Monday 19 December 2022
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Child Bed Poverty
[Relevant document: e-petition 604509, Create a ‘National Sleep Strategy’ to end child bed poverty.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 604509, relating to child bed poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. The petition asks the Government to bring an end to child bed poverty by creating a national sleep strategy. It states:
“Bed poverty is affecting educational outcomes for children across the UK
A national sleep strategy must resource local authorities to identify, address and ultimately end bed poverty”.
When I was presented with the title of the petition, as part of the Petition Committee’s normal deliberations, I was frankly shocked. I could not help but question how bed poverty could be a thing in our country, but after listening to the petitioner and taking evidence on the issue, it evidently, and shockingly, is. Here we are, just days away from Christmas, and it is utterly depressing that some children will be saying to themselves, “All I want for Christmas is a safe place to sleep.”
I express my admiration for the creator of the petition, Bex Wilson. As well as being a hard-working deputy headteacher, Bex has founded her own charity, Zarach, which provides beds for children living in poverty in the Leeds area. I congratulate Bex on the recent arrival of a healthy baby girl, Viola. I also thank Buttle UK, End Furniture Poverty, the Sleep Charity, Orange Box North East and a number of parents with lived experience of bed poverty for sharing their insights and experience with me ahead of the debate.
It is a distressing and shameful truth that in this country child poverty has become a pervasive issue. More children than at any other point in the last decade are growing up in households that are unable to meet their most basic needs. The latest available figures suggest that in 2021 3.9 million children across the UK were living in poverty. Since then, uplifts to universal credit and local housing allowance have been scrapped, inflation has reached heights not seen in 40 years, and an absence of support has pushed millions more families into desperate circumstances.
To those who work on the frontline of crisis services, it is undeniable that the figure of 3.9 million has been dwarfed by reality, but child poverty is more than just a statistic; it is a painful, grinding experience for each child living through it. It means growing up in stressful households, going without the same educational and development opportunities as their peers, going to school hungry or spending their evenings in a cold and damp home. For many children, it means not having a safe space to sleep at night.
In my constituency, the Batley & Birstall Excellence in Schools Together group of 21 schools across Batley and Birstall has identified at least 163 of its pupils who do not sleep in their own bed. They either share with their siblings or sleep on sofas or on the floor, which has a severe impact on their educational attainment, development and family life. Charities such as Zarach are incredible at providing beds for children in need, including in my constituency, but does my hon. Friend agree that those depressing statistics are a sad reflection of the poverty in our communities, and that the Government must step up to help those families and provide local authorities with the funding that they need to eliminate child bed poverty?
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. The fact that she has that statistic is progress in itself, because one of the big challenges is that we do not know the level of this form of poverty. It is a hidden truth that many households simply cannot afford to provide each child with a bed of their own. On speaking to families with the lived experience of bed poverty, I heard some utterly heartbreaking stories: children sleeping on infested sofa cushions because the only alternative was a wooden floor, which we know would not provide support for their growing bodies; children sharing a bed with their siblings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, none of whom have privacy or can expect a night of undisturbed sleep; and children sleeping in a bath because it was the only safe space for them to rest. With all the resources, opportunities and potential that we have in this country, I cannot believe that that is the start in life that the Government think should be given to our children.
Part of the problem, as I have mentioned, is that there are no official figures that I can share with Members to convey the scale of the problem. In 2018, Buttle UK estimated that around 400,000 children were going to sleep without a bed of their own. That was in 2018, so we know that that figure is wholly unrepresentative of the crisis that many families face today. The ongoing economic tumult has already left households struggling to put food on their plates and heat their homes. When the cost of furniture has increased by 42% since 2010, the prospect of buying a bed for every child is simply out of reach for some parents. Rising financial hardship has combined with a plethora of concerning trends to make the issue of bed poverty, which has come to the attention of schoolteachers, particularly acute.
Sadly, the covid-19 pandemic saw a rise in cases of domestic violence. As the increased number of mainly women fled abusive partners, they were left with nothing but their children, and a suitcase of clothes if they were lucky—no furniture and no money to buy it with. Buttle UK has identified the pandemic as generating a sharp rise in need. Within the first year, demand for its grants increased by 70%, and the amount spent on beds almost tripled.
Our country also faces a housing crisis in which the most disadvantaged are particularly vulnerable. Families are moving to unfurnished homes to try to save some rent just so that they can keep a roof over their heads, but the idea that they can then secure beds—big, bulky items—and new mattresses for each member of the household and get them to an unfurnished property is out of reach. Social housing rarely comes furnished.
