Hunger, debt and anguish: all are there at a Midlands baby bank after 14 years of Tory rule – The Guardian

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If you want to understand what 14 years of Conservative rule has done to this country, look no further than Baby Aid in Birmingham. Run out of an unused room in a church, the charity is the kind of service that – once a rarity – has become common in almost every town and city over the past decade, bleeding into community centres, mosques and village halls.

Like a food bank, Baby Aid fills in the cracks where the welfare state once stood. Referred by a support worker or midwife and delivered by a team of volunteers, parents of young children in crisis are given essentials: from clothes for toddlers to Moses baskets for newborns who have nowhere to sleep.

Born in 2020 in the early days of lockdown, the project was never meant to be long term – just a quick fix to help families in the city through the height of the pandemic. Except the demand never went away. In fact, it got worse. “The referrals just kept coming in,” David, who runs the project alongside being a Labour councillor, tells me.

Rising energy bills ramped up requests two years ago and they haven’t fallen since, he explains. “People had to pay the electric bill rather than buy a pram.” It means the charity is struggling financially: while need has increased, it must also find cash for running costs and rent.

When I speak to David, he is waiting for a couple of deliveries and pick-ups. Midwives are on their way to collect 10 parcels of formula milk, nappies and toys to take back to new mums in the city. “A midwife recently told me she’d be lost without [us] because there’s literally nowhere else to go,” David says. “For her, referring to the baby bank has become a regular part of her day.”

On average, the charity now helps 250 babies and toddlers a month. At Christmas, they hand out gifts to 200 children who wouldn’t otherwise receive one. And yet volunteers know this only scratches the surface. In Ladywood in Birmingham, a staggering 54.5% of children live in poverty – the highest rate of any constituency in the country. It is not a title any community would want. “In terms of need, it’s overwhelming,” David admits.

The story of Baby Aid is in many ways the story of Britain since 2010: how an austerity agenda of benefit cuts and squeezed wages pushed countless people into hunger, debt and anguish; a series of shocks – Brexit, coronavirus, inflation – that were worsened by the chaos and self-interest of the political class; and the vandalism of a public realm that once existed to protect those in need.

Few crises illustrate this more starkly than the scale of child poverty. Across the UK, there are now 4.3 million children in relative poverty – a rise of 100,000 on the previous year. Research this week by the Trades Union Congress found that, over the past 14 years, an extra 1,350 children in homes with at least one working parent have been dragged into poverty every week. That means that, in an average classroom of 30 infants, nine are living below the breadline. In parts of Birmingham, it’s more than half the class.

A line from this month’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on extreme poverty gives a grim glimpse into this new normal: almost a third of primary schools now have a food bank in them. Instead of spelling and times-tables, nowadays teachers help their pupils with clothes and a warm meal.

At the start of the election campaign, the UK’s biggest children’s charities called on the next government to pass a new law within 100 days to commit to eradicating child poverty. You would be forgiven for not knowing that. No front page splashed on it. None of the main party leaders launched a grand speech on the subject. Keir Starmer included tackling child poverty in Labour’s manifesto but said he would only scrap the two-child benefit limit – a key driver of childhood deprivation – “in an ideal world”. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak offered pensioners a “triple lock plus” while pledging £12bn worth of benefit cuts.

On his computer back in Birmingham, David runs me through a spreadsheet that lists the reasons parents have turned to Baby Aid in recent years: universal credit delays, disability benefit problems, domestic violence, and asylum seekers and other parents who don’t have access to state support. It is technically a dataset to help his work but it could just as easily be a postmortem of public policy failure.

Many of the families the charity sees are in temporary accommodation. Multiple adults and children live out of one run-down hotel room; some have rashes on their skin from the mould that lines the walls.

Ladywood has the highest number of children affected by the two-child benefit limit in the whole of the UK, according to figures the Children’s Society shared with me – that’s almost 11,000 and counting. “We’ve seen a devastating impact from the policy,” David says. “If it were scrapped, it would massively reduce the number of people who have to rely on us.”

Elections, particularly one after a party has had a long stretch in office, are largely a judgment on where the nation has been. But, even in the most cautious of campaigns, they also reflect hope for where it may be heading. The belief that somehow, in some ways, life can get easier, if only a little.

The truth is, there are no perfect conditions for change, just as there will always be reasons not to carve out a fairer society, if someone wants to find them. There is no “ideal world” – there is only now. A world where, in what is still one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, millions of children sit in classrooms hungry and go to bed cold.

A week after we talk, David tells me the news he’d been dreading: the baby bank has had to pause its work. If the charity doesn’t get more funding soon, local families will have nowhere to turn.

David recalls a phone call he recently had from a mum in tears. “I assumed it was the pressure of asking for support,” he says. “But it was actually to thank us for dropping off a stroller and baby clothes. She said she had been unable to sleep from the stress of not knowing how she was going to afford these items. Without them, she couldn’t take her baby outside or clothe them.”

One of the greatest myths in politics is that it is a sign of maturity or sense to accept this is all somehow inevitable, as though poverty is a natural part of childhood, no less so than catching chickenpox. Remember next Thursday then, as you watch ministers stand in a community centre at 3am to hear their fate, that this suffering was caused by the choices they made. Because on Friday morning, when the cameras have gone and the blue rosettes are binned, it may just turn back into the local baby bank. That such a horror need not exist in years to come is a hope to hold on to – and a mission for a Labour government to embrace.

  • Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

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