The Right Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham was one of the guest speakers at a conference on Poverty held in Darlington today Friday 28th November 2014.
Bishop Paul spoke on food poverty and other wider definitions of poverty in his opening address to a packed audience at the Dolphin Centre, in Darlington Town Centre.
The conference which was organised by Darlington Partnership also heard from Rt. Honourable Alan Milburn, Chair – Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who talked about poverty and social mobility in the UK.
The addresses from Bishop Paul and Alan Milburn were followed by a panel discussion chaired by Darlington MP Jenny Chapman and with panelists including Bishop Paul, Alan Milburn, Kate Roe – Principal of Darlington College, Mike Mathews – MD Nifco UK ltd and Professor Whitehead, Chair – Inquiry on Health Equity for the North. The panelists answered questions from the floor and submitted questions.
Bishop Paul’s address created a great deal of interest in which he said: “I want to highlight afresh that poverty is a complex matter not confined to economics. If we are to really tackle poverty we have to address poverty of relationships; access to safe, healthy play area where risk and imagination happen; emotional and spiritual poverty arising from lack of love and time given to each child, and a utilitarian view of life which ignores the spirituality of every human being.
So I think we need to examine again how we enable parents to spend more time with their own children, especially in the first two- three years of life.”
A full transcript of his address follows:
End Hunger Fast was inspired, if that is the right word, by the anger and concern of an Anglican priest in Mansfield, Revd Keith Hebden, and a couple of his friends. They were angry at the growing evidence of the number of children in this country often going hungry as their parents struggled to cope on low incomes. I was at the time Keith’s bishop and he came to share the idea with me. I encouraged him to pursue it and supported him in making it known more widely. I don’t think either of us expected quite what developed.
The idea was simple, to use the traditional Christian discipline of fasting through Lent to highlight the issue. It was believed that fasting would connect with people of other faiths and none too. Keith himself decided to go on a 40 day fast whilst for most engaged it involved fasting 1 day each week.
The whole campaign hit the headlines with the letter signed by many bishops highlighting our concern about the growing number of children in food poverty. This was most obviously seen in the dramatic rise of foodbanks and the evidence that they were collecting. Keith is an activist and skilled campaigner so managed to get some embarrassing pictures involving the Prime Minister failing to respond to questions from the Bishop of Oxford.
End Hunger Fast will be repeated during Lent 2015 but will not be an exact repeat. There will be no letter from all the bishops this time; partly because of the proximity to the General Election and partly because simply repeating things is less effective anyway. There is likely to be some emphasis on the Living Wage as one of the ways of helping many out of food poverty. After all it is ‘in work’ poverty on low wages that is a big contributory factor. The practice of some firms deliberately holding wages down to the minimum wage knowing that their employees will have their income supplemented for child care through the benefits system is not socially healthy or responsible. Businesses should pay fairly and I believe that we will only really tackle poverty long term by moving to a living wage. Large employers must lead the way and small employers given more time or support to be able to do so too in due course.
Next week the All Parliamentary Party Group report on food poverty will be published. This has been co-chaired by Frank Field MP and my episcopal colleague Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro. I am not privy to their recommendations but I know that they were deeply struck by the stories they heard in South Shields on their visit there. They heard many stories of how people are struggling to feed their children adequately. Also they were impressed by the range of responses to this need; not just through supplying food at foodbanks but also work on debt advice, benefits advice and so on. Last week the Church of England, Church Poverty Action Group, Oxfam and The Trussell Trust jointly published a report specifically on foodbanks. It’s conclusions included recognition that the benefits system is failing the poorest through the slowness of dealing with claims, the sanctions regime, the lack of affordable short term loans or advances and some of the ways in which Job Centres are functioning. The report makes 7 relatively simple recommendations that it believes would dramatically reduce the number of people needing to use foodbanks.
- Improve access to short-term benefit advances: increase awareness, simplify the claim process & improve data collection to identify support needs.