End Furniture Poverty found that just 2% of social homes include some form of furnishing compared with 29% of private rented properties. Given that the purpose of social housing is to accommodate the most vulnerable in our society, it seems the crisis of bed poverty, although shocking on the surface, is inevitable.
The scale of bed poverty is really concerning when we consider how corrosive it is to a child’s life. For all of us here, getting into our bed at the end of a long day is utter relief and second nature—something we take completely for granted and that we could not imagine going without. So it will come as no surprise when I say that growing up in bed poverty has lifelong consequences. At the most fundamental level, a bed is a safe space for a child. It offers warmth, independence, privacy and comfort, and it is especially important in high stress households, which we know, when someone experiences poverty, is how it can be.
A bed also provides a social function—a place for children to have sleepovers and build their friendships at school. If that bed is taken away, a child is further exposed to the anguish and solitude that growing up in poverty can bring. Going without a comfortable space to rest also leaves a child unable to sleep properly.
As a mother of three, I know how irritable children can be when they miss a good night’s sleep, but the effect of sleep deprivation on a child’s wellbeing is far more detrimental than just a day of being a bit grouchy. From low moods to persistent feelings of helplessness and isolation, the mental health impact of bed poverty is something that no young person should ever experience. Parents can see that pain in their child. One mum told Buttle UK’s Chances for Children campaign that her children were
“angry and irritable and the two of them would argue all the time because they were so tired. Both are bright and their schoolwork suffered. They were constantly late for school”,
“started to take time off because he was so exhausted. His mood suffered and he started to get depressed.”
I also spoke to one mother who had experienced bed poverty and was so grateful for the help that she received. After she received the bed, sheets and pyjamas from a charity, she described her child as becoming a different person overnight. It was powerful to hear about that experience. Those parents share their experiences, no matter how hard it is or how difficult it is to admit that they found themselves in that situation, because they do not want any child to go through that experience.
The importance of sleep does not stop at emotional regulation. It is important for many physical and neurological processes that allow children to function and grow in everyday life. It is important for brain reorganisation, and it helps children to focus and process thoughts throughout the day. Sleep is when hormones are balanced, blood pressure lowered, the immune system regulated and illnesses fought. It has even been associated with a reduction in the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. All the way down to the very smallest levels, a child’s cells and body systems perform vital jobs during the stages of sleep. Michael Farquhar, an NHS consultant in children’s sleep medicine, stated:
“I describe sleep as like getting an MOT every night for your brain and body…the longer you leave it the more problems it causes.”
With the short-term challenges of sleep deprivation come the lifelong consequences of bed poverty. Research has shown that pupils who get more sleep perform better at maths, science and reading—markers of educational attainment that the Government tell us are vital for securing good jobs in the future. That is because sleep helps children to solve problems, develop their memory and learn effectively. How many times do we go to bed on a problem and wake up with it solved? That is the power of sleep. How can we expect a child to concentrate throughout a day of education if their night was spent on a cold, hard floor, or in a bath? That was a question Bex put to me after explaining the backstory of her charity, Zarach. After discovering that one of her pupils was living in a home without a bed, the difficulties that she encountered in teaching conjugated verbs made more sense.
Education has the power to improve opportunities and give young people the ability to transform their lives, but for children living below the poverty line it is their main hope of escaping a lifetime of deprivation. The Government recognise that; one of the levelling-up missions is for 90% of primary school age children to achieve the expected standard in key stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030. However, the Government stand by while children are deprived of that one shot at education because they do not get a decent night’s sleep. Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged children were already 18 months behind their peers at school, and covid-19 has exacerbated that attainment gap. That distressing trend is continuing. The Sutton Trust recently reported that 74% of the teachers it surveyed saw an increase in pupils too tired and unable to concentrate in class. In what universe can the Government claim to be levelling up when increasing numbers of children are struggling at school because they do not have a bed?
The Government have said that they are acting on the issue, and I am sure that we will hear that from the Minister. In response to the petition, they stated that there are several avenues of support that are available to families affected by bed poverty. One of those is the budgeting advance, which is a loan available to universal credit and legacy benefit claimants—the only source of direct Government support for the cost of essential furniture. However, in evidence sessions, parents told me that the loans condemn them to further poverty; although the loans might allow them to buy a new mattress—at a cost of at least £100, I would say—they are left hopelessly trying to pay them back on already stretched and insufficient incomes. They are trapped in a cycle of deprivation and debt.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to think outside the box when it comes to bed poverty? I am fortunate to have a fantastic range of bed manufacturers in my constituency of Batley and Spen. I wonder whether the Government might consider working with them on a scheme to help families who are struggling. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good suggestion?
