Bishop of Oxford speaks about child poverty

On 20th October 2022, the Bishop of Oxford spoke about child poverty during a debate on the cost of living and public wellbeing:

My Lords, I welcome this moving and timely debate and the opportunity to highlight the consequences of the rising cost of living and its impact on well-being. I particularly want to focus on the well-being of children.

Psalm 41 begins with the words, “Blessed are those who consider the poor”—a reminder, if we need one, that the well-being of the whole nation is enhanced or diminished by the way we respond to those most in need. This insight is shared by all the great faith traditions.

So let us consider the poor, especially children caught in poverty and the impact of that on their well-being. The Children’s Society published its Good Childhood Report a few weeks ago. The stats have been quoted already. Some 85% of parents and carers are concerned about how the cost of living crisis will affect their families; that is nearly everybody. A third of families reported that they are already struggling with the costs of school trips and uniforms over the next year. A recent Action for Children survey report found that nearly half of children worry about their family finances—but, of course, many children’s needs are much more basic.

The diocese of Oxford has more than 280 primary and secondary schools across three counties in one of the better-off parts of the country. But heads and governors report that more and more effort is having to be invested in feeding children and other forms of social care. Our director of education tells me that many of our schools are even now having to meet basic needs through providing food parcels, giving away school uniforms, brokering support from local charities, washing school uniforms—even buying beds.

This means that time and energy are being drawn away from the primary focus of schools: to educate. Every teacher knows that it is impossible for children who are hungry to learn well. Schools report that their budgets are being squeezed through rising energy costs and rising salary costs for which they have not received extra funding. One head writes:

“The only way to break even this year will be to cut teaching and support staff, reduce educational opportunities and school visits, and keep the heating off.”

The impact on well-being for this generation of children, already affected by Covid, will be obvious.

All churches are reporting rapid escalation in food bank support and food bank use. Over the past year, I have personally visited many food banks and meals services in urban and rural areas. In 2011, one-third of churches were involved in supporting food banks. By 2016, that had risen to two-thirds. Last year, it was 80% of churches in rural and urban areas. The Trussell Trust estimates an increase in the use of food banks of 128% since 2015. I wonder: can the Government begin to imagine or plan for a time when food bank use decreases and some of our food banks go out of business, as they all want to do?

As other noble Lords have argued, the problems are deep seated. Poverty has been rising for a decade. The impact of Covid and now the cost of living crisis multiply the effect on health and well-being. We as a society should never grow used to children being hungry or families being eroded by lack of hope and an inability to meet basic needs. Many of the local support services and small charities that have sustained their communities during Covid are now overstretched. The infrastructure that has formed a safety net and contributes so much to well-being is now itself vulnerable.

I recognise the Government’s constant pledge to help the poorest, but I underline from the evidence and experience locally that the situation is getting worse, not better, and that has been the trend for many years. I repeat the call that many others have made for benefits to be increased in line with inflation; for the proper, generous funding of schools; and for co-ordinated support for charities to help the poorest. Above all, in the light of the Budget and the events of this week, I call on the Government to consider still more deeply this new and different metric, and to aim not simply for economic growth but for greater, deeper equality and fairness as a measure of society’s well-being.

As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and others have mentioned, the research of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level, and the stream which has flowed from that, demonstrate the connection between measures of inequality in a society and its whole well-being. The most equal societies are also the more content. Those most in need want and need to know that the Government have abandoned trickle-down economics and are applying a spirit level of fairness to the economic plans of the nation.

We need to keep alive a vision for the United Kingdom where no child is hungry; where the safety nets are robust; where child poverty is reducing; and where food banks are in decline. The well-being of the nation is now very fragile. To the incoming Prime Minister, I say, “Please don’t make it worse. Do all you can to make it better. Don’t allow the costs of the economic downturn to be borne by children and the poorest”. Blessed are those who consider the poor.

Hansard

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Janke (LD): As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, feeding children is also extremely important. Free school meals are grossly underfunded, and they struggle to offer a good nutritious meal for the price, including vegetarian, halal and kosher alternatives. Children are not engaged and ready to learn if they are hungry, and this might be their only hot meal of the day. A large proportion of pupils in the school I mentioned—43%—receive free school meals.

(…)

I urge the Government to protect our children, particularly those who are already disadvantaged, from any further attempt to cut essential services. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, children’s futures are on the line. Our country will pay the price if we do not face up to our responsibilities and make sure that children are fully protected in these difficult times.

Lord Markham (Con): I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for framing the debate in terms of the ONS study on public welfare and for highlighting that to me ahead of time. I welcome the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Layard—it is good to see my ex-lecturer at LSE— and the thoughtful contributions from the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I believe this is an excellent basket of measures which should act as a North Star for the Government. Many moons ago, I worked a lot in Nigeria setting up digital TV, and I learned that one of the poorest countries in the world can actually be one of the happiest.

I would like to look at the impact of the cost of living on those 10 measures. I have excluded two—the environment and governance—because I was not sure how much the cost of living impacted them. I am not so sure on the governance point now, but that may be above my pay grade anyway. As I reply, I will look at how the cost of living measures impact the other areas: personal well-being, our relationships, our health, what we do, where we live, our personal finance, the economy, education and skills.

(…)

I turn next to food prices; again, this point was recognised by many speakers, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. Food insecurity clearly has an impact on health, but it also impacts productivity, the economy, education and skills—all key measures of quality of life and well-being. That is why it is so important that we make sure that our children have a nutritious upbringing, which is why the free school meals programme is so important. All infant school kids get a free school meal, as introduced by the Government. Today, that 37.5% level is the highest on record, I believe.

So we are trying to give children a good foundation by having a healthy start and healthy food at school. We are also expanding that with a £200 million holidays and activities food programme to make sure that children can enjoy that when school is out. We also have the Healthy Start scheme to help 300,000 lower-income households. At this time, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the Church and all those who have a role in helping with food banks, because I know that that area provides a lot of comfort to people.

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