THE run-up to Christmas, despite the pandemic, is one of the most enjoyable times of the year for thousands of children across the North East. Spending precious time with family and friends, taking part in school celebrations, eating special food and the excitement of eagerly anticipated gifts will all combine to form childhood memories lasting a lifetime.

Thanks to the tireless work of charities and community groups across the region, and the generous donations they rely on, many families who would otherwise go without will be able to provide their children with a gift, and festive food, on Christmas Day.

However, when many families have to turn to charities to get by, their gratitude is tinged with feelings of stigma. The sad reality is that there is a growing number of families who are struggling to keep their heads above water and to provide for their children.

Of course, hardship doesn’t just bite at Christmas. Even before coronavirus hit, almost two in five babies, children and young people across the North East were growing up poor – the second highest and fastest rising child poverty rate of anywhere in the country in the years leading into the pandemic.

The evidence on the damaging and often lifelong effects of poverty in childhood was already substantial pre-Covid – on infant mortality rates, cognitive skills, social and emotional development, physical health and mental wellbeing, educational outcomes, employment prospects and life expectancy, for example. As the shocking findings of the Child of the North report recently published by 40 leading academics made clear, the pandemic has only exacerbated these stark inequalities for children in the North of England.

Alongside this incalculable human cost, the ‘cost’ of child poverty to our economy and public purse has been estimated at a staggering £38bn a year. And yet, since 2017, England has been the only part of the UK not to have a cross-Government strategy to reduce child poverty, nor a clearly defined action plan against which to measure any progress.

The Government has the perfect opportunity to put this right in the New Year, when it is due to publish some long-awaited detail on what its ‘levelling up’ agenda will actually mean. Therefore, we reiterate our longstanding campaign for ministers to put a plan to reduce and then end child poverty front and centre of ‘levelling up’ policies.

This must include concerted action to bring down unemployment and dramatically increase the number of fairly-paid, secure jobs (as the majority of children in poverty live in working households); a meaningful increase in Child Benefit and investment in a better social security system; decisive steps to tackle rising household costs; and transformative investment in the services that children and families use, including childcare and family support.

There is nothing inevitable about ever-increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty, and having their opportunities and choices restricted. However, reversing this trend will require joined-up, ambitious action and political leadership from the very top.

Ensuring that a plan to reduce and then end child poverty is a central plank of the levelling up agenda is the most meaningful New Year’s resolution the Government could make for babies, children and young people here in the North East. Come on Prime Minister, ‘get it done’!

  • Jane Streather is the chair of the North East Child Poverty Commission