Austerity harms every one of us but it is poorer children who bear the greatest brunt of the government’s funding cuts to public services – the UN published a damning report last year condemning Downing Street’s policies, saying they had contributed to a violation of children’s rights.
Since austerity began in 2010, child poverty rates each and every year have gone up. Last month the latest figures show that last year was the worst, with a shocking 4m children now being classified as poor – that’s nearly one in every three British children.
Hunger is perhaps the most damaging and cruellest consequence of poverty. It is a problem that many would think only affects those in developing countries but it is increasingly becoming a fixture of austerity Britain.
A shocking Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey out just last week found that one in every four low-income households now struggles to eat regularly or healthily, with a third of unemployed households reporting they must skip meals because they do not have enough money for food.
Support for babies and young children from low-income families is also being decimated as local authority funding cuts have slashed budgets to the bone.
Unite national officer for local government Fiona Farmer explained that Sure Start centres – which offer families help and advice on child and family health, parenting, money, training and employment, with some also offering early learning and day care for infants – are facing a rash of closures.
In 2015 alone, 156 Sure Start children’s centres closed in England, double the number of closures in 2014.
“This is having a severe impact on children and families in the most deprived areas,” Farmer said. “What’s more, cuts to local terms and conditions, removal or reduction in shift allowances and cuts to overtime rates for local authority workers especially impact on low paid and part time women workers in care and social care.
“This affects their families and children, who must choose between shoes, clothes and cheap, poor quality food,” she noted.
And the way that local authority cuts affect all children does not just end there, Farmer noted.
Cuts detrimental to kids’ health
“The cuts to school nursing and health visitors are also severely detrimental to children’s public health, child obesity, and health prevention initiatives.”
In a move aiming to tackle some of these issues facing children, particularly the poorest and those ‘just about managing’, Labour today (April 6) committed the next Labour government to providing free school meals for all primary school children.
Pointing to research showing that universal access to free school meals improves educational attainment, Labour said the policy will enable primary school pupils to advance by around two months on average.
The party said it would fund the policy by introducing VAT on private school fees, which it said “will benefit the educational attainment and health of all children while ending a subsidy to the privileged few.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said “no child in the UK should go hungry at school.”
“By charging VAT on private schools fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school,” he noted.
“The next Labour government will provide all primary school children with a free school meal, invest in our schools, and make sure no child is held back because of their background.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said that austerity cuts to the school budget are “making school meals worse and limiting the number of children that can be fed. This decision affects the educational attainment and health of pupils.
“While the Conservatives offer tax giveaways to their billionaire friends, they are cutting the schools budget and threatening the health and futures of all our children by denying children the basic right of a healthy lunch at school,” she added.
“By investing in our education system and providing free school meals for every primary school child, we will remove the stigma attached to free school meals, and improve health and attainment for all children.”
Unite lead professional officer for school nurses Rosalind Godson welcomed the policy but added that it “must be accompanied by statutory food standards which is currently not the case with academies.”
Unite welcomes policy
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner also welcomed Labour’s policy.
“It will be one important step towards tackling child poverty in an egalitarian way,” he said. “Not only will it eliminate the stigma some free school meal children now experience, but it will raise the bar for children’s nutrition across the board, regardless of economic background.”
“The fact that the government continues with its austerity policies even as children are harmed by the funding, benefit and real wage cuts affecting households, shows just how ideologically driven the Tories are – they’d rather let children living in the sixth richest economy in the world go to school hungry than drop their fanatical devotion to austerity.
“But when the UN goes so far as to say that the UK government is, through the impact of its austerity policies, in breach of its own people’s human rights, we have to stand up and listen,” Turner added.
“Tackling child poverty needs urgent action and the solutions are well within our grasp – now more than ever after the likely economic shocks of Brexit we need a complete break from the policies of austerity.”