Yes, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. As the Chair of the Petitions Committee, I can say we received petitions on that issue and debated it in Parliament. We have been given some assurances from the Government, but it is imperative that all of us in this House ensure an improvement in both the statistics and the reality for those who experience it.
It is well established in education research that on average the longer a child has been disadvantaged the worse their performance will be at school, particularly in key stage 4 assessments. Even where children from more deprived backgrounds do achieve the same results as their better-off peers, they are still likely to have lower lifetime earnings. How unbelievably disheartening is that?
Sadly, child poverty is getting worse. Government statistics on households below average income published this spring show just how many families were struggling before covid-19. In 2020, 200,000 more children were pushed into poverty compared to the previous year, using the measure of relative poverty after housing costs. That means 4.3 million children living in poverty: real children living in real hardship. I know the Government do not readily accept the concept of relative poverty, but Ministers should listen to the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee to end the sole focus on absolute poverty and look at broader measures. After all, if the Government are committed to levelling up, improving the position of a child in Newcastle relative to a child in Middlesex is surely more relevant to comparing a child in Newcastle today with a child in Newcastle 11 years ago.
Even if we use only the Government’s preferred absolute poverty measure, the proportion of children living in poverty rose by an average of four percentage points in every north-east local authority area between 2014-15 and 2019-20, while the number of children living in absolute poverty across the north-east rose by more than 21,000 during that period. The latter point is particularly concerning as absolute poverty is a measure that has always tended to naturally improve over time as living standards rise, but in the north-east it is going in the opposite direction. As troubling as the pre-pandemic figures are, none of that should come as a surprise given the direction of Government policy over the last 10 years. Indeed, the country went into the pandemic expecting to spend £36 billion less on social security because of Government welfare policy. That has to come from somewhere, and it is coming from the poorest pockets and the mouths of children.
Just as Government action can lead to increases in child poverty, it can bring them down too. We have seen it before, especially under the previous Labour Government. What we need is a cross-governmental strategy for tackling child poverty, something groups such as the North East Child Poverty Commission and the Child Poverty Action Group have consistently called for. It needs to go a lot further than anything we have heard from the Government to date. It should include a welfare system that prevents and reduces poverty, giving all families a dignified safety net when they are going through tough times. It should tackle unemployment and low-paid insecure work, the kind of work that means most children living in poverty are now in working families. We need concerted action to support families with the cost of major outgoings: energy, housing and childcare.
All those things were problems pre-pandemic and they still need to be addressed, but covid-19 and the lockdowns of the last year-and-a-half have brought additional challenges for parents and young children. For the past 18 months, the Petitions Committee, which I Chair, has investigated the pandemic’s impact on new parents and children, and expressed its deep concerns that it is being overlooked by the Government. Our first report in July 2020 highlighted the need for urgent catch-up investment to help new parents access support services disrupted by the pandemic, and to do more to ensure employers meet their health and safety duties towards pregnant women. Unfortunately, the Government rejected almost all our recommendations, saying that support was “sufficiently generous” for
“the vast majority of parents”.
That, however, did not match up with all the evidence we heard from new parents about their struggles. We heard that crucial support for children’s wellbeing and development was being missed, that there were concerns about employers not meeting their health and safety duties towards pregnant women, and about additional difficulties in accessing childcare. I fear that the Government know that the impacts of all of that are long term, and that by the time the impacts of their failure to invest will be seen, they may be well gone, or at least their failure forgotten.
This year the Committee decided to revisit those issues with a follow-up report, but unfortunately it is already clear that we are seeing the impact of the Government’s lack of action in this area, including: children coming into early years classes behind in their social development; increasing rates of poor mental health among new mothers; and childcare providers going out of business. The Committee found that new and expectant parents’ access to support has remained severely limited. Many have lost out entirely on the crucial window of support available in the early months of their child’s life, and issues around children’s development and parents’ mental health will have been missed. I have said repeatedly that there is a good reason why we wrap a blanket of support around new mums and their babies—and dads, too. It is needed at the time and the long-term impacts of not providing it are well known. Urgent investment is needed to provide catch-up mental health and health visiting support.
The Government have failed to deliver on stronger workplace discrimination protections for new and expectant mothers, and they have repeatedly promised to do that. That is especially concerning as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to be felt. I pressed the Prime Minister on that at the Liaison Committee, and I urge the Government to pass those protections into law as soon as possible. If mums are being discriminated against, it is bad for their children, too.
The pandemic has also exacerbated pre-existing problems in the early years sector. Government financial support has been welcome, but it has not prevented many early years providers seeing a significant impact on their finances, with low pay for staff, many of whom are mums too, and high costs for parents. The pandemic may well contribute to or even accelerate an ongoing erosion of provision. I therefore urge the Government to consider a review of early years funding to ensure it is affordable and meets the needs of new parents seeking to return to work. They could set out a clear vision for our children, our undervalued early years and childcare workforce, and ensure that no parent must choose between their child and their career.
Before I conclude, I want to ask the Minister some specific questions on the Government’s proposed family hubs. Given that there are 152 upper-tier councils in England and there will be 75 family hubs, it looks like just under half of local authorities will benefit from the programme. Have the Government already determined the criteria by which the funding will be allocated? We assume it will be based on some measure of deprivation, but will the Minister confirm that? May I urge the Government not to continue their approach of forcing overstretched local authorities to commit their scarce resources to making funding applications? We should not be pitting local authorities with high levels of deprivation and child poverty, such as those in the north-east, against each other to receive support. How does the Minister see family hubs working in large local authority areas, often with poor public transport links? For example, getting across Newcastle with young children to access services via public transport can be challenging, particularly for my constituents in the Outer West. Large rural areas like Durham and Northumberland face their own challenges. I hope when the Minster responds, she will confirm that services will be “within pram-pushing distance” of the families they are intended to help, as was the aim of the Sure Start programme.
In conclusion, the crushing pressure that poverty places on families and children is clear. It impacts our children’s lives directly when parents and carers do not have enough money to meet their children’s material, social and educational needs. It impacts on them indirectly by creating stress, insecurity and conflict at home.
These adverse childhood experiences inevitably influence children’s development and wellbeing, creating a vicious cycle. To escape that cycle, we need a coherent, cross-departmental anti-child poverty strategy, backed by proper investment. It is fair to say that we are pretty far from that at the moment when the Government often seem unsure about which Minister to send to respond to child poverty debates. Such pervasive child poverty is not inevitable. The last Labour Government reduced child poverty and the concerns about child welfare that it creates. We can do it again and truly give every child the best start in life. We just need the Government to care truly about achieving it.