Levelling Up White Paper: Why using London as a yardstick risks children everywhere

Levelling Up White Paper: Why using London as a yardstick risks children everywhere

 

In February, this year, the government released their long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, a 300-page long publication covering everything from the history of the biggest cities in the world to twelve separate missions for the UK. By now, and a few months on from its publication, you may have read any number of analyses or opinion pieces on this unusual document.

At 4in10, London’s Child Poverty Network, amongst the myriad of missions and metrics, there were two key issues stand out as being of great concern:

  • Child poverty in London is completely absent from the paper (the phrase ‘child poverty’ does not appear at all).
  • London is used a yardstick for success for other regions, despite having the highest levels of inequality and poverty. The White Paper explicitly intends to replicate London’s economic model in other regions despite these facts. This risks the exacerbation of child poverty not just in London but in other areas identified as needing to be ‘Levelled Up’ (Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Newcastle, the Humber etc).

Child Poverty in London and Levelling Up

Although London is discussed in some sections of the Levelling Up White Paper, child poverty levels are not referenced. This is despite four in ten children in London currently living in poverty and nine of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of child poverty being located in London. If children in the capital, or elsewhere in the UK, are going hungry due to poverty – and the White Paper fails to mention – let alone address this – the phrase ‘Levelling-Up’ rings hollow. The White Paper does discuss the deprivation and lack of investment into many regions across the UK. However, it is possible for two truths to be present at once:

  • Vast areas of the UK have experienced chronic underinvestment.
  • London’s children are experiencing worsening poverty levels and increasingly deep levels of poverty.

It is true that some of London’s children do experience some advantages (but these tend to be limited to social mobility measures); a child on free school meals in London is twice as likely to attend university compared to those in the north of England. In London’s most deprived areas, nearly 90 per cent of secondary schools are either good or outstanding, compared with less than 50 per cent in deprived areas of the north. Transport spend per head has been higher in London for a decade (although this doesn’t always benefit poorer Londoners in outer boroughs); London transport spending per head was £864, compared with £379 in the north-west of England between 2009-2020. All of these facts are little compensation to the 12 children in a classroom of 30 who live in poverty in London. If one of the children in an East London classroom ends up going to Oxbridge, or gets a job at a top law firm, that is little compensation to the 11 others who still live in poverty. Similarly, the ability to get from Hackney (East London) to Thornton Heath (South West London), for as little as £1.65, means very little when the parent to the child pays (on average) £1,650 on rent per month in Hackney.

At 4in10, believe the Levelling Up agenda can, and should, address both regional underinvestment and child poverty rates in all areas of the country, including London.  We should not pit children in one area against another (as the White Paper states itself; page xiv)– any child growing up in poverty in the United Kingdom is an avoidable tragedy.

There is a real risk that the high levels of poverty and child poverty, experienced in London and elsewhere, will be overlooked by national policy makers in light of the White Paper.

Replicating London’s Private Sector Productivity Model

“Typically, differences within UK regions or cities are larger than differences between regions on most performance metrics” (Levelling Up White Paper 2022: p27)

A significant part of the reason child poverty is overlooked by the Levelling Up White Paper is due to the fact the main objective of ‘Levelling Up’ is to reproduce the London’s levels of productivity in other regions of the UK, through processes of agglomeration. It is consistently implied, in the White Paper, that living standards will increase once the rest of the UK’s long standing productivity problems are resolved. In London, both as a whole unit and at local authority levels, productivity metrics are higher than other regions. Across the measures selected by the government as indicative of a productive area, Gross Value Added per hour, median gross weekly pay, and proportion of population with a Level 3+ qualification – London scores highly in comparison to other regions. This leaves London’s true picture of poverty somewhat obscured.

Using Gross Value Added (GVA), the favoured productivity measurement of the government, Tower Hamlets is the third most productive region in the country (ONS 2021). Therefore, Tower Hamlets has ‘Levelled Up’, right?

If you were to walk down in a street in Tower Hamlets, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, one in two families (55.8% – End Child Poverty Coalition: 2021) would be living in poverty; if you asked them how high GVA levels or the private sector productivity of the financial district has benefited them, they would struggle to give you an answer.

This gets to the heart of why we at 4in10 are alarmed that this model is being sought to be replicated elsewhere. Living standards, such as child poverty, in Tower Hamlets for example, would not be improved by a further increase in shiny new private sector buildings in the borough.

