On 17th November 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Crossbench Peer Lord Bird, “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address the root causes of child poverty across the United Kingdom”.The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for tabling this important debate and for the challenging and spirited way in which he always makes his speeches, which not only entertain but very often get to the heart of many of the crucial issues. This debate is particularly timely because of the figures recently released by the End Child Poverty Coalition, which show that child poverty levels continue to rise steeply, reaching 47% in some areas. In his maiden speech the noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke of the need to give those in poverty a hand up and not a handout. He focused on the importance of creating opportunities, rather than dependency. This of course has been one of the great themes of his life’s work. I believe that that is a crucial message.
One of the fundamental areas that I and others in the Church of England have sought be involved in is ways to empower the poor and challenge structural injustice. The Church was and is at the heart of the Fairtrade movement, seeking to ensure that workers are paid a wage reflecting the true value of their work. Across Britain, churches continue to organise with workers for a living wage. Organisations such as Christians Against Poverty are working to help those in the grip of debt take control of their finances, while countless Christian charities are working tirelessly to help, for example, ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
There is, of course, occasionally the need to give immediate relief where it is appropriate—for example, food banks—but that is not a long-term solution. However, one thing strikes me again and again when I visit food banks. I am so often told of the surprising number of families who, having been given food for a few weeks, get back on course and, far from becoming dependent, come back a few months later with gifts of food because, having received help, they want to help others.
The two priorities should run together. The Christian social ethic is, after all, one of neither dependency nor independence but of mutuality, in which both parties have something to give and so both receive something. An anti-child-poverty strategy must neither breed dependence nor hold the individual solely responsible for their circumstances, but seek to bring sustainable change through working in partnership for those who live in poverty.
Part of the answer lies in the education system. A quality education can empower children and is one of the most important routes out of poverty. However, it is not just about good schools. As the book Improving Children’s Life Chances, from the Child Poverty Action Group, points out, family poverty remains the strongest predictor of educational attainment. It says that around only one-tenth of all variations in exam results at 16 can be accounted for by factors relating to schools. Elsewhere it says that low-income families are much less able than others to afford items and activities that many more affluent families routinely pay for in order to boost their children’s educational attainment. Clearly, we should be doing all we can to improve our schools and close the educational attainment gap, as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s State of the Nation report, published yesterday, makes clear. Re-establishing funding for local authorities to invest in early years education is also crucial if we are to close the income-based educational attainment gap that exists even before pupils set foot in a school.
However, the fact remains that as familial poverty inhibits educational attainment, it creates a vicious cycle. If we are to break that cycle, we must focus not on handouts but on economic empowerment—on income, in other words. We can talk about all the life chances indicators that we want, but if we lose sight of the centrality of income to a child’s life chances, we will not see children reach their full potential. This is not just the sole responsibility of government. As consumers we need to be relentless in our support of ethical businesses, and as neighbours we need to stand alongside those on poverty pay and support their campaign for a living wage—although policymakers clearly have a crucial role to play.
Improving economic empowerment means creating the conditions in which low-income families can flourish. It means making sure that those in poverty have access to adequate and affordable housing that conforms to the standard of Shelter’s new living rent campaign—something I fear may not be achievable given the present Government’s current focus on homes to buy at the expense of social rents. It means helping low-income families to manage their budgets and encouraging them to save when they are able, removing the poverty premium that means that such families pay more for fuel and other essentials. It means tackling low pay to ensure that working families can provide their children with the resources and experiences they require to flourish at home and at school. Crucially, on that last point, I want to join with the Centre of Social Justice and the Children’s Society in calling on the Government to reverse cuts to in-work allowances under universal credit. To confront child poverty, we must make work pay.
It is precisely because of concerns about creating dependency that we must ensure that the welfare system protects children from poverty. If we are to tackle the perennial problem of child poverty, we must give those children a secure platform from which they can thrive, both at home and at school. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will give greater consideration to the role of income in establishing that platform.
Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [extract]: As we have heard, the context of today’s debate is that child poverty in Britain is simply far too high. Whatever measure we use—I am old-fashioned and go with the international standard of 60% of median household income—we are talking about 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15, and as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned, the figure is rising by 200,000 year on year.