Thursday, 17 May 2018

Poverty in the classroom teaches us a painful lesson about inequality.

Classrooms across the UK are fast becoming the front line in the struggle to get by after almost a decade of austerity.

A report compiled by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union, based on a survey of 908 union members working across the education sector from nurseries to secondary schools reveals the extent of the problem.

It also highlights the increasing role played by teachers and support workers in picking up the slack as benefits are frozen and services cut to the bone.

Amongst the members surveyed 53% said they had dipped into their own pocket to subsidize books and stationary, one teacher quoted in the report said staff ‘regularly purchase clothing, food and supplies for students and their families’.

This includes sanitary towels and other hygiene products.

In addition, 13% said their school ran a low- cost food club and 16% said their school either ran a food bank or provided subsidized meals for students.

Access to a warm meal during the school day was an area of concern for many respondents, with children with disabilities or special educational needs and those from refugee families most at risk of missing out.

As one teacher put it ‘the bar has been raised, so some families who would have had free school meals no longer do'.

Over half the respondents (56%) said children entitled to free school meals are missing out because their parents are either intimidated by the bureaucratic process involved or fear they will be stigmatized as a result.

One respondent parents fearing their child would be ‘seen as a statistic:’ and so were missing out on nutrition vital to their development.

In general, 87% of the teachers surveyed said they believed that poverty was having a negative impact on their student’s education, with 60% saying the problem has got worse in the past three years.

The struggle to get by faced by families in poverty of living on low incomes has created a situation where many young people miss out on basic things like bring able to travel to visit friends or family, as one respondent said this is ‘heart breaking’.

Poverty experienced in childhood can have an impact on physical health and mental wellbeing that lasts a lifetime. This had been attested to by academic research going back for decades, to which this report only adds.

The only place where this truth does not seem to be self- evident is in the corridors of power. New Labour made limited attempts to address the problem but were hamstrung by a fear of appearing socialist; the coalition and the Tories have ignored it entirely.

Faced up to or ignored the problem of poverty and its social consequences still exits, there is a real risk that future generations will be seriously harmed along with the future stability of our economy and society.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

We need to look beyond the shiny tech sector to solve the productivity puzzle.

We have record levels of employment and yet the UK lags behind Europe and much of the rest of the world in productivity.

When it comes to addressing the conundrum of why British workers produce less than their French and German counterparts the default setting of most politicians is to talk about technology as the solution. Partly, you suspect, because they like being photographed with the latest piece of space age kit almost as much as they do bring snapped walking around a hospital.

A year long research project carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests we should be looking elsewhere. The real productivity problem lies with low waged sectors like hospitality and retail.

This isn’t a reflection on a lack of investment or any deficiency in the skills of workers. It is a result of how staff are used and the problem that has dogged British industry for decades; poor management.

Low productivity, described in an editorial written for Prospect magazine by Rain Newton Smith and Ashwin Kumar as the ‘most intractable problem’ faced by the UK doesn’t just hit the profits of corporations, it drives down wages and living standards too.

Government responses, they write, has tended to focus on the ‘shiny and new frontier firms' at the economy’s cutting edge. Important stuff no doubt, but it misses the point.

There are and always will be more people doing, allegedly, mundane jobs than brilliant innovators. A balanced economy with a sense of purpose values both because both are necessary.

A few companies, Newton Smith and Kumar cite cosmetics retailer Lush and the nation’s favourite pie seller Gregg’s, as examples of employers who are working to ‘improve staff skills and wages, keeping them motivated and adding value to each store.

The majority though take the fork in the road marked ‘Taylorism’ with its relentless micromanagement and deadening imperatives to make humans act like robots. This, as our flat lining national productivity shows, hasn’t been a success; more to the point any limited benefits gained haven’t been shared with workers.

This is a reprise of an old, old story in British industry, frantic and frankly pointless bean counting on a voyage to the narrowest of horizons. Having been cut out of the loop when it comes from profiting from working harder you wonder not so much at employees being demotivated so much as that they continue to make anything more than a token effort.

The JRF recommend that any future interventions aimed at improving productivity must benefit workers as well as their capital owning bosses. They also call for better management practices and less use of casual labour.

It has taken a Conservative Party constitutionally disposed to think having an industrial strategy is the first step towards Communism an age to come around to the idea that the UK needs one.

