Catherine McKinnell – 2022 Speech on Child Bed Poverty

The speech made by Catherine McKinnell, the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 19 December 2022.

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.

Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

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?

Catherine McKinnell

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”,

and one

“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.

Kim Leadbeater

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?

Catherine McKinnell

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.