To keep up some momentum here is the transcript of the talk I gave to the VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) at the end of November. A further specific reflection based on my Study Leave will follow soon.
Child poverty is a moving landscape and one of the things that I’d like to say at the very beginning is, one of the key things we must make sure we keep doing is using the word poverty, because one of the moves, I have no doubt is to try and use that word less and remove it away from some of the discussions. We need to see the picture whole. The Welfare Reform and Work Act is hugely significant, in terms of the changes that are being made, but the government themselves will keep saying, and rightly so, that it is only one bit of their overall strategy. We need to take on board the Childcare Act and the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare, which is being piloted at present in some areas and comes into action from next September fully. And then the Children and Social Work Bill which is going through Parliament at the moment. It has completed its passage through the House of Lords and now goes to the House of Commons. One of the things that has happened in that process is around the 2 child limit which comes in next April within the Welfare Reform and Work Act. Many of us worked to get some exemptions and we got some through, but others didn’t. In the Children and Social Work Bill it has already been agreed to add back in one of the exemptions that we argued about, which is around where children are adopted into a family. If you adopt more than 2 children you will be exempted from the 2 child limit. Oona King deserves huge praise for the way in which she led on that one. So that’s the whole picture. It doesn’t necessarily get any brighter by looking at the whole picture but we need to take all of it on board.
I always have to remind myself of the world situation as far as child poverty is concerned. I spent 4 weeks this summer in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, as part of 3 months study leave, looking particularly at the responses to child poverty in those contexts. I absolutely hold to the fact that we need to think in relative terms but actually we also need to remind ourselves, from time to time, that what we are talking about in terms of poverty in our setting is nothing like that being tackled in many many parts of the world. But it’s remarkable how smiley and bright and lively many of the children in really desperate poverty, that I was with in the summer, remain in the face of all that they do. A reminder too that we must see poverty as more than finances and economics. The SPICES acronym is a very old one, but I think it still has some value in reminding us that, in terms of human development, social, physical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and spiritual all matter and that we need to think in terms of children’s wellbeing in all those areas. When we are thinking about child poverty and poverty generally we need to consider poverty in all those areas. I have a sister and brother in law who have worked in the private education sector in boarding throughout their entire career and they deal with children from very well-to-do backgrounds, but who my sister would regularly say “ Are deeply poor in some areas of life”. We need to recognise that different types of poverty hit different people. That is not to take away from the fact that those who are in financial poverty, are those who are most desperately in need of our support and encouragement and change.
The whole issue of the impact of adverse child experiences, we need to continually review when we are thinking about this. Very sadly it has been brought to our attention again in the last few days with the enormity of what the Football Association is now facing, with all the adults coming forward telling us again of the enormous impact it has had on their whole life to have been abused as a child. When we are thinking about the children in our current settings, one of the things I think we need to continually hold in our minds is the long-term life impact the situation that children are facing can potentially have on them. So that we are not simply looking at the current situation that is faced, but we are looking forward and thinking through the impact that this could have on their whole life, so that we become even more determined to tackle the issues in the here and now. I am increasingly concerned with how much difficulty and trouble we are building up for ourselves as a society by not tackling child poverty adequately in the present.
Let’s go then, having said that, to the Life Chances Strategy. The non-existent Life Chances Strategy at present because it still hasn’t been published. But in the Welfare Reform Act it’s quite clear that there are 5 areas which are now legally being used namely – worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and serious personal debt. I am quite convinced that no one in this room will disagree with the fact these 5 areas do impact children and poverty in all kinds of ways. Nevertheless, I remain deeply concerned that these are the consequences of poverty much more than the causes of poverty. What we are in danger of, having embarked on the Life Chances Strategy, is still failing to look deeply enough at what are the root causes. If we think these are the causes we are missing some important factors.
There are very serious issues, I would argue, about the educational failure. The fact that we are waiting until Key Stage 4 to use as a measure, when we know that the early years of life are the most significant of all. So actually what is happening, by the time the child is 5 or 7 and we are at Key Stage 1, if we are going to use those kind of rules, it is much more significant than what the results might be at Key Stage 4. So if we are going to use this measure, we have chosen the wrong end of education.
I and others fought very hard in the debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Act about continuing to use financial measures in the Act and we did prevail in that debate and argument to some extent. But one of the things that I am still concerned about, is whether or not in the future the financial interplay with other aspects of poverty is going to be taken seriously enough. What is uncertain at present, and what is definitely part of this moving landscape, is that there has been very little reference to Life Chances since there was a change of Prime Minister. What we now have is regular reference to ‘just about managing’. Now this may be a helpful phrase in some ways and to so recognising a particular area of concern. So I don’t actually want to push away from asking questions about those who are ‘just about managing’. My concern is that there are those who are not managing at all, and we are losing sight of them if we are not careful. So the moving landscape remains uncertain as to whether or not we are going to see Life Chances Strategy. We are told that we are, but if so, when and are there going to be any significant changes from what the Act has laid down in the light of the emphasis on ‘just about managing’. We wait to see.
