Monthly Archives: June 2012

CPAG Guest Post: Going hungry despite Free School Meals

Guest post by Rys Farthing

New figures published by the Child Poverty Action Group and the British Youth Council reveal that many poor children are going hungry at school, including those entitled to free school meals.

 Some 3.6 million children live below the poverty line, and while not all of these will be in school, only 1.27 million children are registered for Free School Meals. This means that many young people living below the poverty line are not entitled to FSM. And for these young people, the price of school meals – at around £9.40/week – is prohibitively expensive.

 The research aimed to examine the adequacy of the current Free School Meal scheme. Currently, only young people whose parents are on out-of-work benefits are entitled to receive free school meals (FSM). If FSM are meant to benefit ‘poor kids’, out-of-work entitlement  is poor targeting indeed; 62% of children growing up below the poverty line come from households that have at least one adult in employment. Estimates suggest that around a third of schoolchildren living below the poverty line are not entitled to receive free meals, their parents are not on out-of-work benefits, rather they might be in part time or low paid work.

2013 presents an opportune moment to address this inadequacy. The introduction of Universal Credit will mean that all ‘out-of-work’ and ‘in-work’ benefits are combined. The current rules around entitlement have to be redesigned. This presents both opportunities but also real risks. Firstly and importantly, if entitlement remains inadequate children from low income families will miss out on hot, healthy lunches, with all of the knock on effects for their health and education. Children from lower income households often go hungry and have poorer health outcomes and educational attainment than their better off peers. FSM can help realise their right to food, and help close health and education gaps. Secondly, if we don’t get entitlement right, FSM could work against the stated intention of ‘making work pay’ that is driving the Universal Credit.  Setting an income threshold for entitlement introduces a big ‘cliff edge’ into family finances and could make families financially worse off for taking a job. Thresholds can mean that getting a small pay rise or taking on an extra shift could cost families dearly; if they move just above a threshold, they will lose £376 worth of FSM per child.

However, the report highlights a second type of inadequacy that affects the children who are entitled to FSM. In most secondary schools (and some primary schools) children receiving FSM get an “allowance” to buy their lunch at the canteen.

 However one in seven of the young people surveyed in this research said that their allowance did not allow them to buy a full meal.

 Young people from eight schools around England gave their lunch menus as evidence; a full meal could be purchased from their allowance from only 2 of the menus. For example, in one school the allowance given to FSM students was £2.00, but painfully the “meal deal” was £2.05. Most places gave an allowance that was enough to get a slice of pizza and a drink, or a main meal but nothing to drink. This inadequacy means that schools are breaching the regulatory guidelines that have so improved school food since the days of the Turkey Twizzler … but perversely, this breach only affects children who live well below the poverty line.

 Many students suggested that this lack of money, and the small size of their school meal left them hungry. One of our youngest respondents, who is under 11, said that “I don’t get a lot to eat, (I’m) always hungry after having dinner… As we don’t get much food that’s why mummy still cooks us a meal at home but soon as we get home we eat lots while dinner is cooking”. Another said “there’s not enough money allocated to us and I go home hungry most days.”

Inadequate amounts left a number of poor children in the difficult position of having to take back food, or pay for what they overspent on attempting to buy a healthy meal. One student detailed their concerns (about getting detention for buying fruit):

“I think that the system honestly is a bit crap because you don’t know how much you have spent and if you overspend you’re given detention and you have to pay back what we spent!”

The best way to make sure that poorer children enjoy a meal is to entitle all families who receive Universal Credit to FSM. While this would almost double current entitlement, such an investment is the only way to make sure the FSM scheme works.  The Department for Education will be launching a consultation into entitlement in the coming weeks, and when it does, we should be wary of options that replicate current inadequate entitlement. We also need to make sure that for their part, schools are pricing meals and providing allowances that make sure a Free School Meal is what is says on the tin.


Hidden from sight: refugees and poverty

This week (18 – 24 June) is Refugee Week in the UK and so we thought it would be appropriate to do a short post on poverty amongst refugees and asylum seeking children and their families.

