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 St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke about the link between poverty and mental health, and also the need for action on rural deprivation:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for this debate. I want to make just a couple of points in the time I have.
Plenty of statistics have been bandied around today, and I can quote even more: 14 million people, by some counts, are living in poverty in this country, including 4 million children. The trouble with those and other statistics is that they hide the individual lives they represent: for example, the three men, whom many of us have seen, in sleeping bags in Westminster Tube station as I came in at 8 am yesterday morning; or Joe—not his real name—whom I met this morning in St Peter’s Street in St Albans as I went out to get my morning paper. There has been a visible increase in the number of people on our streets in places such as St Albans over recent months. I have got to know a number of them, and this morning, knowing I was coming in for this debate, I thought I had to sit and talk to Joe just for a minute. I felt I could not in all conscience come and speak on a subject such as this without actually finding out his name and just a little about his story. Of course, it was patronising even to spend five minutes with somebody like that, but as I discovered with the other two young men on the street whom I spoke to in recent weeks—it only takes five minutes just to sit next to them on the ground—the causes of poverty and reasons why they are there are many and varied. Each individual has a unique story, so there is no silver bullet to address the whole issue, but for Joe, it is to do with mental health. That is the first of the two areas I want to comment on briefly.
Statistics reveal that men and women in the least well-off fifth of the population are twice as likely to have mental health conditions as those on average incomes, which makes escaping poverty so difficult. People with severe and enduring mental health conditions have the lowest employment rate of all disability groups. Ensuring the least well off can access good, timely and appropriate mental health provision is critical if we are going to address this problem.
Secondly, I want to say a few words about addressing poverty and deprivation in rural areas. Here, I declare my interest both as the president of the Rural Coalition and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Overall, around one-sixth of areas with the worst health and deprivation indicators are in rural or significantly rural areas, as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Carlisle has already mentioned. Nevertheless, these pockets of deprivation are frequently overlooked by official statistics, which deal in generalities. Delivering services to individuals living in poverty in rural areas is particularly challenging: the lack of bus services, poor access to the internet and closing community centres and libraries all make looking for a job, claiming benefits or learning a new skill extremely difficult. Often these individuals simply end up at the door of the local vicarage, having had nowhere else to turn. In the light of that, can the Minister assure the House that every effort will be put into ensuring that all government policies addressing poverty and disadvantage will be fully rural proofed, as we seek to care for all people in our nation?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Buscombe) (Con):…The evidence is clear that good-quality work can serve as a basis for a healthier, happier society, with demonstrable links to better physical and mental health, and improvements in personal well-being. We are committed to doing all we can to ensure that as many people as possible are able to share in these advantages, with particular help announced last week for those with a disability or health condition. In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, I have to say that this is something on which we have very much been focusing, and as a Government, we are proud of the progress that has already been made towards this objective. There are 600,000 more disabled people now in work, for instance, than there were four years ago….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.