My constituency Bethnal Green and Bow sits between the glittering towers of the City of London and Canary Wharf. The financial services and the digital businesses creating wealth and opportunity are on our doorstep. Yet for more than half of the children in the area, poverty creates a barrier to them ever getting anywhere near the opportunities right on their doorstep.
New figures released this week revealed that my constituency has the highest rate of child poverty in the UK. According to the End Child Poverty coalition, over 54% of my local children are growing up in poverty; an 11-point increase since 2015.
What it means in practice is not only thousands of children growing up without the latest toys, computers, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life, but also going without regular quality meals, school trips and holidays. Recent reports revealed how much families are struggling. An ITV news report last year featured a school which was not only providing meals for pupils, they were also doing laundry for parents who could not afford themselves. I’ve heard similar accounts from nurseries and schools in my constituency, where it has become the norm for teachers to feed their pupils so they don’t go hungry. Tired, hungry children cannot learn effectively, and it is unacceptable that millions of children come from families who rely on food banks.
This level of child poverty means a generation denied opportunities and cut off from the chance to prosper. In light of this, social mobility becomes far-fetched. Worse, it means that poverty and disadvantage is embedded in our society, leading to a lost generation condemned to poor life chances.
The causes of child poverty are multiple and complex. They are anchored in structural inequality in our economy, lack of educational opportunities, poor housing, changes in the labour market, and a range of other factors. The last Labour Government acted to tackle long-term unemployment, poor housing, low levels of educational attainment and introduced positive initiatives such as Sure Start. We introduced the National Minimum Wage and proved that despite the seemingly intractable problem of poverty, targeted interventions can make a difference and lifted a million children out of poverty.
One such intervention is affordable childcare. Early years support is vital to a child’s development and chances of success in later life. If parents can access safe, affordable childcare, it liberates them to get work which suits them. Often the price of childcare is the deciding factor if the work is low paid. This Government has talked a good game on affordable childcare, but in practice the situation is getting worse. We know there is a funding shortfall in the scheme that promises 30 hours of free childcare but has not been matched by the money to pay for it. Over a thousand nursery providers have closed since 2015 and those that remain open are struggling to meet the demand.
We need a childcare revolution in this country. Instead of the best services being skewed towards the most affluent areas, we need a renewed focus to locate them in disadvantaged areas. We need a flexible approach to hours of childcare available, to match the increasingly flexible world of work. We need better pay and better training for nursery staff, and real incentives for talented individuals, including graduates, to work in this sector.
That’s just the start. Instead of making school funding cuts of nearly £2billion and cuts to early years’ services, we need to invest in them and expand them so they can keep up with demand, while not compromising on quality. Parents in the Nordic countries benefit from childcare services which are based on their ability to pay: the lowest paid workers pay the least, and the best paid pay the most. We could look at a similar system here.
It’s a disgrace that over half of the children in my constituency live in poverty. At the very moment that the revolutions of our times are expanding opportunities for knowledge, travel and adventure for some young people, others are being unfairly shackled by poverty. It is not only deeply unjust; it is also not in our economic interest.
There is no single answer to reducing child poverty, but without urgent government action to reduce the cost of housing, provide additional support to those in low paid work along with providing affordable, flexible and high-quality childcare, child poverty will continue to remain stubbornly high.
Rushanara Ali is the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow