“My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.”

So writes the anonymous author of the most harrowing war-time diary I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin. Even though she is writing as the Russians approach in 1945 and the infrastructure of German society has all but collapsed, her recognition of the need for food applies always and everywhere. And today, here in affluent England, if children come to school hungry, it is a stupid person who thinks that child is going to be able to learn and grow and concentrate and thrive.

So, it is good news that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this evening that all infant school children are to be served free school meals from some time in 2014. In fact, the Children's Society briefed the Anglican bishops meeting in Oxford just before the announcement. Unmitigated good news on a day when we had been taking a sobering and serious look at children, young people, education and schools. The effects of poverty sat high in our consciousness.

Here is the context:

  • 3.5 million children live in poverty in the UK (after housing costs have been deducted).
  • Around 1.9 children live in workless households in the UK – higher than in any other European Union country.
  • Yet, 63% of all children in low income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work. (But, this doesn't spell out that so many of these 'paid jobs' are part-time or very low-paid.)
  • In 1979 c.14% of children lived in poverty; in 2012 it had risen to 27%.
  • Rather than eradicating child poverty by 2020 (a government commitment in the Cild Poverty Act), it is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the figure will increase by 800,000 – which means that by 2020 one in three children in the UK will be living in poverty.

Shocking? Or acceptable?

Food bank reports indicate that most people come to food banks on their way home from work. Which bangs another nail into the shameful and misleading political categorising of poor people into 'benefit scroungers' – those who refuse to work and cost the country millions. This lie has traction in the country at large, but the evidence points to serious problems for poor people who do work.

So, what about the children? Good news about the free school meals – whatever the political motivation behind announcing it today – and news that highlights the importance of food and the iniquity of poverty for a society that wants its children to grow into educated, creative and altruistic citizens.

Now, what about the other children in our schools? And what about tackling the causes of the child poverty that the government, by announcing its policy today, has explicitly acknowledged?

 

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

What do you do when you find out the great Suggs is going to be in the studio when you go in to do Pause for Thought on the the great Chris Evans Show on the great BBC Radio 2? And how do you do justice to the great Bradford City cup final at Wembley (on Sunday) at the same time as recognising the shocking child poverty realities I referred to yesterday… when Liverpool have just gone out of the Europa League on an away goal… and Suggs is in the studio?

No idea. So, here’s what I said this morning – including sixteen Madness song titles:

It’s a bit of a strange experience living in Bradford at the moment. Believe me, it was a grey day when I left yesterday, but whatever the weather this weekend, nothing will dampen the spirits as Bradford City go to Wembley for their first ever cup final. If Liverpool could bang in five against Swansea last week, anything is possible. What an embarrassment!

Isn’t it great when the underdog threatens the top dog? No shadow of fear – just the sheer madness of enjoying what most people thought was one step beyond possibility. You can take it or leave it, but in the middle of the night, when Bradfordians wake up in a cold sweat thinking of the glory ahead, nothing will take away the joy of celebration.

Now, there’s lots of serious stuff going on in the world – I know that. Oscar Pistarius. Syria tearing itself apart. In this country we are still finding it hard to wake up to the appalling statistics of child poverty – forgetting that poverty doesn’t just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. It is bad for children, families, schools and society.

But this runs alongside the excitement of good stuff that goes on. Life is always a mixture of the grim and the great. Our house might be a place of weeping, while next door is a house of fun. As the Old Testament Ecclesiastes put it, “there is a time for everything.” Honest, if not always comfortable.

It’s a crying shame, but I will miss the final at Wembley cos I’ll be driving in my car to Cambridge. But my heart will lift on Saturday night, Sunday morning in anticipation of the joy to come. Wonderful? Absolutely! Or, as the song puts it: “Oui oui si si ja ja da da.”

I think that when Jesus used the phrase he probably meant something different.

The British Parliament is currently debating what is sexily known as the Benefit Uprating Bill. Basically, this puts into law what the Chancellor announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement: to limit the rate at which most key benefits and tax credits are increased by just 1% for the next three years. This happens to be well below the expected rate of inflation.

Put to one side for a moment the conundrum that never gets addressed, viz why the rich need to be incentivised by keeping more wealth whilst the poor need to be incentivised by being made poorer. (This simply means that society pays for the consequences in other ways.) What this 'benefit uprating' means is:

  • costs of living are expected to rise faster than support increases to cover these additional costs;
  • based on average earnings for their profession, a single-parent primary school teacher, with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015. A nurse with two children could lose £424, and an army second lieutenant with three children could lose £552 a year. (Parents affected include an estimated 300,000 nurses and midwives, 150,000 primary school teachers and 40,000 armed forces personnel.)
  • coming on top of a number of other wide-ranging cuts to benefits and tax credits for children and families, (for example, with the 1% cap coming on top of previously announced freezes) by 2015-16 Child Benefit will have increased by just 2% in the course of half a decade.