Now they have with the shadow of Brexit hanging over the economy it needs to be written with the findings published by the JRF in mind. If that doesn’t happen we risk slipping into an economic backwater and a dangerous political crisis.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Record numbers of people using food banks a new report for the Trussell Trust shows.

The Trussell trust says that it distributed 1,332,952 three- day food parcels between April 2017 and the end of March, a 13% increase on last year. Out of these 484,026 were given to children.

The trust operates 428 food banks around the UK, serving an average of 666,476 unique users every year, most of whom visit at least twice.

A report published by the Trussell Trust in April, ‘Left Behind: Is Universal Credit Truly Universal?, based on a survey of 248 people using their food banks shows the impact of the initial wait to claim Universal Credit and the failure of payments to cover the cost of living on individuals and households.

Amongst the other reasons for using a food bank given by respondents were low income (28%), debt (9%) and benefits delays (24%). All these show significant rises over the past year.

As a whole the number of people using food banks has risen by 52% in the year following the year since the roll out of Universal Credit began.

Launching the report Emma Revie, the chief executive of the Trussell Trust spoke about the challenges people using their food banks face, including illness, unemployment and family breakdown, saying ‘as a nation we expect no one should be left hungry’, adding that ‘we owe it to each other to make sure sufficient financial support is in place for those who need it most'.

The charity is calling on the government to ‘uprate’ Universal Credit so that payments meet the cost of living and for councils to offer more support to people who are struggling.

Emma Revie said Universal Credit was the ‘future of our benefits system' and as such it was ‘vital’ the government got it right to prevent further suffering for vulnerable people.

There is no doubting the good work done by the Trussell Trust and its many volunteers in communities across the country. It is though worrying that they take such a, perhaps unconsciously, defeatist attitude to Universal Credit.

Far from being, as Emma Revie suggests, the ‘future’ of the benefits system it seems like an attempt to drag welfare policy back into its dark and troubling past. The sour faced suspicion and institutional cruelty are painfully redolent of Victorian workhouse committees.

This isn’t a bold new approach to dealing with the long -standing problems of economic inequality, let alone the fresh challenges automation will bring. It is, at best, an exercise in playing to the lowest political denominator on the unthinking right; at worst, it could be the driver of the sort of right wing fundamentalism.

What is needed is some real fresh thinking. The sort that looks beyond the five- year political cycle and asks questions that can only have troubling answers.

Questions like is it time to move away from the orthodoxy that says the market has a solution to every problem and is the Protestant work ethic now doing us more harm than good?

This will not be an easy process and every group that takes part will see some of its cherished standpoints if not overthrown then certainly cast in an unflattering light. If we ignore it though, then as the rise in food bank use shows, inequality will continue to grow and with it the threat to our democracy.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The government must deal with the shortage of CAMHS psychiatrists if it is serious about helping children living with addicted parents.

This week the government pledged to pump an extra £6million into helping the children of parents who are struggling with dug or alcohol addiction get support.

There are currently 200,000 children of addicted parents in the UK according to charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

Figures produced by the NSPCC for 2016/17 show that their helpline received on average 200 calls from the children of parents with substance abuse problems, a rise of 30% from 2015/16. A third of the children referred to the police or local council safeguarding teams were aged between one and five and 581 were less than one year old.

In a statement on the charity’s website John Cameron Head of Helplines for the NSPCC said ‘every child should be able to grow up in a home where they feel safe and supported. The sad fact is that many young people are being deprived of this simple right due to one or both their parents abusing drink or drugs’.

The charity provides support for families in this situation through its Parents Under Pressure programme, which helps parents with addiction or other issues to develop secure and healthy relationships with their children.

Announcing the extra funding on Monday Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC, ‘these measures will ensure thousands of children affected by their parent’s alcohol dependency have access to the support they need’.

The funding will come jointly from the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social care. Local authorities will be able to bid for a share of £4.5million to use to help speed up referrals and cut the number of children going into care.

Also speaking to the BBC Labour MP Jon Ashworth, himself the son of an alcoholic, welcomed the funding as a ‘real breakthrough’, adding that it was a ‘huge step forwards for Britain’s innocent victims of booze’, going on to that the children of parents who drink to excess can ‘end up scarred for life’.

