have to admit that food poverty is the reality of modern Britain.

3.41 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan; I know that I have only a short time—my voice is going, so I must be quick anyway.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on an absolute tour de force of a speech. She touched on many of the points that I was going to mention in my contribution. Like many hon. Members, I recently visited a food bank; this one was in Risca in my constituency. I went to Tesco and saw people giving up food that they had struggled to pay for. Their generosity moved me and got me thinking about this debate, which is about food poverty in the run-up to Christmas.

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The most famous Christmas story is probably “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the great social reformer and writer who celebrates his 200th birthday this year. When the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge, he reveals a boy and a girl. He says:

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.”

As I look around the Chamber today, I see many colleagues on the Labour Benches. I do not see a single Member from the Conservative party. Their absence damns them. It shows what they think of the most vulnerable in society. As they criminalise the unemployed, those who are too sick to work and those who find themselves in the most dire circumstances, they do not realise that those using the food banks and claiming benefits are people in work. Those are the people who are struggling. What would Charles Dickens say if he were to come alive at this point? He would be ashamed that in the 21st century—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Minister to laugh.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): Don’t be silly.

Chris Evans: Yes, he is laughing. But food banks are now a way of life. [Interruption.] The Minister may get angry and annoyed, but when a person is struggling, when they do not have food in their belly and they are sending their children to bed hungry—[Interruption.] He says it is pathetic.

Mr Heath: You’re pathetic.

Chris Evans: You look into their eyes and you tell them that this Government’s policy is the right one. You tell them. You say that it is pathetic. You talk to those people in my constituency who are struggling and you say it is pathetic. The Minister should be ashamed of himself as he stands here today and defends his Government. Look into those eyes and remember those families.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): The last Member to speak is Stephen Doughty. Can you try to speak for a measured period of time? You have been very tenacious today and have had half a dozen interventions. It shows your tenacity, but we do not want to take away time from the two Front-Bench speakers, who need to give answers to the questions that have been posed, including many from you.

3.44 pm

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members for allowing me to intervene. I do not want to go over the ground that I have already covered. I would appreciate it if colleagues noted my recent employment at Oxfam and my work with the Trussell Trust, FareShare and the Co-operative Group, which has been in the last six months.

I want to share a couple of brief personal reflections. In 2005, when I was working with the charity World Vision, I travelled to Malawi and saw the work of the UN world food programme. Supplies were being handed out to people in the famine-struck areas of southern Malawi and southern Africa.

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I watched as women, who were literally skin and bone, and people suffering from HIV were queuing up to receive packets of rice and basic foodstuff. I have seen absolute poverty in the world. I did not expect to come here to talk about people in this country receiving parcels from food banks. Although the circumstances that the people in Malawi and the people in Cardiff South and Penarth find themselves in are qualitatively different, the same loss of hope and dignity and the stigma are absolutely there. I really want to press that point on the Minister so that he can reply to it in his speech.

I have met many families in my constituency. In Llanrumney, I met a family who have a severely disabled child with a health condition and who wrongly had the support for that child removed. As they had to budget very carefully, they had realised that they had no money that week to pay for electricity or food. They had called up for a crisis loan—many of my hon. Friends referred to the use of such loans—and were told that they could not have one. Where was the child benefit, they were asked, and why had it been spent.

The mother revealed that she had budgeted very carefully the week before and had bought a birthday present for her daughter. The crisis loan helpline told her that she should not have bought that present and was therefore not eligible for a crisis loan, which was why she had to go to a food bank. I really want to press that point about the stigma and the indignity of the situation that many families find themselves in.

We have heard about the perfect storm of rising prices, low and stagnating incomes and their effect on people. I do not want to rehash the statistics, but I want to press the point with the Minister that people do not understand why millionaires are getting tax cuts when so many are having to rely on food banks. People look at the priorities of this Government and simply do not understand them.

I also want to reiterate the point about the impact on health. I have talked about how low-income families were taking in less fruit and vegetables, because the prices of those items have gone up by about 30%. It is clear from the evidence that low-income families have a higher rate of diet-related disease. Will the Minister tell us whether he has had conversations with colleagues at the Department of Health and in the devolved Administrations about the hidden costs of those health impacts on people in Wales and across the UK?

Many of my colleagues talked about supermarkets. I commend Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op for supporting the food banks, but I ask them to look at their own pricing policies. Some of the smaller stores, such as Tesco Express, charge differentially higher prices on key items such as milk and bread. The prices are far higher than in the larger supermarkets, which people who cannot afford to drive a car cannot reach. I urge the supermarkets to look at that matter. Has the Minister had any conversations with them?

I commend the work of many organisations in my constituency. I have mentioned Grub in a Tub and the many day centres that are providing hot meals for elderly members of the constituency. Oxfam and the Co-operative Group in Wales have been working together to raise funds for the Seeds of Hope programme, which is funding co-operatives in Africa and in Newport in

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south Wales. I thank you for your indulgence, Sir Alan, and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of my points.

3.48 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am pleased to respond to this debate from the Labour Front Bench. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for what was, I agree, a real tour de force. Her speech set out in comprehensive detail and with passion what is happening not only nationally but in her own constituency. I commend her not only for opening this debate but for her work on the issue. I also commend the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and all other colleagues who have spoken so passionately on so many interventions. That shows the strength of feeling about this debate and the reality of what is happening on the ground. I also thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) for his contribution, some aspects of which I will address. I note that he was equally shocked at the recent explosion in the number of food banks.

In previous debates on food poverty and food affordability, I have discussed in great detail strategic aspects of food policy, including global commodity speculation, domestic food security and resilience, so I do not intend to repeat those arguments. Instead, I will ask the Minister a very simple and direct question that has already been put by many others today: why, at Christmas 2012 in an advanced and developed nation, are we facing a rising tide of food poverty, with working families and individuals, as well as the unemployed, turning up in greater numbers every day at food banks and relying more and more on the immense and invaluable generosity of others?