It is the impact on children that should cause us most concern as this is disproportionate. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that around 30% of all households will be affected, but 87% of families with children will be affected, including 95% of single parent families. The Children's Society estimates that 11.5 million children are in families affected and notes that whilst the Bill will affect children and families from all walks of life, children in the poorest families will be affected the most. The government’s impact assessment shows that about 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

No surprise, then, that the Children's Society and other concerned parties are urging a re-think – that benefits and tax credits paid on behalf of children should be removed from the scope of the Benefit Uprating Bill. This would mean removing benefits including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and child additions within Universal Credit.

The demand from food banks is increasing alarmingly. Schools are increasingly reporting children beginning the day without having had anything to eat. As I said in response to a request from my local Bradford newspaper:

Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.

The figures for Bradford can be seen here. What statistics don't show is the complex of ways in which childhood poverty is destructive of so much and of so many. This isn't just about welfare or 'scroungers' – it impacts on all of us and needs some serious attention. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked on his arrival at Heathrow Airport what he thought of western civilisation; he responded: “I think it would be a very good idea.” If our civilisation is measured by our treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, then we have questions to ask about our priorities.

And, while this reality bites, the government is also thinking of changing the way child poverty is calculated. You can read the Church of England's response here, summarised in this statement by the Bishop of Leicester:

The real issue is committing to, and resourcing, an effective long-term strategy to tackle child poverty, rather than finding alternative ways of measuring it.

 

Greece boils, the euro trembles, the world waits (most of us helplessly) to see what will emerge in the next few days. Our futures, our pensions, our securities depend on the decisions of the very people who led (or allowed to be led) the world into the economic mess it currently experiences. Protests aside, somehow life just carries on.

It still seems odd to me that the present government wants to measure the well-being of the people of Britain without reference to religious or other motivation for living or choosing. I wonder if such inconvenient ‘truths’ as the recent Barnardo’s findings will be taken into consideration in such research. When Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God you have to become like a little child he might have been stating a fundamental truth about human society and not just making a Christian attitudinal observation: that the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society or culture.

Back in 2000 Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) identified the commodification and sexualisation of children – with adults competing childishly with children instead of behaving like adults – in his book Lost Icons. He raised questions that went to the heart of our society’s obsessions, seeing behind the confident exterior some of the ugliness that was festering unhindered behind the curtains. He was largely ignored – not for the last time.

Back in 2009 The Children’s Society published the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry. Being the largest evidence-based research ever conducted into the experience of and consequences of childhood, it provoked some interesting and (often) self-justifying responses – particularly from observers who couldn’t question the evidence, but found the conclusions inconvenient or unconducive to personal lifestyle preferences. There were those who quickly tried to forget it.

Following publication of Barnardo’s latest poll results this week, the airwaves have been full of debate about why British children are the unhappiest in Europe. But this again is inconvenient because it questions our values, priorities and lifestyle preferences.

This comes close to home for me not because of the events going on in London and other major cities around the world, but because I have just spent the day in Bradford at a Clergy Study Day where serious collective attention was being paid to issues of power, poverty and provision in relation to the so-called ‘Big Society’. (This day was planned a year ago, well before I even knew I was coming here, and the theme was clearly on the church’s radar well before the Occupy movement was even conceived.) Clergy deal every day with these issues on the ground.

Politicians and bankers might well have serious charges to answer, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Why do we persist in ignoring inconvenient voices? Why do we ignore the evidence and continue to allow – or even foster – a culture that makes our children so miserable? Or do we just have to conclude that, actually, our children have just got it wrong?

We need to dig deeper and more honestly if we are to understand our cultural malaise. But, understanding won’t necessarily translate into action unless we genuinely have the will to change.


On a day trip with friends yesterday we pitched up on the edge of a massive thunderstorm in a place called Lewes, Delaware. In one shop we saw a range of the sorts of twee or sentimental sign some people might be tempted to hang in their house.

Then, one wooden carved sign grabbed my attention. Rather surprisingly, it read:

“Raising children is like being pecked to death by chickens”.

What sort of person would buy it? Where would they hang it? Why?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia

OECD (Children)The international Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), has produced a report on comparative rates of teenage pregnancy, drunkenness and young people not in education, employment or training (neets). Doing Better for Children makes some interesting observations about the effectiveness of spending on children and teenagers in different countries and poses some interesting questions. The Guardian has provided a useful summary of its main points (despite not relating these to the Children’s Society‘s Good Childhood Inquiry I blogged about earlier in 2009).