- Reform sanctions policy and practice: increase access to hardship pay nets, clarify communications about sanctions, mitigate the impact whilst a sanction is being reconsidered and address issues of Housing Benefit.
- Improve the ESA regime: ensure claimants are not left without income whilst challenging a decision made because of missing medical certificates or missed appointments.
- Sustain and improve access to emergency financial support through Local Welfare Assistnace schemes & Scottish Welfare Fund
- Ensure Jobcentres provide an efficient and supportive servservice all clients.
- Improve Jobcentre Plus advisers awareness of, and ability to respond to, mental health problems.
- Improve access to appropriate advice and support.
The Children’s Society Children’s Commission also recently published its report focussing on reducing child poverty in connection with schools. It is a pioneering piece of work as every commissioner was a child. They decided to focus on schools. They chose who to call to give evidence. They decided on their recommendations.
Children North East have developed the idea of Poverty Proofing Schools and together with the Children’s Society it is hoped to see some significant changes in school practices relating to school uniforms, equipment required for the curriculum (eg art materials or food ingredients), school trips, transport and the proposal to expand further free school meals in primary schools.
The interesting thing about both the Foodbank Report and the Children’s Commission is that a lot of the recommendations are relatively simple and easy to do. Additionally they do not cost huge sums of money. Relatively small changes can make a very significant difference. It appears that what we actually have to work on most is attitude and will to change things.
If we localise the issues then in the Darlington constituency there are, according to the Children’s Society Debt Trap report published last August, 2605 children living in 1550 Families with problem debt, that is 13% of families in the constituency. For comparison in Stockton North there are 2124 children in 1264 families, that is 10% of families and in Bishop Auckland 3076 children in 1830 families, 17% of families. We should perhaps note that in Scarborough and Whitby 43% of families are in problem debt, the highest in the country.
Here in Darlington the Darlington Food Store Network is operating now from 5 centres. From October – December 2013 they fed 1394 people. The reasons noted for seeking help were topped by debt, other financial problems, benefit delays and sanctions. Helpfully the network seeks to link up with the local Credit Union and the Bridge2Home scheme, recognising that those using foodbanks often have multiple needs. As elsewhere in the country it is churches that have led the way on foodbanks.
Now my longing is to see the end of foodbanks as I believe it to be a scandal that they are needed. But whilst there are people in need I am sure the churches, and other members of the community, will continue to support people in this practical way.
But in coming to a conclusion I want to highlight afresh that poverty is a complex matter not confined to economics. If we are to really tackle poverty we have to address poverty of relationships; access to safe, healthy play area where risk and imagination happen; emotional and spiritual poverty arising from lack of love and time given to each child, and a utilitarian view of life which ignores the spirituality of every human being.
So I think we need to examine again how we enable parents to spend more time with their own children, especially in the first two- three years of life. The new laws around shared parental leave are a good step. So too are the changes coming in on flexible working, and these need to change the shape of recruiting so that real flexible working is an option from the outset of jobs.
The Living Wage would help parents have more time with their children rather than having to take on second jobs, or do many hours of overtime.
All child development experts are clear; what every child needs most is loving care. There is here no substitute for time from the child’s parents.
The growing issues of mental health in children are related to a number of factors but the most significant is the lack of time from parents. However good professional childcare may be, and much of it is very good indeed, it can never replace the loving care of parents. We have for too long been moving in the wrong direction with very young children being placed in the care of others too early and for too long each day. We need to recover the proper role of parents in raising their own children in the early years. We this need to make the tax and benefits systems work to enable this. In the long term I believe this will save us from huge costs in later years arising from mental and physical health issues.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak on these matters.
I began with End Hunger Fast and I end back there. Fasting is an act of self discipline and self denial. In End Hunger Fast these are exercised primarily to seek to benefit others by raising awareness of the reality of hunger in our society and sharing with others what we might have spent on ourselves. Perhaps a whole society rediscovering self discipline and self denial might be a major contribution to ending hunger for all.