Written evidence from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (CPM0026)
LB Tower Hamlets is an inner London local authority providing statutory and non-statutory services to children, families and young people. The borough is home to 75,455 0-19-year-olds. Levels of child poverty have historically been high, and on some measures remain amongst the highest in the country.
We welcome the opportunity to provide evidence to this important Inquiry and focus below on those questions where we have a specific contribution to make. Supporting and protecting children in low-income families in the wake of the pandemic and reducing economic and social inequalities is a priority for LB Tower Hamlets. Any national effort which increases resources and accountability for poverty reduction, tackles the disproportionate impact of poverty on children from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and children living in households with a disabled family member, and strengthens cross-departmental working would be welcome.
Our specific comments focus on the following recommendations:
Measurement and targets
How should child poverty be measured and defined?
We support retaining the relative and absolute measures of child poverty. Taken together, they reflect the importance of income for children’s welfare and life chances. Retaining both measures alongside any further development of poverty measures is necessary to equip local areas to understand and address the impact of the pandemic on actual hardship and on changes relative to median incomes.
To support an effective local response to child poverty, we additionally require robust data in a number of additional areas:
There are two further related areas of concern we have in the context of a post pandemic response: the need for data which allow real-time responses at a time of great volatility in incomes, and supporting young people as they transition into adulthood facing the consequences of a disrupted education and a weak labour market as well as structural inequalities and discrimination. We would welcome greater support in both of these areas.
The measures of child poverty changed in 2016. What has the impact of those changes been?
In our view, the two new measures introduced in 2016 – children living in workless households and attainment at age 16 – are important in their own right but have limited value as measures of child poverty. These measures do not reflect some of the key drivers of poverty in Tower Hamlets including high housing costs, in-work poverty and the adequacy of the social safety net.
How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with other Government departments, particularly the Department for Education and the Treasury, to reduce child poverty?
There are two specific areas where we believe greater join-up is required.
Passported benefits: free-school meals
As noted by the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the FSM (Free School Meals) Vouchers scheme, the Department for Education does not share with the Department for Work and Pensions data identifying which families in receipt of Universal Credit also have children eligible for free school meals. The current system where families are required to make an application for Free School Meals does not serve disadvantaged children well.
The council’s benefits team work closely with schools to ensure newly FSM-eligible families are identified, and to encourage families who contact them directly to claim FSM. Nevertheless, there may still be universal credit applicants who do not receive housing benefit and are unaware that their children may be eligible for Free School Meals.
This system is inefficient and we believe this results in Free School Meals funding for eligible pupils going unclaimed each year. LB Tower Hamlets is one of a very few councils which provides funding to extend Free School Meals provision to all Key Stage 2 pupils in addition to the nationally-funded Universal Infant Free School Meals programme. Our local programme therefore ensures universal coverage for all primary pupils. Current arrangements for determining eligibility for FSM funding result in unnecessary expenditure by the council, as well as secondary age FSM-eligible pupils missing out on FSM support.
Early years and childcare funding
In an area of high disadvantage such as Tower Hamlets, access to high quality early years provision underpins our efforts to address child poverty in two important ways.
Firstly, access to childcare supports parents into employment. Tower Hamlets has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in London. In part through our Growth and Economic Development Strategy and joint working between our pioneering Workpath programme, Job Centre Plus and the council’s Integrated Early Years Service we have been able to support parents through a suite of programmes designed to help them into work, combined with access to high quality childcare. Despite a decline in overall worklessness in Tower Hamlets, the proportion of children living in workless households remained high at 16.6% in 2019, with 52% of children living in households with at least one working and one non-working adult.
Secondly, in Tower Hamlets, our early years services are the linchpin in supporting low-income families and we have been working with partners to ensure a joined up offer of services. For example, following a new data sharing agreement between LB Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest and East London CCGs all new parents since July 2019 are asked for consent for their details to be shared so that children’s centres can get in touch, providing them with information about vital services for the youngest children, such as maternity services, health child clinics, Family Nurse Partnership, Healthy Start vouchers and vitamins and much more.
