On 14th December 2017 Lord Bird asked Her Majesty’s Government “what plans they have to address the root causes of poverty and disadvantage in the United Kingdom.” In the short debate on the question, the Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke about the importance of stable family life as an antidote to the causes of poverty.
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate. As we have just heard, poverty cannot be measured simply in economic terms. It affects every area of a person’s life and, as a recent Demos report put it:
“The first step towards tackling poverty is understanding it better”.
Where better to begin than with its causes, about which I would like to make just two observations? The first is that the causes of poverty and even its incidence are often hidden, like some of the vulnerable children we heard about in the previous debate. I live in Keswick, among some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, yet in Cumbria one in eight households has an income of less than £10,000 a year, one in 10 experiences fuel poverty and there is a 20-year differential in life expectancy between the wealthiest and poorest wards in the county. In parts of Barrow-in-Furness, one in four children is living in poverty, and in the lovely Eden Valley travel times to key services are the longest of anywhere in this country. In other words, there is hidden deprivation even in the most apparently idyllic parts of our land, and many families who have little choice about what they eat or wear, or where they go, are too ashamed to ask for help.
My second observation has to do with the complex, multifaceted nature of the causes of poverty. As we know, there is usually no one single cause and it is the result of a whole series of factors that come together and reinforce each other. In the north-west, this was the key finding of our Furness poverty commission in 2013 and the Cumbria welfare reform commission, which I chaired. Most of those factors are obvious and widespread. Like other parts of the country, the north-west experiences most of them, from a lack of job opportunities and low wages to changes to benefits, which, it is estimated, will lead to a 3.5% increase in child poverty in the north-west by 2021.
There is one other cause of poverty which is less often mentioned yet which has, in my experience, a very significant effect on people’s well-being and life chances. That is family life. There is now considerable evidence to show that weak, unstable or even uncaring family relationships not only lead to low self-esteem and poor achievement at school but feed into the toxic mix of other factors and cause considerable damage to the health and aspirations of individuals and of society as a whole. We heard about that in the previous debate in powerful speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Judd.
There are no simple solutions to the problem of poverty in this country, but if a starting point for a co-ordinated approach is required, the need to strengthen families and address the underlying moral and social issues in our society is where I would begin.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Buscombe) (Con):..In truth, entrenched disadvantage is not something that a single department or indeed, the Government alone can do. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle said, causes of poverty are often hidden. We respond by saying that they require a cross-governmental approach, and one, as referenced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, that must also be rural-proof.