The contribution of time and effort by volunteers at food banks, kitchens and food collection and distribution points throughout the country is quite simply incredible and inspiring. People—who are often themselves of limited means—have risen to the challenge of sharing food with those who, temporarily or otherwise, are unable to feed themselves and their families. We should be proud of that generosity of spirit, and proud of that statement of shared humanity. It is not pity; it is far more than simple charity. It is a recognition that—in a way that the Government have failed to understand—we actually are all in this together.

That is why Labour is supporting the work of groups such as FareShare, the Trussell Trust, FoodCycle and so many more that have been mentioned today that are responding to a real, immediate and growing crisis in the country. We should be proud of that endeavour and proud of the amazing collective response; yet we should also be ashamed as an advanced first-world nation that the state—the Government—is quietly walking away from its responsibilities to its citizens.

As we approach Christmas, I say to the Government—to good Ministers in this Government—that they are playing their part at the moment in the good Samaritan parable, but it is not the role that we want them to play. As others are stepping in to help the victims of food poverty and wider poverty who are in need, the Government are walking by on the other side of the road.

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The Government have now presided over a decline into “Breadline Britain”, which is the title of one of the most comprehensive studies of the parlous finances of working households—not the unemployed, but the employed. The study estimated that nearly 7 million working-age adults are living in extreme financial stress, despite being in employment, and each of those households was just one step from penury—from extreme poverty. There are 2.2 million children in those households, although Save the Children estimates that as many as 3.5 million children may now be experiencing food poverty.

That is why increasingly the human face of food banks is not only the person relying on welfare support, although they are there: the pensioner who is otherwise faced with a choice between heating and eating and who can postpone making that choice at a food bank and the recently jobless mother finding that she cannot make the budget stretch for the whole week, sometimes choosing between feeding herself and her child. They—and many more—are there and are receiving support. But so are the working poor—people who find that the rising costs of living and declining real incomes mean that the ends no longer meet. As economic indicators go, the rise in payday lenders on otherwise struggling high streets is a sad indictment of socio-economic failure.

I make a “Christmas future” prediction for the Minister. More people will rely on the support of food banks this Christmas than last Christmas, and next Christmas more people will be in that situation than this Christmas, when the changes to welfare—including those announced in the autumn statement—fully kick in, affecting not only those reliant on benefits, who we have heard about, but the majority who are actually in work.

If the Minister does not want to listen to me, I ask him to listen instead to the Government’s one-time poverty tsar and a former welfare Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who said:

“Recent welfare cuts and policy changes make it difficult to advise these people where they should turn to get out of it: it really is genuinely shocking.”

As the Member of Parliament for Ogmore, I personally endorse his concerns. The days of an MP signposting constituents to sources of support in troubled times are diminishing, as those social security and local emergency support structures weaken and crumble under this Government.

I do not believe that any Minister or coalition Member of Parliament came into the House to do the wrong thing by the people they represent, but they cannot continue to argue that they are helpless against global economic storms. The decline into “Breadline Britain” is happening on their watch, day by day, month by month, and now year after year. They can choose to do better, and that is why this debate cannot be, and has not been, simply about the amazing work carried out by those groups and organisations that have chosen not to walk by but to help their neighbours, in the best traditions of Christians, Muslims, all faith groups and no-faith groups—in the best traditions of humanity.

We applaud and continue to support the work of those groups and organisations—we could not do without them—but we ask the Government also to recognise

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that their own actions on benefits and tax reforms and their social and economic policies are not only failing to alleviate the problems but are worsening the situation. Think again, before it is too late.

3.54 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): This has been a worthwhile debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for introducing it. I also commend the other hon. Members who have taken part: my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). They have all made valuable contributions today.

I want to say from the start that I do not think that any Member should ever ignore the fact that there are people who face the most invidious choices that any person should ever have to make in their daily lives—choices about finding the money and deciding whether their family is able to eat or whether they have to meet the other demands on what are sometimes their very meagre incomes. That problem has existed for a very long time indeed, but I recognise—it would be very silly not to do so—that those pressures are increasing, particularly in the food sector, because of the cost of food and the fact that that cost is putting increasing pressure on many households at a time when the economic circumstances of this country are far from good and when there is a lot of difficulty.

Where I part company with some of those who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, is the contention that this has somehow been concocted by the current Government and that it is the current Government’s fault that we find people in these situations, because it clearly is not. The circumstances of poverty have been with us for a long time.

I am not sure that the concept of food poverty is actually a helpful one in this context. Poverty is the issue; the fact that people find it difficult to meet what is required to help their families to survive. That is the problem in this country. When we talk about fuel poverty, we are talking about a number of different factors; we are talking about whether there is energy wastage in people’s homes that they cannot afford to do something about. But with food, the essential issue is the price and the fact that people have or have not got enough money in their pockets to deal with it—end of story. That is why we must remember that these issues have persisted for a very long time and certainly through the most recent recession.

Kate Green rose—

Mr Heath: No, I have not got time to give way.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree made a point, which was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, about the percentage of income or budget spent by a less wealthy family on food; she made the comparison between the figures of 15.8% and 11%. But the fact is that if we go back to 2003-04—a situation that was not, I think, the result of the present Government—we were looking at figures

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of 16.3% and 10.4%. So a higher proportion of their budget was actually spent on food by less well-off families in those days, and there was also a bigger differential. It is important that people recognise that.

What are the reasons why we have this difficulty? Well, we have a very significant increase in food costs—[Interruption.]

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order.

Mr Heath: Sir Alan, a lot of people seem to want to intervene from a sedentary position. I am trying to answer the debate in the very brief time that is available to me.

