“This is not politics, this is humanity”

February 25, 2024

Cast your mind back to October 2020, seven months into Covid lockdown. We had all just been encouraged to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ by Rishi Sunak. A disastrous policy that increased infections and prolonged the pandemic.

At the same time millions of children were going hungry and no party leaders were speaking up for them. Enter Marcus Rashford. For a brief moment in 2020 the Manchester United footballer was the ‘adult in the room’ in British politics, writing this on Twitter:

‘Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today. We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics this is humanity. We talk about the devastating impact of COVID-19 but, if projections are anything to go by, child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced.’

Sadly, Mr Rashford’s predictions are coming true. In 2022 4.2 million children (29% of all UK children) were in poverty – up from 3.6 million in 2010-11. And 190,000 of those children are right here in the North East.

Keeping children in poverty damages individuals and families. It also leaves deep long-term scarring on our economy.

Last week the North East Child Poverty Commission published a major report into the scale of the challenge here. It made for sober reading. But there were some glimmers of hope and an ambitious blueprint for change.

The report made it clear that the main levers of power are still in the hands of Westminster politicians. But that shouldn’t stop us deploying the power we have regionally through Mayoral Combined Authorities, local councils and third sector organisations. In other words, let’s not wait for central Government to save us – or we might be waiting a long time.

When I was elected as North of Tyne Mayor in 2019, I spoke about creating a zero poverty, zero carbon region. Five years later and we have made some major strides towards that goal. With 5,377 new full-time, permanent jobs against a government target of 1,666. I’ve increased adult education enrolments from 22,000 to 35,000. I’ve declared a climate emergency, invested heavily in our offshore wind sector and launched an £18 million Green New Deal Fund. We’re helping build over 2,133 new homes on brownfield sites with eco and affordable housing. And we are delivering a ground-breaking Child Poverty Prevention Programme. I’ve achieved all this without putting a penny on your council tax bill.

We are the only Combined Authority in the country using our investment fund to tackle child poverty. Why is this important? Because the good jobs of tomorrow are not going to be taken up by kids who are too hungry to learn today.

In 2021 I launched our Child Poverty Prevention Programme. It aims to poverty proof the school day and offer welfare advice to parents. We helped one family in Wallsend recover over £11,000 in back benefits they were owed for their disabled child. To date we have helped families recover over £1 million in unclaimed welfare payments. The North East Child Poverty Commission is spot on when they talk about the importance of ‘maximising family incomes.’ This is exactly what we’re doing at the North of Tyne. When I negotiated £6.1 billion for the region, I made sure that our child poverty prevention work was ‘baked-in’ to the devolution deal, so that we can ramp-up this work and help more families across the North East.

Sadly the elephant in the room is the Government’s cruel two-child benefit cap. A policy that plunged 45,000 North East kids into poverty – enough to fill the Stadium of Light. Research has shown that this policy has impoverished families rather than increase employment. The day I left the Labour Party was the same day Sir Keir Starmer announced Labour would keep this inhumane policy. We should challenge every Labour candidate in every election to disown it.

There is much we can do with devolution, as we have already shown. But we cannot ignore the fact that we need the next government, be it Labour or Conservative, to remove the two-child benefit cap and properly fund our local councils. It makes me furious that both Labour and Conservatives are committed to keeping children in poverty. Anything less would be a betrayal of our region’s future.

As Marcus Rashford said, ‘This is not politics, this is humanity.’