Today I signed up to Save The Children's campaign to get action to reduce child poverty on the political agenda at the coming general election, entitled 'Poverty Kills Childhood'. Save The Children have highlighted the shocking fact that the number of children living in severe poverty in the UK has shot up to 1.7 million - up 200,000 since 2004. The number of children who quality for free school meals also increased last year. This, after Tony Blair pledged to abolish child poverty by 2020. I agree that this issue has to be a top priority for the next government and for MPs and I'm delighted to support their campaign.
I have spoken out extensively about the real impact poverty and deprivation is having on families and individuals in parts of Reading. It's one of the issues that gets me out of bed and out campaigning as it affects every area of community life - health, housing and quality of life. As Nick Clegg has said repeatedly bright children from the poorest families are also being overtaken before they even reach ten years old by children from wealthier backgrounds. This is grossly unfair. I am concerned that too often this issue has been hidden from view or overlooked as it not something that is visible when people visit the centre of Reading or when they read about Reading as a 'boom town' in the national and local media. Obviously many parts of Reading's economy are incredibly successful. However, there are pockets of real poverty all over Reading. All the evidence I have seen both in official reports and on the doorstep is that the recession has increased the number of families living in poverty in our area - the number of families where more than one state benefit is claimed being the usual indicator used. Young people have also been disproportionately affected by the recession and the Labour government has not done enough to help them. As a councillor I have campaigned to get this issue more attention from politicians, the media and officers of the Borough Council and the PCT. There is some great work going on locally to help children from some of the poorest families in Reading do better in life. I visited a SureStart Centre in Whitley last week to see what staff there are doing to improve health outcomes of local children and I was really impressed by what I saw. But more needs to be done at a national level to make sure more children are not left behind and to support people who can help families out of the poverty trap. Despite 13 years of a Labour government and economic success in some areas of the Town he gap between rich and poor and Reading is rising and this is really bad news - for all of us, not just children and their families. We heard in a Council scrutiny meeting last week that the latest figures show that the percentage of children living in poverty in Reading was 22.3% (of all Reading's children under 19) and 23.3% of all those under 16 are classified as in poverty (at last count). The Council has developed an extensive anti-poverty action plan but it is very dependent on national policy and a commitment from politicians to see it delivered - there is only so much local bodies can do. Locally all the evidence I have seen is that poverty is having a terrible impact on children's health and their wider life chances, including education in Reading. This is why I was one of the councillors that successfully called for a scrutiny review on children's health & deprivation to look at ways that the Council and the PCT can work together to help more children in Reading's poorest communities live healthier lives. But we need more action at a national level to make a real difference to children. I'm pleased that Nick Clegg has identified tackling child poverty and improving equality of opportunity for those children as one of his top 4 priorities under the banner 'giving children a fair start. This is key issue for us because Liberal Democrats believe that everyone, regardless of background, should have the same chance to make the most of their life. So how would the Lib Dems help reduce child poverty and help children?
1. We will continue to support the Child Poverty Bill currently making its way through Parliament. This Bill includes a duty on local authorities and agencies to reduce inequality int their areas. We believe the Bill needs strengthening because it may not pick up the poverty suffered by certain families, for example when a member of the family is disabled or they live in an area where accommodation is very expensive. Steve Webb MP has been leading our campaign to get a better Bill.
2.Lib Dems believe that education is vital if we are to reduce child poverty in the long term. Therefore we will introduce a pupil premium giving £2.5 billion to schools taking on children from deprived backgrounds. This will increase the funding for each child on free school meals by £2,500 on average, to the same level as money spent on children in private schools. The pupil premium will cut class sizes, to ensure every child gets the individual attention they need.
3.The Labour government has relied on complex means-tested benefits for dealing with poverty, but the rise in child poverty since 2005 shows the system is not working. As a more effective way of easing the financial strain on the most vulnerable, we would concentrate tax credits on low income families and people would pay no tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We would also reintroduce fixed tax credits awards, so that families are freed from the financial rollercoaster of underpayments and overpayments of tax credits which can then be reclaimed years later.
4.The Lib Dems support the concept of a global financial transaction tax and it is something which we would be happy to pursue on a multilateral basis. Any action would require agreement from the US, European and Swiss governments but the proceeds from such a tax could provide a source of revenue to be used to fight international issues such as poverty and climate change.
And what about on international child poverty?
- The Liberal Democrats are committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Despite progress in many areas, the MDGs on infant and maternal mortality have seen little progress. We want the MDG review summit this autumn to focus on these areas and to ensure urgent progress is made.We remain committed to achieving the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid by 2013, and would ensure that measures to tackle malaria and dehydration (two of the biggest killers of children) are adequately funded and prioritised.
I will continue to do all I can to keep this issue on the local political agenda. If elected MP for Reading West I pledge that reducing the number of local children living in poverty and campaigning to ensure every child in our area gets a fair start in life will be one of my top priorities.