Earlier this year, The Children’s Society released a report into destitution amongst young refugees and asylum seekers called ‘I don’t feel human’. It notes that:

Having fled danger in their country of birth, they have to expose themselves to potential danger and harm in this country because they are excluded from support and adequate accommodation. They remain hidden from view and have to survive with minimal resources. Alarmingly their predicament is not an unintended consequence. Forced destitution has been a deliberate policy, introduced by the previous government to try and reduce what were seen to be ‘incentives’ for those coming to the UK to claim asylum. In its 2007 report, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted that:

‘We have been pesuaded by the evidence that the government has indeed been practicing a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group [asylum seekers]. We believe that all deliberate use of inhumane treatment is unacceptable. We have seen instances in all cases where the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers falls below the requirements of the common law of humanity and international human rights law.’

Despite this criticism, the current government continues to withdraw and withhold support to refused asylum seekers as a way to expedite their return to their country of origin. This leaves many thousands of people, including children and young people, who cannot return to their country of origin, destitute for prolonged periods of time, sometimes several years, and without access to even the most basic welfare support. This particularly affects young children in the crucial early years of their life and damages the life chances of older children as they transition into adulthood. The experiences of destitute children and young people raise serious welfare concerns.

This is shocking and the report also notes that discussion around asylum seeking and refugee children has largely been absent from the child poverty debate. Indeed, children seeking asylum are not mentioned at all in the government strategy and discussion about refugees is limited to the following two sentences:

Language barriers or low/unrecognised qualifications can make finding work difficult for refugees. This, combined with the disruption and likely trauma suffered, can make work seem out of reach for a number of these families.

Much of the focus of the Children’s Society report is on asylum seekers who are either waiting for their claim to be heard or have had it refused and the destitution that they face during this time. There is less focus on how refugees fare once a claim for asylum has been upheld and this is also true more generally, from what I can gather. A report by the Scottish Poverty Information Unit in 2010 noted that:

There is a body of research across the UK that provides evidence of the experiences of poverty amongst asylum seekers (for example, see Mulvey 2009a; Hamilton and Harris, 2009; Doyle, 2008; Malfait, 2008). However, the situation of refugees is much more difficult to glean from existing research, so much so that, in their report on economic inequality in the UK, Hills et al could say little about refugee poverty, except to anticipate on the basis of qualitative studies that some asylum seekers and refugees “may be highly disadvantaged” (2010: 5). The ‘invisibility’ of refugees in administrative data collection systems arises in part because attainment of refugee status brings with it the status of ‘ordinary resident’. This means that individuals are not obliged to declare their refugee status (Aspinall and Watters, 2010: 134).

So, the HBAI figures released last week make no reference to the number of refugees who are living in poverty. They are, to all extents, invisible from current discussions and considerations. JRF do some excellent work around poverty and ethnicity, but this is not the same as looking at issues affecting refugees.

What we do know is that refugees will face similar problems as many other people trying to find work at the current time. There are not many jobs around, there is lots of competition for them, many are low-paid and insecure and many of them are concentrated in certain areas. Added to this, however, refugees face additional barriers including those highlighted above, but also through the discriminatory practices of employers and through potentially having less social and cultural capital to draw on to find work and access resources.

At a time when the government is very keen to help turn around the lives of the ‘most disadvantaged families’, one could argue that many refugees fall into that category. However, one could also argue that there is far more political capital to be made from ‘tackling’ problem families than there is from helping families of refugees…..

Best wishes,


Many thanks to Georgina Fletcher and the Regional Refugee Forum North East for much of the information above. Their website is worth a visit and includes the transcribed testimonies of the impact on children and young people whose parents are not allowed to work

E-newsletter launched

Hello all,

just a very quick note to let some of you know that we have launched our e-newsletter today.