World food commodity prices are probably the biggest and most significant factor. The dollar-sterling exchange rate is a significant factor. There are oil price rises. There is demand for food, which again was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. The fact is that there is now a global demand, and we have to address that as a country that is well placed to produce good-quality food.

I want to pay tribute to the people who are trying to address poverty in our nation, not just in the big cities. Let us remember those who live in rural areas as well and who do not often figure in these debates. I remember that in the last Parliament I was the one Member who raised the issue of rural poverty. I did not get much of a response from the then Government, because they did not want to know about people in rural areas—in better-off areas—who suffered the same problems as others elsewhere.

I give an enormous amount of credit to those who try to deal with this issue through the charitable organisations and the other mechanisms, but it is quite clear that we must do more. I recognise that fact, and I am prepared to do everything that I can, first, to talk to the supermarkets, to enable the maximum amount of food to be made available—

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. We now move on to the next debate. I ask all those Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so as quietly as they possibly can, so that we can start the next debate. That goes for everyone—Front Benchers and Back Benchers. Thank you very much, colleagues.

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Affordable Social Housing (Walsall)

4 pm

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I have asked for this short debate because of my continued concern about the acute shortage of affordable social housing. I understand why the Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), is not present and see that the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) will reply on behalf of the Government. She is supported by the Chief Whip—it is courteous of him to come along.

Related to the problems of the shortage of affordable rented accommodation in my borough is the reply that I received from the Homes and Communities Agency stating that it was currently not possible to fund some of the proposed housing development to be carried out by Walsall Housing Group. My concern arises, not surprisingly, from the number of constituents who see me at my regular surgeries and write letters and e-mails to me about housing. Housing is one of the chief topics of concern to my constituents, hence my pursuing the matter, as one would expect.

In many instances, it is a matter of people being rehoused in the first place because they are living with their in-laws, mothers or parents, or renting from a private landlord. In other instances, people are already housed in a rented flat but have young children and understandably want to live in a house. They therefore put their names on the waiting list, and when there is no response along the lines they would like, they understandably contact councillors and me, as a Member of Parliament. I then write to the relevant bodies.

I should explain—I am sure that the hon. Lady knows this—that housing was taken over by Walsall Housing Group from the local authority in March 2003, so the main supplier of affordable rented social accommodation in the Walsall borough is the Walsall Housing Group, and no longer the local authority directly. I concede that the replies I get are usually courteous and prompt—I have no complaints about that. The replies explain to me the position of the constituents I have written about, but rarely do they state that the people concerned are likely to be rehoused immediately or in the near future. They explain what category the people are in, and the band involved, but the people who have seen me already know that. Nevertheless, the information is officially put together and signed by the chief executive, and I pass on the reply to the constituent.

If accommodation was available, the position of Walsall Housing Group would be such that it would be only too pleased to offer a tenancy. I emphasise that it is the lack of anywhere near sufficient affordable housing in the borough that explains the long waiting times, which can be very long indeed. I do not suppose for one moment that the situation is different elsewhere.

I think that we can work on the reasonable basis that if the people involved could afford to do so, they would obtain a mortgage. I doubt whether many, if any, Members of Parliament are not owner-occupiers; as we know, in some instances they own more than one property. It is perfectly understandable that if someone has sufficient means they try to obtain a mortgage and service it accordingly. However, the annual average earnings in

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my constituency remain at under £23,000 which, as we can obviously all agree, is hardly a sum with which to maintain and service a mortgage.

In November, the National Housing Federation launched its report, “Home Truths 2012: West Midlands”. It had a well attended rally here—in fact, in the room next door—and made its points. Before the launch, I wrote to the federation, pointing out the situation in my constituency and saying that I hoped to obtain a debate on the matter. It was very supportive, and made the point that housing prices in my constituency are 6.7 times the average income. That is the situation faced by people who are not in a position to obtain a mortgage, who rely on rented accommodation and who have no particular desire, to say the least, to go to a private landlord.

I have to say that in all my years as a Member of Parliament I cannot recall a single constituent coming to me, or writing to me, to ask whether there was any chance that I could do anything to rehouse them with a private landlord—not once. The explanation is obvious: the insecurity, the high rents and the conditions of some of the privately owned properties. In my borough, and in all other parts of the country, the key issue is that people who cannot afford to buy seek good, affordable and secure accommodation, as I have described. We would do the same, would we not, if we were in the same position and could not obtain a mortgage.

Let me also make a point about the position of social housing in my borough. Some 21 years ago, in 1991, the total social housing stock amounted to some 36,000 properties. Last year, the total was less than 27,000, which is a reduction of somewhere in the region of 25%. The reason is obvious: tenants have bought—I have no complaint about that—but the accommodation is not replaced. When the legislation on that matter was going through Parliament, I said, “If tenants wish to buy they should be able to do so, but why not replace the accommodation?” Why not give local authorities or, in this case, the Walsall Housing Group, the opportunity of replacing the housing stock that is sold off?

The point that I wanted to make today is, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, that Walsall Housing Group plans to build some 224 units. Fortunately, finance is available for some of the units, but more than half of the proposed development depends on finance coming from the affordable homes programme in the west midlands.

WHG accordingly wrote to the agency to explain the position, and I was informed of what was happening. I take a close interest, as is to be expected, in what is occurring or what people hope will occur, and I was copied in to the correspondence. When I wrote to the agency, the reply, as I am sure is known, was that the programme in the west midlands is fully committed for 2011 to 2015. Finance will not be available, therefore, unless something occurs, which it might, but the reply certainly indicated that it is unlikely that finance will be available before 2015, if then. I do not think I need to quote the letter, which I have here.

