Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights shared his final report on poverty in the UK with the UK Government. While it paints a very bleak picture of poverty in the UK – something it says is ‘obvious to anyone who opens their eyes’ – the silver lining is that ‘many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to listen to people experiencing poverty, the voluntary sector and local authorities.’
For the last six months, CPAG has been working with a panel of children, young people and families from London with lived experience of poverty, with the very purpose of ensuring that policy is better informed. The group consists of two single parents, four children aged 11- 15 and a young person aged 21, living in three different boroughs (Hackney, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets).
The panel has met regularly to reflect on members’ experiences, discuss priorities and develop its own agenda around the most important issues affecting the lives of people in poverty and what should be done about them. Here are some highlights of the discussions, including quotes from members of the panel, ahead of a report this summer.
Combining work and parenthood
Despite the fact that unemployment is at an all-time low, something the panel acknowledged, they believe that a lack of secure jobs with fixed hours and wages, and a lack of flexibility allowing work to be balanced with family commitments, are pushing parents into difficult situations.
The breakdown of a relationship and the worries of managing family life alone can make entering or retuning to employment extremely difficult for single parents, and there’s not much support available, yet parents are expected to go out and work immediately. The panel are passionate about stopping the negative rhetoric about single parents and want the Government to provide opportunities for employment that allow parents to balance work and taking care of their families.
“It’s like in other words, they [single parents] are totally disregarded. It’s like ’Get yourself back to work, you are lazy’…Do you think of the load of a single mum? What they’ve got to carry and what they’ve got to contend with?”
One of the parents also observed that single parents are stigmatised if they don’t work, but that work can mean not being around for your children. This is particularly worrying in areas where gangs are rife and parents worry about teenagers being unsupervised:
“You’re supposed to raise your child like you don’t work and then bring money in like you’re not a single mum. You’re trying to be a present mum in a community, where your child is trying to fit in with their peers, and then you’re trying to make sure they’re not out on the street. How are you supposed to do all that when you’re working a 40 hour week?”
Employment alone isn’t enough – we need secure jobs and homes
They panel want to see changes made to work, but also reforms to housing, education and benefits. They see a lack of decent, affordable housing as a huge barrier to securing employment; many members of the panel have had experience of living in temporary accommodation or substandard housing. Without a safe and permanent place to call home, they asked, how can people start to build lives for themselves and their families?
“People are paying to live there and those conditions aren’t fit for the rats”
“Like being in a B&B and hostels, the fridge isn’t that big, you have to throw away, you can’t cook…”
Poverty affects children’s education and wellbeing
The children in the group said that life on a low income means that they miss out on things like school trips, extra-curricular activities and other parts of school life, and that this isn’t always recognised by school staff:
“You’re supposed to just be able to do things… there's an assumption that people have access to these resources, people just don’t get it”
“What is a free school meal? I need something [to eat] on the side so it’s not free anymore”
Shortcomings of the benefit system
Many of the panel were aware of universal credit and how it works, and were critical:
“Universal credit has been a major, major, major thing towards poverty… thank god for anti-poverty charities”
They also thought that the benefits system doesn’t work for single parents when they need it most.
Knife crime and cuts to services
The panel agreed that there is an urgent need for the Government to invest in spaces and resources so that young people have somewhere to go and things to do in their spare time. Knife crime in London is a huge concern for the panel. They believe that cuts to housing, schools and youth services have made knife crime more likely:
“All the things that are meant to be holding up society, they’re taking them all away… it’s like you’re a nothing”
“If you have nothing in your life that’s going for you, what’s telling you not to join a gang?”
“It’s about funding and it’s about putting provisions in place and young people having somewhere to go.”
The importance of listening to people’s voices
The panel members passionately believe that the Government should take their views seriously, especially when it comes to designing policies:
“They make these policies that don’t have anything to do with everyday people"
What, then, can the Government learn from the UN Special Rapporteur’s report and from our family panel? It must listen to the voices of those with lived experience if it is going to tackle poverty properly.