Friday, 31 May 2013

Absolute poverty

Last weekend an 80 year old man told me about growing up in Middlebrough in the 1930s. He was one of 8 children, his father worked but was often unwell. If his father could not work the family had no money, there was no social security to fall back on, they had to go without. Even when he was working there was barely enough money to feed the family. Most weeks they took the father's suit to the pawnbroker in exchange for money to buy food. When the father was paid the first call was to the pawnbroker to redeem the suit ready for the next time. His father only ever had the same one suit. The family depended on their wits and especially their mother's skill and ingenuity to be clothed and fed. This, he said was what real poverty was like. He understood today there are not enough jobs to go round and people struggle but they have the safety net of welfare benefits.

Yesterday a report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam reported more than half a million UK people may rely on food banks. It calls the amount of food poverty in the UK a national disgrace.

The report blames benefit cuts, unemployment and the increased cost of living for the growth in hunger and poverty. It attributes some of the rise in food bank reliance to unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. Oxfam says: "Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger."

The report was backed by the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest provider of food banks. It said
more than 350,000 people required help from its food banks during 2012, almost triple the number who received food aid the year before. Children North East is finding that the families we work with are increasingly in need of food, we keep small stocks but refer people to the rising number of food banks.

Does anyone want to live in a country where people are reliant on handouts of food? Do we really want to return to the hardships of the past?

Responding to the report the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said: "Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities."

It added, "The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so no-one has to struggle to meet their basic needs." The department also defended its new universal credit system, which will be implemented nationally in October, saying it will simplify the benefit system and leave "three million households better off".

Yesterday Jayne Linney of the #STOPIDSLYING campaign announced on Twitter that her petition calling for Ian Duncan-Smith the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to be held to account for his use of statistics had been successful, she got over 100,000 signatures. He has been summoned to apprear in June before the Work and Pensions Committee.

John Lennon once sang:

'I've had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth.'

I know who I believe - who do you?

Saturday, 25 May 2013


A sad week, the funeral of a family man, a man younger than me but like me the father of teenage daughters. Eighteen months ago the funeral of another family man, also the father of teenage daughters. My own father died in February. Yesterday Drummer Lee Rigby's wife Rebecca said he was a devoted father to his son Jack. The horror of his death here in our own country literally brings home the deaths of all those soldier fathers killed far away.

We notice mothers, celebrate motherhood, read and endlessly discuss how to be a mother. Even the generic word 'parent' in practice frequently means mother. But we only really notice fathers when they are bad; the rest of the time fathers are like the walls of the house, essential, constant, so obvious they are hardly noticed. When tragedy strikes and they are gone we are suddenly homeless. It is heartbreaking to witness all those daughters and sons lose their Daddy.

The funerals have celebrated the lives of each Dad with humour and affection. We want to keep our fathers close by remembering and speaking about them. They are so much a part of us for all our lives that they are never really gone; that is where the pain and I think eventually the comfort lies - my Dad, no longer here with me but always a part of me.

June 16th is Father's Day. Perhaps this year we should remember everyone who has lost their father as much as celebrate all Dads. Later this year I intend to remember my father by walking Hadrian's Wall from coast to coast - I don't know why, it just seems the right thing to do. And on Father's Day I will make a fuss of my daughters so they know how much they mean to me.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Young Carers

Figures published today show there are 244,000 young people under 19 caring for a parent or sibling; 23,000 are younger than 9 years. The data is published by the Office for National Statistics and comes from the 2011 census.

A young carer is someone who is regularly cleaning, cooking, shopping, checking medication, helping with personal care, interpreting or paying bills on behalf of a parent. About a quarter are looking after a parent with a physical disability, another quarter have a parent with mental ill-health. One fifth help care for a disabled sibling.

Children look after sick parents or disabled siblings because they are part of the family and family members look after each other. However for some the responsibilities become too heavy and long term. Young carers may need to be home soon after school so miss out on activities their peers take for granted like play, sports leisure activities and just friendships. They may have limited time for homework so school work can suffer leading to poorer exam results and limited opportunities.

Most council areas have a young carers project often run by a voluntary organisation. Young carers say they need to be recognised especially by their teachers; they need information about services that can help the person they are caring for; someone to talk to when things get tough and chances to have a break and chill out.

However the real issue is identifying who the young carers are, councils having been trying to crack that problem for over 20 years since they first realised some children were looking after their parents. The doctors or care workers that the parent sees do not ask who looks after them at home; teachers, playworkers and youth workers tend not to enquire about the home life of children or young people either. And it doesn't seem fair to expect young carers or parents to identify themselves as 'young carers' many will simply see it as part of their family life.

A lot of effort goes in to training all those professionals to be aware of young carers, to sensitively enquire if a child or young person is caring for someone else, and to know who to put the young person in touch with if they are a young carer.

Children North East does not run any projects specifically for young carers but when we do come across them in our work with families, we always put them in touch with local projects that can help them. And with their permission, we will tactfully inform the school about home life and request that they make adjustments for the young carer.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Children's Rights in the UK

Children North East is a member of the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE). This week we received their annual 'State of Children's Rights In England' report. The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and as such our government is required to report every 5 years to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about progress to fully implement the Convention. The government will be doing this in 2013 so the CRAE annual report is a good indication of what should be in it.

Of the 118 UN recommendations about children's rights in England CRAE conclude there has been progress on 30, steps backwards on 37 and the remaining 51 remain the same as previous years. Among the headlines are:

  • Our govenment does not routinely fulfill its commitment to give consideration to children's rights when making new legislation
  • But the Children's Commissioner for England has been given a new remit to promote and protect the rights of children
  • Draft legislation to reform provision for children with special educational needs has been broadly welcomed
  • The Health and Social Care Act 2012 creates duties to reduce health inequalities (at present a boy born in Kensington & Chelsea has a life expectancy of 85.1 years, a boy born in Blackpool can expect to live 73.6 years
  • Child poverty is set to rise yet one quarter of pupils in the south and east of England who are entitled to free school meals do not claim them
  • There are 14,000 pupils who go to school in 'Pupil Referral Units' - places for children who have been excluded or cannot go to ordinary schools for health reasons. Only 1.4% of these children achieve 5 or more good GCSEs compared to 53.4% of all children
  • When asked by Ofsted 50% of primary school children and 38% of secondary school pupils said they had been bullied in their current school
Early in April UNICEF published their UK report card based on comparisons of Child wellbeing in rich countries which received some press attention. It compares child wellbeing in 29 of the worlds most advanced economies. In summary it says:

'This report puts the UK in 16th position, below Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Portugal.

Worrying findings include high rates of teenage pregnancy, and high numbers of young people out of education, employment and training. The UK has one of the highest alcohol abuse rates among 11-15 year olds, and was placed in the bottom third of the infant mortality league table.

Although the Report Card shows the UK moved up the league table in overall well being, since 2010 the downgrading of youth policy and cuts to local government services are having a profound negative effect on young people age 15-19.'

The point about these two reports is vigilance, we cannot afford to be complacent about children's rights in the UK, there is still a long way to go.