“How a society protects the poorest from what appears to be a fundamental change in the way economies of the Western world are operating – which results in cuts in their living standards”—
that is, those of the poor—
“faster than other groups – calls for developing a political agenda which can only be delivered over decades”.
Baroness Corston (Lab): My Lords, will the Minister accept that the number of families using food banks rose considerably during the recent half-term? What does he think is the reason for that?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I have been told by a friend who is involved in the food bank movement that demand for food banks has dipped when schools go back. The Government take some comfort from the fact that the expansion of free school meals in primary schools is clearly, therefore, a help in this regard, whatever the Daily Mail may have said in attacking the whole initiative.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con): My Lords, noble Lords may be aware that I have been a member of this inquiry, which over the past few months has travelled from Birkenhead and South Shields to Cornwall and Salisbury to take evidence, as well as indeed taking evidence from a large number of witnesses and organisations in London, many of whom do outstanding work in their local communities. I would like to take this opportunity to say how much I regret the wording of my remarks at the launch on Monday, not least because they have overshadowed the 76 other recommendations in the report. I ask my noble friend to urge Ministers in the eight different departments responsible to read the report and its recommendations with great care.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that the noble Baroness, together with others, has put into this inquiry. I know that she has been committed to these issues for some years. Perhaps I might draw particular attention to the chapter on resilience in this report, which talks about the problems of families who do not have the skills or confidence to cook. I note that the Trussell Trust has been providing courses on cooking for some of those in order to help with diet, so that they eat well and spend less.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab): My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, and I have taken part for four years now in the Live Below the Line extreme poverty initiative every spring, and I welcome very much her statement here today and the way that it was received in the House. I also chair the Cash for Kids charity in the west of Scotland and have done for three years. This year, we experienced a 12% increase in the number of families and children applying for Christmas grants for food vouchers, cash or gifts to ensure that they have some pleasure on Christmas Day. It seems to me that, regardless of what debates take place in 2015 on welfare benefits, the economy or other issues, it would be an absolute tragedy if that figure were to be increasing again this time next year. Therefore, I hope that the Government will indeed take this report and our discussions with NGOs and charities throughout the land on board, to ensure that the Government, the public sector and the third sector can work together to serve those families who are still going to be in need, regardless of the initiatives that we take on welfare benefits or other aspects of the economy in the immediate future.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I thank the noble Lord for that. The report is also addressed to the utility companies and to problems such as having mobile phones on “pay as you go” tariffs meaning that you pay more. The poor pay more due to a whole range of structural reasons and the report therefore identifies a large number of targets to be addressed. It talks about debt, addiction, utility pricing, low pay, housing costs and mental health. The problem of low pay and the minimum wage, and how we increase pay, turn around troubled families and rebuild local social networks, are all part of the issues we need to address.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (LD): My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Food and Health Group, and I must say that we have had so much evidence over the years on why the national diet is inadequate, with malnourished people, obese people and so on. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, correctly identified that responsibility for food in the national diet is spread across eight government departments. Does my noble friend agree that the time has come for a national food strategy?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: We do not need just a national food strategy. The Government are well aware of the complexities of this, which is why I am answering this Question on behalf of the Cabinet Office. This is a large, long-term problem. I was struck to read in the report that there are 1,000 food banks in Germany and 2,000 in France. It is not just a British problem.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Lab): My Lords, now that the report has identified a gap, particularly in relation to children when they are not in school, can the noble Lord, with that knowledge, assure us that the Government will address the issue with urgency?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, that takes a great deal of consideration and the Government certainly will do so. The report recommends that free school meals should be provided in the holiday period. That involves a lot of implications and cost, which the Government of course will have to consider.
The Countess of Mar (CB): My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that many of these people are living in multioccupancy buildings, with either shared cooking facilities or none, and have extreme difficulty in providing proper square meals for their families? Can that be taken into account when people are criticising them for not being able to support themselves?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I agree with that. Another of the recommendations in this excellent report, which I encourage noble Lords to read in full, is that landlords should be expected to supply basic cooking facilities and equipment. There was also some good material on encouraging people to grow their own food. I have had some association with the charity in Shipley that deals with people who have mental health problems, runs a series of allotments and indeed encourages people to grow their own food and then cook it themselves. There is a whole range of issues that we need to address, some of which the Government can address but quite a lot of which civil society is at least as well equipped as government in addressing.