The world may look markedly different through the prism of COVID-19, but for all the significant change wrought by the pandemic over the last year, some things have remained constant. They include the campaign to end child poverty, which, while brought into much sharper focus by coronavirus, remains a stubbornly unresolved problem for the region and the wider UK. One organisation working hard to deliver tangible change is the North East Child Poverty Commission, which harnesses cross-sector support to lobby Government for policy changes that ensure all youngsters are afforded an equal chance in life. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Amanda Bailey, the stakeholder network’s director, about its work and hears why child poverty is far from an unsolvable issue
Marcus Rashford knows all about making a memorable first impression.
After all, it’s how his football career began.
As an 18-year-old he scored twice during his European debut for Manchester United in 2016, repeated the feat on his Premier League bow just days later and, with his first shot, netted for England on his inaugural international appearance.
Perhaps it should have come as little surprise then that he quickly became a totem for the social response to COVID-19 through his petition to end child poverty.
On this occasion, though, he wasn’t first off the mark.
While his high-profile status was grabbing the headlines, other organisations, such as the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC), were continuing to add their notable experience and expertise to a long-running campaign aimed at dramatically improving young people’s lives.
Founded in 2011, having evolved from a number of regional groups, NECPC harnesses the power of cross-sector support, working with charities, local authorities, health and housing organisations and the education industry to lobby Government for tangible policy changes that ensure all children are afforded an equal chance.
Its work is underpinned by a philosophy that rejects the careless and oft-assumed notion of poverty being the fault of individuals’ characteristics, and instead seeks to reshape the UK’s social support structures.
From identifying and campaigning on issues such as potential barriers to education, low-income families’ access to health and support services, and the importance of firms adopting the real living wage, NECPC feeds its regional perspective into the national discourse.
Such work was highlighted recently when it partnered with the North East England Chamber of Commerce and the Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East in writing to the Treasury to lay out a blueprint for change that included the retention of a previously-installed £20 uplift to Universal Credit to help families cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its recommendations also included the uprating of housing assistance to be in line with inflation and the extension of free school meals to all families in receipt of Universal Credit and those with no recourse to public funds.
Its endeavours, though, are set against a challenging backdrop.
Even before the damaging impact of COVID-19, official figures showed a worrying number of children in the North East had been living in poverty in the years prior to the pandemic.
A report, instigated and co-funded by NECPC alongside Newcastle University with think tank IPPR North, revealed child poverty rose by nine percentage points between 2013 and 2019 in the North East, compared to three percentage points across the UK.
What was particularly alarming about the figures was that they followed a period between 1999 and 2013 when the region enjoyed the country’s largest drop in child poverty.
Furthermore, findings from the End Child Poverty coalition – of which NECPC is a member – estimate almost 11 youngsters in a classroom of 30 are living below the proverbial breadline across the North East.
The situation, says Amanda Bailey, NECPC director, is a grave one, but stands equally as a seminal moment for palpable change.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have washed like a wave over the region, creating a new world of change and difference much like the sea perpetually alters a beach’s appearance, but Amanda says the North East, and indeed the wider UK, can navigate to calmer waters.
Getting there, though, she says, will require steering assistance from the Government, in the form of a long-term strategy that addresses the key factors around child poverty.
“You only have one childhood,” says Amanda, “but while youngsters wait for the Government to come up with a coherent plan, many of them have seen their childhoods come and go.
“The main thing we’ve been pressing for over the last year, alongside our many colleagues and the End Child Poverty coalition, is that we need a new child poverty strategy.
“We needed it before the pandemic and we certainly need it now.
“It must be a cross-departmental approach and be a sustainable coherent plan, rather than the series of piecemeal sticking plasters we’ve had before.
“Families need more stability – continued knee-jerk action prevents that from happening and only adds to their anxieties.”
The perceptible action to which Amanda refers to centres around the need to revise previous policy decisions, such as the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 that removed statutory obligations on local authorities to reduce child poverty, and a meaningful overhaul of the social security system, points she says have only been brought into sharper focus by COVID-19.
