Believe it or not, and there will be millions of people who will find it hard to believe, there are issues other than Brexit demanding our serious attention as a nation right now: child poverty for one.
Brexit has become such an all-consuming situation, particularly in Parliament, that child poverty is one of the issues that seems to have been pushed way down the agenda.
Families fall into the poverty trap for a host of reasons, such as sudden illness or accidents, the loss of employment, the rise in the cost of living or changes to benefits. But it is a situation we must not allow to continue.
Dr Mary Bousted, the Joint Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), has painted what she calls a “Dickensian picture” of poverty being faced by a shameful number of children and their families on a daily basis.
She has talked about families living without enough money to pay for the basics of life, including food, shoes and clothing, a situation faced not just by people without a job, but families with a breadwinner. Two-thirds of children from families classed as poor have at least one parent in work, but they still cannot afford to make ends meet.
There are now a staggering four million children classed as living in poverty in the UK. That equates to nine children in a classroom of 30 pupils, and the figures are predicted to rise significantly.
The definition of a family living in poverty is one whose income falls below 60 per cent of the national average, but there will be many more on the edge of that figure who could be easily pushed over the verge because of a sudden change in circumstances.
In an NEU snapshot of 1,000 teachers nearly half confirmed that ‘holiday hunger’, when children don’t get a hot school meal outside term time, has worsened.
Teachers reported buying pupils coats and shoes because their families cannot afford them. They know of parents skipping meals to make sure their children have something to eat, of children going to school without a coat, and pupils wearing shoes held together with tape.
Children tell them they sleep in their school uniforms because they have no pyjamas, and pupils are given ‘free’ school meals, even though their families do not qualify.
Teachers were concerned about the impact poor quality housing, overcrowding, insecurity of tenure, changes in benefit payments or having to live in temporary accommodation is having on families.
Statistics show that children living in such circumstances are more likely to underachieve at school, are more prone to health and behaviour problems, and more often have to deal with bullying or the stigma of not being able to go on school trips or take part in extra curriculum activities.
I met NEU officials so they could brief me on the poverty situation locally, as well as discuss the impact budget cuts are having on schools, and to see how we can work together to develop my plans for a new strategy to tackle the increase in child poverty in my Wansbeck constituency.
There will be people who do not understand the extent to which children are living locally in poverty, but child poverty does exist in our communities and it is something I feel absolutely incensed about.
The rising level of child poverty is something we should be tackling now, and whilst I firmly believe that in the longer term one of the answers could lie in a redistribution of wealth, we cannot afford to wait for that to happen.
I told the NEU about a report on child poverty I have commissioned from the House of Commons and how I intend to keep constituents up to date as it develops.
Later this year I hope I can host a launch event when we have all the figures compiled and are ready to take action on my strategy to end the ‘Dickensian’ poverty children have to endure in 2019.