Child poverty: Good Scrutiny in Sunderland
What are the big issues of the day? Europe, for sure. The economy for another. The scourge of ISIS. What can local government scrutiny say to these? Very little, you would think – after all, the crucial levers that determine economic and foreign policy are not in the hands of any ordinary member in a Council. But, as the Foreword in Sunderland’s review on child poverty from July last year made clear there are some issues which, though clearly requiring national solutions, is “everybody’s business”, including local authorities’.
Child poverty: small steps towards a big impact
Child poverty is one of them. It may not be caused by the actions of local authorities, but its effects are certainly felt there. It was estimated that Sunderland spends an extra £187 million per year on the effects of child poverty, with its effects on children filtering through into their later life. The Children’s Services Scrutiny Panel tackled the issue of child poverty in Sunderland. It attempted to find out what child poverty looks like on ward level, and what practical outcomes could be achieved by the council to remedy some of its worst effects.
The review happened to occur at a similar time to the Council producing its own Child Poverty Needs Assessment and Strategy (CPNA). This meant that the panel could look back and forth between what they read and heard in evidence gathering sessions, and what the Council itself identified as key issues. The scrutiny officer mentioned how, as the review went on, the project transitioned from the general to two specific issues more focussed on Sunderland:
- Why do some families not take up their entitlements, such as free school meals and free nursery education offered to disadvantaged two year olds?
- What could be done about the problem of holiday hunger – children being unable to have three good meals during the long summer holidays?
Holiday vouchers – a small difference in the fight against child poverty
The evidence sessions and the recommendations to Cabinet were linked to these two questions. At the outset, members and officers went out to children’s centres to talk to families. This helped them get a better sense of the pressures that families face that may lead to them not taking up the services to which they are entitled. The Panel recommended that Cabinet explore the possibility of giving disadvantaged children access to a nutritious meal during the summer holidays. This has since occurred – area committees within Sunderland piloted a scheme whereby families with children entitled to free school meals would receive holiday food vouchers during the summer holidays. This has helped around 750 children receive nutritious meals in summer, relieving pressure off family budgets.
As the report mentioned many times, child poverty is in large part a symptom of other wider socio-economic issues – from health and employment to crime and social care. The scrutiny review made clear that a partnership approach incorporating all mainstream services would be most effective.
One of the local MPs – Sharon Hodgson – has played her part via her role as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food. She has urged and helped schools run sporting activities during the holiday with lunch included. This role has got her nominated for a Grassroot Diplomat Award. The scrutiny review also asks key questions as to who should take responsibility for which parts of the CPNA. Above all else, the scrutiny review has kept the issue of child poverty firmly at the front of people’s minds.
With thanks to Karen Brown, Scrutiny Officer at Sunderland City Council.You can read the final report here.