The Big Interview: Suffer the Children

The Big Interview: Suffer the Children

A major report by a leading UK charity claims that four million children in Britain are living below the breadline, many of them from working families, highlighting the need for further urgent action. Jane Renton reports.

Imagine being a child and coming from a family that is so poor that they can’t provide you with a bed to sleep on. Imagine having to squeeze into a bed, designed for no more than two, that you have to share with your parents and siblings. Or imagine having to get up and go to school to study when you’ve spent the night on a cold hard floor.

Yet that is the harsh reality for some 400,000 children living in 21st century Britain, according to Buttle UK, the largest grant-giving charity in the UK and one dedicated to helping children and young people in crisis.

The charity’s report, The Real Face of Child Poverty in the UK in 2017, paints a depressing picture of growing child poverty with four million children living below the breadline – the highest level at any point over the past decade. But perhaps the biggest difference of all that is flagged up in this report is that two thirds of children classified as being in crisis are actually from homes where at least one parent is in work, a fact that raises deeply uncomfortable questions about Britain’s reliance on the growing gig economy.

It also shows a new level of hidden deprivation in areas not normally associated with poverty. The report flags up growing poverty in areas such as Berkshire and Hampshire and along the English coastal regions where there is a huge un-met need for support.

Perhaps less surprisingly, the report also shows that nearly two thirds of all the charity’s crisis referrals are from lone parent families and almost half of all families living in crisis lack basic material items such as beds, washing machines and children’s clothing.

While the report is not specifically about food poverty, it does, nevertheless, highlight the difficulties many modern families face in feeding their families properly. It also underpins the need to extend free school meal provision to those children of the working poor, who are currently not eligible for the entitlement.

“Families are being forced into making impossible decisions for their children, struggling to decide whether to provide healthy meals, warm clothes, or heating their homes,” says Richard Barron, director of fundraising at Buttle UK.

One thing seems certain, however, and that is that household food insecurity is increasing, though until this report we had no regional breakdown of the figures since the government questionably does not collect or publish data on this either at a national or regional level.

“[My kids] don’t eat very well but I try and cook at least four times a week…but they tend to eat what they want,” said one struggling parent quoted in the report.

What sets the Buttle report apart from other charitable reports is both the level of qualitative and quantitative analysis, which has been scrutinised by an independent research organisation. It involves analysis of Buttle’s 125,000 grant applications from 10,000 referral agencies over the past 10 years, providing a statistically significant snapshot of the changing nature of poverty, as well as insights into what life is really like for many low income families.

“What we’ve managed to do is to produce information that has never been collected or collated before – data that normally sits in separate silos in official records,” explains Barron.

What the report also does is highlight the extent to which welfare reforms are hitting low income families. With Age UK officially saying 1.7m elderly people are living in poverty, they are no longer the most afflicted major demographic group. It is families, most of whom have at least one parent in work and children, who are now bearing the brunt of those cutbacks. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that current Tory plans could reduce incomes of working-age people with children in the bottom decile by as much as 15% and it seems unlikely that cuts to in-work benefits, such as tax credits, will prompt employers to increase wages instead. Meanwhile, the poor continue to pay more for goods and services than their better-off contemporaries.

“Many of those low income families are subject to the poverty premium where they end up paying proportionately more for basic goods and services because they lack access to cheaper credit, better energy tariffs, or they may not live near a supermarket where food is generally cheaper,” says Barron.

A calculation by the End Child Poverty Coalition believes that these additional costs to the annual budget could add up to as much as £1,700 a year for a low income family.

“These are difficult times for families and young people on the lowest incomes,” says Barron. “Often they are expected to negotiate zero-hours contracts, payday loans, less stable housing situations and benefit changes.”

While the current Chancellor has rowed back from his predecessor’s punitive moves to balance the books by cutting working-age benefits, he is still nevertheless pursuing the same essential regressive policy, despite his introduction of taper relief, which allows people earning more to lose their benefits more slowly. In November last year the government lowered the ceiling on workless household benefits to £20,000 a year, or £23,000 in London.

But while more people are in work than ever before since the last recession, there is a marked rise in ‘in-work’ poverty. Many low income families are living in rented accommodation, where costs are high and tenancies insecure, something evidenced by the sharp rise in the number of evictions by private landlords. These increased from 23,000 in 2010/11 to 37,000 in 2015/16 – a rise of 60% within five years.

One of the things that Buttle does, which tends to differentiate itself from other charities in the field of child poverty, is it makes direct grants to families of as little as £1,500. Its aim is to provide timely intervention to enable families to get themselves out of crisis and create a turning point in their lives. The money is invariably used to buy practical but crucial items such as children’s beds, cookers, washing machines and children’s clothing. Last year alone the charity provided 2,343 beds, over 3,041 cookers and 2,617 washing machines.

“We believe that a grant of £1,500 could result in over £8,000 in savings on education, health, policing and social welfare spending,” asserts Barron, whose organisation is now campaigning to raise an additional £20m over the next 10 years to lift an additional 35,000 children and young people out of crisis.

Buttle UK, which was established by clergyman Frank Buttle in the 1950s to alleviate child deprivation, has distributed £16m over the past 13 years on behalf of the BBC charity, Children in Need. Last year it dispersed £4m of grants to struggling families, including £1m direct from Buttle. The founder’s legacy, which pays for all the charity’s running costs in perpetuity, ensures that all money raised by the charity goes directly towards helping families in crisis.

This ground-breaking report is timely, not least for the school food industry as it desperately strives to get data and information that underscores to politicians of all persuasions that a hot, freshly prepared, healthy meal at lunchtime is a vital lifeline for so many children and their families. We need to do more not less for children in need.

The School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill

While child hunger is an ongoing issue, it is of particular concern during the school holidays, when that one hot meal at lunchtime is no longer there. This summer saw a number of school holiday feeding programmes take place across the UK, reaching thousands of children in poverty, as well as the working poor. But there are areas of the country where there are no such schemes and children are missing out.

Following a report highlight the extent of child hunger in the holidays, the School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill was presented by Frank Field MP to Parliament in July and it received its first reading on 5th September. Over 100 MPs from all parties put their names down to sponsor the bill and it will receive its second reading on 19th January 2018 when it will go to the vote. If sufficient parliamentary time is allocated, it will pass to the committee stage and a third reading, and could pass into law.

If the bill carries support from the government – either in its own right, or included within a wider piece of legislation – it will likely become law. In the meantime, Feeding Britain, a charity set up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, is campaigning to encourage MPs and the government to support the bill.

What can you do?

You can contact your MP before 19th January and ask them to support the bill, and you can write to the Prime Minister to encourage her to adopt the bill as government legislation.

You can follow conversation around the bill by following #HolidayProvisionBill on Twitter.