Bishop of Durham speaks on the effects of child poverty

The Bishop of Durham spoke in a debate on vulnerable teenagers on 26th January 2023, emphasising the negative effects of child poverty on later life:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord McConnell; I associate myself with everything he said, particularly about adopting the recommendations. He also reminded us that this is no new problem. He talked about his experience in the 1980s; I could do the same from when I was doing youth work. You can also quote Greek writers and philosophers about the problems of young people in the era of the Greeks, so this is something we have always lived with.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for securing this debate. It is always lovely to share something with someone else from this part of the north-east of England. I congratulate Anne Longfield on the report, Hidden in Plain Sight. As the Commission on Young Lives’ report demonstrates, young people falling vulnerable to violence and exploitation and entering the criminal justice system is not an issue that is shrinking, nor one that could possibly be ignored. 

The effects of this problem are widespread, impacting not only the lives and futures of the young people themselves but the prosperity and security of our whole country. Such an issue cannot be resolved through sticking plasters or short-term solutions; it is instead vital that we examine and address the root causes and respond with long-term solutions.

As the report states,

“it is impossible to overestimate how important poverty is as a driver for so many of the social problems ruining and holding back lives.”

Almost 70% of young people receiving custodial sentences have received free school meals at some point, illustrating the connection between those in the criminal justice system and poverty. It is therefore essential that reducing and eliminating child poverty is made one of the priorities. Today, there are approximately 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, and only this week, a report published by the Child of the North All-Party Parliamentary Group revealed that child poverty in the north-east of England is now the highest it has been since 2000-01.

These statistics are staggering, but we must remember that behind these statistics are individual young lives, each with worth and potential. Will the Government look at the recommendations of the reports—both the Young Lives report and the Child of the North report—to reduce child poverty and consequently address this significant cause of young people falling into violence and exploitation, through abolishing the two-child benefit limit, extending free school meals to all families receiving universal credit, and making eliminating child poverty a priority in their levelling-up agenda, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Stroud, and myself are proposing in an amendment to the levelling-up Bill?

In addition to child poverty, reforms to our education system must be made. It was horrible to read that still almost one in five children leaves school with no GCSEs. That is almost one in five children leaving school with no basic qualification, limiting their future opportunities. We must take urgent action to change this, and I believe that this has to start with a change in the curriculum. Having a curriculum that not only provides children with essential knowledge and skills but is also interesting, fulfilling and applicable to those who learn it should be a priority. Literacy and numeracy are utterly essential, but too many young people see them as utterly irrelevant because they do not see the connection with their lives and their skills. We need to change the curriculum to be child focused, so that, in exploring their gifts and their skills, they come to realise why it matters to be literate and why numeracy matters.

I have two very quick stories. Very recently, I met a man now in his 60s who left school with no qualifications and who became the lead adviser on the environment to the last Labour Government. His words to me were, “School was utterly irrelevant. It was only when I could link it with the values of wanting to serve the world better that I realised learning mattered”. The other story is from a recent presentation to the Youth Futures Foundation from a young man in his 20s who came out with no qualifications. He said, “Thankfully, someone recognised that I had skills in building relationships with people, bringing about reconciliation with people who could not get on with each other. They saw that I had done that in school. I got no qualifications, but they recognised my skills and my gifts and said, ‘We’ll work with you on those’”. In his early 20s, he is now a significant supplier of mentoring and support to other young people, because someone realised what education was appropriate for him.

Furthermore, the exclusion culture existing in schools throughout our country, as highlighted by the report, must come to an end. The fact that 59% of children who have been permanently excluded had also been cautioned or sentenced for an offence demonstrates how exclusion can push children towards harm and exploitation, and indicates the need to keep children in education. Exclusion provokes feelings of being cast aside, of being forgotten, and of being unimportant. If children do not feel valued, how will they ever see their own value that they can bring to society? Here we have to note the dreadful statistics that show that those with autism and special educational needs, and those from ethnic-minority backgrounds—particularly young black males—are being disproportionately excluded. That has to be tackled.