It is true that there are other housing associations in the borough, although they are nowhere near the size of WHG. All those housing associations have long waiting lists. When constituents see me and I say, “Have you been to anywhere else apart from WHG?” the response is usually, “Yes, but we get the same answer. It is no

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good even going on the waiting list, because it is simply too long.” Ultimately, we are back to WHG, whether or not it can supply the necessary work.

One other interesting statistic is that, since its inception in March 2003, WHG has built 470 houses. The arithmetic is pretty clear: some 47 houses a year against a background of such huge demand. The demand may be much less than in various other places—obviously, London and Birmingham go without saying—but that is no consolation to my constituents who are waiting to be rehoused.

I would also like to know what is being done about the section 106 agreement. As I understand it, that agreement is to ensure that, when private development occurs, land is available for social housing. The reply I received from the local authority seems to show that, since April 2009—and there has been a good deal of private development both before and since—a total of 13 shared ownership units and 56 affordable rented units have been secured through section 106 agreements. That does not seem to add up to a great deal, so perhaps some information should be given about that.

A moment ago I came in at the end of a debate on food poverty and the plight of so many people in this country as we approach Christmas. Two things are absolutely basic to people. First, there is the ability to find work. People are not skivers—if there are a few, so be it, but the overwhelming majority, like us, want to earn their living.

Secondly, people want decent, secure accommodation. One of the reasons why those of us who can be are owner- occupiers is that we want such secure accommodation. If we are in a position to pay back over a period of time, we want accommodation under our complete ownership. Those who cannot do that require rented accommodation with the same security.

Those two basic issues, jobs and decent housing, should always be at the forefront of our minds—certainly the minds of Labour MPs. I hope the hon. Lady will be able to give us some explanation of the situation I have outlined and that, despite the decision taken by the agency in question, it will be possible to reverse the decision and make finance available. What steps are being taken to build much more accommodation along the lines I have suggested, rather than what has occurred over the past 20 years?

4.14 pm

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I look forward to serving under you again.

I formally apologise on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has been summoned to appear before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and has not yet worked out the trick of being in two places at once, but I am sure that will come with time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this important debate. He speaks on the issue with great passion, concern and interest, which I assure him is welcomed by Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Housing supply, including affordable housing for both rent and ownership, is a priority for the Government, and it is clear from the hon. Gentleman’s speech that he is concerned about the supply of affordable housing in

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Walsall. The Government are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing through a variety of mechanisms. Some 170,000 more affordable homes will be delivered between 2011 and 2015, with combined Government and private sector investment of £19.5 billion. Almost 58,000 affordable homes were delivered in 2011-12, which is a third more than the average delivery in the 10 years between 2000-01 and 2009-10.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned replacement, and under the new right-to-buy scheme one-for-one replacement has been introduced for the first time. When social housing is sold under the right to buy, it will have to be replaced, which I hope he welcomes.

Many of the new homes that are being delivered are in the Homes and Communities Agency’s new affordable homes programme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The programme, which launched 18 months ago, offers a new delivery model and introduces affordable rents. It is important to stress that affordable rent is a form of social housing. The programme has delivered 63,000 completions in its first 18 months and homes are allocated in the same way as social rent properties. Existing letting arrangements operated by local authorities and registered providers continue to apply. Homes will be made available at a rent level of up to 80% of local market rents, inclusive of service charge.

Allocations for the affordable homes programme for 2011 to 2015 include a total of £31 million of funding for the black country, which of course includes Walsall. The funding will deliver 1,775 affordable homes. Walsall itself received £7.8 million of that funding, which is equivalent to 25.2%. In Walsall that will deliver 370 homes for affordable rent and a further 55 homes for affordable home ownership by 2015. Additionally, Walsall also received an allocation of £100,000 to bring empty homes back into use and almost £950,000 to fund provision of new pitches for Travellers.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in Walsall social housing is provided by 15 housing associations, including Walsall Housing Group, the council’s housing stock transfer partner, which owns and manages 19,000 properties across the borough. Walsall Housing Group houses 40,000 people, which represents one fifth of Walsall’s population. Walsall Housing Group lets its social housing vacancies through a choice-based letting scheme, which it operates on behalf of the council.

The hon. Gentleman has written specifically on whether Walsall Housing Group, as one of the many providers of social housing in Walsall, would be eligible for the new affordable homes programme, which was, as he knows, over-subscribed. The bidding process was very competitive and the Homes and Communities Agency assessed bids against key criteria, including value for money, deliverability within the programme, time frame and meeting local needs and priorities. Although the programme is now fully committed, I assure him that the agency has quarterly programme reviews with each provider to assess and challenge delivery plans. When a provider is judged not to be able to meet its contracted obligations, the Homes and Communities Agency can move funding to other providers to ensure delivery so that targets can be met. I also assure him that his persistence has been noted by Ministers, and Walsall Housing Group’s requests are, of course, well known to them.

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Mr Winnick: I do not want other boroughs to suffer as a result of money that was due to them under the allocation going to us. I make that absolutely clear so that there is no misunderstanding. There are two aspects. First, is there not a better commitment so that the decision can be reversed? Secondly, will the hon. Lady take into account the number of people waiting? She mentioned what has been done, but it does not alter the fact that regardless of what has been done or remains to be accomplished, even if the units go ahead and the funding is made available, demand is great. It is even greater as a result of the economic situation. People who might have been able to obtain a mortgage are not in a position to do so because of job losses and so on. What she should have in mind—I hope that the Minister will have it in mind—is the actual demand for such accommodation, which is nowhere being met.

Karen Bradley: I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is no quick fix to the problems that the Government inherited in terms of the supply of affordable social housing across the country. The Government are taking a variety of measures. I will come to them shortly. However, his points have been noted, and I will ensure that Ministers and others are well aware of his concerns and respond to him. If there are any points that I have not responded to, he will receive a letter.

