Emma speaks at KEY Project AGM

October 14, 2014

141010 KEY Project AGMEmma addressed South Tyneside’s KEY Project earlier this week, speaking about the challenges young homeless people face and her work on the All-Party Inquiry into Food Poverty.

KEY Project works with young homeless people in South Shields.  They support vulnerable individuals by helping them into accommodation, providing housing advice and other support for tenants, as well as providing emergency food to those who need it.  Emma has worked closely with KEY Project since becoming an MP.

Emma explained how a lack of well-paid work, benefit delays and unfair sanctions meant young people in South Shields could quickly find themselves trapped in poverty.  You can read Emma’s full speech below.

She also told attendees about her work with the All-Party Inquiry into Food Poverty, which she invited to South Shields this summer to take evidence from local charities, agencies and food bank users. The Inquiry will publish its report at the end of this year.

You can find out more about the inquiry’s work by clicking here.

At the inquiry session KEY Project and other local charities explained that rising food prices, frozen wages and harsh welfare changes like the bedroom tax had combined to plunge many families into crisis.

Emma’s Speech to KEY Project

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak today, it always good to be at the Key Project.

I want to say a few words today about why organisations like the Key Project are so important, and speak to you about issues around homelessness.  I’ve also been asked to talk about the Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, which I and a group of fellow MPs have been working on this year.

Since becoming an MP one of the things that has struck me is how distant what happens in Westminster can seem from people’s everyday lives.  We do debate important issues like homelessness, poverty and rising living costs but too often I think the debates get bogged down in statistics and don’t talk about the human aspect and the reality of what it means to live without a roof over your head, or to have to choose between a warm home or a hot meal.

That is why almost every time I speak in the House I refer to a named constituent and their direct experiences, this not only humanises the issues we are debating but it also makes it more difficult for the Coalition to deny the impact of their harmful policies.

And when it comes to speaking up for individuals, and telling their story there are few people who need their voices heard more than the homeless.

As an MP I am contacted by hundreds of people each month.  Many of them have important problems, but what is clear to me is that many of the people who need help the most are those least able to seek it.  Without an address it is difficult to access services or to contact your MP.

That’s why I work closely with Key Project, so that I am always aware of the problems facing homeless people in our area and can feed that information to the Government and my colleagues in the Labour Party.

If you’ve come to this event I am sure you already know about the causes of homelessness and the struggles homeless people face, so I will try to keep my summary of the issues brief.

There is certainly no single cause and no simple solution.  The cost of living; jobs; education and skills; housing stock and quality, all of these and more are causes, and we can’t tackle one without tackling the others.

It’s also important to recognise that these causes relate to one another – without a job you can’t afford accommodation, but without a fixed address getting into employment or training is extremely difficult.  Finding work is hard without skills, but traveling to classes is made harder when every penny needs to go on food.

This means that poverty quickly turns into a trap, which once you are in it is very hard to get out of.  Where once a job could be a route out of poverty, nowadays people work for their poverty.

Comparing the experiences of young people today with my own generation I think that much of the old social safety net has disappeared.  Things were not easy for people when I was growing up, but I cannot remember a time when so many people faced potential poverty and despair if they suffered a setback.

Today, one missed appointment at the job centre can mean weeks of sanctions and having to turn to food banks just to feed yourself.  If you lose your job and are unable to keep your home, you may find yourself rehoused in a completely different town, on your own and isolated from the support networks that could help you back on your feet.

Not so long ago the state understood that setbacks happen, that they are often beyond individuals’ control and that with a bit of support people could be helped back into meaningful, productive work.  That isn’t the case anymore.

In this context it is sadly not surprising that more and more people are slipping into extreme poverty, or that people are finding themselves homeless.

For young people the situation is even worse.  Just starting out in life, they are told by employers they don’t have the experience for even entry level jobs.  They can’t afford the ridiculous £9,000 a year tuition fees required to go to university – many of them couldn’t even afford to stay in school post-16 after the Government abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance.

And now the Government is planning to scrap housing benefit for the under 25s, so that young people whose parents are not willing or able to support them are left to fend for themselves.

The Government doesn’t seem to care about the fact that not every young person has parents able to house them until age 25.  They don’t seem to care that their failure to invest in jobs and skills means one in five young people in our region are now unemployed.

And of course there is the hated Bedroom Tax, which also takes its toll on our young people.  Just last week our own Jean Burnside was in the local press speaking about the tragic rise of homelessness and hunger in our young people.

The fact is that this Government isn’t interested in supporting young people during the difficult years of early adulthood.  This means that more and more are at risk of finding themselves without a home to go to.  And as we know, once they are in that situation it can be very difficult to get out.

All of this is happening against a background of rising living costs, and I wanted to say a few words about the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Food Poverty. This was started by the Labour MP Frank Field, but includes both Labour and Tory MPs including myself.

Earlier this year I brought the Inquiry to Shields to take first hand evidence from food banks, agencies and voluntary organisations from our area.  There were also a number of food bank users there as well.  Key Project took part and made a great contribution.

The idea was to do what I spoke about earlier – take the statistics and all the recycled talking points out of the debate and talk to people who actually used food banks and were experiencing hardship.  I thought it was important for the inquiry to hear from people in Shields in their own words why they were going to food banks and what had driven them to do so.

These people generally agreed that the social safety net was no longer enough – they squeezed every penny but at the end of the month they just didn’t have enough money to eat properly, and so they had to rely on charity.

Obviously we have had soup kitchens and other food aid providers since long before the Coalition Government.  But in the past these charities looked after low numbers of people, nowhere near the numbers they are now caring for.

This year the Trussell Trust network of food banks alone has handed out over a million food parcels, many of them to families in work.  Alongside the Trussell Trust there are a large number of smaller or independent charities, some of which have a greater focus on feeding the homeless.

But the whole sector relies of volunteers and donations, and people have told the inquiry they were worried about whether the charitable sector could continue to meet demand.

If demand continues to rise we may reach a point where the voluntary sector no longer has any capacity – that could spell disaster for families, and disaster for homeless people.

I am sure that like me you agree that, while we are all grateful for the work charities do, charity should never be a necessary part of our economy.  When hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford to eat we know something is badly wrong. The fact is that there is a structural problem here in our welfare state that needs addressing.

As part of my work on the inquiry I have been arguing for action to help address these structural problems, such as the cost of living crisis – that means raising wages, dealing with benefit delays and unfair sanctions, and doing more to help families with major expenses like energy and food.

The Inquiry will be making recommendations to the Government when it publishes its report in December, and I hope we are able to put pressure on the Coalition to address these issues.

I wanted to conclude by thanking the Key Project for the work they continue to do in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

I’m sure we can all agree that homelessness is a result of deep-rooted problems, and realistically it is not something we can talk about ‘solving’ in the short term.

What truly helps and makes a difference to the lives of homeless people is the dedication of organisations like Key Project, who provide comfort and support to those who have nowhere else to turn.  Their kindness and selflessness is an example of the fantastic community spirit which makes me so proud to represent South Shields and so proud to have been asked to speak here today.

Latest News