The plan is to send out a newsletter once a month rounding up some things that we’ve come across that month, some research and reports that we’re aware of, a summary of our blog posts and news of forthcoming events. You can see the June e-newsletter here and you can sign up for future copies of the newsletter here

For those of you in the North East, there is an event happening on 11th July in Newcastle where Stephen Armstrong, the author of ‘Road to Wigan Pier Revisited’ will be joined by Jeremy Cripps from Children North East in a discussion around how things have changed (or maybe haven’t changed) for poor people over the years. To register, please click here

Apologies to those of you who already receive the newsletter.

Best wishes,


What is made can be unmade

I was recently invited to say a few words about the work of the North East Child Poverty Commission at the Mayor’s Reception in Gateshead. Councillor Malcolm Brain, a member of the Commission, has been named as the Mayor of Gateshead for the coming 12 months and he has nominated the Commission as one of his ‘good causes’. So, not wanting to depress the audience, I tried to focus on reasons to be optimistic about efforts to tackle child poverty.

It may seem strange at the current time to be thinking optimistically about the future but I believe there is good reason why people working on the child poverty agenda should remain positive, in the longer term at least. I also appreciate that the content of my recent blogs has not been overly cheerful and I wanted to write something that provided an alternative view to the one which you normally get here……

This week, we have already seen CPAG release an excellent report focusing on different aspects of child poverty, looking at where progress has been made and highlighting lessons that can be learnt from previous policies. Whilst the publication of the HBAI statistics tomorrow will inevitably show that the government missed it’s own 2010 target, they will also highlight that hundreds of thousands of children were lifted out of poverty as a result of a strong policy focus on this agenda.

Reasons to be positive (if not cheerful)

There are lots of reasons to be positive. There is (publicly at least) cross party support for a legally binding commitment to ending child poverty. According to the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey 82% of the public think that it is ‘very important’ to reduce child poverty in Britain (a further 16% think it is ‘quite important’) with 79% of people thinking that central government should be responsible for doing this. A relatively new focus on a children’s rights based approach to tackling poverty ‘offers the potential to orientate current policy debates in positive directions’ (p23). The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) ‘takes as its starting point not deprivation but assets’ and ‘the strengths and capabilities of people living in poverty’. The Webb Memorial Trust have recently announced that they are going to ‘spend down’ their resources over the coming years with an emphasis on ‘solution focussed literature’.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated that the cost of child poverty is almost as high as what it would take to end it. They are also currently working on a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for the U.K. CPAG’s manifesto identifies ’10 steps to reduce inequality and put children first’. The Smith Institute have produced a comprehensive document looking at what we have learnt from a century of anti-poverty policies. Richard Dickens has looked at the record of the Labour government in an article called ‘Child Poverty in Britain: past lessons and future prospects’. The Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty found that, when participants in discussions were presented with the reality of life in poverty, there was a ‘willingness to countenance higher taxes and redistribution to combat poverty and disadvantage’. Do we really need a shiny ‘new’ approach or, as I have suggested here before, just a robust one?

Political priorities

So, in my humble opinion, we know quite a bit about how to end child poverty and ‘what works’ in this area already. Nandy and Minujin, talking about global child poverty, state that:

No new scientific or technological breakthroughs are needed to deal with any of the dperivations or domains of poverty identified by international definitions; governments already know how to provide their populations with safe water, sanitation and adequate housing. What is lacking (as it has always been) is the necessary political will to prioritise children’s needs and to choose to spend the reources required. (original emphasis)

Speaking about the potential cost of domestic child poverty in a chapter called ‘Utopia calling: eradicating child poverty in the United Kingdom and beyond’ from the same book as the Nandy and Minujin statement, Ruth Levitas, highlights that:

‘what is conceivable in terms of public intervention now needs revision, in the light of the vast sums of public money poured into bailing out the financial sector: it is a matter of political priorities’


‘High wages and salaries, and City bonuses, are not determined by supply and demand, but frequently, as has recently been so clearly demonstrated, by the power of certain groups to reward themselves. Conversely, it is not inevitable and natural but a matter of social policy that 80% of children living in households with no one in paid work are in poverty’

