Live: Tackling child poverty in the North East

The furore over the Government’s handling of free school meals has once again thrown the issue of child poverty into the spotlight. The North East has the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK. Austen Shakespeare speaks to local volunteers, charities and the North East Child Poverty Commission to find out what’s being done to stop our youngsters going hungry

Marcus Rashford’s campaign has strongarmed the Government, yet again, into providing more help in order to combat ‘holiday hunger’.

A winter grant, to the tune of £170 million, has been established in order to aid struggling families all the way through to the Easter and Christmas school breaks next year.

This is certainly a triumph of humanity and compassion, no question.

However, the campaign as a whole has shone a light on poverty and food poverty, not for the first time in recent history.

Back in 2018, Professor Philip Alston, a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published a damning report concerning poverty in the UK.

The report claims that “radical social re-engineering” in the form of cutbacks and austerity have led to “14 million people, a fifth of the population, living in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, and between 1 and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials”.

He commented further that in a fully developed country such as the UK “It…seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty.”

To shift focus to the North East, the numbers continue to look bleak. According to the North East Child Poverty Commission, this region has the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK at 35 per cent (behind London at 39 per cent). The problem continues to grow as the North East saw the UK’s biggest increase in child poverty from 2014/15 to 2018/19 (rising from 26 per cent to 35 per cent).

To gain some more context, I spoke to Stephen Waddington who has been fundraising for the Bay Foodbank since 2016.

I asked him whether local charitable organisations such as foodbanks were perhaps better placed to help communities rather than the Government, given that many have volunteers that know the area.

However, Stephen retorted “It’s a cop out” and that “charities step into places where the state and local government fail to provide.”

In all of this however, Stephen went on to praise the local business community for their generosity and social conscience in these extraordinary times, citing help from “local businesses, restaurants that by the way have already been hit really hard.”

A campaign spearheaded by Stephen raised £2000 for the Bay foodbank with the help of local businesspeople including Dylan McKee, CEO of Nebula Labs. This campaign continues to go from strength to strength generating donations and security for vulnerable families. Stephen claimed on Twitter that the newly reached target of £7000 could feed 140 families for three days.

Brilliant work also continues at the NUFC Fans foodbank, which was established in 2016. Co-founder Bill Corcoran discussed with me his experiences running the foodbank in the early days and the public response.

He recalls the “first matchday collection on the 5th February 2017” where he collected “£1000 and half a tonne of food”. Ever since, Bill says he has received “nothing but generosity and decency, we’ve never had anything but good reactions”.

He also stressed the moral and practical implications of not tackling food poverty and poverty generally in the region.

“If you’re starved, as a child, you will take revenge upon that society…and that will cost far more money than ever would’ve been expended on simply feeding that child in the first place,” he said.

Despite their amazing work, the fact that foodbanks exist is “an abomination” according to Bill. He claims there shouldn’t be a reason why these places have to exist and hopes that soon enough foodbanks can be “abolished” for the right reasons.

Amanda Bailey, director of the North East Child Poverty Commission, stressed the need for long term planning from the Government when it comes to poverty in the region.

She says that dealing with emerging food crises is obviously important but more needs to be done about the “digital divide” and a “social security system that provides a genuine safety net…and that doesn’t exist at the moment”.

Not only this but Ms Bailey added that “72 per cent of children in poverty have at least one parent in work”, dispelling the ugly notion that poverty is because of shiftlessness or scrounging.

Luke Bramhall, from the charity Children North East, stressed the importance of destigmatising child poverty, especially in schools.

The charity seeks to ‘poverty proof’ schools and, among other efforts, alleviate the impact of that poverty in the school day.

This can be as simple as making sure collecting money for non-uniform days is done anonymously or issuing all children with lunchboxes as opposed to simply issuing children who qualify for extra help with clearly different brown paper bags.

While really challenging poverty looks like an overbearing and almost Sisyphean task, Ms Bailey commented that although child poverty has grown significantly over the last few years in the region, it had the sharpest fall between 1999 and 2013.

So clearly, this is not an unbeatable or insurmountable problem, but as Ms Bailey also commented, perhaps just a question of national priorities.