The Government definitely need to think outside the box and take responsibility for this issue, and I will come to why. My hon. Friend points to what the charitable sector has been doing, working with local bed manufacturers that are solving the problem in very localised ways, but this is a national issue and it needs a national response. That is the point that the Government really need to listen to.
The anti-poverty charity Turn2us made a similar assessment, identifying the 2013 conversion of the social fund grant into a budgeting loan as the single biggest erosion of help for those living without household appliances. Among those unable to access the social security advances, there is an alarming trend of parents becoming victim to predatory high-interest loan organisations because they just cannot see any alternative to securing a peaceful night’s sleep for their children. Rather than giving a helping hand to families facing unimaginable hardship, the means-tested and loan-based provision of support is pushing families into even more desperate circumstances.
In response to the petition, the Government have said that councils in England have been
“empowered to establish local welfare provision”,
which is another claim that seems detached from the reality. More than a decade of austerity has had catastrophic consequence for local authorities, and chronic underfunding has left them permanently uncertain about their future and unable to deliver the long-term, transformational policies that communities in crisis need. This year’s autumn statement doubled down on the trend, forcing yet another real-terms cut to local authority budgets: needless to say, that has impeded the ability of councils to address bed poverty.
End Furniture Poverty has consistently challenged the alarming diminishment of local welfare assistance schemes across the country. In November, it found that more than one in five local authorities in England had closed their schemes, leaving over 14 million people without access to crisis support. Although the Government are likely to indicate that the deficit has been bridged by the household support fund, that does not offer hope to children sleeping without a bed. With tight spending deadlines and guidance provided at short notice, many local authorities have been unable to develop the infrastructure needed to ensure that they are meeting all areas of need.
Often the fund has been given as direct grants to people on certain benefits, or to third-party organisations such as food banks. Of course, I am not here to suggest that those are ineffective or unsuitable ways for local authorities to distribute the support fund—for a child, being well fed is just as important as being well rested. However, it is indicative of the insidious nature of child bed poverty, which, being largely absent from public awareness, has become impossible to address, despite the very best efforts of charities. I hope people realise that it is a problem, which is why Bex and the supporting petitioners are calling on the Government to create a national sleep strategy.
Given that storing, transporting and providing beds poses a number of financial and logistical challenges, the petitioners fear that the funding will inevitably continue to be redirected in order to prop up other frontline services. They therefore want the Government to explicitly commit to end child bed poverty and ensure that councils have the resources and capacity to do it. A national sleep strategy also has the potential to address several other related issues. For Orange Box North East, it could mean developing the infrastructure needed to stop good-quality pre-loved furniture going to landfill, and to divert it instead to families in need of an affordable option. For The Sleep Charity, it could provide much-needed education to an increasingly sleep-deprived teenage population, which we know is a big issue. How can we help children to develop healthy behaviours around getting a good night’s rest if they do not even have a bed to sleep in?
There are so many people with expert insight and the drive to create a brighter future for our children, but if they are left filling the void left by a Government who are failing to provide children with a safe space to sleep at night, it is an opportunity wasted. However, despite all the possibilities that a national sleep strategy holds, my discussions with charities have led me to one conclusion: until the Government finally step up and commit to end child poverty with a joined-up and cross-departmental approach, there will always be children growing up without a bed.
It is absurd that our country is facing such desperation that charities are being forced to compete over which symptom of child poverty the Government should pay most attention to. It is not enough to leave an overstretched and under-resourced third sector relieving the physical manifestations of child poverty, nor to repeat tired lines about the importance of getting parents into work when 70% of children living below the poverty line come from working households. Our children need a coherent, cross-departmental anti-child poverty strategy matched with ambition and investment. We need action on the social security system, on insecure, low-paid work, on housing, on education, on our early years sector and so much more. We need more than yet another pot of funding for crisis support. Enough of the sticking plasters, which simply patch over the trauma that is crippling our country.
Despite its seeming normalisation, child poverty is not inevitable. The last Labour Government proved that and turned the figures around. Whether they are going without a bed, food, a warm home or decent clothes, children will continue to be crushed by the pressures of poverty until we see such a commitment from the Government again.
I have a few questions for the Minister. Will he commit to ensuring there is a definition of child bed poverty within Government so that we understand and start to measure the extent of the problem? Will he set out what work the Government have undertaken with third sector organisations to understand the level of child bed poverty in the UK? Will the Government review regulations in the social housing sector to ensure that those without access to furniture have some protection when they move into a new property? Does he recognise the financial challenges that loan-based support poses for families who are in hardship or in crisis? Does he agree that the conversion from a grant was the biggest erosion of help for those living without household appliances, which is what it has been assessed as? Will he consider the petitioners’ request for all local authorities to be provided with dedicated resources to fund local schemes and support families affected by the crisis of bed poverty? Does he agree that child bed poverty is part of a much wider issue—the scandalous level of child poverty in the UK? Will the Government commit to a cross-departmental laser-focused strategy to eradicate it urgently?