There is no doubting that alcohol addiction is a real problem with around 9% of men and 3% of women showing signs of alcohol dependence and the NHS recording 6592 alcohol related deaths in 2013 (source:

It is also clear that, as John Cameron of the NSPCC says, ‘vitally important for the wellbeing of the whole family’ that parents struggling with addiction can get treatment and their children are able to access support.

The problem, as all too often in government interventions in mental health policy, that good intentions are not backed by adequate resources. In real terms £6million is a comparatively small amount of money being handed out to address a problem requiring a much larger investment.

As for councils bidding for a share of £4.5million to improve support for children of parents with substance abuse issues any funding is better than nothing. However, the small slices of this budget they are likely to win will not plug the gap left by the drug and alcohol services many have been obliged to cut to the bone as part of the relentless demands of ‘austerity’.

The other area what is, essentially, little more than an eye- catching announcement, fails to address is the shortage of psychiatrists trained to work with children and the general demoralization of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) workforce, which has been haemorrhaging staff for several years.

Figures released by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) earlier this year show that in some parts of the country there are fewer than four CAMHS trained psychiatrists for every hundred thousand children. A problem partly fuelled by government intransigence over recruiting from overseas.

Dr Bernadka Dubika, Chair of the college’s Child and Adolescent faculty said in a press statement, short staffing in CAMHS services is no secret, we are already struggling, and the government’s own Green Paper Impact Assessment predicts a rise in referrals’, adding that ‘recruiting from overseas is key to quickly recruiting more qualified doctors specializing in children’s mental health’.

The RCP has called for CAMHS trained psychiatrists to be added to the Home Office’s ‘shortage occupation list’, which gives priority to recruiting priority areas that cannot be sourced from within the EU.

Children of parents with substance abuse problems are over-represented in the 10% of children aged between five and sixteen who have a mental health condition, 70% of whom according to the Children’s Society do not receive and an adequate or timely intervention. This is vitally important because as research conducted for the Mental Health Foundation shows 50% of enduring mental health problems are established by the age of fourteen.

Policies move in and out of fashion, at the moment thanks to media prominence and the involvement of the funkier members of the royal family, mental health is something every politician seeking some good PR wants to be associated with. For a subject often surrounded by stigma and awkwardness this is a good thing because it breaks down barriers and gets people talking.

The problem is that taking meaningful action will cost money and may take longer than the political cycle feels comfortable with. Any extra funding is helpful, but it does not compensate for the exhaustion of CAMHS staff of all grades who feel stretched to breaking point.

All children who are struggling with their mental health, for whatever reason, deserve access to adequate services when they need them. If that doesn’t happen, then as Jon Ashworth, a man who knows from hard experience says; they risk being ‘scarred for life’.

Friday, 20 April 2018

UK homeless families could reach 100,000 by 2020.

The number of homeless households could reach 100,000 by 2020 according to a report published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and councils across the country are struggling to cope.

The main problem is finding stable housing for the rising number of homeless families. There are currently 78,000 households living in temporary accommodation and if current trends continue there could be 100,000 by 2020.

Out of the councils surveyed 70% said they were struggling to find social housing for homeless people, 89% said they were also having difficulty finding affordable rental properties in the private sector.

Rising levels of homelessness are no longer just an issue in London, the problem, the report shows, is growing elsewhere in the country.

In the capital 40% of councils reported more people seeking support in the past year, the biggest rises have been in the Midlands (76%), the South (70%) and the North (62%).

The rise in people asking for help from local authorities can, the report says, be attributed to several factors. These include reforms to Housing Benefit under Universal Credit and the riding number of people being evicted from privately rented accommodation.

The Homelessness Monitor 2018 based on work carried out by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot Watt University's Institute for Social Policy and Equalities Research using statistical data and in-depth interviews to produce its findings.

The report's authors hold out some hope that the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act will help to address the problem.

However, councils are short of funds and facing multiple challenges of which rising levels of homelessness is only one. At the same time their budgets are growing tighter by the year.

Legislation, however well meant, can only go so far, there is a real need for new thinking about how we build and pay for housing. It may be that having a society where everyone owns their own home is impossible; we could though, were sufficient political will applied, have one where every family has a roof over its head.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Council to spend £500,000 on hiring six senior officers.