The Children’s Society published a kind of response and highlighted these areas that they thought needed to be covered in any response to poverty, specifically child poverty. Low income or debt; so the debt issue that is in the Act is accepted but it’s not just about debt it’s about low income as a basic fact. Mental health and wellbeing and we should pleased and encouraged, I think, at the increased conversation and awareness around mental health issues. It needs to be turned into adequate support and action but at least it is being discussed and talked about much more significantly. Education and skills, physical health and nutrition, housing and homelessness. I think the Children’s Society are quite right to include reference to refugees and migrants, because so much of the poverty that exists for some is connected with being refugees and migrants. I have to say, I was horrified when I was listening to the news this morning at the thought that it was ever entertained by the Home Office, some while back, that the children of illegal immigrants should go to the bottom of the list, as far as education is concerned with allocation. The measure of the quality of a society must surely be how it responds primarily to the needs of the most vulnerable. How much more vulnerable can you be than being the child of an illegal immigrant. If it was me they go to the top of the list not the bottom.
Now more recently, with a bit more time to consider and reflect, the Child Poverty Action Group published, last month, Improving Children’s Life Chances and they highlighted high quality early education and care, adequate family incomes lower costs for families better homes and living environment support for families effective children’s health and wellbeing services, education system that works for all children and they also picked up on the support for young people’s transition to adulthood. To be fair in the Children and Social Work Bill there is quite a lot about the transition thing, particular about children leaving care. There is some really good stuff in it, which if it gets followed through, will be tackling some of those serious issues about that transition, particularly for those coming out of care. But it actually needs to happen for all young people. It is a series of essays and it is a really helpful resource in terms of trying to think through more fully a longer term response to the changes which are going on. So it is a moving picture. It’s moving in that it should move us with compassion indignation and action. Ken Loach is probably right to use a much shorter sharper word when he says ‘anger’ rather than indignation. It’s moving, in that we will need to keep learning about the interplay of all the factors. It’s also moving, in that we will need to hold to account The Life Chance Strategy to watch for moving goalposts. As I have been in the House of Lords for the last 3 years since I became bishop up here, one of the things that I’ve been learning about is how we hold people to account once an Act of Parliament has been passed and we see the out workings of it. There’s always a danger that we think the battle is finished or is over, when actually holding people to account for things that they’ve said needs to keep happening. So what you experience on the ground and those stories need to keep being fed back up so that real stories are told so that people are held to account for what’s happening and understand the impact of the policies that are being pursued.
End Child Poverty has a list of things that they say every child should have – every child should live in a family that is able to afford the basic essentials, every child’s need for decent living standards must be at the heart of any parental employment strategy, every child should be able to make the most of their learning and development, every child should have a secure and warm home, every child should have enough food to keep them healthy and help them grow, The bottom one is not on the End Child Poverty website because its mine, which I have added and this for me remains hugely important and I think needs to be at the top of all our work which is this – every child needs to understand their value, that they matter, that they are important. Every child needs to have the capacity and the ability and be allowed to dream. You might not like my phraseology, I am a Christian after all, and therefore I believe it’s a God-given potential. You can take the God-given out if you want, every child needs to be helped to fulfil their potential and every child needs to know they are loved.
Two of the projects that I looked at this summer, one in Uganda and one in Burundi, have developed fostering in their context for abandoned children and it’s a whole new thing in both those societies. Very interesting to talk to the people running it on what are the criteria they use to come up with for what makes a good foster family or foster home. They are independent of each other and they both gave me the same answer. Their answer was, ‘Paul, the first question we ask is ‘Is this a home in which this child will be loved’. Before they ask anything about space or living standards or anything else, that is their top criteria. And it struck me that it wouldn’t do us any harm to add in ‘Is this a home where this child will be loved?’ Every child needs to know they are loved because the deepest poverty of all is to not be loved. Christian Aid in their Poverty Over document make this point – poverty robs people of dignity, hope and the power to determine their own future. That’s why we have to tackle it. That’s why we have to get rid of it. Here, to conclude, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have come up with really valuable and significant proposals in their latest report. The most significant thing is the title ‘We Can Get Rid of Poverty If We Want To’ and if we do so it will restore dignity to huge numbers of people. It will restore hope and it will give many many children the power to determine their own future, which at the moment is taken away from them because of the poverty in which they live.