The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, completed his 10 day visit in November by concluding that the UK's high child poverty rate was “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one”. Our work campaigning for policies that will prevent and solve poverty, training and advising those who support hard-up families, and mounting legal challenges to protect people’s rights, is as vital as ever.
Child poverty in 2018
At the beginning of the year the End Child Poverty coalition, which we host, published local child poverty statistics showing that there are now constituencies in the UK where more than half of children are growing up in poverty. This compares to some areas where one in ten children are in poverty.
Then the national figures were published in March showing that child poverty has now reached 4.1 million - up from 4 million last year. Even more alarmingly, child poverty is predicted to rise to 5 million in the next few years.
Not only are more children being pulled into poverty, new research by Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung at the University of York shows that children already living in poverty are being pulled deeper into poverty. This 'poverty gap' is very worrying - and can be lost in the larger numbers of children living in poverty.
Restrictions to support for families have been largely to blame for both the increase in child poverty, and the deepening of child poverty. Restrictions like the benefit cap, the two child limit, the bedroom tax, local rent limits, real-terms cuts to benefit levels, the benefit freeze (the failure to increase children’s benefits in line with the cost of living) and sanctions. Fundamentally, we are campaigning for families to be able to participate in society, which they can’t do without adequate resources. And in Scotland we’re working to ensure the new Scottish Government social security powers work for families.
For the seventh year in a row, we published our Cost of a Child report in the summer, and found that if you're a family of four with two parents working full time on the ‘national living wage’ you'll be 11% short of what you need to meet the costs of a no-frills lifestyle. If you’re a lone parent in the same situation you’ll be 20% short. The report, by Prof Donald Hirsch at Loughborough University, shows just how far some families are from being able to meet what the public considers a basic living standard.
A big focus of the year has been our ‘make universal credit fit for families’ campaign. We made sure that representatives in every area moving onto universal credit were well-informed and knew how to respond to the roll out, briefing MPs, councillors and the media. We trained and informed advisers through our books and events, and took important test cases to court.
Our Early Warning System expanded from Scotland to cover the rest of the UK, and through it we collected evidence from advisers about the impact of universal credit on the ground. We used this evidence to write authoritative reports and give evidence to parliament, which together have been influential in securing improvements. From administrative errors to delays, problems with universal credit are making life harder for people, and the Department for Work and Pensions needs to listen to those on the front line and fix them.
We will continue to raise the problems we’re seeing with universal credit until it’s fit for families. We were pleased that the Chancellor responded to our campaign and announced some changes in the budget that will make life easier for some families. For example he has increased the work allowances – the amount people can earn before their universal credit starts to be reduced.
But at the moment we’re particularly concerned about the government’s plans for moving people from the current benefit system to universal credit. We have been leading a campaign, working with other charities to raise awareness of the problems with the government’s planned approach, and the Secretary of State Amber Rudd today suggested she is looking again at the timetable for people moving over, saying: "We will learn and see how long we need in order to make sure it is effective.” We don't believe universal credit is ready for further expansion, and we fear the suggested process (whereby claimants have to navigate the move themselves) will put claimants at great risk of hardship. We're pushing for the government to ensure claimants’ needs are at the heart of the process and that no one loses out in the move.
CPAG in the courts
Every year we take several test cases to court to challenge unfair and unlawful policies, with the aim of protecting the most vulnerable in our society. This week, we are in the Court of Appeal with our case challenging the two-child limit in tax credits and universal credit. As a result of our case at the High Court, kinship carers and adopters are exempt from the policy. But we think the whole policy needs to go, and have also been gathering evidence through our Early Warning System and working with faith organisations and others to challenge the policy on all fronts.
We issued a successful legal challenge earlier this year against the government, forcing them to correct historic underpayments of employment and support allowance. As a result, many thousands of people with disabilities will receive money they should have had all along – money that will help support them and their families
We also submitted legal arguments in a Supreme Court case in which a mother challenged the government’s refusal to pay her Widowed Parent’s Allowance, which is intended to support children when a parent dies. Siobhan McLaughlin was not married to the father of their four children, who died in 2014, but they had lived together for over 23 years. The law says that the benefit is only available if the parents are married or in a civil partnership. But the Supreme Court has now confirmed that children have a right to that support, whatever the marital status of their parents, and the government needs to act to make sure that support is there to protect families at times of greatest need.
We are expanding our legal work to challenge unlawful policies at different levels of the legal system, and we’re assisting advisers and support workers helping claimants challenge unfair decisions made about their social security support though both judicial review and at the Upper Tribunal.
Work in schools
Our work in schools has really developed over the past year, and will continue to grow. In England, we’re running a new project on extended schools – looking at how 8am-6pm services can tackle some of the problems families face including accessing good childcare, and meeting children’s social and educational development needs. Our Cost of the School Day project in Scotland continues to grow, with a new toolkit aimed at supporting local authorities and schools to address costs, overcome financial barriers for children and young people, and support families on low incomes. And we won our campaign for a minimum school clothing grant for many families in Scotland.
Working with others
Where we can, we work with other organisations to raise our voices together.
We were pleased to celebrate with other members of the End Child Poverty coalition following a campaign success last month. The Financial Conduct Authority has recommended a cap on the cost of rent-to-own goods. These essential household items, like fridges and washing machines, can end up costing lots more for low income families because they have to rely on high-cost credit. A cap would protect families from getting into spiralling debt just to buy the basics.
Earlier in the year we worked with the National Education Union to survey over 900 school staff about their experiences of child poverty. Perhaps the most alarming findings were that 87% of respondents think that poverty affects their pupils’ learning significantly, and almost half of respondents said that their school directly provides one or more of a range of anti-poverty services like food and clothing banks.
At the Conservative and Labour party conferences we went on to hold events on the impact of poverty on children's learning with the National Education Union. We also held events with Fair by Design, an organisation pushing for an end to the poverty premium (like the problems with rent-to-own mentioned above).
We also supported the housing provider Orbit with their Happy, Healthy Starts project, which is helping families by improving their home environment, and helping them maximise their incomes.
In London we work as part of the London Child Poverty Alliance, and campaigned with others in the run up to the local elections in May. As part of the End Hunger UK coalition we have been campaigning on universal credit, based on the experiences of those who manage and rely on food aid. A wider group of children's charities has also come together to call for more investment in children's support and services - from mental health services to cuts in schools’ budgets. We’ll continue to push for greater investment in children as the government considers its next spending review.
We’re so grateful to each and every supporter who makes our work possible, from those who campaigned with us to achieve changes to universal credit, to those who shared their stories in our media work. We’ve had some particularly inspiring fundraising supporters this year, from Kieton Saunders-Browne, who raised funds for us when he puts on his new dystopian play in London in April, to Jassa Ahluwalia, actor and CPAG ambassador who walked the entirety of the West Highland Way in support of our work. We were delighted when housing provider A2Dominion named us their charity of the year raising thousands of pounds for our work. But perhaps most incredible of all were the Sea Gals from east London – six determined 13 and 14 year olds swam the English Channel, becoming the youngest female team to do so. And they smashed their fundraising target, raising more than £8,000!
Photo by Teri Pengilley