Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.
On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action.
The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.
The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.
Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time.
It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.
Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.
I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.
Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.
Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.
All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work.
That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.