Back in July, the Contextual Theology Centre’s launched Will the first be last? - anew research partnership with the Children’s Society on poverty and inequality. Some of the papers from our initial Theological Consultation are now on the Centre website.
In the next few weeks, we will be adding new blog posts on the issues raised. Today, Dr Sam Royston (The Children’s Society Policy Advisor on Poverty and Early Years) blogs on the Welfare Reform Bill.
Now is a time of enormous upheaval for families living in poverty. A number of cuts to financial support, and services for the most disadvantaged families have already been made in the emergency Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review last year. These cuts are part of the Government’s wider deficit reduction plan and their impact is just starting to be felt. Looking forwards, the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through the House of Lords has been referred to as “rewriting Beveridge” – a fundamental overhaul of the very foundations of the welfare system providing support to millions of children living in poverty.
Some of the reforms in the Bill are to be warmly welcomed. The introduction of the Universal Credit is intended to simplify the complicated Benefits and Tax Credit systems, and to improve work incentives to help families to “make work pay”. However, many of the provisions for families are much less progressive. Cuts to support with housing costs, cuts in support for families with disabled children and young carers, and a punitive benefit cap for out of work households are all going to contribute to what the outgoing Chief Executive of The Children’s Society has warned will become a “decade of disadvantage”.
Because of our commitment to ensuring that children have a good childhood and fair life chances, The Children’s Society will continue to work hard to ensure that children do not lose out as a result of the changes coming down the line – our work in collaboration with other organisations has already helped to ensure £300 million of additional investment in help with childcare costs. There is clearly still a huge amount to be done.
And the Church has been a crucial partner for these debates. Christian and other religious groups, helped to bring attention to our petition against cuts to support for disabled children, which now has around six and a half thousand signatures.
Most recently, eighteen bishops signed an open letter to the Observer about the impact of the Benefit Cap on more than 200,000 disadvantaged children, potentially making as many as 80,000 homeless. The letter, which was supported by both Archbishops, emphasised that “The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.”
We supported Bishop John Packer in presenting amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill which would mitigate the impact of the cap, for instance, removing Child Benefit from household income for the purposes of the cap, and introducing a twelve month “grace period” following the loss of employment, where the cap would not apply. We will continue to work together closely to get these amendments accepted as the Bill moves through Parliament, in order to avoid the most regressive impacts of the policy.
However, it will take more than action on one reform, or one Bill, to ensure that the most disadvantaged children get a fair deal. We must not forget that the government has pledged to end child poverty by 2020 – a commitment taken so seriously that it is enshrined in law through the Child Poverty Act. But current policy is heading directly in the wrong direction – for example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that on the basis of current policy 800,000 more children would be living in poverty by 2020. Turning this freight train around, particularly in the current economy, is a huge challenge but is one that neither the children’s sector or the Church can look away from.
The Children’s Society will continue to work closely with the Church to express our shared concern for the most disadvantaged children in our society. We know that economic times are tough, we know that this is a period where the government is committed to making savings, not spending – but this simply must not be done at a cost to children and families living in poverty. Getting this message across is the biggest challenge we all face in coming years and is one that can only be achieved through shared moral and practical commitment to the cause.