Affordable rent is one key to increasing the volume of affordable homes, and this Government will provide it through smaller amounts of public sector investment than previously, allowing us to deliver more homes for every pound of Government investment. The average grant rate under the new programme is about £22,000, compared to an average of £60,000 under the former programme. Grant as a percentage of average scheme costs is now about 20%, compared with 45% formerly. That represents better value for money and should enable the Government to get more units of appropriate accommodation for the money invested.

That is just one example of the practical action that the Government are taking. However, as I said, it will inevitably take time to deal with the problem. The UK Statistics Authority has confirmed that 421,000 social rented homes were lost under the last Government. That loss cannot be reversed overnight, and it is seen in all our constituencies. I understand that last year in Walsall, for example, more than 14,000 households were on the housing waiting list, up from fewer than 6,000 in 1997.

Through the Localism Act 2011, we have given councils back the freedom to manage their own waiting lists. They can decide who qualifies for social housing in their area and develop solutions that make the best use of limited social housing stock. Our new statutory social housing allocation guidance gives councils more freedom to innovate. They can use social housing to encourage work and mobility, rather than leaving people stuck in dependency.

I am pleased to see that Walsall council is using those freedoms to good effect. Its social housing allocation scheme provides for priority to be given to working households, those otherwise contributing to the community and seriously injured former service personnel needing adapted social housing. I congratulate the council on taking those steps. It will certainly help Walsall to meet the hon. Gentleman’s request that people have appropriate

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homes. I sympathise. We want people living in homes that are the right size and appropriate for them and their families.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about section 106 delivery. I do not have the information to hand, but I assure him that the Department will write to him with it shortly.

Mr Winnick: I emphasise the need for the section 106 agreement to be looked into, for the reasons I stated. We will probably disagree about rent. I take the view that secure accommodation should be affordable. That is not an argument for today, but it will undoubtedly be debated in other places.

Karen Bradley: I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments. As I said, I do not have the specifics about section 106 with me, but I am sure that the information will be forthcoming and he will have it shortly.

The private rented sector is making a significant contribution to meeting housing need and can offer a number of advantages, including labour mobility. On 6 September, the Government announced plans to expand the private rented sector to give tenants more choice about where they live, following the recommendations in Sir Adrian Montague’s review of the potential for institutional investment in large-scale developments built specifically for long-term rent. The Government are setting up a new £200 million “build to rent” fund for developers in order to encourage construction for rent, and are providing up to £10 billion in debt guarantees covering both private rent and affordable housing for those investing in the long-term rental market.

Mr Winnick: The hon. Lady is being generous and courteous, and I appreciate it. I am sure that she heard my point that in all the years that I have had the privilege of being a Member of Parliament, no one has asked me if they could be rehoused by a private landlord. Has she as a Member of Parliament been asked that? Has she been approached at her surgery by anyone wanting help to find private rented accommodation?

Karen Bradley: I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman. I have, actually.

Mr Winnick: How many?

Karen Bradley: A number. Perhaps that is the difference in the make-up of affordable housing between Staffordshire Moorlands and Walsall.

There is support. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with Walsall Housing Group and other social housing providers in Walsall to consider other avenues that can be taken to help his constituents. I understand that when someone comes to a surgery, everybody wants to help and find the best solution for them. Anything that can be done to help is good.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. As housing supply, including affordable housing, is a priority for the Government, I welcome his interest in the issue and I hope that he will have the satisfaction in the near future of seeing an increase in affordable housing in Walsall.

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Literacy and Drugs (Custodial Sentences)

4.27 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

Prison works. It locks people up effectively so that they cannot then commit a specific crime. Yet for many years, prison has failed to change prisoners’ behaviour. Despite multiple new laws and increasingly tougher sentences laid down by ever more robust politicians, prisoners throughout the 1990s and the Blair and Brown Governments have still reoffended in the tens of thousands upon release. It cannot be a satisfactory Government investment when 70% of offenders reoffend on release.

Some 50% of prisoners have a drug problem, and 50% lack basic literacy and maths. Although we can bring much change within prisons to combat drug use and illiteracy rates—I support what the Government are trying to do, although we cannot discuss that today—we can and should start the reform process at the point of sentencing, before offenders even enter prison.

I argue that when passing sentence, a judge should be able to prescribe, as part of the sentence, compulsory completion of a literacy course when the offender is illiterate and of a drug testing and rehabilitation course when they have a drug problem. I would go further: I do not believe that we are sufficiently addressing the incentive to the prisoner. I seek a change to the process for release on licence and, possibly, a change whereby deductions are offered for specific success at passing either literacy or drug rehabilitation courses.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of my speech, I should make a declaration that I have written a book on the issue, the worthy “Doing Time”, all proceeds from which go to charity. There is no personal benefit to myself. My ideas, which I talk about today, are more fully expressed in the book. I am a former criminal and legal aid barrister. I conducted nine murder trials on both sides of the fence and between 150 and 180 Crown court and magistrates court trials. As most criminal barristers will know, I am still owed money by the state, even though I have not practised at the bar for two years and seven months. I am grateful to all those who assisted me in the creation of the ideas in the book and to all the prisoners, governors and charities who helped and suggested the ideas that we are trying to expand on today.

The principle today is that we require prisoners to do something to qualify for the privilege of early release, thereby benefiting the wider community by being better able to cope with the outside world on release. At present, if a prisoner does not start a fire in the prison or does not commit some tremendous offence, release on licence is effectively automatic, the consequence being that the persons released are, by and large, ill equipped to deal with the outside world that they have to face. How do we know this? There is copious evidence from august bodies, such as the Centre for Social Justice, showing that 82% of all prisoners have writing abilities less than an 11-year-old’s, approximately 50% were excluded from school and have no qualifications and only one in five could complete a job application form. And we wonder why those people fail to become law-abiding members of society after release.

