Child Poverty – Westminster Hall debate – 20th December 2016


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for obtaining this important and timely debate and for his sterling work in pursuing the issue of child poverty. His written parliamentary questions and private Member’s Bill have been important in keeping child poverty on the agenda and making sure that, although it is the last day of term here, we are debating a subject crucial to the children in our constituencies.

At this time families are preparing for Christmas at home, getting the tree ready and wrapping presents, but that is something not available to everyone. Some of my constituents recently got in touch for assistance because they have no money for Christmas presents for their children. Such families are dependent on the charity of organisations such as Glasgow’s Spirit of Christmas, the Salvation Army, and groups working in the Gorbals. There are many voluntary groups in constituencies which people have to approach to ask for gifts for their children. I cannot imagine the heartbreak it must cause parents to know that they just do not have the money—that Santa will not come to their door and their kids will wake up on Christmas morning with perhaps nothing at all.

The way those families have now been stigmatised in this country and been allowed to reach such a situation is nothing short of appalling. One of the families I mentioned has no recourse to public funds—the mother ​is working but just cannot work enough to bring in enough money to pay the bills, put food on the table and provide Christmas presents for her children. That is the reality today for families in the UK—the sixth richest nation on earth.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is correct to point out that the debate is about political choices and Government decisions that affect people in this country. He rightly quoted his town’s motto about judging people by their actions; it is a crucial point that we should take forward. He is also right to point out that the Labour Government made significant progress on child poverty, and I pay credit to them for that. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) correctly mentioned the significance of tracking, targets and actually having something to work towards. Without that guiding principle, how will we know whether we are making progress? How will we know whether lives are being improved or getting worse?

Let me talk a little about the impact of child poverty beyond the bald statistics, which can be pretty dry. Child poverty is about stigma and isolation, and there is a compounding impact that makes it difficult to escape from the cycle of poverty. In 2010, back when I was a councillor in Glasgow, Save the Children ran a series of events about the lived experience of children in poverty. It created what it called a museum of poverty, which contained things that it wished to banish from reality and ought to be things of the past. Those included pawn tickets, unaffordable fuel, benefit forms, homelessness, cheap, crap food that does people no good, and dinner tickets and tokens, which the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned. Those are all stigmas that people in poverty have to carry around with them. We do not necessarily see them, but those people have to see and feel them every single day.

Things have got worse since 2010. We have let children down. The children who participated in those events may now actually be parents themselves. We now have brutal sanctions, the two-child policy and the rape clause, which will not only stigmatise the families it impacts but hurt them deeply. We have the benefit cap, there are people with no recourse to public funds, and delays in benefits leave people with no option but to go to food banks and rely on the charity of friends, family and strangers.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East, Labour): Does the hon. Lady agree that unless the Government finally acknowledge that delays to benefits and benefit sanctions are major causes of people going to food banks, we will never reduce food poverty in this country?

Alison Thewliss: Absolutely. The evidence that the National Audit Office and charities across the country have produced on this issue makes that absolutely clear. I spoke to an organisation from Castlemilk, which is not in my constituency but has been working with food banks in my constituency. It had spoken to people who came to the food banks and tried to help them with their issues. Its evidence showed clearly that food poverty was about delays, some of which are built into the system. The six-week wait for universal credit claims leaves people with nothing until that comes through. That is absolutely unacceptable. Most worryingly, that organisation also found that people did not want to challenge things because they were worried about getting ​into trouble with the Department for Work and Pensions, their job coach or whoever they had spoken to. It is deeply disappointing that that service does not support people but punishes them.

A lot of very good work has been done on poverty in Glasgow. The poverty leadership panel has done a great deal of work. Glasgow City Council, in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Glasgow Centre for Population Health and a host of other organisations, produced an excellent report about the cost of the school day that is similar to some of work that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke about the developmental lag in education, which has an impact. There are things inherent in the education system that perhaps not everyone sees but are very important to people living in poverty. That report looked at the stigma about things such as clothes, transport and learning resources, and the impact of poverty on friendships, people’s ability to go on trips, food, and in-school events such as non-uniform days, fundraising events and clubs. People in poverty cannot participate in a great many of those things, and that has a huge impact, particularly on young children. Other children in a class can tell that a child is in poverty, no matter how they might try to cover that up.

The Conservatives in this place are reluctant to see “I, Daniel Blake”, but the example in that film of the wee girl whose shoes had been glued back together but kept falling apart, and the family who could not afford to put shoes on that child’s feet, is heartbreaking. Such experiences are damaging to a child’s health, wellbeing and very sense of identity. My son went through three pairs of school shoes and two pairs of trousers last year in primary 1. I was able to put shoes on his feet, but if I was not able to do that, what impact would going around in Scotland in the rain with wet feet every day have on him? That would be appalling, and many families are left in that situation. Schools in Glasgow have to buy outdoor clothes for kids who cannot afford warm jackets or welly boots so they can participate in outdoor play. So many families are close to crisis—they are an unexpected bill away from crisis—and the benefits system has left them in that situation. There is no dignity or respect there. We need to look at the root causes of poverty to deal with that.

I am glad to be able to say that the Scottish Government are taking action. They have a child poverty Bill out for consultation just now. Our ambition is to achieve change, but we cannot do that on our own. We have access to only 15% of the benefit system. We will do what we can with that 15%—we are committed to bringing in maternity and early childhood benefits to help with some of the expenses of starting school—but although that can be significant, it is only a small part of the picture. We need to look at the root causes.

Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance spoke about the missed opportunities in the autumn statement and said it was akin to

“being pushed off a cliff with only a pillow to absorb the landing.”

Families are still in very stark situations. It is estimated that because of cuts to tax credits, 200,000 more children will be in poverty by 2020. The two-child policy and ​rape clause will trap people in a situation that they just cannot earn enough to get back out of. CPAG estimates that due to cuts to universal credit, families will have to work a 13 to 14-month year to earn enough money back just to stand still in a situation where what they have is not great to begin with. Trussell Trust figures show that food bank usage increased in the first half of this year, and it distributed 500,000 three-day emergency food supplies across the UK, more than 188,000 of which were for children. That is pretty stark.

We can do a great deal to make change, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and other Members who have spoken that this Government should be doing so much more. They need to join the dots, they need a holistic strategy, and they need to play their part in resolving child poverty.