(my emphases)

This chapter is one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking I have read and I would recommend people read it where possible.* Levitas goes beyond the goal of ‘eradicating’ child poverty (getting it below 10%) by 2020 and argues that ‘the utopian method serves to highlight the limitations of current policy and the framework within which future plans are constructed and constrained’ and that this should be the ‘necessary starting point for social justice in the future and the real eradication of child poverty’

So, hopefully we can see that there is much to be positive about in tackling poverty. The short term picture may not be particularly rosy but there has been a lot of progress made since, for example, John Moore declared, slightly prematurely, ‘the end of the live for poverty’ in 1989. Child Poverty is not a natural phenomenon, it is not something that will always be with us and it is not an inevitable part of modern day life. Nor is it imaginary, invented by ‘sociologists like Peter Townsend (who) wanted to argue that poverty was still a major problem in Britain’. It is real, it is measurable and its effects are social facts that cannot be denied.

If poverty is the product of political decisions (and I believe it is) and not cultural or genetic differences then political decisions can end child poverty. What is made, therefore, can be unmade.

*If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book, Ruth Levitas has an excellent introduction to the concept of Utopia and what it can offer sociology and social policy, from her inaugural lecture in 2005, is available free and called The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society.

I am going to try and post another blog or two here in the near future looking in more depth at Utopianism and the work of other organisations such as the New Economics Foundation and Compass who have both developed  ideas for a better society.

The cartoons included in the blog are from the Jacky Fleming website – lots more can be found here

Guest post: Trade unions: powered by community activists and volunteers

Guest post by Neil Foster of Northern TUC as part of VONNE’s Blog Action Day for Volunteers

Last month it was reported that trade unions membership rose across the North East from 327,00 to 341,000 in the region. Against the backdrop of huge job losses this is significant achievement. However it’s not just trade unions who benefit from this upsurge in membership but workplaces and wider civil society.

Not everyone knows about the work that union reps do on a regular basis in workplaces. We do our best but they’re not quite as newsworthy as industrial action being called. However the consistent and quiet achievements of union reps accurately represent the modern face of trade unions. Union reps are primarily voluntary roles that involve hours of unpaid commitment to help colleagues in a wide variety of way. We have union learning reps who help improve workplace skills most recently on display at Caterpillar in County Durham, safety reps to improve workplace safety and reduce accidents, green reps  to help improve the environmental sustainability of workplaces, and many others negotiating on behalf of members’ pay and conditions and those falsely or harshly disciplined at work. Others work hard on equality issues tackling discrimination at work and in communities. Through the TUC they receive decent training and skills support to enable them to perform in their role.

The core business of people who put themselves forward as union reps generates a strong economic return for workplaces and the country. Government figures show that Reps save employers over £103 million per year in avoidable dismissal cases, save the Exchequer over £22 million in workplace tribunals, saving over £126 million on workplace injuries and over a 3:1 return on investment in skills.

Additionally TUC survey of union reps showed how union reps additionally campaigned across wider society on a voluntary basis are 3 times more likely to volunteer in community initiatives than the average and 8 times more likely to be involved in civic participation. When asked to describe their wider community campaign priorities they reveal a strong emphasis on achieving social justice:

·         Tackling poverty and inequality 74%

·         Tackling unemployment 50%

·         Improving the quality of public services 46%

·         Tackling racism and the far-right 44%

Sadly despite their value at work and in communities there are some who attack the role of union reps at work and the financial investment in their activities. Ignoring support even from the CBI, the so-called ‘Taxpayers Alliance’ (who we must never forget has a director who doesn’t actually pay any tax in the UK) have launched repeated political attacks on union reps over the last year. This is despite (or perhaps because of) their proven value. Instead workplace reps should be recognised and celebrated. With over 6 million trade union members in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people who put themselves forward to improve their workplace and society, union reps are an important part of any Big Society. Collectively we represent an important force for social and economic progress as well as an often overlooked aspect of volunteering too.