I recently visited a school in my constituency and spoke about my preparations for this debate. I can still see the shock on the faces of the pupils when they heard that there are children just like them growing up without the safe space that so many take for granted—a bed. A bed of their own is the bare minimum that we should expect for every child in this country. I still cannot believe that we are even having this debate. Even those pupils knew that bed poverty is nothing short of a crisis, but it is part of a much wider systemic problem under successive Conservative Governments. We have seen child poverty increase in this country. More and more children are growing up in households without the very basics, whether it is food in their stomachs, heating in their home, clothing on their backs or, as this petition highlights, a bed.
It should be a source of immense shame that we have children sleeping in the bath or on the floor, or sharing beds. As a society, we are failing our children and taking away their futures. The cost of living crisis continues to hit households in the UK, which are facing double-digit inflation, so it is clear that the problem is only going to get worse. The Government can and must do much more. They are not a mere bystander to this issue; they are our only hope of tackling it. With a laser focus and a joined-up strategy, they can lift children out of poverty. Only then can we be sure that all children will have a safe space to lay their head at night. I really hope that the Minister hears this call and that the Government finally take action on this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) not only for her work on the Petitions Committee, providing time for this petition and making it a priority, but for starkly setting out the pervasive nature of this type of poverty and how it affects children. I join her in paying tribute to Bex Wilson, who started the petition.
The debate has shone a light on how prevalent and stark bed poverty is throughout the UK. According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ households below average income survey from, 26% of children have parents who want to replace worn-out furniture but cannot do so and 19% of children surveyed have parents who want to have a bedroom for every child aged 10-plus of a different gender, but also cannot afford to do so.
I recently spoke to Calderdale Lighthouse, which is a volunteer-ran charity in my constituency. I pay tribute to Diane Barker and her co-founders Donna and Emma, who do incredible work supporting disadvantaged families. As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, the charity has received an ever-constant stream of requests in recent weeks for beddings and beds for vulnerable families, in addition to the other support it provides. In one instance, a health visitor for a family consisting of a single parent—a mother—and two young children found that neither child had a bed, and they asked if Calderdale Lighthouse could provide some. In another case, Calderdale Lighthouse provided blankets, duvets and hot-water bottles to a family that had no gas or electricity and had taken to sleeping in one room in an attempt to preserve heat.
On average, Calderdale Lighthouse receives a request for beds, cots or toddler beds more than twice a week. It has seen instances where victims of domestic violence choose to go back to their abusive partners so that their children are not left cold and without beds. There has been a number of cases where families with young children with continence challenges have struggled to provide them with the beds and bedding necessary. Charities such as Calderdale Lighthouse provide an important lifeline for so many people. Many of us cannot imagine sleeping in a proper bed being a luxury, but for too many children, it is.
As well as creating unhealthy and dangerous living conditions, bed poverty has a devastatingly long-term impact. The disruption caused by not having a bed permeates through every aspect of a child’s life and development. How can we possibly expect children to learn, grow and realise their true potential if they come to school exhausted and weighed down by a disrupted night’s sleep? One of my constituents recently got in touch to powerfully explain this problem. They said,
“I currently reside in a one bedroom flat on 15th floor, which is not ideal. We are overcrowded, my son cannot develop to his full potential in this tiny flat. He also needs his own bedroom as he has trouble sleeping, meaning he’s disrupting my daughter.”
The link between child poverty and children’s outcomes is clear. Data from 2014 showed that less than a third of Calderdale pupils in my area who claim free school meals achieve five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths, compared with nearly 60% of all pupils. Unfortunately, bed poverty is symptomatic of a wider trend of growing poverty. Under this Government, the proportion of children in poverty in my constituency has steadily grown. According to the House of Commons Library, 30% of children in Halifax live in relative poverty—an increase of more than 6% since 2015. A further 25.8% of children in Halifax live in absolute poverty. I want every child to have the chance to fulfil their potential, but the cost of living crisis on top of years of austerity has taken us back to an almost Victorian era for some families.
Under this Government, work no longer represents a route out of poverty. According to the Library, 65% of families in relative poverty in Halifax are classified as in-work families. Bed poverty is not seen by many in our society and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, I frankly do not receive direct contact about it, because it is hidden. Most of the referrals to local charities like Calderdale Lighthouse come via social workers and health visitors, who are required to involve themselves in people’s lives and to visit homes. If they were not there undertaking those roles, such deprivation would probably go completely unseen, and I pay tribute to them for being in those homes, for raising the alarm and for undertaking that work day after day, which I can only imagine has an impact on them as well.
