A CROSS-DEPARTMENTAL strategy with formal government structures and the “active commitment of the Prime Minister” is needed to address rising levels of child poverty in the UK, a new report from the Church of England concludes.
The report, published on Thursday, is based on consultations with 14 charitable organisations, which were contacted by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, and the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, in January 2021. The organisations, which include the Children’s Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, were invited to submit their ideas for a child poverty strategy, focused on tackling the underlying or systemic causes of poverty.
The consensus was that child poverty was a serious issue that was already on the rise before the pandemic, but had worsened during it: 4.3 million children were living in poverty in 2019 to 2020 and at least 120,000 more children were drawn into poverty as a result of Covid-19.
The Prime Minister and MPs, the report explains, have quoted from absolute poverty measures, which suggest that child poverty has remained stable since 2010, rising by only 100,000 between 2010 and 2020. This is measured against a substantial fall of 1.2 million (1.8 million before housing costs) over the previous decade (2000 to 2010), when Labour was in Government.
Relative poverty measures, however, suggest that, as of 2021, there were between 700,000 and 900,000 more children in poverty than in 2011 (or between 400,000 and 600,000 more children in poverty than in 2010).
The report states: “Following the election in December 2019, there are 45 Conservative constituencies with child poverty rates in excess of a third, compared with just 15 in 2015.”
Also, in-work poverty has now become the norm, it says.
Further consultation with churchpeople in the dioceses of Exeter, Durham, London, and Coventry supported these findings. Furloughed workers struggled to get by, while others could not access the scheme; learning gaps have widened; poor housing has affected mental health; domestic violence has risen; and debt has increased. Fuel poverty and a rise in foodbank use are also concerns, the report summarises.
As well as a focused cross-departmental approach, such as a Cabinet committee for social justice, the Government also needs an agreed and consistent measure of child poverty, specific targets, and the “political will” to see these through, the authors write. Any strategy should also be centred on prevention.
The report identifies six main policy areas key to this: family support; early years and childcare; education; housing; jobs; and social security. More specifically, changes might include family hubs delivering services such as parenting and relationship support; extended school and extra-curricular activities; “poverty proofing” the school day by reducing the cost of uniforms and school trips; increasing the level of housing support for low-income families in rented properties; employment support programmes; and removing the two-child limit and benefit cap (News, 20 July 2021).
The report concludes: “We hope this review will stimulate a debate within parliament about the need for a coherent, long-term, cross-party strategy to reduce child poverty, as part of the broader debate about ‘levelling up’ and how to ensure an equitable recovery from the pandemic.”
Bishop Butler said on Thursday: “The cost-of-living crisis is upon us, and it seems incredible that the Government don’t have a strategy for addressing child poverty. This report presents the consensus across the breadth of the political spectrum that a strategy is required, and sets out vital features of it, including a call to end the two-child limit. Without targeted policies to tackle child poverty there is no hope of truly ‘levelling up’. It’s crucial that we listen to the organisations who are responding to child poverty across the country, and we urge the Government to recognise the overwhelming consensus that this report presents.”
He continued: “Children are suffering, and there is no strategy to alleviate it. Rather, policies such as the two-child limit are pushing further children and families into poverty. How can we feel content with that? We, as a just and compassionate nation, must strive for more for all of our children.”
The policy and impact manager at the Children’s Society, Azmina Siddique, agreed. “It is totally unacceptable that, in a developed, wealthy nation such as ours, one in three children are living in poverty,” she said. “We urge the Government to take on the range of recommendations in the report, including abolishing the two-child limit and benefit cap.”
Low-income migrant families, who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status (News, 9 June 2020), were particularly overlooked, Ms Siddique said. “These families are locked out of accessing support such as child benefit, even though the parents work and pay tax like everyone else.”