Set that alongside another report of a survey conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University and a picture begins to grow. Of the 1,353 teenage girls and boys questioned across the UK, nearly 90% of girls aged 13 to 17  – and a similar number of boys – had been in an intimate relationship. But consider the following observations as summarised by the Guardian:

  • 25% of girls had suffered physical violence, including being slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends.
  • Of 91 young people questioned at length, one in six of the girls said that they had been pressured into having sex and one in 16 claimed to have been raped. Others who took part in the study said that they had been pressured or forced to kiss or intimately touch their boyfriends.
  • A small minority of the boys – one in 17 – reported being pressured or forced into sexual activity and almost one in five suffered physical violence in a relationship.
  • Many of the girls said they felt they had to put up with the abuse because they felt scared or guilty, or feared they would lose their boyfriend.
  • The NSPCC said that having an older boyfriend placed young girls at a higher risk of abuse, with three-quarters of them saying they had been victims.
  • Young women from a family where an adult had been violent towards them were also at greater risk.
  • For boys, having a violent group of friends actually made it more likely that they would become a victim, or be a perpetrator of violence, in a relationship.

Apparently, the report concludes that schools need to raise awareness of relationships where there is harmful, controlling and abusive behaviour. The Guardian report ends with the following:

Diane Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It is shocking to find so many young people view violence or abuse in relationships as normal. Boys and girls are under immense peer pressure to behave in certain ways and this can lead to disrespectful and violent relationships, with girls often bearing the brunt. Young people need to learn to respect each other.” She added that parents and schools could perform a vital role in teaching children about loving and safe relationships and what to do if they are suffering from violence or abuse.

Not suprisingly, these rather disturbing findings got plenty of air-play today and I picked up on an interview on BBC Radio 5Live in which a policeman was describing the teenage behaviour he regularly meets on the streets. He stated that it would take generations to change behaviour and the attitudes that lead young people to behave in such ways that betray low self-esteem and immaturity in relationships. He was followed by a woman claiming that if teenage lads were cuddled and hugged more, they wouldn’t need to demand such affection from girls – which she clearly saw as a form of inappropriate transference.

JordanI thought this was quite interesting. Not only do we live in a highly sexualised society in which we have young girls saying on television that their goal in life is ‘to be like Jordan‘ (Katie Price, the glamour model best known for her dysfunctional relationships and pneumatic breasts) – ‘famous’ – but we also grow our children to be suspicious of all adults, to fear for their safety and to avoid touch. Now, this might be delicate and contentious, but let’s speculate about a couple of the possible contributors to this state of affairs:

1. I have vivid memories of being upset at primary school and being hugged by a teacher and sat on the lap of another teacher while she read a story to the class. I was six years old and I was grateful. That could not happen today. I recently heard a teacher describe on the radio the problems of being in a classroom with (possibly) one other classroom assistant when a child has an accident or needs to go to the loo. How can they cope when the child has to be accompanied by two adults and there is no one left to look after the class? Why be accompanied by two adults? Because we have now decided that no adult can be trusted with a child alone and that legal protection demands suspicion.

And what does this sort of arrangement – brought in for very good reasons in the wake of serious child abuse cases – do to the way our growing children view the world, adults, normality and relationships? All adults are to be fundamentally suspected of being deviant? Nobody can be trusted – or nobody should be trusted? And is this sort of arrangement really for the protection of children from sexual harm, or is it simply to provide the employers from legal redress or suspicion in the light of any allegations of such abuse? The distinction matters.

Lost Icons2. Does the lack of touch offered to children create a later unconscious craving for touch/affection that is then satisfied by ‘intimate’ relationships that are both immature and premature? Rowan Williams touched on this in his powerful critique of our society’s view of children in Lost Icons and I picked it up in my own book Finding Faith. Is the woman on the radio right to surmise that children/teenagers are increasingly seeking intimacy because they lack affection at home, never get touched appropriately by other human beings and are only given sexualised models of relating by our dominant culture? And is this particularly the case for boys who have no idea how to become men because there are no respect-worthy role models in their home?

This is sensitive stuff. But I worry that a society shaped by an antipathy to potential abuse does not necessarily create a healthy positive view of relationships. Maybe this is yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. It might be that we have no alternative but to protect the few by condemning the many. But, I wonder if there really are links between the findings of the OECD report, the conclusions of the NSPCC report and the observations of our own eyes as we wonder how this can be turned round in future generations.

Perhaps we need a wider public debate about this. In the meantime, … answers on a postcard?