The debate has shown that children up and down the country are suffering in this way, hidden from the line of sight, in people’s homes. The reality is that many children will go to bed in insufficient conditions tonight. We can clearly see the incredibly detrimental impact those conditions are having on children’s broader outcomes. We all bring problems and injustices to Parliament—that is part of our job. However, I say in all honesty that this is one of the hardest speeches I have ever had to write, prepare for and give, so heart breaking is the reality of bed poverty.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her work on the Petitions Committee and on introducing the debate so effectively, passionately, knowledgably and sensitively. In common with others, I thank Zarach as well as Crisis and Barnardo’s for their supportive work.
We may be few in number in the Chamber today, but I know we speak for many colleagues in expressing our distress over any child going without the space and comfort to sleep. As we have heard, children need sleep and a safe space to grow and learn. That is essential for neurological development, absorbing what is taught at school and building up a memory store for adulthood, a point put well by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), where at least 163 children do not have a bed of their own. She highlighted the horrific impact that that has on their education and emotional wellbeing.
Sleep is as important to a healthy lifestyle as limiting fast food and running around the park, but too often we can forget that as we get older. Bed poverty is a hidden level of poverty, and not something that parents, families or children are willing to share; it is hidden away from sight. As any parent will know, children’s sleep is crucial for our sanity too. Behaviour, along with physical and mental health, is drastically impacted by the amount and quality of sleep people get. Studies in China in 2021 found that the quality and length of sleep directly correlated with levels of depression and anxiety later in adolescence.
Salient points have been made by hon. Members throughout the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North talked about the scale of child poverty in this country, with 3.9 million children in poverty in 2022. That should shame any Government, of any colour, into action. Bed poverty has a horrific impact on a child’s education and wellbeing that ensures that the cycle of poverty and deprivation continues. We need to break that cycle for good.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) pointed out the growing levels of child poverty—we are seeing not a decline, but growing levels of child poverty. In places such as Halifax, 30% of children are growing up below the poverty line. The cost of living crisis plus the pandemic and years of austerity have created a perfect storm that allows child poverty to continue. As we have heard, there has been a constant mantra—and almost a guilting of parents—that work is the best route out of poverty, but we know that millions of people go to work, do the right thing and work all the hours that they can yet are still paid below poverty wages. That is an absolute disgrace. My hon. Friend is right to thank the charities and social workers who are the backstop for families, but it should not be that way. I cannot believe that in 2022, in the sixth richest country in the world, we are talking about children going without beds.
I invite all Members, Mr Paisley, to picture a scene: a family Christmas, with sparse food on the table, if there is indeed even a table, mum and dad worried about paying the rent, grandparents shivering in the cold and dark, kids sharing single beds, sleeping on the sofa or even on the floor or in a bath tub. That sounds Dickensian, but is in fact the prospect for too many of our constituents as they face hard times this Christmas. In 2020, Crisis estimated that 30% of families on the lowest income could not afford a bed for their child. Will the Minister provide an updated assessment of the figure as it stands now, after a prolonged pandemic, energy price rises, rocketing inflation and a catastrophic recession?
The housing crisis is nothing new, but its impacts are reaching new heights. Last Christmas, 1,300 families with children were living in unsuitable B&B accommodation over Christmas, already a rise of 3% on the year before. Given the added recession, will the Minister tell me how many more families with children will be in temporary accommodation for Christmas 2022? Is his Department investigating how many of them are living in unsuitable, overcrowded conditions, perhaps also grappling with dangerous levels of mould, damp and cold?
The gap between housing benefits and standard private rents is also increasing. New research by Crisis found that fewer than one in 12 homes advertised on Zoopla were affordable for renters receiving housing benefit, compared with one in eight just five months ago. With section 21 eviction notices still not banned three years after their election on a manifesto that promised to deliver that, the Government are only pushing more families into homelessness and more children into bed poverty. When will we see the ban on section 21 no-fault evictions? Do we have to wait for a Labour Government to finally get rid of them?