Anyone approaching Smithfield this week would have been met with a strange sight, clouds of steam rising from the pavement, all in the name of art.

The ‘water feature’ installed when the council offices were built but only switched on this week was a big hit with teenagers in search of something different in front of which to take their selfies. Passers- by questioned by the Sentinel were rather less impressed, one said it ‘looked like something from a Michael Jackson video', another that when he first saw it he ‘thought something was being jet washed'; these days everyone’s a critic.

All that steam might have come in handy as a smokescreen for the council’s decision to spend £500,000 on hiring six senior officers. These include a Director of social care, health, integration and wellbeing on a salary of £120,000 to £132,000 and five ‘assistant’ directors on salaries ranging from £84,000 to £91,000.

The new appointments are the result of a complicated shuffling around of posts with some being ‘deleted’ so that others can be created that makes the glass bead game look like junior Scrabble. As is usually the way an improvement to how services are delivered is the hoped-for result.

Whether that will materialise is another matter, personally I have always held the view that the longer the title of a job, the less likely its holder is to deliver. All these jobs have titles that involve at least three commas and probably wouldn’t be able to stand up without scaffolding.

Half a million pounds is certainly a significant cash outlay for a council that, when it comes to public services, normally follows the line that every penny should be watched. To be fair it isn’t entirely a situation of their own making, since 2013 local authorities gave been required to employ a Director of Public Health and to their credit that council claim to be making an, admittedly small, cash saving with this round of appointments.

The problem is this seems like another attempt to solve a problem, in this instance the city’s deep seated public health inequalities, from the top down. Local and national government seems to be wedded to the idea that the recipe for fixing social problems should always begin with ‘first appoint some senior managers’.

It is hard not to feel that the money could, and should, be spent on services, not creating another layer of management. That people in Stoke-on-Trent and the many cities like it that have been on the wrong end of economic change for decades have generally worse health outcomes that those living in more affluent areas is self evident; so is the solution.

What is needed is action on the ground backed by sufficient resources to get the job done, not more managers sitting in an ivory, or in this case multi-coloured, tower developing endless new strategies.

Senior managers are like fancy water features, nice to have maybe, but certainly not worth spending money that could be better used elsewhere on.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The government must act on in work poverty or risk losing all credibility.

The working poor is one of those phrases you expect to encounter in a Victorian novel. Unfortunately for a growing number of families it describes the situation they find themselves in and frames the struggles they face every day.

Figures published by the Department of Work and Pensions(DWP) last week and largely ignored by a media preoccupied with the internal squabbles of the Labour Party show just how bad things have become.

The number of children living in poverty after housing costs has risen from 4million to 4.1million, 67% of those children are living in families where one or more parent is in work.

The risk of families falling into poverty has also risen significantly, for families where one or more parent is self employed it has gone up from 30% to 33%, lone parents now face a 49% chance of falling into poverty and households with three or more children a 42% one.

Responding to the DWP figures Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group said, ‘four million children are below the official poverty line, how many more will follow before the government accepts that cuts to vital financial support are leaving families with too little to live on?’

Campbell Robb of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said, ‘it’s totally unacceptable that so many working households are locked in poverty’.

He added that beyond the statistics ‘poverty restricts people’s choices, meaning that families are having to make impossible decisions such as whether to heat their homes of pay their rent'.

Alison Garnham criticized prime minister Theresa May for ‘coming into office with a pledge to protect living standards for ordinary families,’ adding that the figures released by the DWP showed the government was ‘in denial' about the extent of child poverty.
They should, she said, ‘sound a warning bell that if we fail to invest in children we will damage the life chances of a generation and the long- term prosperity of the country'.

The JRF is urging the government to restore the working allowance within Universal Credit to its original level, so that people on low incomes can keep more of what they earn. This, they argue, will help to lift over three million households out of poverty

They also warn that the number of people living in poverty could increase by a further three hundred thousand by 2020/21. Something that is not reflected in this latest set of figures.

For Mrs May and her government, the persistent failure to lift the country’s low wage families out of poverty is a problem that refuses to go away. It calls into question the pledge she made to build a Britain that works for everyone, if you are poor or a single parent in many respects; just now, it very much works against you.

That has to change, as Campbell Robb says this government and the ones that follow it have ‘a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to build a better life. The government must act to right the wrong of in-work poverty'.