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Work on its own is not a solution to child poverty, Bishop Butler tells Lords in his farewell speech

23 February 2024

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, make his valedictory speech in the House of Lords on Wednesday

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, make his valedictory speech in the House of Lords on Wednesday

CHILD poverty remains as significant an issue as it was a decade ago, showing that the Government’s approach to tackling it is not enough, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has said. He was making his farewell speech in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

During a debate on poverty reduction, the Bishop, recalling his maiden speech in the House in 2014, said: “I spoke of the high levels of poverty in my region of the north-east. Sadly, poverty, particularly child poverty, remains as significant an issue today as it was ten years ago.”

He quoted figures from the North East Child Poverty Commission, which last week reported that there were about 134,000 children living in poverty in the North East Mayoral Combined Authority in 2021-22 — an increase of more than seven per cent since 2014-15.

“But poverty is not just about numbers,” the Bishop said. “Behind each statistic are the lives of children and the impact on them is all-encompassing. Poverty means going without the basic essentials. It means not being able to concentrate in school, due to an empty stomach and not getting adequate nutrition; a packet of apples costs five times the amount of a packet of biscuits.

“Poverty means missed opportunities. It denies the chance to develop new skills through extra-curricular activities. Poverty means growing up too soon. It means dealing with stresses and anxieties with which no child should ever be burdened. It impacts the present and its effects last a lifetime.”

More fundamentally, Bishop Butler said, “I care about poverty because God cares about it.”

In ten years, he continued, the Conservative Government “has been promoting work as a route out of poverty. Given that the proportion of children from working families living in poverty in the north-east has risen from 56 per cent to 67 per cent over the last seven years, it is clear that work alone is not enough.”

Work was the answer only if a living wage was paid, and secure hours and working practices were provided, the Bishop said. “Viewing paid work as the sole route out of poverty fails to recognise the invaluable unpaid work that so many contribute. Raising children is the most important role that any parent ever undertakes. Its importance outweighs that of any paid employment and must be acknowledged by the whole of society as such.”

He also gave the example of foodbanks and community volunteering.

The two-child limit on Universal Credit must also be scrapped (News, 27 March) and a UK-wide strategy developed, which utilised the voices of those who had experienced poverty or worked to reduce it, including schools, charities, and faith communities, the Bishop said.

“Poverty is a scourge. It needs to be confronted head-on as a national emergency. Jesus warned us not to harm children. . . We need a clearer vision for children and for how we confront all poverty. Only then will we see poverty be reduced. Only then will we ensure that no child in this country grows up without the basic essentials and finally end child poverty.”

Bishop Butler is due to retire at the end of the month (News, 21 July 2023). He has spoken frequently in the House, where Bishops of Durham sit as of right, and his speeches have touched on a wide range of subjects, but particularly the refugee crisis and education.

He is the Church’s official advocate for children (he was the lead safeguarding bishop, 2010-16) and chairs the board of the National Society. He has also chaired the trustees of the Church Mission Society, and served as president of the Scripture Union (2012-19). Bishop Butler has contributed to several books and papers on these subjects.

Shortly after Bishop Butler spoke, the Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, made his maiden speech in the same debate. Focusing on rural poverty in his diocese, he said: “The disparity between rural house prices and rural wages means that the pressure on these communities is particularly severe.”

He also spoke about the agricultural sector: “Smaller farmers are struggling. The transition from basic-farm-payment support to environmental land-management schemes post-Brexit, while welcome in many of its aims, has not been seamless.”

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