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UK religious leaders urge Boris Johnson to set up a cross-party commission on child poverty

29 October 2020

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written to the Prime Minister

PA

Helena Puig and her son Gael take a bag of food offered by volunteers in London Fields, east London, who are providing free school meals for children during half-term this week

Helena Puig and her son Gael take a bag of food offered by volunteers in London Fields, east London, who are providing free school meals for children ...

RELIGIOUS leaders in the UK, led by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, have urged the Government to establish a cross-party commission to address the underlying causes of child poverty in the country.

In a letter to the Prime Minster published on Thursday, Archbishops Welby and Cottrell write: “More than twenty years ago, the Government of the time promised to eliminate UK child poverty within a generation and yet child poverty has remained stubbornly high under the leadership of all political parties. No one can take the moral high ground because this is endemic to our economic structure and seems to fall outside our moral imperatives.

“We can and must do something together to remove this injustice.”

The letter comes after MPs rejected a Labour motion to extend free school-meal vouchers for the half-term break this week, sparking outcry from campaigners, and pledges of food and assistance from churches, businesses, and other organisations. The Commons vote was inspired by a petition by the footballer Marcus Rashford, which accrued more than one million signatures this week.

“With the help of Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaign the pandemic has brought the issue of child hunger and poverty into the light,” the religious leaders write.

“However, this is not a new problem. The rising use of food banks, most of them run by churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras and mosques, is the extreme and visible manifestation of a much broader and deep-seated problem.

“According to the official statistics, child poverty has been growing and deepening for years as a large and growing number of low and insecurely paid working families struggle to make ends meet, exacerbated further by the impact of Covid-19.”

The letter’s signatories include the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, Archbishop Angaelos; the President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Richard Teal; the General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, the Revd Dr John P. Bradbury; as well as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish representatives. The Russian Orthodox Church and Greek Orthodox Church are also represented.

Another of its signatories, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, told the Church Times earlier this week that the problem of child poverty needed more than the “sticking plaster” of free school meal vouchers.

The arguments made during the debate on the Commons vote proved this, the letter says.

“Some argued that we must do more to respond to the immediate needs of families who are suffering under the extreme economic pressures generated by the pandemic. Others argued that this was only a ‘sticking plaster’, and that what we need is long-term solutions that address the underlying causes of child poverty. Others still pointed out that this was not solely Government’s responsibility — and that parents, voluntary groups, and communities also have an important role in combatting child poverty.

“We agree with all these arguments. But, instead of politicising this issue and arguing over individual policies, we urgently need to establish a cross-party commission with the mandate and resources to tackle child poverty in England, once and for all.”

Temporary measures are needed to tackle hunger in the short-term, including free school-meal vouchers, the letter says. It praises recent government measures to “sustain employment” and to “bolster the social security system” for low-income families in the medium term, but suggests that the temporary £20 increase in Universal Credit should be made permanent and extended to cover people on legacy benefits.

“Governments should commit to increasing working age benefits at least in line with inflation (as is already the case for pensioners), in order to maintain an adequate safety net for those falling on hard times.

“In the long-term, we need a coherent, cross-government and cross-party strategy to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty, including low pay, educational disadvantage, and the shortage of affordable housing and childcare, as well as measures to promote social mobility and racial justice. Simultaneously, we need a comprehensive social security system that protects people against the vagaries of life, alongside a dynamic voluntary sector to help those who fall through the cracks.”

Everyone agreed that no child should go hungry and that child poverty must end, the letter concludes. “It is all our duty to come together to protect the most vulnerable in our society, especially in times of crisis. We urge you to act with decisiveness and compassion, to ensure that children are protected during this exceptionally challenging winter. But we also urge you to look beyond the current crisis and to use this as an opportunity for us to make a collective commitment to eliminate the scandal of child poverty for good.”

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