Neil Foster

Policy and Campaigns Officer

Northern TUC

0191 227 5554 / 07786 717972

5th Floor Commercial Union House

39 Pilgrim Street

Newcastle upon Tyne


Now follow Northern TUC on twitter at


Please visit the VONNE blog to see the other contributions to the Blog Action Day.

Poverty isn’t a lifestyle choice, but volunteering is.

“If we are to make poverty history, we must have the active participation of States, civil society and the private sector, as well as individual volunteers”

Kofi Annan

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”

Winston Churchill

VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East), an umbrella body for the third sector in the North East are today holding a Blog Action Day (BAD) for volunteers. The aim is to get people in the North East blogging about the value of volunteers on the first day on Volunteers Week 2012.

This post is my contribution to this event and it is, unsurprisingly, going to focus on the role of volunteers in tackling child poverty. As the quote from Kofi Annan above makes clear, if we are to end poverty, we will need the support of everyone to make it happen and volunteerism is key to this.

Volunteering can help to end poverty and can also help to improve the lives of those living in poverty. I’ll provide a couple of examples. All charities, including campaigning ones such as Save the Children or Child Poverty Action Group, are dependent on volunteers to serve as trustees. These volunteers might not be involved in direct service delivery with families or children, but they play a key role in organisations which aim to influence policy and hold politicians to account.

The North East Child Poverty Commission is currently discussing with the Durham Students Union how to provide volunteer work placements for students to undertake around their studies(or as part of them) that are beneficial for both us and the students. We’re identifying a number of specific projects such as pieces of research we want carrying out, helping to organise a conference, developing our social media work etc that we’re hopeful students will be able to help us with later on this year.

My own experience as a volunteer (trying desperately hard not to sound like Smashy and Nicey at this point) has involved coaching football in the East end of Newcastle with children who lived in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the North East. The club was run entirely by volunteers and I’d like to think that it made – and continues to make – some kind of difference to the players, their families and the local community. I’m also a governor at a school in the West end of Newcastle which is in the ward in the North East with the highest proportion of children living in poverty. It’s early days, but again, I’d like to think that my time there isn’t completely wasted and whatever knowledge I have might be of some use to the school in supporting pupils and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are lots more examples of the role that volunteers play in tackling poverty. Unions often help to improve pay working conditions for employees and their Learning reps help people to progress in work through acquiring new skills. Advice centres are heavily reliant on volunteers to help them provide advice and support to people with benefit and debt problems – an unintentional growth industry at the present time. Children’s Centres, schools and youth clubs have always relied on volunteers to extend the scope and capacity of the services they offer to children and young people and this is certainly the case at the moment. Food banks are becoming increasingly important to growing numbers of people across the country at the present time and the venture in the North East is delivered entirely through volunteers.

But volunteering alone isn’t going to eradicate child poverty. We know that. And it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for public service provision. We need politicians to act to end child poverty, but there is a vital role that volunteers and businesses and wider civil society can play in helping this to happen.

Firstly, most political parties are dependent upon small armies of members who volunteer to undertake tasks for them – one might even suggest there is a ‘culture of dependency’ on these members within political parties. Their voice is important, although it may not always appear so. Secondly, the voluntary sector (in the shape of the Give it Back George campaign) had a tremendous result yesterday with the government announcing a u-turn on the cap on tax relief on charitable donations and CPAG recently led a campaign which included some national newspapers to save child benefit which yielded a partial rethink by the government. Thirdly, Greggs, a North East business with a strong interest in child poverty and a strong supporter of local charities, have led a campaign that has resulted in another successful u-turn on the so-called ‘pasty tax’. These campaigns show that with enough support and momentum, politicians can be for turning. Imagine what could happen if all 3 united in agreement to REALLY end child poverty. We might end up with something more substantial to celebrate than cheap luke warm pasties and tax breaks for millionaires….

So, please visit the VONNE blog to see other contributions to the BAD (and follow the action on Twitter using the #BADVolunteers and, if you don’t currently volunteer, please remember

“No-one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”

Edmund Burke

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