Of course, children must learn that we must all face the consequences of our actions, but, whether it be in the context of school exclusions or the criminal justice system, our society is often too quick to forget that they are children who have the rest of their lives ahead of them—lives that each have value, worth and potential. We need to reform our systems to prioritise supporting young people, not punishing them. We must prioritise guidance, investment and education, so that no young person in this country falls vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Often, this is done best by locally based organisations. I would like to name some specific ones that I have links with. They are not formal links; these are just organisations that I have had the privilege of spending time with and that are utterly wonderful. Spark2Life is based in Walthamstow but now offers services in many places. Power the Fight is led by Ben Lindsay, who was given an award in the New Year Honours List for his work. There is First Class Foundation in Birmingham. Then, there are national ones such as the Children’s Society. The learning from their work is what needs to shape future policy. Will the Minister agree to meet me and some of the leaders of these locally based organisations to explore these matters further?

I want to comment on the Sure Start-plus proposals. This needs to be linked with the rollout of family hubs, which are meant to cover the whole of childhood. Having two systems would, I think, be unhelpful. So, rather than having a separate scheme, we need to link the proposals around Sure Start-plus in this report with the proper development of family hubs, and work with the charity and voluntary sectors on delivery. You cannot deliver some of what this report suggests in exactly the same location, but you can do so from the same hub using a hub-and-spoke model.

I will end with some theology, if I may; I say, “If I may”, but noble Lords are not going to be able to shut me up. Every child is a gift. They are a gift from God to their parents, to their wider family and to society as a whole. They are to be welcomed as one made in God’s image and loved by God, as seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself welcomed children. He treated them as of great worth and noted that they teach adults things about God’s ways that adults miss or forget. He gave a grave warning to those who damage and harm children. Our response must always be that young lives are precious and valuable. They are to be nurtured for their own sake, not simply for what each person might become in future. They are not economic contributors of the future; they are people of value in their own right now. However, what they might become does have to be held high, because we want them to be the very best human beings that they can be. We want them to reach their full potential and be gifts for the good of all and society as a whole. The heart of this will be to love them and thus nurture them. When young people know they are loved, they really flourish.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Sentamu (CB): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, on securing this debate. I associate myself with all the wonderful, powerful speeches that your Lordships have made.

On New Year’s Day 2003, Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare were shot dead by members of a gang. A huge rally at Aston Villa’s football ground was called. They cried out, “Enough is enough. Not another drop of blood.” Out of that rally a movement was born in Birmingham: Bringing Hope. Reverend Carver Anderson, the pastor, and many members of the movement have done sterling work. As its former patron, I commend its work. It has many lessons to teach us about the changes and educational prospects of teenagers whose lives are at risk.

Let us put into action the recommendations of the Hidden in Plain Sight report. Children are not our future leaders, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said; they are our leaders today. May we listen to them and welcome them.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke specifically about children in the north-east, and so he should, not just because that is where he is based but because child poverty rates have risen to the highest level for over 20 years there. This is not the legacy of the last Labour Government; this is all about political choices. If we are not here to tackle these issues, what on earth are we doing? I know that we are not particularly party political in this House, but the situation we face today, especially in the north-east, is a direct consequence of decisions made by the Government since 2010. The only way we will have any chance of addressing this is if we make different decisions and choices.

Anne Longfield’s Hidden in Plain Sight takes a thoroughly deep dive—that is the beauty of it—into the experience of children with special educational needs and that of their parents, laying down the gauntlet to the Government with several proposals. Yet it too often feels like the Government have nothing of substance to say. The SEND review consultation response is perpetually delayed, and these children are being constantly let down during this delay. When can we and these children across the country finally expect the response?

Baroness Barran (Con, Department for Education): In response to the invitation from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to meet some of the charities he works with, I would be delighted to—but I would also be delighted to liaise with colleagues in DCMS. I just want to be sure that they meet the right Minister. I am happy to work with him on that.


On child poverty, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked me to reassure him that we will be considering both reports that he referred to in his speech. Of course, we will. I think the House knows that the Government believe that the best way of tackling child poverty is by supporting parents to move into work and then progress in work wherever possible. The latest data shows that children in households where all adults work were six times less likely to be in absolute poverty than children where no one worked. With more than 1.18 million vacancies across the UK, our focus remains on supporting people to find work and improve their earnings. We will also continue to work across government, both at ministerial and at official level, to ensure a co-ordinated approach to helping young people out of poverty.


I look forward very much to working with your Lordships to make sure that, as we bring forward further proposals to support vulnerable adolescents and make sure they grow up in safe and nurturing environments, we can make that the success that we need it to be. I thank the noble Baroness opposite for the spirit of her comments and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, every child is precious, and we absolutely agree that every child deserves and needs to feel loved.

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