“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” That was the promise made outside No. 10 following the appointment of Theresa May as prime minister in July 2016. Less than five months later, the Government’s Child Poverty Unit was axed.
They are now 8,598 of the 700,000 children across our capital who are living below the poverty line, defined as the minimum acceptable standard of living. Those children, through no fault of their own or of their family, do not have a warm winter coat, cannot afford to go on some school trips, and are denied the basic ability to have friends over for tea.
The Government do not take the plight of child poverty seriously enough. One in 10 London families has relied on a food bank. Some 88,410 London children are living in temporary accommodation, which is often poor quality and far from their schools and friends, without a place they can call home. A childhood in poverty often leads to an adulthood in poverty and a shorter, less fruitful life. Work is no longer the best route out of poverty, given that the majority of children in poverty grow up in a working household. It is time for Parliament to understand just what causes poverty, and the tangible actions that the Government have the power to enact to make UK child poverty a thing of the past.
Across the capital, London’s children are more likely to grow up in poverty than their contemporaries elsewhere in the UK. Child Poverty Action Group and others have shown that there are as many poor children in London as in all of Scotland and Wales. In some constituencies in London more than half of children are growing up in poverty. Consider that for a moment—there are places in this country where people are more likely than not to be born into and grow up in poverty. To put such a postcode lottery into context, compare that with the most affluent constituencies where only one in 10 children grow up in poverty.
In fact, of the 25 constituencies with the highest levels of poverty, nine are in our capital: Bethnal Green and Bow, Poplar and Limehouse, Edmonton, Westminster North, East Ham, Holborn and St Pancras, Hackney South and Shoreditch, Tottenham, and West Ham. Some of the biggest increases in child poverty have been in those areas already facing the greatest deprivation. Twenty-eight per cent. of children living in poverty in London are materially deprived, meaning that on the grounds of cost they lack basic items such as warm clothes. This is not a developing country and this is not 19th-century Britain, and yet this country’s children are suffering more than ever before.
To add insult to injury, London is a hub of wealth and affluence. Trust for London has shown that the poorest 50% of Londoners own only 5% of the wealth, while the wealthiest 10% own half of the capital’s wealth. Being born into a wealthy city will not protect someone from poverty.
Furthermore, while the Government continue to blame the prevalence of poverty on the workless, consider the fact that two thirds of children in poverty live in a working household. The toxic combination of rising inflation, falling real wages, frozen benefits and the astronomical cost of childcare means that work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty.
Ultimately we are talking about human beings rather than percentages. Mrs Sheridan, headteacher at Malmesbury primary school wrote: “A child had lost his reading book. We encouraged him to have a good look at home, including asking him to look under his bed. He replied ‘I haven’t got a bed to look under’…We see children who eat their lunch very quickly, whilst ‘protecting’ their plate with an arm as they eat…We see children who take extra bread and pasta from the salad bar daily to fill themselves up…We see children attending school in a uniform that is clearly outgrown…We had a family of five, the father who was in work, who lived in a van in a car park for a number of weeks…Parents have asked to use the school phone as they have lengthy delays in payment of Universal Credit, and have no money for phone credit to chase up their claim…We believe that we have a significant number of children who are so used to feeling hungry and cold that they do not recognise these feelings anymore.”
Those examples from Mrs Sheridan’s letter are just some of the examples of child poverty from just one school in just one constituency in our capital, across which four in 10 children now live in poverty—an astonishing figure that is expected to rise. London, however, is a divided city and significant affluence and poverty exist side by side, sometimes on the same street.
Take the London Borough of Merton which neighbours the more wealthy constituency of Wimbledon. When we compare child poverty in our borough, it proves to be a sombre metaphor for the story of rich and poor across our capital. There are almost triple the number of children in poverty in my constituency than in Wimbledon and, to be clear, that is not because my constituents are less deserving or work less hard. At local ward level, Cricket Green ward has a staggering 38% of children in poverty, while less than a five-minute drive away, in the same borough, Wimbledon’s Hillside ward has only 5.5% of children in poverty. Furthermore, Mrs Sheridan, the Malmesbury headteacher, noted a distressing observation: children from her school are significantly smaller physically than their peers in Wimbledon schools.
For the children living in poverty, the consequences will be lifelong: children who start behind stay behind, harming their prospects throughout life, and harming us all as a society. At birth, they are more likely to have a low birth weight. By primary school, half of all disadvantaged children begin without reaching a good level of early development, compared with the national average of only one third of children. By GCSE, in terms of the numbers achieving at least five A* to C grades, there is a gap of 28% between children receiving free school meals and their more affluent peers.
