One in five children living in poverty

One in five Norfolk children lives below the poverty line, according to shocking new figures.Policymakers are being urged to adopt a new blueprint containing simple quick-fix ideas to lift thousands of youngsters from the despair of deprivation.

One in five Norfolk children lives below the poverty line, according to shocking new figures.

Policymakers are being urged to adopt a new blueprint containing simple quick-fix ideas to lift thousands of youngsters from the despair of deprivation.

A hard-hitting report from Norfolk County Council's scrutiny committee found that 44,000 people live in the most deprived wards in the country and 22,211 children lived in homes where their parents did not work.

It also details how issues such as low skill levels in Norfolk and the isolation of youngsters in rural areas - where 42pc of homes have no car - all contribute to the poverty trap.

The cross party report found a “strong correlation” between deprivation and the numbers of Norfolk youngsters in care.

But the picture is being made more complex by the recession with evidence that increased benefit take up may help offset the problem, while increasingly working families on low incomes may be struggling most.

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Key to the report was a call to the county council to propose a joint scheme with the Department for Work and Pensions to see if people moving from benefits to work could get any 'bridging' payments to help cover any drops in income.

Trevor Wainwright, chairman of the scrutiny working group which produced the report said the idea was to produce answers which could be implemented quickly and easily with more joint working between councils, the voluntary sector, and other public bodies such as the police and the NHS.

“The numbers are shocking,” he said. “Child poverty is still high and with the recession it's a case of one step forward, two steps back. What we didn't want to do was come up with too many big recommendations that never happened and we found while everybody talked about it, work wasn't really being linked.

“People wanted to go back to work but once they got a job their benefits stopped and they had to wait up to six weeks before they got their first pay packet,” he added. “This came up time and again.”

In February the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that the government will miss its target of halving child poverty by 2010 unless it spends an extra �4.2bn a year raising tax credits.

But the Norfolk report said that policymakers locally also had a strong role to play.

The blueprint acknowledged the work already being carried out in the county, but also included a serious of recommendations to help lift youngsters from poverty ranging from:

-free meals at school-based holiday play schemes;

-improving transport access for youngsters in rural areas;

-boosting access to credit unions and debt advice;

-more action to target loan sharks;

Dealing with poor quality housing and the lack of affordable homes was also key to tackling the problem, the report said.

Mr Wainwright conceded that the cost of the play scheme meals, which would be offered to youngsters currently getting free dinners, could top �275,000 a year - but insisted it could bring wider benefits.

“There are 12,400 families who receive free school meals, while they are getting a hot meal in term time they may not be getting a nutritional meal during the holidays,” he said. “It's a lot of money, but by encouraging these children to go to play schemes it also helps keep them off the street, reduces anti-social behaviour, and has health benefits, too”.

The report includes experiences of councillors detailing how relatively simple acts could help.

One councillor said: “Four young sisters were taken into care. They had all suffered a lot but as we got to know them one seemed much less damaged than the others. It turned out she had been in the habit of being trusted to take a neighbour's dog for a walk each day.”

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children's services, welcomed the findings. She said the authority was already working to tackle many of the issues raised to break the poverty cycle and many schools were also working hard to raise the ambitions of youngsters. Another key area was tackling domestic violence and teenage pregnancies which could all add to the poverty spiral.

She was also keen on the “bridging payments” idea.

“I would encourage the county council to take this up with the government,” she said. “I think that's an excellent idea.”

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