On 20th February 2023, the House of Lords debated the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill on the first day of its committee stage. The Bishop of Gloucester spoke in support of an amendment tabled by Baroness Lister, emphasising that reducing child poverty should be considered a priority:
The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I too will speak in support of Amendment 4. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for tabling this amendment. I am very aware that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham is a co-signatory and is unable to be here today to speak.
Levelling up, as the Government’s White Paper initially outlined, is about equally spreading opportunity across our country. It is about challenging unfairness and allowing people to live more fulfilling lives—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his inspiring speech. These are aims that surely all of us welcome, but I cannot see how this will ever be achieved unless the Bill includes reducing child poverty.
This is about the present and the long-term future. As has already been said, the latest statistics are that there are 3.9 million children living in poverty in this country; that is more than one in four. With more and more families turning to food banks and the experience of persistent poverty tripling a child’s likelihood of having mental health problems, this cannot continue.
What does it mean for years to come, when these children and young people are adults? Even if you are lukewarm regarding care and flourishment, none of this makes long-term financial sense, and it certainly will not lead to long-term levelling up. Child poverty has been calculated to be costing the Government £38 billion per year. That does not fully take into account the financial impact of needs and services which can then become necessary in later life, whether that be health costs, various support services or criminal justice services. We know that children who are not invested in to give them the best start in life are more at risk of failing to flourish as young people and adults.
Poverty limits a child’s future opportunities and employment prospects, largely due to the impact it has on education. If levelling up is about equally spreading opportunity across the country, it is essential to ensure that children are receiving quality education. Yet how can we expect them to receive quality education when so many are facing the realities of poverty? The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has already spoken about the Child of the North APPG report. One youth ambassador expressed how poverty was impacting their life:
“The main impacts are education. No matter where you are, school is difficult … It isn’t just hunger. The worry is still there. That feeling of worry never leaves. How your sister’s trip to the zoo is going to be paid. How you’ve not seen your mam eat. All going through your head in a chemistry lesson.”
The impact of poverty on a child’s life and future should not be underestimated. It impacts education, physical and mental health, relationships and access to opportunities. It is therefore impossible to achieve levelling up without putting the mission of reducing child poverty at its heart.
Furthermore, as has been said, child poverty is an inequality that people face throughout the country. I know that if my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham was here, he would highlight the stark inequality in the north-east of England. Absolute child poverty may have fallen marginally across the UK since 2015, but it has risen in every local authority area of the north-east since 2017. This makes the gap between the north-east and the UK average poverty rate the greatest it has ever been.
Ending geographical inequality, which this Bill strives to accomplish, means ending the inequality of child poverty equally across the UK. Prioritising a strategy around reducing child poverty will improve not only the well-being of millions of children throughout the country, allowing them to flourish, but employment prospects and earnings, increasing economic growth and benefitting the country overall.
Childhood may not be permanent, but the experiences we have in our childhood shape the rest of our lives. Reducing child poverty in every local authority, and across the country, must be a priority now, because without doing so levelling up will be nothing more than a distant fantasy.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Pinnock (LD): My Lords, this has been an important and interesting debate about new missions to be added to the levelling-up agenda. Quite rightly, the Government have been thrown a challenge in four different ways. First, there was an absolutely vital challenge from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about reducing child poverty being absolutely at the heart of any levelling-up agenda. As she and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said, currently 3.9 million children in our own country—nearly 4 million children—are living in poverty. If we do not use the Bill to address that scar on our country and our communities, we will not level up the lives of those communities in those localities.
The fundamentals that we have raised in this debate of child poverty, net zero, access to green spaces and protecting and enhancing our natural environment, are, for the reasons given, at the very heart of what the levelling-up ambitions ought to be achieving. As all the contributions have indicated, if we reduce those inequalities in those areas of spatial disparities, because we are focusing on those we will focus as a country on all child poverty. If we say that in the north-east people need access to green spaces, we focus on everybody’s access to green spaces. If we focus on reducing child poverty in some of the worst parts of our country, we improve the lives of every child because we are putting a spotlight on reducing those dreadful inequalities.
Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab): I thank my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett for her fantastic speech and amendment on child poverty, along with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for delivering another powerful speech on that issue. I also thank the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Stroud, for supporting the amendment.
My noble friend Lady Lister referred to an issue raised at Second Reading—that it was the Government’s stated intent that the Bill address child poverty, and yet it is not explicit in the missions. The powerful intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, addressed, among other things, the contribution that social housing can make to tackling poverty. I completely agree, having grown up in a council house myself and seen how good-quality social housing benefited the people around me. That is very powerful. There is also no excuse for not including child poverty in the missions.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester spoke about the difficulties in education when you are facing poverty. When I was growing up, providing things as straightforward as school uniform, ingredients for cooking lessons and sports equipment were all great worries for children growing up in poverty.
The statistics are startling, and my noble friend Lady Lister quoted some of them. Some 27% of children—that is, eight in every classroom of 30—live in poverty, and of course the figure is far worse in some areas. In part of the county council division I represent in Hertfordshire—one of the wealthier areas of the UK, let us remember—one in three children lives in poverty. I have seen at first hand the impact on those children’s life opportunities in terms of educational attainment, health, mental health, economic capacity and every aspect of well-being: cultural, physical, social and academic. To imagine that levelling up can happen at all without a real focus on child poverty dooms the whole endeavour to failure.
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