The Bishop of Stepney, Rt Revd Adrian Newman on child poverty in Tower Hamlets and free school meals

Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney

Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney - Credit: Archant

For the past nine months I’ve been part of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission, trying to help the borough identify and address some of the key issues around wealth and poverty in this most unequal of communities. We published our report earlier this week.

The commission didn’t major on child poverty in its report, but you can’t escape the fact that Tower Hamlets is the child poverty capital of the UK, with more than four in 10 children living below the breadline.

That figure is bad enough but the reality behind it is worse – it means children going without food or clothing, or becoming socially isolated as they can’t afford to join in with friends’ activities, or living in poor quality housing, or not being warm in the winter.

It means living with family pressures as tensions surface within impoverished families, and it means a greater likelihood of being bullied as a child’s poverty becomes increasingly visible to their peers.

Worse still, poverty for children ends up becoming a state of mind as well as body, an identity trap which affects their chances for life.

So I for one punched the air in delight when the government announced the recent policy change which will give a free school meal to every child under the age of seven from next year.

This has been a campaigning success for the Children’s Society and other child welfare groups. The cost of this – little more than £400 per child per year – doesn’t sound much but it’s a massive boost to families who are struggling. And, by making it ‘universal’, removes any stigma around free school meals.

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The all-too-common assumption is that children are poor due to the fault of “feckless” parents.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of the children in low-income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work.

But if you have a parent working more than 16 hours each week, you have not been entitled to a free school meal.

Until now.

It is a shameful fact that amid the enormous wealth of Tower Hamlets so many of our children go hungry. This policy change will make a big difference for many of them. It’s a small step but an important one. Don’t let it be our last.

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