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Prison numbers have doubled from 43,000 to 87,000 over the past 20 years and literacy and drug problems are often worse than before. In the prison in Durham, 300 out of 1,000 prisoners are on methadone or Subutex and 20% in most prisons will be taking illegal drugs. Many prisoners combine both. It is not surprising that we are struggling, if we are releasing people who are drug addicted into the community.

Many of the clients I represented as an advocate were incapable of giving meaningful written instructions or even reading the prosecution papers. Too often, they would say, for example, “My letters aren’t so good”, and they too frequently signed their names with an X. Reading and writing are the fundamental precursors to any job. Someone cannot even be a builder’s labourer in this day and age without the ability to read and write. There should be, where possible, a compulsory requirement for a prisoner to learn.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I declare an interest. I, too, was a barrister and prosecuted and defended. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and pay tribute to him for his excellent book, “Doing Time,” which contains a comment from Lord Justice Maurice Kay, saying what a wonderful book it is. It is a good book.

I agree with my hon. Friend about literacy: defendants often go into and come out of prison illiterate. Does he agree that when an individual goes into prison their skills should be assessed? For example, they may suffer from dyslexia or other issues. At the moment, everything else is assessed, but dyslexia is not. As my hon. Friend knows, dyslexia affects communication.

Guy Opperman: I endorse my hon. Friend’s point. One could go further on dyslexia. Dyslexia, like total illiteracy, is hidden by many prisoners in prison, because it is effectively a crime for them to admit that they cannot read or write or are dyslexic or dyspraxic. Unless that is tested for on arrival, there will be no awareness in the prisons of what kind of person they are dealing with.

Let us be in no doubt. No hon. Member in this Chamber, and no one in my party, has any difficulty sending people to prison, because they clearly should go there for the appropriate offence. That is not an issue. What is at issue is what we do with them when they are in prison, because that is when the redemption and rehabilitation should take place. Once the prisoner is captive, we need to teach them the basic skills that their parents, their school and their society have failed to provide them with.

There are many areas in which we can work to correct the issue. Notably, there could be a better approach from the Ministry of Justice, although doubtless we will hear many of the great things that it is trying to do. I am a massive supporter of peer mentoring, both outside prison—I welcome what the Secretary of State is doing—and inside. I will try to address that. Staff training needs to be improved. I welcome the improvements that I gather are taking place at prison officer training courses. There has to be a change in the attitude of, and constraints on, governors. It is scandalous that for too long, the 47 key performance indicators that determined how a prison governor was operating were all fundamentally to do with security and not about rehabilitation. That is patently wrong and I am glad that we are changing it.

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Rehman Chishti: On rehabilitation, does my hon. Friend agree and understand that there is a problem in respect of prisoners on short sentences, because proper continuity of treatment cannot be provided if they are transferred between prisons?

Guy Opperman: There is no question but that the problem with short sentences is the most difficult task that the Minister who holds the portfolio at the present stage has to deal with. It is much easier dealing with a longer term prisoner, because there are all the benefits of time and, hopefully, security of tenure in a particular prison. I deprecate our moving prisoners around all the time and that there is no specific locality. I accept that it is difficult, but it is not impossible. The mentoring schemes and the work that we are trying to do must be the answer, and the basis on which we are trying to deal with the short sentence problem.

There is take-up, and we have discussed it briefly, and doubtless I will be told that there are programmes to teach basic literacy skills. However, participation in such programmes is highly limited. Prisoners are, without question, unenthusiastic to volunteer for such programmes, swallowing their pride about their failure in respect of literacy. There are also issues to do with whether they could earn more money doing work, rather than learning a skill. There is lack of incentive.

The National Audit Office recently summed up the current system with a damning statistic:

“Only one fifth of prisoners, with serious literacy or numeracy needs, enrol on a course that would help them.”

The consequence is that even if there were all the classes in the world and money was poured on to the problem, if there is only 20% take-up, the ability to transform such individuals will be seriously compromised.

I have no doubt that the Minister will tell me that the offenders’ learning and skills service phase 4 programme and the prisoner sentence plans are good ways forward, and to a degree they are; but prisoner sentence plans are, with no disrespect to the Opposition and the former Government, a classic, old-style Labour, tick-box Ministry of Justice approach, which, however worthy, has little positive effect. During the preparation of the book, I spoke to prisoners and I am clear that there is lack of incentive. The incentive is the key.

There is a solution from the courts. We can identify the problem at an early stage, on a relatively cost-neutral basis, and the judge can then pass a sentence imposing a literacy course as part of that sentence. Instead of the prison choosing to do that, the judge makes the order, which is part of the sentence. If it is left to a prison governor’s choice, depending on where an individual is sent, it will be a struggle. It would make the efficacy of prison so much better, because that prisoner could then be sent to a place that specifically deals with literacy or drugs courses, in the context of all our prisons.

Sentence deductions for completing such courses is the way forward. Such an approach is radical and, I accept, needs some piloting—it will not happen straightaway —but professionals at organisations such as the Shannon Trust, which I urge the Minister to hold close to him as the leader in this particular field, are enthusiastic about the idea. They make the point that unless the inmate is willingly engaged, we will struggle to deal with the problem. To make progress, therefore, we have to incentivise.

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The individual prisoner’s knowledge that the acquisition of literacy and other skills could secure him an early release date is a proper incentive, producing the manifest benefit of a cheaper prison system, which is of less cost to the taxpayer and allows us to spend our money on all the other things that we wish to spend it on. Furthermore, the people who emerge at the end of the process will be far better able to deal with their difficulties.