By the end of their lives, boys from poorer backgrounds have a life expectancy that is an astonishing 9.2 years shorter than that of their wealthier counterparts. In Merton, Wimbledon constituents have a life expectancy almost three years longer than those in Mitcham despite a mere letter change in their postcode.
The fundamental factor explaining London’s disproportionately high child poverty rates is the soaring cost and extreme shortage of housing. Across our capital there is a homelessness crisis, with 54,660 households in temporary accommodation, a figure that makes up 69% of the national total. Some 2,730 of those households are in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation, including 500 households with children who have been in B&Bs in London for longer than the six-week legal limit.
A converted warehouse in the heart of one of south London’s busiest industrial estates., Connect House, temporarily houses up to 86 homeless families with a car park as a playground and rooms so small that families sleep horizontally to all fit in a bed. Families have been placed there from across London, causing children to fall ill, miss school, and even to be found wandering lost around a working industrial estate at night. That is Dickensian, a disaster waiting to happen, and the reality of 21st century child poverty in London today.
The private rented sector is where children in poverty are most likely to live, with child poverty in private rents tripling in the past decade alone. That is unsurprising considering that the lowest quartile rents in London are more than 150% higher than elsewhere in England. That means the average tenant in the capital spends a staggering half of their salary on rent. I recently met John, a married man in his 50s who spends 74% of his monthly income to fund the roof over his head: a one-bedroom flat that he shares with his wife and 11-year-old son. How will someone like John will ever be able to save to afford his own home, and how does work provide John with a route out of poverty?
Since 1939 the delivery of more than 200,000 homes a year in England has happened only in years when there have been major public sector house-building programmes, and the last time that the Government target of 300,000 homes were built in one year in England was in 1969, when councils and housing associations were also building new homes. We urgently need to grant local authorities the right to build and the right to buy so that housing can be let to families on low incomes at social housing rents.
A mechanism should be introduced so that any public sector site up for disposal has to be considered for the construction of social or mixed housing, including a substantial proportion that is social. Currently, public bodies tend to sell sites to raise money, not to provide homes. They often hide behind the requirement to obtain best value. For me and many Members here today, best value is the provision of homes for homeless or overcrowded families. How about building on the 19,334 hectares of unbuilt greenbelt land within a 10-minute walk of a London train station? It is not traditional greenbelt land. At no environmental cost, it is enough space for almost 1 million new homes in our capital.
It is not only extortionate housing costs that London faces, but living costs higher than anywhere else in England. In fact, nearly 40% of Londoners have an income below the amount needed to achieve a basic decent standard of living, with children the most likely to live below minimum income standards.
Across the capital, wages have not kept up with the cost of living and in most parts of London a full-time minimum wage job barely covers the rent. While the cost of living continues to soar, state support for low-income families continues to fall in real terms. The extraordinary cost of living has left one in 10 London families to rely on a food bank, with three-day emergency food supplies provided to 169,896 people in London since April 2016.
For many children in poverty, a free school lunch may be the only healthy cooked meal of the day. The Department for Education found that it can lead to positive improvements in attainment and social cohesion, and can also act as a passport to other support such as help with school clothing, trips or extracurricular activities. It is stunning therefore that the Children’s Society estimates that about a million children living in poverty will miss out on free school meals under the Government’s latest proposals to introduce an earnings threshold for eligibility under universal credit. As many of us know, the roll-out of universal credit has countless problems, but completing its roll-out under existing legislation, under which all claimants are eligible for free school meals, would cost approximately £500 million—a fraction of the £29 billion cost of child poverty.
As for childcare costs, a close friend of mine recently had a baby and now, to go to work, she pays £1,000 a month in childcare for her very young child. That is like paying an additional rent every month, just to get access to childcare. She is not alone. Gingerbread reports that some single parents will spend more than half their income on childcare costs so that they can go to work. No wonder 51% of single-parent families in London live in relative poverty. The day-to-day reality means that one in 10 working single parents has had to rely on payday lenders, doorstep lenders and foodbanks. It is that group that makes up half of households in temporary accommodation, whose work in zero-hours contracts has increased tenfold over the past decade, and which is set to lose around 15% of its net income by 2021-22 as a result of this Government’s tax and benefit reforms. How will those reforms ever enable those families to escape poverty?
Siobhain McDonagh is Labour MP for Mitchham and Mordem. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.