Citing the weeks of uncertainty around Universal Credit payments – specifically whether the Government would extend the weekly £20 increase brought in last April – before the recent Budget, Amanda believes the country is now “at a crossroads”.
And she says the time has come or ministers to prove their levelling- up agenda is more than Westminster rhetoric.
“Politicians need to stop putting child poverty on the ‘too difficult’ pile,” she says.
“We don’t have the up-to-date data yet, but the number of children living in poverty in the region will have increased as a result of the pandemic; the level of hardship will have worsened.
“The Government talks about levelling-up, but that is meaningless if we have ever-increasing numbers of children and young people growing up in poverty across the North East.
“Children and young people have to be at the very heart of the country’s recovery,” adds Amanda, who has been in post at NECPC – which is hosted
by, but independent of, Newcastle University – since October 2019.
She continues: “The pandemic has really highlighted the everyday impact of living below the poverty line for families and highlighted that nobody knows what the future holds.
“The Government’s policies are built on the premise that everybody, when they have children, must know what the next 18 years look like in terms of finances, and that if they don’t, they shouldn’t be having children.
“But as COVID-19 has shown, things can change very quickly, and for people in those circumstances they need to know the social security system is there for them.
“The pandemic, however, has shown that safety net simply isn’t there.
“Furthermore, the £20 Universal Credit uplift was actually a tacit admission that the social security system wasn’t – and still isn’t – providing the necessary support.
“Families are constantly being told to budget, but how can they do that when they don’t know if the support is going to be taken away?”
Another area where Amanda sees significant scope for change lies around the attitudes towards child poverty, saying too many people still seek to judge others on their behaviour, rather than accepting the need to tackle fractures in the support framework.
“Poverty is about people’s income and having insufficient income to cover basic needs and fully participate in society,” she says.
“It is a structural issue; it isn’t about people’s characteristics, behaviours or deficits.
“There are people who still hold the latter view, but it is increasingly hard to use that as an explanation when, even before the pandemic, we had 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK and more than one in three children living in poverty in the North East.
“You cannot explain those numbers away by attributing them to people’s personal deficits.”
Furthermore, Amanda says the future response to child poverty must go far beyond food banks and free school meal vouchers, which, despite having provided lifelines for countless families during the COVID-19 pandemic, are not the long-term answer.
Instead, she wants to see more employers pay the real living wage and the Government and regional growth organisations to attract fresh investment, which she says would create new employment and financial opportunities.
“There has been a lot of focus this year on food and during a pandemic that is understandable, but we need to be really careful as we look to a recovery about the dangers of normalising emergency food aid as a response to child poverty.
“It is unsustainable and undignified; the issue is that families do not have enough income to meet their needs.
“There are a number of steps the Government should take, which include introducing a meaningful rise in child benefit payments of at least £10 per child per week.
Amanda continues: “Additionally, we need to look at the employment market.
“Even before the pandemic, the North East had the highest unemployment rate, and the quality of work remains a challenge. “Many people on Universal Credit are in low-paid, precarious work that does not support raising a family, and the national child poverty strategy we are calling for must address this.
“We have the lowest number of real living wage accredited employers of any region, and we will be working alongside the North East England Chamber of Commerce and the Living Wage Foundation to explore how we can get more employers accredited.
“We have some good examples here, such as Northumbrian Water and Sunderland City Council, but we need to do more, and we need to look at work progression opportunities and things like procurement too.
“If a company pays a staff member the real living wage it means their children are perhaps getting new shoes when their feet get too big – it makes that level of difference.
“Let’s make this an area where we do pay people properly and recognise that employees are not just supporting themselves.
Amanda adds: “Child poverty is often viewed as an intractable problem, but it isn’t, and we must make tackling it everybody’s business.
“We shouldn’t accept it as inevitable in one of the world’s largest economies.
“For a country like the UK, child poverty is not unsolvable.”