In short, at present the judges lack such a power; it is held only post-licence. In other words, the judge has the power to order those conditions for release on licence but, frankly, the horse has bolted and is gone. The moment that people are released on licence, their fundamental behaviour cannot be changed—we have to change it while they are captive. The power already exists on licence, so it is a short step for it to be acted on in prison. We need to teach prisoners to read and write, which is a proper part of their sentence, in addition to simple captivity.

To move on to the matter of drugs, the Government are doing good work following the CSJ, Huseyin Djemil and Blakely reports—all of which I endorse—to address progress in rehabilitation. The failure to test prisoners on entry to and release from prison, however, is bizarre. We end up with a form of Russian roulette. Fifty per cent of people in prison are drug addicted in some shape or form, but when they arrive they are only asked a voluntary question, “Are you drug addicted?” Patently, many lie. Some even bring drugs in with them when they enter prison, but we do not test them. Five in 10 going into prison are drug addicted, but we do not know who they are. How on earth can the governor properly deal with such matters and how on earth can the Government money that we are spending on such expensive institutions properly be targeted on those individuals? It is all very well teaching inmates to read and write—literacy—and all manner of skills, but if they are drug addicted when they emerge, whether to substitutes such as methadone or still to heroin, the drug of choice in prisons, it will be of no benefit.

I want compulsory testing, because it is surely better to know the problems before people enter the system. I stress the need to test at prison, although it might be considered for courthouses, because the problem is fundamentally obvious when one enters a Crown court. All Members present in the Chamber were lawyers in their former lives. In my time I represented a man who stole more than 150 times over 150 days, at £25 a pop, breaking into cars to get money for a heroin fix. The police would very much like the information that such a person was heroin addicted upon his release. We do not know what we are dealing with, but we can do something about it.

If a judge was able to order drug treatment and testing as part of a sentence, and it was properly enforced—there are plenty of schemes in prison, the best known and most successful being the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust or RAPt programme—the prison, and the authorities on an inmate’s release, would know whether it had been successful. As well as simple incarceration, surely the object of the custody exercise is to change the behaviour of the individuals; if we are not detoxing them to become non-addicted to drugs, what on earth are we trying to do by sending people to prison? We

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should bear in mind, too, that 20% of all people who take drugs say that they tried them for the first time in prison. That is a sobering statistic.

I want incentives and deductions applied for automatic release, and release on licence must also be addressed in that way. If a prisoner is proposed for release on licence and has a drug condition as part of their sentence, but is not shown to be clean at its end, why on earth should we release that individual on licence? Release is a massive incentive for them. I would go further and ask the Ministry of Justice to consider whether, if we wish to incentivise, we should tie the two fundamental conditions that are key to changing prisoner behaviour to possible further sentence deductions. Hypothetically, on a two-year custodial sentence, one might be looking at a one to three-month deduction for successful completion of a literacy or drugs course. Surely that must be the way forward.

To conclude, if we simply ignore prisoners, lock them up and then discharge them with no skills, we will continue to have a repetition of the appalling statistics of 60% to 70% reoffending, in spite of all the best efforts of governors and Government. What I suggest is a potential way forward.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing it.

The debate is not only important but timely, because the Government will soon be publishing our plans to make a radical change in how we support the rehabilitation of offenders. My hon. Friend is rightly concerned with that new focus on rehabilitation both in this debate and in his excellent book “Doing Time: Prisons in the 21st Century”—no doubt available in all good booksellers and an excellent stocking filler. I congratulate him. He has eloquently set out today the issues that face us in tackling offenders’ problems with literacy and substance misuse. Both are significant causes of offending and reoffending.

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend suggests, but let me respond in detail to some of the specific issues that he and others have raised in this debate and elsewhere. Let me start with his suggestion that the courts should mandate participation in literacy programmes and drug treatment. The courts already play an important role in framing the content of community orders and suspended sentences. Informed by pre-sentence reports and medical evidence, the courts can use treatment requirements to address drug addiction. They can also impose programme or activity requirements that might involve literacy courses. My hon. Friend suggests that offenders sentenced to custody should be compelled into education, that early release could provide an incentive for completing courses and that offenders entering custody with drug problems should be compelled to receive treatment.

In his book, my hon. Friend acknowledges—I agree with him—that using sentencing in that way is “admittedly difficult”. It is important to remember that drug treatment ordered by a court would be lawful, or effective, only if it happened with the offender’s consent. That is how drug rehabilitation requirements work at present.

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Equally, we need a release framework that operates fairly for all offenders, whether or not they are literate on arrival in prison. That said, I want to ensure that prisoners have incentives to engage in positive and constructive activity during their time in custody. For example, I am reviewing privileges in prison and the rules that currently apply to them. In this and other areas of policy, I want to ensure that we have a system that encourages offenders to engage with the support we offer, as my hon. Friend said.

On literacy, my hon. Friend mentioned his experience as a barrister dealing in criminal law—an experience I share, so I ought to declare my interest as everyone else in the debate has, although the last time I received any legal aid fees was even longer ago than he did. From my experience, I am aware, as he is, of the difficulties that many prisoners have with basic reading and writing. Many prisoners also experience a range of other barriers to learning, whether they be mental illness, poor thinking skills, communication difficulties, sight and hearing problems or previous negative experiences.

We are placing a strong focus on assessing prisoners’ learning needs and when a literacy need is identified, it will be addressed as a matter of priority. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) mentioned other learning difficulties, dyslexia among them, and was right to identify that as a significant issue among the prison population. We make every effort to identify that as early as possible, and learning providers in particular have a responsibility to do so.

Other things are being done to target prisoners with literacy problems, and to incentivise them to address those issues. We are working with education providers to develop engaging and motivating courses to target resistant learners particularly. Those courses will be marketed by prison staff as part of the prison induction process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham talked about the Shannon Trust, and he is right to recognise its significant contribution. I fully support its work, and have met its staff for discussions, and I am sure I will do so again. We are committed to the use of peer mentors to support reading schemes such as its Toe by Toe project, and my officials are looking at how prison staff can better support its work. My hon. Friend is right to identify peer mentors as a significant step forward in dealing with prisoners who do not, as he said, want to admit their literacy problems.

