Grahame Morris MP
I beg to move, That this House has considered in-work poverty.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Before I start, I want to pass on our best wishes, from all sides of the House, to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mims Davies, who I am sorry to hear has covid. I am sure that her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Rutley, will do an admirable job in her place.
Work should always be a pathway and route out of poverty. The fact that the phrase “in-work poverty” even exists is a damning indictment of successive Conservative Government policies over the past 12 years. The Government are clearly making life harder for working people, as I will illustrate with a number of examples. I am conscious that a large number of Members want to participate in this important debate, so I will truncate my remarks, but I want to illustrate my argument with some examples from a number of sectors.
Clearly, one of the issues is the increase in taxes and national insurance, which is in direct contravention of a commitment that the Conservatives made in their last general election manifesto. We are also having to deal with the problem of the huge increases in energy prices that the Government, via Ofgem, have allowed to take place. Members may recall that I had a question for the Prime Minister last Wednesday in order to contrast the position of the French Government, who have capped energy price rises at 4%, with that of our Government, who have capped energy price rises at an incredible 54%. That has had a huge impact on people who are in work.
Fuel poverty, food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty and child poverty are all measures of economic failure, and they are all on the increase. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in eight workers are struggling to make ends meet. If work guaranteed a decent standard of living, the UK would be going through a golden age of prosperity. Instead, the Conservative party has delivered successive year-on-year policies of austerity over a decade. The social security safety net has given way, after a decade of wear and tear.
Without the most basic protection, a decade of pay cuts and wage stagnation has left working families ill prepared. Many have no savings at all, and people certainly have far less resilience to cope with the current cost of living crisis. In the workplace, we have seen employment rights deliberately weakened, a dramatic increase in the number of zero-hours contracts, and an expansion of the gig economy, with a growing proportion of working people in insecure employment.
I also want to mention the appalling employment practices. Poor employment practices, such as fire and rehire, are rife, even with very profitable and long-established companies, some of which are household names. Despite recent and repeated assurances from Ministers at the Dispatch Box—often condemning the practice—they have done nothing to outlaw the practice of fire and rehire by rogue employers. The Government have disregarded the interests of working people and dismissed the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner.
The key workers we all clapped for and honoured during lockdown are bearing the brunt of our low-wage, poverty-pay economy. Figures produced by the TUC reveal that 43% of north-east key workers—over 173,000 people —earn below £10 an hour. Personally, I do not think that £15 an hour is an unreasonable ask in this day and age.
Chris Stephens MP
I thank my honourable comrade for giving way. Is he as surprised as I am at a recent article, published by The Herald newspaper and The Ferret website, showing that 20% of jobs advertised on the Department for Work and Pensions website paid under the national minimum wage rate of £9.50? The Department really needs to launch an inquiry into why that is the case.
Grahame Morris MP
Absolutely. It should concern us all when the DWP is advertising jobs that fall below the minimum standard and even the limited protections afforded to working people.
We know that even a modest increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour would transform the lives of key workers, including one in three care workers—so many of us applaud care workers for their contribution, particularly during the pandemic—and 173,000 childcare workers. It would raise the incomes of over half a million people.
Workers across the country are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes. I will give some examples, including one I received from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Like many of us, I have met the cleaners employed by the Churchill Group who are fighting for a real living wage of £15 an hour. I will also highlight the fact that the GMB trade union is campaigning against real-terms pay cuts for nearly 150,000 ASDA staff, and the ongoing University and College Union strike in the university sector. The pattern is the same: terms, conditions, wages and pension rights are being eroded; workers who try to negotiate are blocked, ignored and blamed; while well-paid directors shrug their shoulders with uninterest, often while picking up huge bonuses.
