LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has joined other faith leaders in the United Kingdom to call on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to establish a commission “with the mandate and resources to tackle child poverty in England.”
The letter comes as soccer star Marcus Rashford has led efforts to extend England’s free school meal voucher scheme during school holidays, so children don’t go hungry during the Christmas break.
The Conservative government has refused to extend the program to breaks, arguing the local councils are better able to meet the needs of people in their areas; most of the councils say they haven’t been provided enough funds to feed all the eligible children. Several local supermarkets and restaurants have announced they will step in and provide a free meal for those missing out during the holidays.
In their letter, the faith leaders said that child hunger is not a new problem, despite the recent attention given to the issue.
The rising use of food banks, most of them run by churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras and mosques, is the extreme and visible manifestation of a much broader and deep-seated problem,” the letter reads.
“According to the official statistics, child poverty has been growing and deepening for years as a large and growing number of low and insecurely paid working families struggle to make ends meet, exacerbated further by the impact of COVID-19.”
The letter was an initiative of the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York – Archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell – and included leaders from all of England’s major faith groups.
The authors noted that the UK government promised to eliminate child poverty in the country within a generation, “and yet child poverty has remained stubbornly high under the leadership of all political parties.”
“No one can take the moral high ground, because this is endemic to our economic structure and seems to fall outside our moral imperatives. We can and must do something together to remove this injustice,” the letter states.
The religious leaders said that instead of politicizing the issue of child poverty and arguing over individual policies, the government needs to establish a cross-party commission with the mandate and resources to tackle child poverty in England, “once and for all.”
They also said in the short-term, temporary measures are needed to ensure that children in low income families do not go hungry during the pandemic, especially over school holidays. They also praised the government for its efforts to sustain employment and to bolster the social security system to provide extra support for those on the lowest incomes during the crisis, calling this “a lifeline for millions of families and children, who would otherwise be in a much worse financial situation.”
“Looking ahead, the temporary increase in Universal Credit [the main welfare program in the UK] should be made permanent and extended to cover those on legacy benefits, and Governments should commit to increasing working age benefits at least in line with inflation – as is already the case for pensioners – in order to maintain an adequate safety net for those falling on hard times,” the letter continues.
“In the long-term, we need a coherent, cross-government and cross-party strategy to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty, including low pay, educational disadvantage, and the shortage of affordable housing and childcare, as well as measures to promote social mobility and racial justice. Simultaneously, we need a comprehensive social security system that protects people against the vagaries of life, alongside a dynamic voluntary sector to help those who fall through the cracks,” the faith leaders add.
The signatories of the letter noted that all politicians agree that no child should ever go to bed hungry and that something must be done to tackle child hunger and poverty.
“It is all our duty to come together to protect the most vulnerable in our society, especially in times of crisis. We urge you to act with decisiveness and compassion, to ensure that children are protected during this exceptionally challenging winter. But we also urge you to look beyond the current crisis and to use this as an opportunity for us to make a collective commitment to eliminate the scandal of child poverty for good,” the letter concludes.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome