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Dickensian’ level of child poverty in the UK needs cross-party solutions, says bishop

06 December 2019

Election round-up: children, global aid, anti-Semitism


Boris Johnson in Plymouth last week for the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor, the first female MP, in front of a building displaying Labour posters. 100 Years Ago, page 12

Boris Johnson in Plymouth last week for the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor, the first female MP, in front of a building displaying Labour poster...

LEVELS of child poverty in the UK raise questions about whether we are still living in “Dickensian Britain”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.

Speaking on Tuesday, after the broadcast on Monday of the Channel 4 documentary Growing Up Poor, Dr Smith said that questions about child poverty should be “put to every person standing for public office”. The problem needed a cross-party solution, he said.

Four million children live in poverty, according to the Children’s Society. A Shelter report on Tuesday estimated that 135,000 children in the UK would be without a home this Christmas. Luton, in Dr Smith’s diocese, experiences some of the worst child-poverty rates: one child in 22 is in temporary accommodation.

Children’s organisations have called on political parties to “recommit” themselves to children during this General Election campaign (News, 15 November).

Dr Smith said: “You are building into the system problems that will be with them for 70 years. . . This is a deep problem for society.”

On Wednesday, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, said that levels of homelessness among children prompted questions about whether the UK was living up to the values of Christianity.

In a speech in Birmingham on the economy, he said: “It’s three weeks to Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Jesus. Children going hungry and homeless in the fifth-largest economy in the world begs the question: Are we really living up to the values of Christianity, or any other of our religions or beliefs for that matter?”

Mr McDonnell was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and briefly attended a seminary.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), published this week, showed that schoolchildren in Britain were more likely to be unsatisfied with their lives, and less likely to think that they had meaning, compared with children in other countries.

The survey, which asked 15-year olds, found that the UK had the biggest drop in life satisfaction since its last survey in 2015: barely half reported that they were satisfied with their lives.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams attempted to focus the election debate on global justice. Writing in The Times on Wednesday in his capacity as chair of Christian Aid, he argued: “A chaotic global financial system is manifestly failing to deliver the most basic kinds of security for poorer nations — food security, freedom from civil war, alternatives to policies that bring environmental degradation.”

He went on: “There’s nothing wrong with aspiration, and certainly nothing wrong with a sense of urgency. But there is something seriously wrong if we fail to put those promises in the wider context of a world desperate for stability and equity. . .

“Stand back for a moment, and you may realise that the best protection is a more just order. Stability comes not from an impregnable top-down system of control but from a context — an ecology, if you like — of shared decision-making, where people are not alienated and left out, always acted on and never acting.”

He attempted to counter criticisms of international aid. “It is not about reinforcing dependency. It is not about ‘handouts’. Effective aid is a matter of building a future that does not threaten us all. That means building a future in which people are active and responsible.”

In a statement published last Friday, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales wrote that it was the duty of people to vote for a politics “rooted in the service of human rights and peace”.

The statement warns voters to consider the innate dignity of all human beings, including the unborn and the elderly, and calls on voters to challenge xenophobia and racism, and to think about the climate emergency.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury’s support for the Chief Rabbi’s criticism of Labour over anti-Semitism (News, 29 November), Professor Gus John, a member of the C of E’s Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns, has resigned.

Professor John said: “As a matter of principle, I cannot continue to work with the Anglican Church . . . after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s disgraceful endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s unjust condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and the entire Labour Party.”

He spoke of the Chief Rabbi’s intervention as “scaremongering”, and concluded: “If Anglicans in the UK from the African and Asian diaspora were to judge Justin Welby as the leader of the Established Church by the same criteria [that] he appears to be employing in his assessment of Jeremy Corbyn, he, too, would fail the fitness-to-lead test.”

The National Churches Trust has published its own manifesto for church buildings, which calls on the next Government to “establish a new Urgent Repair and Maintenance Grant Scheme . . . ensure that parish and town councils have the legal powers to fund church buildings”.

It also wants the next Government to “help more churches to become community hubs through the installation of toilets and kitchens”; introduce stronger measures to stop heritage crime and lead theft; and keep church repairs free of VAT.

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