Guy Opperman: Does the Minister accept that there is a potential role for long-term prison inmates—prisoners in prison—to be peer mentors to other prisoners who have just arrived and need literacy or other courses? Clearly, the people prisoners trust most are other prisoners, and that is no disrespect to individual staff.

Jeremy Wright: Yes, I agree. That is absolutely right, and it is very much what happens now, although we would like it to happen a lot more. The Toe by Toe project particularly is a good example, but there is considerable scope for more peer mentoring, and for more established prisoners helping those who are newly arrived—not only with reading and literacy, but across a whole range of other things. I have seen very good examples of that, and I want to see more. Prisoners

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often find that working with carefully selected and trained peer mentors—they must be that—can be much less threatening than the classroom environment.

There is a problem, as my hon. Friend said, with shorter sentences, and the difficulty of addressing such problems over a short time frame. That is why we are piloting intensive maths and English courses in prisons, similar to those used by the Army, particularly to address the needs of prisoners serving short sentences.

We have also focused on vocational training and preparing prisoners for employment during their final year in prison. Those courses are closely linked to developing the skills needed by employers in the areas in which offenders will be released.

Guy Opperman: May I take the Minister back to consent? He said that it would be difficult to impose conditions on a judicial sentence attached to custody without consent. Indeterminate sentences for public protection were introduced in that way, and it is also the case with community orders, so there is no fundamental principle between a community sentence and a sentence on licence, both of which exist with a condition attached, and a sentence of custody with an imposition of a requirement to carry out these matters. Does he accept that?

Jeremy Wright: The issue is practical rather than legal. My hon. Friend will recognise that to get an offender to engage properly, whether they have a drug addiction or literacy problems, they must do so voluntarily, because a compulsory arrangement will not deliver the results that we all want. That is very much the message that I have heard from the Shannon Trust, as he has.

I recognise that there are always opportunities to impose restrictions on offenders, whether in the context of community sentences or licence conditions, but we must seek to incentivise prisoners to do what we know they need to do to minimise their risk of reoffending. That will be partly by persuasion, and partly by ensuring that they are prepared to engage with the provision so that they get out of it what they need. I understand my hon. Friend’s point.

Rehman Chishti: Does the Minister have an assessment of how many drug treatment and testing orders were given in the last two years, and how many were successfully completed?

Jeremy Wright: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I do not have the figures immediately to hand, but I am sure that we can get them to him. Inevitably with the regime for drug treatment, which I will come to in a moment, we need greater engagement and better results. We are working as hard as we can to achieve that.

I have talked a little about education. We are doing other things, which I do not have much time to go through, but I draw attention to the virtual campuses in 101 prisons, which provide an opportunity for prisoners to learn with carefully controlled access to a suite of web-based education and employment materials. We must recognise that we need greater scope to broaden the learning offer, to alert prisoners to job vacancies in their release area, to make the process of learning much more akin to that experienced in the outside world, and to give prisoners the experience of using IT.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham referred to drugs, and I agree that there are two priorities for the Government and the National Offender Management Service. First, we must stop drugs from entering prisons and secondly we must get offenders off drugs and keep them off drugs. He is right to highlight the fact that the demand for drugs in prisons is far greater and more concentrated than anywhere else in society. The high demand and limited supply of drugs creates prices five to six times higher than in the community and represents a lucrative market. That is why prisons are targeted by organised crime groups using sophisticated smuggling methods. Despite rigorous prison security measures, drugs can penetrate prison walls.

I acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend said, some prisoners will try a drug in prison that they have not used before, but they may have been using other drugs in the community—perhaps they have been taking crack cocaine or heavily abusing alcohol—that they substitute with that new drug.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to improving the situation, and we are making progress. Particular initiatives have included an increase in drug-free prison wings where increased security measures prevent access to drugs. I am pleased that my hon. Friend, as he says in his book, supports these measures.

We are trialling drug detection technology and using technology to deny signals to illegal mobile phones in prisons, which are often associated with drug supply. We are also pursuing the roll-out of a networked prison intelligence system to help prisons to stay one step ahead of those seeking to breach prison security. As a result, fewer prisoners are testing positive for drugs than at any time since 1996. Around 7% of prisoners test positive for drug misuse when they are in custody, which is a considerable fall from the 64% who used drugs in the four weeks before custody.

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My hon. Friend talked about the opportunity to test when someone goes into custody and comes out. Those are fixed points, and I understand their significance, but he will recognise that we must make sure that prisoners do not use drugs at any time throughout their sentence, and mandatory, random drug testing is useful in that.

As well as keeping drugs out of prison, we want to deliver a rehabilitation revolution that helps to transform the lives of offenders and ensures that they do not return to a life of crime after their sentence. Reshaping treatment services in prisons and the community is at the heart of the Government’s intention to get more people free of their dependence, ready for work, and with somewhere to live. Our objective is to move towards a fully integrated, recovery-orientated system that supports continuity of treatment within and between custody and community. That includes piloting 11 drug recovery wings focused on abstinence, and connecting offenders with community drug recovery services on release.

My hon. Friend will recognise the importance of ensuring that whatever is done with drug treatment in prison, it is important to have continuity through the gate to what goes on in the community. That is also the case for prisoner education. We want to ensure that all our plans recognise that through-the-gate facility.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution not only to today’s debate, but to the more general discussions of these issues. I look forward to engaging further with him and others, and I hope that he will be encouraged by the plans we are developing and will shortly introduce.

Sir Alan Meale(in the Chair): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on using not only his time, but the time left over from the previous debate.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.