The workers who kept our supermarket shelves stacked during the pandemic are now struggling to feed their own families. I was shown a survey by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which was very illuminating; it was conducted by the union of its members, who are in the food sector. It found that between February and March 2021, 40% of those surveyed had eaten less than they should have eaten because they did not have sufficient cash; 35% had eaten less than they should have to ensure that other members of their household got a meal; and 21% relied on goods and contributions from family and friends to make ends meet. These are people who are in work—shift workers who supplied the country with bread during the pandemic.
I will also highlight the excellent Right to Food Campaign, which was mentioned in this very Chamber yesterday. The campaign was set up and promoted by my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, and it has been endorsed by my own union, Unite. It seeks to make the Government responsible for addressing the raging income inequalities and the broken benefit system that have pushed so many people into a spiral of poverty.
I saw a quote on social media just before this debate and thought how relevant it is to what we are discussing, because we are talking about the cost of living crisis. The country has more than enough resources and more than enough money to keep everyone warm, housed, free from hunger and properly clothed; in fact, the country has enough wealth to do that a hundred times over. So it is not really a cost of living crisis; what we have is an inequality crisis.
I think the Government should scrap some of the provisions that currently apply to those in receipt of universal credit. Let us not forget that a substantial number of those in receipt of universal credit are in work—they are the working poor. The five-week wait before they can receive a penny is a major contributing factor to the huge increase in the number of people having to turn to food banks.
We need to start putting people before profits. Sadly—it is lamentable, really—poverty has become the norm in Britain; it has become normalised. Yards away from where we are having this debate, homeless people are freezing on the streets and sleeping rough for want of a home. Children go hungry. We see Members of Parliament, particularly Members of the Conservative party, posing for photographs at food banks, and I think the irony must be lost on them that those food banks exist only because of the policies that this Government have promoted.
To return to energy prices, the French Government have capped cost rises at 4%, Germany has cut tariffs and Spain has introduced a windfall tax on the energy companies. But here in Britain, standing charges are doubling and the energy price cap will see energy bills rise by 54%—that is £700 more on average—for our families. Peterlee is the biggest town in my constituency, and EDF, one of the big six energy companies, has many customers there. It is interesting to contrast what is happening in Peterlee with what is happening in Paris. Will the Minister explain why French state-owned EDF can cap cost increases at 4% in Paris while my constituents in Peterlee face a 54% increase in their bills?
Tax rises are exacerbating the cost of living crisis as many in our nation struggle with rising prices. I happened to meet a farmer last weekend, and we chatted about a number of issues. He grows oilseed rape and wheat, and he said that the price of wheat is doubling, and that the price of fertiliser is doubling as well, which will cost him an extra £10,000 a year. He reliably informed me that the cost of wheat, which was £150 a tonne, is now £300 a tonne. That will filter through into dramatic increases in food costs for staples such as bread. The prices of many basic staples, including margarine, tomatoes and apples have increased by as much as 45% in the past year.
Figures from the Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network show that more than 3 million food bank parcels were distributed in 2020-21. I tried to get the figures for the food banks operating in my constituency —at the community centre in Dawdon and at the East Durham Trust in Peterlee—but they are not part of the Trussell Trust, so the excellent work that they do is not included in those statistics, meaning that the figure is even bigger.
Average petrol and diesel prices are £1.61 and £1.73 per litre respectively, but regional public transport is expensive and unreliable after a decade of neglect, meaning that families have no alternative to protect against increasing fuel costs. The energy cap is up at 54%, and further increases are in the pipeline. The Conservative party once promised to be the “greenest government ever”, but the Public Accounts Committee recently described the green homes grant as a “slam dunk fail”.
House prices are rising beyond the reach of first-time buyers; sky-high rental costs leave little at the end of the month for deposits and savings; and we as a country have abandoned council housing, which is quite disgraceful—that social housing delivered low-cost homes for the post-war generation.
Nelson Mandela said:
“poverty…is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings… Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life… While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
Once again, we see that poverty is a political choice. It is a Conservative political choice, and one that this Government should be ashamed of.