As a network organisation whose members have seen the impact of child poverty rising over the last decade, the use of London as a yardstick for success or model to be copied is highly concerning. It is not just concerning for children in London, but also for children in places like Leeds, Rotherham, and Middlesbrough, who are the primary focus of ‘Levelling Up’ narratives. Whilst ‘Levelling Up’ certainly means different things to different people, but we would all agree that an area has not levelled up whilst still having extremely high levels of child poverty.

The Equality Trust and New Economics Foundation have already flagged that the Levelling Up White Paper must focus on people, not just places. Research from the NPC (2022) shows that only 2% of the total levelling up funding is going on supporting social infrastructure so far, despite the public’s expectation that will Levelling Up tackle social issues. The public consider the most important aspects to an area being levelled up to be reduced homelessness (36%) and reduced poverty (36%).

However, the problems with the White Paper and child poverty levels in London run even deeper when contextualised against continuous unhelpful narratives:

How Can We Change The Narrative That London Doesn’t Need To Be Levelled Up?

After waiting a few months to see if these concerns would be addressed by policy makers, it is clear that we need an alternative narrative or frame to tell the true story of child poverty in London. Despite years of (sky) high child poverty rates in London, Westminster are simply not listening. No single statistic will provide a silver bullet to this problem, as:

 

  • People outside of London either aren’t aware of the scale of child poverty in London, or they simply don’t believe the scale of inequality and poverty in London when presented with evidence.
  • There is a sense of unfairness/grievance felt towards London from some parts of the UK; typically providing London with any public funding is unpopular.
  • London is no longer a major political priority for either the national Conservative or national Labour parties

In light of these factors, we need urgently to find an alternative way to make the case for the 700,000 children living in poverty in the capital.

We want to work alongside our members, and anyone who shares our concerns about child poverty in London to help us tell the true story of its impact and challenge the prevailing narratives in the White Paper that prevent us from tackling it.

 

Do you, or your organisation, want to get involved in making the case for levelling up London?

Attend our next Coffee Morning:

Levelling Up London?

9th June 2022 – 10:00-11:30

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/338029173357 

 


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Cost of Living Crisis. URGENT action needed.

With the spring budget fast approaching 4in10 are calling on the Chancellor to uprate benefits in line with the Bank of England's February 2022 Monetary Policy Report forecast of 7% inflation.

We know this is not a solution to all poverty by any means and that there needs to be major changes to economic systems and social security in the longer term but it is what we can do to support many of our families now.

We have written to all our members and asked them to take action with tips for engaging local MP's and a sample email for adapting locally.

Please do feel free to use these to contact London MP's in time for them to understand how the cost of living crisis is impacting on their constituents from your experience.

A copy of the letter, tips for engagement and sample email are available here.

 


Proposals for a new Bill of Rights: what would it mean for children living in poverty in London?

Katherine Hill, 4in10’s Strategic Manager, takes us through the issues:

The story of Human Rights Act (HRA) reform has been a long and somewhat torturous one. Governments of various guises have been consulting on what changes might be needed since the mid-2000s, only a few years after the Act came into force. While the content of these proposals has changed over time the one constant has been that those who have made the effort to respond diligently to each round of consultation have almost unanimously concluded that there is no solid case for reform; the Act is doing the job it was intended to do, effectively defending ordinary citizens against the exercise of excess power or neglect by the state.

Most recently the Independent Human Rights Act Review (IHRAR) set up by the Government to take (yet) another look at the Human Rights Act reported that, “[t]he vast majority of submissions received by IHRAR spoke strongly in support of the HRA.” And the separate but concurrently running  inquiry carried out by the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded: “[t]o amend the Human Rights Act would be a huge risk to our constitutional settlement and to the enforcement of our rights”. Why, then, has the Government now published proposals for wide-ranging and significant changes to the way the Act works? We all know that evidence-based policy is out of fashion, but this seems to have gone one step further. It is embracing policy in that is in direct contradiction with the evidence. This is policy driven by ideology pure and simple.

