Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 22 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 12:38, 22 February 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate, who is leaving not only this House but his job as Bishop of Durham. I value both aspects of his ministry. Today, he has again shown that he does not shy away from speaking truth to power. That is one of the things we really value him for. His work in the north-east has been tireless, tackling all of us on what we are doing about the most vulnerable, particularly children, and his work in the House on the impact of legislation has been outstanding.

The right reverend Prelate has referred to the two-child rule in universal credit. His work, attention to detail and recognition from his ministry of the challenges for families, and his determination not to let go of issues simply because they are not the issue of the day, have been a real lesson to all of us. The role of Bishops in this House is never one that lacks controversy, but he has conducted himself in an important way throughout, drawing from his faith and from his pastoral activity the lessons that we need to listen to and learn from—as he has demonstrated this morning.

I also have particular reasons to be grateful for his pastoral work. He of course lives in the traditional seat of the Bishop of Durham, Bishop Auckland. When his schedule allows, he worships at the Anglican-Methodist Church in Bishop Auckland, on Woodhouse Close Estate. He and his wife have been very active there; of course, there are members of my family who have been active in that almost since it began. The support of Bishop Paul and his wife for my sister-in-law and her family during my brother’s illness, and subsequent death last year, will never be forgotten by us. We all wish you, Bishop Paul—I am not supposed to use that language in here, but I am going to today—the very best in your retirement. You should know that you go having served this House well, but also the people of Durham and the most vulnerable in our society. Thank you.

I now turn to the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, a very important debate about poverty. As Bishop Paul has said, he and I have worked together on the North East Child Poverty Commission, whose report was published last Friday. If the Minister has not seen it, I will happily send him a copy. The commission was established to look at what had happened with our ridiculous rise in child poverty since 2014, which is bigger and deeper than anywhere else in the country.

The person running the commission and several others had thousands of conversations, roundtables and so on to hear what people had to say about poverty in the north-east. The Government’s figures show that 27% of the north-east’s children are living in material deprivation, the highest in the UK. Some 69% of north-east children are living in families with zero or little savings to shield them from economic shocks—again, the highest in the UK. Almost one in five—18%—of children in the north-east are living in families that are food insecure. Again, that is the highest in the UK.

One thing we found in our conversations that is particularly relevant to this debate is that there is a clear evidence base on the links between low income, food insecurity and inequalities for children. The report of the Child of the North All-Party Group says that:

“Research shows that children experience a range of immediate, as well as long-term and life-changing harms from a poor diet and broader experiences of food insecurity, including: lower life-expectancy, weakened immunity, poorer mental health and emotional wellbeing, poorer physical health across a range of health outcomes (including general health ratings, more emergency visits, asthma)”,

diabetes, and so on, and

“poorer educational outcomes (including lower reading and maths scores, more days absent from school)”,

and so on.

In those conversations we also discovered—or had reaffirmed—the vast amount of time, energy, capacity and resources that organisations are having to spend on dealing with the impacts of poverty. It was clear from all of our discussions that there is a vast amount of valuable time, energy, capacity and resource in our region focused every day on dealing with the impacts of poverty and hardship on a growing number of children, young people and families. This includes by organisations specifically set up to do so, like food banks, baby banks, and so on, but also those whose work is being exacerbated and made much more difficult by the impacts of life on a very low income, including social workers, health services, voluntary and community groups and local authorities, as well as some businesses. There are also those whose ability to focus on their core business is being undermined or made more challenging by poverty, such as schools, colleges, youth provision, sports groups and so on.

Beyond the immeasurable costs for individuals, we are therefore talking about a failure for whole rafts of our community and society. It is not just that it affects the individuals—we have heard enough, I hope, to make all of us ashamed about that—but it is those wider issues. It is apparent that the scale of hardship in our region is being masked because much of this work is being undertaken by individual organisations, on their own initiative, using their own increasingly limited budgets, all of which are acutely aware of the resource and capacity they are now allocating to addressing this issue. We talked to schools who are having to wash uniforms at the weekend, because families have no facilities to do so. We talked to schools who are having to give additional support because families do not have heating or food for their children. Schools are doing this from their resource and that is not why they get their money.

If this does not say that poverty affects the economy of a whole region, I do not know what does. That is essentially what today’s debate is about. The economy of our country is diminished and is not growing, largely because—in my view—of the rise of poverty and inequality. Unless we address those, we will not get the growth and development that we need in our private or public sectors. That is the challenge that I am afraid the Minister faces, and that I suspect other Ministers after the election will face. This is the worst crisis that I have known in my political career, and I hope that the Government understand and recognise that they need to take action now.