The topic of the debate leaves us all asking why, in a country as wealthy as ours, we are grappling with something as basic as children not having the space to sleep. As with food poverty and fuel poverty, bed poverty is just part of the wider scope of deprivation in our allegedly world-leading country. If a parent cannot afford to give their child space to sleep, it is unlikely they are managing to comfortably pay their bills, feed them well and provide for them as any parent would wish to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, this level of poverty leaves families teetering on the edge and still at the mercy and prey of legal loan sharks.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s set up an emergency fund in October to provide urgent support to children, young people and families dealing with the cost of living crisis. Although originally envisaged to help with food costs and energy bills, Barnardo’s has already seen a concerning demand for beds and bedding. In my constituency of Luton, our Labour council released a 2040 report with a vision for where our town would be in two decades’ time. The vision is not a shy one. We aim to eradicate poverty in our town by 2040 and build a child-friendly town. I am proud of that aim, as everybody within my local government should be. It is bold, ambitious and inspirational, and it is everything local government should be, but we have to contend with a Government in power imposing 12 years of austerity on this country. Local communities have to take matters into their own hands for the sake of their people, but they are fighting a constant battle of inflation, cuts and rising demand.
Local authorities have already lost 60p for every £1 of Government funding since 2010, but I know they will fight tooth and nail to support their residents in need, especially children. When will our Government finally take responsibility for the children they should be protecting and caring for? When will all children have a safe bed to sleep in? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s solution to the problem, as it is one we all want to see solved. I hope that not too many families in the UK will face cruel, cramped Christmases this year. Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope. I genuinely hope that this Dickensian Conservative-induced nightmare, with child poverty at the levels we are seeing, finally comes to an end before another generation is harmed.
It is a pleasure to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. As the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) said, we are small in number, but I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the topic. I am also grateful to the hon. Members for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) for their contributions, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate.
As hon. Members already have, I want particularly to thank Bex Wilson, founder of Zarach. The great work her and her colleagues have done in West Yorkshire has been referenced on multiple occasions. She highlights some of the challenges that she has seen on a local level within Leeds and I accept that there are challenges in other parts of the country as well. I pay tribute to her organisation and its brilliant work to provide beds for families who are struggling, especially for those with young children.
As the hon. Member for Luton North said, we all share the same end, which is not to have families or children who need support, do not have access to beds and do not have the ability to have a good night’s sleep, which we all benefit from and often need to be able to make progress in the next day, week and month as we go forwards in our lives. It is down to all the people who work day in, day out to ensure that children can sleep safely and comfortably in their own home that we have, I hope, made progress over recent decades, whether as part of wider work to educate and support or to ensure welfare is in place.
We absolutely agree that sleep is important. The hon. Member for Luton North talked about a number of studies from China and research has also been carried out by the University of Maryland in the United States, which found that pre-teens who slept fewer than nine hours a day had noticeable differences in brain structure, mood and thinking compared with their peers who had sufficient sleep each night. Although science will always be developing in these areas, it is recognised that sleep is a hugely important part of ensuring that people are ready for the next day that they need to face.
We agree on the issue and that it exists—which it does, in certain places. We might take different views on how much it exists, and I accept the point that it is sometimes difficult to understand the level of challenge, but the question is what we do next. We all want to ensure that there is support for those who are in need, and we want to find the best way to ensure that we can cover that need. We want to highlight the amazing work of volunteers from Zarach and wherever else such work is happening in the country. I acknowledge their understandable concerns about why, at times, the system does not work as perfectly or as well as we would ideally like it to.
No system with hundreds of billions of pounds in it will work perfectly. The job of Government is not to claim that the system is perfect but to recognise that there are challenges, and try to structure that system in a way that works while ensuring that we do not change the way in which people work, operate and are incentivised where they can resolve some of the issues themselves—I recognise that not everybody can.
All that brings questions: ultimately, what do we do when we see issues such as this; and secondarily, what is it proportionate for the Government to do, and how should they respond when they see such issues? The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North anticipated some of the points I am likely to make. A substantial amount of work is going on across Government to provide a system of support for vulnerable children and families, which I hope includes the ability to tackle sleep deprivation and the drivers behind it.
I will spend some time explaining how that work is broken down between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in which I serve, and why, given the plethora of initiatives across multiple Departments, we do not think that a national sleep strategy is the way to go at this time. A substantial amount of work is already under way that we hope is helping in this difficult and challenging area.
I will start with the top line, which is about tackling poverty; it is the question with which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North ended her speech. We recognise that there are often multiple, complex reasons why families find themselves in poverty. The hon. Lady suggested that the Government are a mere bystander, which is difficult to evidence given what we are doing. This year, we will spend the best part of a quarter of a trillion pounds—£245 billion—through the welfare system to tackle such causes head on, recognise that there are vulnerable people out there and ensure that people have the support they need. That includes about £110 billion of support for people of working age, who are the most likely to have children.
I want to challenge the Minister on his statement. I did not say that the Government were a bystander; I said that they were not a bystander on this issue and they have the power to do something about it. The concern is that, for everything the Government may be doing, they are also the architect of the problem. That is my view and the view of many in this area. I appreciate all the initiatives the Minister is outlining, but they are clearly not solving the problem.