At this, the temptation may be to throw up our hands and leave the beleaguered Human Rights Act to the hands of fate. What is the point of repeatedly making the case for it, only to be ignored? There are two reasons. Firstly, we must recognise that the case for effective human rights is one that needs to be constantly remade, it will never be a case of job done. Human rights, if they are to mean anything, must be a statement of collective values, an expression of our shared commitment to freedom, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy for all humans. For these to be transmitted from generation to generation there needs to be ongoing dialogue about them and what they mean in our modern world. Shying away from that conversation leaves the legal mechanisms we have for defending our rights vulnerable to attack.

Secondly, and more pragmatically, if we do not argue and win the case for the Human Rights Act, and these current proposals for reform come into force, ordinary citizens may lose the means to enforce their rights effectively. For those 4in10 exists to advocate with and for, families and children experiencing living in poverty in London, the consequences are potentially very serious indeed.

The proposed reforms aim in multiple ways to make it harder for people to enforce their rights. These include a proposal to introduce of a new step in the legal process requiring individuals to demonstrate that they had experienced “a significant disadvantage” before their case can go to court. Legal action can already only be taken if the individual is the “victim” of a human rights breach, so it is hard to view this as anything other than an attempt to deter people from enforcing their rights by adding a further legal hurdle to the process. This will disproportionately affect those experiencing poverty who are more likely to have their rights breached in the first place. To give just one example, children in the lowest income quintile are 4.5 times more likely to experience severe mental health problems than those in the highest.[1] It follows that some of those are more likely to experience mental health detention too, where their human rights – including the right to respect for private and family life (article 8) and right to liberty and security (article 5) – will be engaged. If children in these circumstances, who already find it very difficult to access justice,  have to jump through additional hoops it will further diminish their ability to challenge their detention where they believe it is an unlawful breach of their human rights.

The Government’s proposals would introduce a two-tier system for enforcing human rights by restricting their use in the domestic courts by certain groups, including “foreign criminals” and those accused of illegal migration. This makes a mockery of the values underlying the whole notion of human rights. These are rights that everyone is entitled to enjoy regardless of economic or immigration status, gender, sexuality, disability  or anything else. It follows that all should have equal access to the law to enforce them. If they don’t, the impact will be felt most by those on the margins, and especially the poorest children in our society. If the Government is more easily able to deport people without them being able to challenge this on the grounds of right to respect for private and family life (article 8), families may face the sudden loss of their main breadwinner, and children living in already financially precarious situations will be plunged into deeper poverty.

A key issue the Government seeks to address through its plans is that it wants to stop what is termed ‘judicial overreach’, that is the courts getting involved in decisions that are more properly the role of Government and Parliament, accountable as they are to the people. High on the list of things the Government believes it is best placed to make decisions about is the allocation of social and economic resources and it is particularly aggrieved when it thinks the courts seek to interfere in these issues.

The reality is however, that there is little evidence that this is what the courts in the UK are routinely doing. Recent cases that have examined welfare policy have often been unsuccessful, for example a challenge to the two-child limit (which does not allow welfare payments to be made to third and subsequent children) on the grounds that it discriminates against lone parents. The courts found these to be matters on which Parliament has deliberated and struck an appropriate balance. This may be very disappointing for those of us who believe that there should be a wider role for human rights in these matters, and that the right to an adequate income, a safe and warm home and access to healthy food meet basic human needs that should be enforceable whatever the colour of government in town. But it certainly does not support the Government’s argument for the need to curtail the powers of the courts, and the rights of individuals, as is proposed.

Over the longer-term we need to build the case and argue robustly for more comprehensive protection of these important economic, social and cultural in our domestic legal framework, as an essential element of any strategy to eradicate poverty. But first, and most urgently, we need to protect what we already have in the form of the Human Rights Act, as failing to do so will have the greatest impact on those who most need to rely on it.

 

 To find out more about the Government’s plans to reform the Human Rights Act and to find out how you can respond to the consultation visit the British Institute of Human Rights dedicated web pages where you can find lots of easily digestible information and advice.

[1] Gutman, L., Joshi, H., Parsonage, M., & Schoon, I. (2015). Children of the new century: Mental health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. London: Centre for Mental Health.


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Equally Ours

Human Rights Perspective on 'Levelling Up'

4in10 sees poverty as an abuse of human rights. As Nelson Mandela put it:

'Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.'

Equally Ours have published an excellent, evidence based report written by Belinda Pratten, Levelling Up: Firm Foundations. 

Written from an equalities and human rights perspective it covers work, social security, social care, civil society and housing as well as the wider issues of public procurement and investment. A great Christmas holiday read.