Vicious inequality is hurting children in northern England
My constituents cannot simply ‘work their way out of’ bad health, poor educational attainment, low life expectancy and deepening child poverty — the government has set them up to fail.
While the wealth of the richest has been skyrocketing, poverty has been steadily increasing, made worse by the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.
Only last week I saw a huge group of people queuing on a road in my area. What were they waiting for? Food parcels from the local foodbank. It was an alarming sight which has become all too familiar in my constituency and across northern England.
But perhaps most poignant is the increase in the number of children growing up in poverty. Indeed, our children’s lives and futures are being blighted by obscenely high levels of child poverty here in the north.
A recent parliamentary report found that children of the north are the most vulnerable to the cost-of living-crisis, with 34 per cent — around 900,000 — of them living in poverty, compared with 28 per cent in the rest of England.
Its authors warned of the immediate and lifelong harms for children, including worsening physical and mental health undermining their learning, social wellbeing and education, and long-term poor health meaning lower productivity and ultimately lower life expectancy.
But how do you define a child in poverty? You define it by saying that the family is living on only two-thirds of the national average income. Official figures show that on that measure there are nearly 3,800 children in my Hemsworth constituency living in a family in poverty, up by over 800 — 30 per cent — since 2015.
And why should it be the case that in the Prime Minister’s constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire, just 60 miles or so away from our area, there are just under 2,000 children in poverty, an increase of just over 100 since 2015?
Of course, any number of children living in poverty is wrong, but the level of inequality between the two areas is heartbreaking — because it doesn’t need to be like this.
Look at some other key inequality indicators. The health inequalities between the Yorkshire regions are stark. Healthy life expectancy for females in Wakefield district is 56 years, compared to 66 in North Yorkshire, with the male comparison being 58 to 67. Life expectancy for men in Wakefield is 77.3, compared to 81.3 in Richmondshire.
School spending per head this year in Hemsworth is £5,490, compared to £5,600 in Richmond and £5,620 on average across England. So Sunak’s seat gets an extra £110 per pupil than Hemsworth.
It’s little wonder then that Hemsworth has the lowest social mobility of any constituency in the country and young people’s educational attainment is in the bottom 20 per cent from early years through to A-level or equivalent attainment.
Just 23 per cent achieve an NVQ level 4+ or similar, compared to 40 per cent nationally.
Even spending on transport in the whole of Yorkshire, which is so important for rural areas like Hemsworth if people are to have any chance of getting to better jobs in towns and cities that aren’t available locally, is hugely unequal — just £321 per head compared to £906 in London.
I make these comparisons because the Tories continually tell us that work is the way out of poverty, the way to opportunity in life.
I believe in work, but don’t tell my constituents that it’s the way out of poverty. Because it’s the route into it as much as any. For them, the idea of social mobility is a myth.
The majority of children living in poverty in Hemsworth have at least one parent who is working, and the numbers in work are increasing too.
But work simply doesn’t pay. The average weekly wage in Hemsworth is £495 compared to £537 in Richmond and £585 in Britain as a whole.
The idea that you work your heart out all day and you’re still in poverty at the end of it because the pay is so low was never something our country believed in. It’s wrong.
It’s almost impossible to imagine, given the high levels of poverty and the low levels of social mobility, how a child born in my area today can expect anything else but to die younger, and in poverty, than in neighbouring places without massive structural, transformative social and economic change.
But only a government prepared to implement radical policies to tackle these appalling inequalities and social injustice can achieve that.