The pandemic has had a large impact on take-up of childcare places as a result of unemployment, furlough and parents’ perception of a risk of Covid-19 transmission. As of December 2020, there were an unprecedented 1,034 vacant Covid-safe places in local childcare providers. A further 3,000 vacant places were available in school nursery classes. These places are available to be filled either by parents in receipt of funded places or by parents paying for childcare. Low take up was due to the reasons specified by the DFE, e.g. self isolation (both families and staff), fear of infection, and so on. Locally low take up is compounded by digital poverty, and lack of information about the need to register with childcare or enter the admissions system for school nursery places.
The Free Early Years entitlement for 3, 4 and the most disadvantaged two year-olds is a vital element of our early years offer to low-income parents. Historically, take-up of the disadvantaged two year-old offer has been low in Tower Hamlets, and this is of particular concern given the level of need among eligible families: these include nutrition, language acquisition and a range of inclusion needs among eligible children and for parents include the need to build confidence through volunteering, learning English, acquiring basis skills, or accessing job readiness programmes and apprenticeships. Through sustained outreach, uptake increased from 39% in 2018 to 64% in 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, take-up has fallen from 64% to 42% (January 2021) of entitled two year-olds. We have concerns that this reduced access to early years provision will compound the impacts of the pandemic on language acquisition and physical and mental wellbeing of the most income-deprived children, with major life consequences beginning with school readiness and educational progression. Delays, particularly in language and social development, are extremely difficult to remedy later on and affect later employability and income levels as well as having severe life limiting impacts on mental and physical health.
Since March 2020, the DFE has been in effect “block” purchasing childcare nationally to ensure financial stability of childcare providers, based on pre-pandemic take up. The decision to base funding for 2021/22 on the number of children registered for places on the date of the Early Years census on January 21st threatens the viability of many settings. The majority of childcare providers offering support for resident under 5’s are based in the most disadvantaged wards and tend to fall into three categories: sole traders, school early years provision or very small local businesses with only one or two sites. Settings which rely on income from employed parents or a “mixed economy” of free entitlements and paid for places are already impacted by the pandemic’s impact on employment. We estimate that 60% of these providers may be vulnerable as a result of this decision, undermining recovery and our local efforts to address child poverty and support women’s workforce participation. LB Tower Hamlets will retain a duty to ensure sufficient provision of free entitlement places to meet local demand, meaning that it may be required to fund additional free early years entitlement places for 3, 4 and some 2 year-olds if demand rises above nationally funded levels.
How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with local authorities and with support organisations to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty and to mitigate the impact of poverty on children?
There are two areas in particular where we believe support could be improved.
Firstly, we would welcome a review of the support available to low income families. With a total of 41,170 Tower Hamlets residents in receipt of universal credit (26,788 people not in employment and 14,380 in employment), the temporary uplift during the pandemic has provided an important lifeline to many families. Retaining this uplift beyond April 2021 would go a long way towards protecting families from further hardship over the course of the recovery period. However, a range of social security measures introduced since 2010 have contributed to the rise in the child poverty rate in Tower Hamlets. Review of the benefit cap, the two child limit and the minimum income floor, as well as better and more flexible financial help for people moving onto Universal Credit, and rules around No Recourse to Public Funds are urgently needed to address the hardship many families face.
Secondly, like many local authorities, LB Tower Hamlets is working hard to identify low income families to promote take-up of benefits to which they are entitled, and to intervene early to prevent evictions and ummanageable debt. We run one of the most generous council tax reduction schemes in the country, with reductions of up to 100% for some residents. However, our efforts are hampered by limited information about universal credit applications. Access to data about universal credit applications would allow the council to provide earlier, targeted support to families, particularly those at risk of eviction. Evictions and homelessness come at a high cost to the council. However, the greatest costs of homelessness are to children and their families: with disrupted education and family support, and lasting consequences for family functioning and children’s mental health. We recommend that local authorities are provided with access to data about households applying to Universal Credit in order to support effective early intervention.
What would be the merits of having a cross-government child poverty strategy? How well has this worked in the past?
In Tower Hamlets, access to employment, skills and earnings, housing costs and social security, all contribute to child poverty and require a comprehensive and cross-government response. As a local authority, we would benefit from the good practice guidance, evaluation evidence and exchange of experience that accompanied the requirement to produce local child poverty strategies prior to 2016.