I fear that the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Shakespeare, the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), has opened a can of worms with his quotations. I hate to say this, but most of us feel that yesterday was Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, I think it was less Shakespeare and more “upstart crow”.
I listened to the Secretary of State’s introduction to the debate. We have heard her personal history a number of times, and there is the benefit of not having to buy the inevitable autobiography when it comes out, but I would have expected her to have learnt, as most of us have, that it is best for children to maximise their educational opportunities when they go to school, and if they are to do that, they should not be going to school hungry. What worried me about the King’s Speech was that there was no attempt to address the problems of poverty in our society.
I am never completely sure what the debate on the King’s Speech is about, because we know what the Government are going to do and there is little influence we can have on them. To a certain extent, though, now that we have the autumn statement, maybe this is an attempt to shout through the Chancellor’s letterbox to say that there are issues that the King’s Speech has not addressed, and one of them is poverty. I do not want to rattle through the figures too much, but we all know that 14 million of our fellow citizens are living in poverty at the moment, that 4.2 million of them are children, and that two thirds of those children are living in households where someone is at work. What does that say about low pay?
The Government also need to be clear that unemployment is rising steadily. We now have up to 1.5 million unemployed. When I was first on the shop floor, unemployment benefit did actually get people through. Back then it was 28% of the average wage, but now it is 13%, so we are forcing people who are unemployed into a life of poverty. The number of people certified as unfit to work is also rising rapidly, and I think part of that is because many of them are on the 7.9 million-long waiting list for operations and treatments to get them back into work.
I can remember having a debate in this House nearly five years ago when the UN rapporteur Philip Alston reported on our social security system and its implications for people in our society living in poverty. He said that our social security system meant “the systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.
That shocked us, because he also started using a word that we had not used for generations: “destitution.” Last week, his successor Olivier de Schutter reported that the situation was getting significantly worse.
If we do not believe the UN rapporteur, then the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which we have cited across the House time and again when we have needed advice on how to tackle poverty, reports that 3.8 million in our country are now living in destitution, including 1 million children. It defines destitution as
“when people cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed”.
It reports that destitution has increased by 148% since 2017. That is not a society any of us wants to live in. I have looked at the foundation’s detailed research, but what I found most interesting was when it actually talked to people and asked them, “Just give us an example of your experience.” There is a whole list of quotes, but this is the one that got to me:
“Me and my partner survive on one meal a day. We make sure my daughter is eating. She has three meals a day, but me and my partner, we are lucky if we have one meal a day.”
That cannot be right, can it? In any society, that cannot be right.
There is a whole series of other quotes in which people talk about going hungry because the food bank is open for only a limited number of days, or because they get only so many discretionary opportunities to receive food from the food bank. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said, the number of people using food banks has shot through the roof again.
So this is an appeal to the Chancellor to do something in the autumn statement, in a couple of weeks’ time, to help our children out of poverty. In the pandemic, it was recognised by the Government that the safety net was not working, so with our unanimous support they added an extra £20 a week to universal credit to see people through. That needs to be done now, just as a first step. The cost would be between £5.5 billion and £6 billion. That sounds a lot, but given the overall weight of Government spending and the impact it could have on lifting children out of poverty, it would be a significant investment. We have also previously debated scrapping the two-child limit, which would lift 250,000 children out of poverty. I also want to make sure that children are not going hungry, which is why free school meals for all pupils will be critical as a foundation stone for the future.
In many of our areas we have people living in poverty because they cannot afford the rent. On Sunday night, a family of constituents came to my home. They are in a property in my constituency. To get on a council housing list, you have to live there 10 years and then you have to wait for five or six years. By that time, some children have grown up. This family came into my house and we sat down. Both parents are in work—one works in childcare—but they cannot afford the rent because the housing allowance no longer anywhere near matches what is needed. The Government need to now consider ending the housing allowance freeze and restoring it just to the 2015 level of 50% of market rents.
There is a brutal form of social security policy in this country: no recourse to public funds. What that means is that the children of migrants, who have done nothing to deserve it, are forced into poverty because their family has no recourse to public funds. I urge the Government and the Chancellor in the autumn statement to do something to lift our children out of poverty. There is a range of measures that are completely affordable and that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of children in our country.
A final point from me: no debate can go on without mentioning the children of Gaza—the 4,000 who have been killed and the 1,000 we think are under the rubble. That is why our calls today for a ceasefire are so important. Sometimes when we have these debates, political calculation overtakes us. When we come into the Chamber, our humanity and sometimes our ability to express our concerns ends there because of the politics of a situation. I thought we saw today, across the House in many respects, the real concern there is about the children of Gaza. I just hope the Government can bring themselves to lead the call for an immediate ceasefire, because I cannot see any other solution to ending that suffering.