The children’s commissioner for England has called on the government to develop urgent plans to tackle child poverty, amid the cost of living crisis that is hitting the most vulnerable in society hardest.
Rachel de Souza said children were increasingly worried about the soaring price of basic essentials and the impact on their lives, telling MPs on the Commons education committee that urgent steps were required to tackle poverty ahead of a difficult autumn for families.
“My plea would be to ensure that we have children, and families with children, really strategised properly in government so that we have a proper plan. I suspect – and I’m no economist – but I suspect this is going to get worse into the autumn.”
Families across Britain are expected to face further pressure from rising energy bills this October, amid the worst squeeze on living standards since the 1950s, as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic drive up inflation.
Asked by the Labour MP Kim Johnson about child poverty figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shared exclusively with the Guardian this week, De Souza said young people were growing increasingly concerned about the rising cost of living.
“[Last year] children were talking about that far more in relation to their parents. So what children talked about was mum’s job, dad’s job, not being able to buy things. And there was quite a profound strand on that,” she said.
“This time [in 2022] it’s far clearer. There is a real concern coming now from children themselves about cost of living. They’re hearing it; they’re talking about it.”
The former headteacher, appointed by the government to promote and protect the rights of children, said the change was showing up in surveys undertaken to gauge young people’s views on the support they are offered.
She said it was welcome that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had announced a wide-ranging package of financial support for all families to tackle soaring living costs, but suggested a greater focus on children could have been made.
“I was pleased about the money, but I would have liked to have seen children mentioned. We have written to and engaged with the Treasury on this issue,” she said.
De Souza had called last year for the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit to be extended beyond October 2021 to those who receive the child component of the benefit. However, the government decided against the measure, drawing sharp criticism from charities, which warned the move would drive up poverty rates.
Sunak has announced £37bn of financial support for households in total this year, including a £650 one-off payment for families on means-tested benefits due this October.
On Monday, the Guardian reported half of all children in lone-parent families are living in relative poverty, according to research that shows how a decade of austerity-driven cuts to benefits have had a disproportionate impact on single parents.
The figures from the IFS showed that relative poverty for children in lone-parent families rose by nine percentage points to 49% between 2013-14 and 2019-20, a significantly faster increase than for children in two-parent households.
A spokesperson for the government said universal credit reimbursed claimants for 85% of childcare costs and that ministers had expanded free school meals more than any other government in recent decades. “We recognise people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we are protecting the 8 million most vulnerable families with at least £1,200 of direct payments this year.”