I am grateful for that clarification, and I apologise if I inadvertently suggested something that I did not intend to. I was merely trying to contextualise. The hon. Lady accepted that a substantial amount of work is going on. That needs to be acknowledged and contextualised within the wider discussion. There is such a substantial amount of work going on—I will go into that in a moment—that the challenge is knowing how best to approach things. I will try to address a number of the suggestions outlined by the hon. Lady and her colleagues.
It is important to acknowledge that a substantial amount of money is going into the issue. This has been a relatively well-regarded debate and I do not seek to make it particularly political, but, given the multiple references to austerity, I have to highlight that some of the difficult decisions that we have had to take over the last 12 years have been as a direct result of pre-2010 spending. We need to acknowledge that our decisions have trade-offs and consequences, and we are still living with those consequences a decade or so later, despite the fact that in absolute terms we are spending substantially more money than we were a decade or so ago. [Hon. Members: “Such nonsense!”]
We are going to spend over £245 billion through the welfare system this financial year, and £110 billion to support people of working age. That builds on wider efforts to lift more people out of poverty and to support those who have been highlighted in this debate. There were 1.2 million fewer people living in absolute poverty in 2020-21 than in 2009-10, including 200,000 fewer children, 500,000 fewer working-age adults and 400,000 fewer pensioners. That is not to take away from the challenges we face today, particularly the cost of living, but it is important to contextualise where we are.
In response to the global challenges we are facing, the Government have provided £37 billion of emergency support this year, and we are putting in place more help over the coming months. In the autumn statement, £26 billion of cost of living support was announced as a taxpayer subsidy for 2023-24, meaning that from next year households on eligible means-tested benefits will receive up to a further £900 in cost of living payments. From April next year, we are also uprating benefits for working-age households and disabled people, as well as the basic and new state pensions, by over 10%. Benefit cap rates will be increased by the same amount.
Just today, in the local government finance settlement we have announced a further £100 million of support for people who are deemed to be the most vulnerable, including a discretionary element that gives local authorities around the country where there are challenges—whether they are to do with access to beds or something else—additional funds to be able to close those gaps and ensure people have the things they need.
Crucially, there is also a dedicated household support fund, overseen by the Department for Work and Pensions, that councils in England can use to help families struggling with essential household costs, including the purchase of new beds and mattresses. A further £1 billion is going into that fund over the next financial year. Nearly £850 million will be distributed in England, and the remainder will be distributed in the devolved nations according to the Barnett formula. That will mean we have allocated £2.5 billion of taxpayer subsidies since October 2021.
Crucially, local authorities will have the freedom to allocate funds according to the needs in their communities. Given the acknowledgement by the Opposition that this issue is difficult to assess or even find, which was one of the points made a moment ago, the best way that we can respond to challenges that are hidden or semi-hidden is to provide both funds, which we have done, and the freedom to allocate those funds in the most proportionate and reasonable way in communities, driven by representatives in communities themselves, including the kind of councils that the hon. Member for Luton North highlighted, which are setting an agenda and making important decisions for their local area.
Some of the referrals coming through to local charities in Halifax relate to families involved in providing kinship care, which is where family members—often at short notice—take over responsibility for caring for a very young child as a member of their family.
Will the Minister, as part of his cross-departmental work and the Government’s response to the MacAlister review, which looks at the responsibilities of kinship carers and the support they deserve, specifically look at the support required by kinship carers? Will he look at what else can be done to support families in such situations when financial support is not a part of the package because of a variety of barriers, so that the children in those circumstances do not go without beds?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the hugely important matter of kinship carers, which I know all Members will have an interest in and experience of; I certainly have, having spoken to constituents at length about these issues. It is an immensely challenging area to know how to get right. Of course, ideally in the first instance there would not be a need for such care, but this is life and there always is such a need. Where there are challenges, we want to keep young children as close as possible to their families and friends, who they know and understand. That will inevitably mean people take over at short notice caring responsibilities that they may not have anticipated. There is a very difficult challenge about knowing how to balance that. I will certainly pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to my colleagues in the Department for Education, who are leading on the MacAlister review and the response to it, and ask them to consider specifically her point about kinship care in that work, where possible.
I return to the point about freedom. Twenty-three councils have already put on record that they are using their funds to provide beds, bedding and blankets to vulnerable residents. Havering, for example, has already partnered with local retailers to supply beds, white goods and other essential household items to struggling families. At the other end of the country in Blackburn, the council has been working hard on the provision of new high-quality beds for children under the age of seven. Additional discretionary support funds are available where necessary.
