The End Child Poverty Coalition recently released the shocking statistic that 4 million British children are now growing up in relative poverty, and more than two-thirds of these live in a household where at least one parent is in work.
These statistics mean that child poverty is at its highest level since 2010, with the figure of 4 million representing around 30% of UK children. A child is said to live in poverty if they are in a family living on less than 60% of median household income. After housing costs, this is around £248 per week.
This level of poverty has a huge impact on both the daily lives, and the wider life chances, of many millions of children, and Labour has been clear that this is absolutely unacceptable in modern Britain.
Of course, child poverty figures necessarily represent an average, with the End Child Poverty Coalition reporting that there are some areas, particularly in large cities, where over half of the children are growing up in poverty. In my own constituency of City of Durham, four wards contain over 30% of children living in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. Belmont ward has 765 children living in poverty – above the national average, at 32.7%, Coxhoe has 757 and Deerness has 809, at 30.2%. Elvet and Gilesgate has 36.5% of its children living in poverty.
These figures are an indictment of government policy since 2010, and make a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that her government is tackling inequality.
Issues like these can seem abstract, but I see in my regular surgeries in Durham how low pay, the increased cost of living, and issues with benefits payments have pushed families, most of whom are in work, to the point of destitution.
It is shocking that in this day and age there are families where parents are having to decide between heating or food, or where working people have to visit food banks to make ends meet. Not only does Durham now have several food banks, it also has a clothing bank for people who cannot even afford second hand clothes and school uniforms for their families.
Aside from the issues of low pay and increased costs of living, the government is making this situation worse for those on low incomes through its policies on in-work benefits. Although Universal Credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system so that people would always be better off in work, in practice the many issues with its implementation mean that working people on low pay will in many cases be worse off once Universal Credit is rolled out.
Labour have called on the government to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit until its problems have been fixed, and have been working in Parliament to tackle the related issue of child malnutrition and holiday hunger in families on low income.
The issue of holiday hunger has been on my radar from some time, after having spoken with many families whose children are on Free School Meals who struggle to provide meals for their children throughout the school holidays. I have visited holiday hunger clubs in Durham to better understand the service they provide, and have put pressure on Durham County Council to widen their provision during school holidays.
I have also met with representatives of various groups in my constituency to discuss setting up a pilot scheme to provide meals for children on Free School Meals throughout the holidays.
In Parliament, I helped set up the APPG for School Food, and remain a Vice-Chair. This APPG is a cross-Parliamentary group which works to provide a parliamentary forum for the discussion of all matters relating to food education in schools and other settings and to push the issue of food in schools up the political agenda.
I have long supported the provision of Free School Meals for all children whose families receive universal credit, and I was proud of Labour’s manifesto commitment to provide hot school lunches for all primary school pupils at the last General Election. Not only does this tackle the scourge of hunger, numerous studies have shown that children who eat a hot, healthy meal at lunchtime have improved educational outcomes.
On 19th January, I voted in support of Labour’s School Holidays (Meals and Activities Bill), which would ensure that children who are in receipt of Free School Meals during term time would also receive meals throughout the school holidays. This Bill passed, and I understand the government is currently trialling pilots based on the Bill, which should work towards alleviating holiday hunger across the country. This is a welcome first step that will materially benefit some of the poorest families in the country.
I have also called on the government to halt its plans to end the current entitlement to free school meals for all children from families who receive Universal Credit. These measures should stay in place, as under the proposed new system, children from families who receive Universal Credit will stop receiving free school meals once their parents hit an income threshold of £7,400 per year. This income threshold represents a cliff-edge that will be detrimental to families and ultimately worsen child nutrition across the country, and will mean that 1 million extra schoolchildren in poverty who could benefit from free school meals now won’t.
It also goes against one of the founding principles of universal credit: to always make work pay.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I believe the current transitional system, whereby all children from families that are on Universal Credit, receive free school meals, should remain in place, and I was pleased that a Westminster Hall debate was granted last week to discuss the issue. Keeping the transitional measures in place will reduce bureaucracy, ensure that all children who need it receive a hot, healthy meal each day, and make sure that work always pays.
Since 2010, child poverty has risen again to its current, unacceptable levels, but I am proud of Labour’s record in government on child poverty. Between 1997 – 2010, child poverty fell by a quarter and we implemented a host of policies designed to tackle child poverty. From increases in existing benefits to new child-targeted assistance, investments in early years’ intervention to programmes to help lone parents into work, a wide range of actions increased incomes and provided tailored services to help families living in poverty.
In my role as Labour MP for the City of Durham, I am doing all I can to push the government to tackle the blight of child poverty, but only a Labour government will take the measures necessary to bring these shocking figures down.
We can start by urging the government to keep the transitional measures in place for Universal Credit, and not introduce an income threshold for eligibility for free school meals which would mean that low-income families will lose out. Labour will continue to push for children on free school meals to have access to food and activities throughout the school holidays, and we will support all efforts in Parliament to ensure that all children have access to nutritious food, both at school and at home. There is no justification for anything less in modern Britain.