Evidence from the recent reports by Sir Michael Marmot, IPPR North, the NE Child Poverty Commission and the Joseph Roundtree Foundation show that there has been a marked increase – from an already unacceptable level – in poverty and health inequalities in the North East of England in recent years. All this has worsened during the course of the pandemic.
For the last 100 years we have seen in this country, a continuous rise in life expectancy, however over the last decade these improvements slowed dramatically, almost grinding to a halt. In some regions, life expectancy has decreased as in the most deprived neighbourhoods of the North East. This was accompanied by rising child poverty, the closure of Children’s Centres and people with insufficient money to lead a healthy life resorting to food banks in large numbers. From around 100 foodbanks in the UK in 2010 there are now over 2000 with over two million using them.
Over four million children nationally are now affected by child poverty. This is unacceptable. Moreover, help to give every child the best start in life is diminishing. It is true that funding has been provided for free childcare for children aged three and four and also for some two-year olds although not all can access it as there is insufficient provision for what is needed.
However, this childcare expansion has been at the expense of Sure Start and Children’s Centres which have been cut significantly. What we know is that over the last decade 500 Children’s Centres have been closed and local authority budgets for children and family support services have been severely cut. The North East has seen the steepest decline in funding for children and young people’s services – a decrease of a third (34%) from 2010 to 2020. With budgets severely cut for local government, we have seen a growing role for the voluntary and charitable sector in providing essential services on limited and insecure budgets. Notwithstanding such severe cuts many NE councils have, to their credit, offered lifelines to many individuals and families, to try to mitigate the worst impacts.
During the pandemic the Government’s primary focus had been on attempting to control the spread of infection and ensure that the NHS facilities are not overwhelmed with cases requiring hospitalisation. Subsequently their attention has moved to concern over the reduction of economic activity following the lockdown and its impact on the survival of businesses – in hospitality primarily, but also in the arts, retail and in other areas. But there has been little focus on those at the lower end of the economic scale who have been most hard hit, in particular for those people whose incomes from employment have disappeared. Single mothers, people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers are undoubtedly bearing the brunt. Access to community facilities which might help have dried up; for many housing and personal security is threatened. Their children’s future looks bleak.
All of this amounts to a crisis which calls out for immediate action. Much of it will require more cash and effective policies from central government. But the implementation will fall to Local Government. For these reasons we look to them to agree with us a programme of help and where necessary join with us in a campaign to get full government backing and money.
We believe along with the authors of several of these reports that the priorities should be:
- Giving every child the best start in life
- Enable all children and young people to make the most of their capabilities and potential
- Create good employment with an adequate standard of living for everyone
- Bring the health of deprived areas of the NE of England up to the level of good health enjoyed by people in affluent areas of London and the SE
This won’t be achieved overnight – particularly in current circumstances. But action is needed now and we believe the following are essential steps to avoid the worst:
- The Government must make permanent the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and Working tax Credit, and removes the five-week delay in payment
- Establish Community Support Centres which offer assistance to families, children and young people; to be run by local communities, charities with support from local councils.
- Give more resources to local councils providing welfare support to those people in hardship or falling behind in arrears- and identifying and sharing good practice
- Strengthen and extend youth employment schemes such as Kickstart, apprenticeships, green carbon neutral employment schemes to help counter climate change
- Back the campaign to extend employment rights to all workers, including those in the gig economy, and develop plans to achieve the real living wage
- Importantly, Local Government with civil society (voluntary sector, faith communities and universities) should continue to shine a light on the circumstances of those communities ‘left behind’ in our region and advocate policies to central government which will end child and family poverty
Alastair Balls-former Chair Northern Rock Foundation
Pater Hetherington-former Chair, Town and Country Planning Association
Barry Knight-past Director, Webb Memorial Trust
Jane Streather- Chair North East Child Poverty Commission
Mike Worthington-former Chief Probation Officer for Northumberland
Sally Young-former Chief Executive Connected Voice (formerly Newcastle CVS)