I will touch on the broader point about supporting families. The supporting families programme operates between the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which I am a Minister within, and the Department for Education. It seeks to help councils do exactly what I have just mentioned—co-ordinate help for families to overcome multiple and complex problems. Supporting families funding is allocated to authorities based on levels of deprivation and the number of families in the local population; put simply, more deprived areas receive more funding. The programme can help with some of the drivers of financial insecurity and the knock-on effects, such as those we are talking about today. It can help to address mental health, drug or alcohol problems, or issues such as finding work and keeping children in school. There was a 40% cash uplift for this programme in the Budget, which should mean that 300,000 families are covered over the coming period.
There is a role for schools and the Department for Education, as this is not just about council officers working with individual families; schools play an important role in identifying pupils who may not be getting enough sleep at home. That is why we are here today and why Bex Wilson has set up the charity, after her experience while teaching in Leeds.
Through the publication of the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper, the schools White Paper and our response to the MacAlister review, we are creating a system that seeks firmly to work in the interests of vulnerable children and young people. We know that vulnerable children are more absent from school than their peers. In autumn last year, a third of all pupils eligible for free school meals missed more than 10% of school sessions, and nearly one in 10 pupils eligible for free school meals missed more than 10% of possible school sessions for unauthorised other reasons, compared to only 3% of their peers.
The pupil premium will provide over £2.5 billion in 2022-23 to help schools improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, which can be used to support social, emotional and behavioural needs, and approaches to improve attendance. Every local authority in England must appoint a virtual school head, who have a statutory duty to promote the educational achievement of children in their care.
I am grateful to Bex Wilson, Zarach and all those who have raised this important issue, and to the hon. Members who have spoken today. Across the House there is an absolute commitment to, and understanding of, the challenges we have debated. I hope that everybody, even if they disagree with the proposal that I put forward on behalf of the Government, recognises that a substantial amount of work has been done in the area, and there is a substantial amount of funding and taxpayer support. We all want to achieve the same ends and recognise various challenges. We are grateful for the work done by those who have highlighted this issue. I hope we can continue to make progress in the coming years, while continuing to debate the best approach.
I thank hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate, both from the Labour Front Bench and Back Benches. I would thank the Minister for his response, but I expected more. It is very concerning that the Government do not seem to recognise that there is an issue, nor commit to understanding the extent of that issue. All we have heard is a list of actions that they are apparently undertaking, but that are clearly not solving the problem.
One mother who spoke to me when I was taking evidence for this debate said that, as a child, she had fled with her mother from domestic violence. She remembers how traumatic that was, but when they moved she said she felt cushioned by a state that supported them into a new home. She does not remember not having a bed when she was growing up. She remembers being looked after and supported in what was clearly a traumatic situation. She has faced that again herself—she has fled domestic violence with her children—and she was shocked at how little support there has been; there was nothing for them. They managed to secure a house, but it had no furniture in it. She said they have lived with one lightbulb, which they move from room to room, and no beds for the children.
It is the charity sector that has helped them, not the Government. That is the case up and down the country. Food, clothing, housing and furniture are being provided by the charitable sector, not by the state. People in the most desperate circumstances no longer have a safety net. As much as the Government and the Minister have set out the support they might be giving, it is clearly not working. It is clearly not reaching the right people.
I did not intend to say that at the end of this debate. I have been quite moved by the evidence I have heard, but I am left not angry, but I think a bit despondent, by the Minister’s response. I hoped that the Government, of all things, would want to tackle children without beds—would want to know how many children do not have a bed and discuss how we can solve that. Obviously, whatever the Government are doing is not working, because the number is growing not reducing. But that is anecdotal; we do not actually know, because the Government have not found out or even asked the question.
I would like to see the Government go away and think harder about this issue. It is about not just those individual children but a lifetime cycle of sleep deprivation that results in adult mental health issues, because if someone has not slept well as a child they will have that for the rest of their life. It will affect their education, mental health, development and wellbeing. Surely we want to put a stop to that, and ensure the basics of having a bed and somewhere safe to sleep. I hope the Government go away and think again. I appreciate that it is not all down to the Minister. The fact that we were not quite sure who was going to respond to the debate is telling of the Government’s lack of focus on child poverty as a whole.
The Department for Education has an interest in children. The Department of Health and Social Care should have an interest in children’s health and wellbeing. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and local government, should have an interest in ensuring that support is delivered at a local level. The Department for Work and Pensions looks after those households that need extra support. None of them appears to be talking to each other to develop a holistic strategy to ensure that more children do not fall into poverty, that they have a bed to sleep in and that we finally turn this around. I really hope the Government listen. If they will not, I really hope this country votes in a different Government who will.