West Norfolk families ‘struggling to pay for food and heat’, report claims

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Almost 12,000 children in West Norfolk are living below the breadline as child benefit cuts force families to cut back on food and heating, new research has found.

The government’s failure to increase child benefit and child tax credits in line with the cost of living over the past three years has left one-in-five families in North West Norfolk struggling to provide the basics for their children, according to action group End Child Poverty.

Its report, ‘Short Changed: The true cost of cuts to children’s benefits’, published on Friday, found 11,800 children in a total of 7,400 families in the constituency cut back on food and heating their homes.

Jo Rust, Labour’s defeated North West Norfolk parliamentary candidate, said it was “an absolute disgrace and tragedy that so many families in our area are having to make heartbreaking decisions of where to spend their money”.

She also said failing to invest properly in children was a false economy, with hungry and cold youngsters being unable to fulfil their potential in school.

But the constituency’s Tory MP Henry Bellingham said there were many positive government changes helping to make families better off that have not been considered in End Child Poverty’s report.

The research found nearly two-thirds of children affected by the cuts come from working families on low incomes. It claimed about 40 per cent of families earning below £15,000 a year said they had cut back on food, and 45 per cent on heating.

It has now called on the government to introduce a “triple-lock” guarantee similar to that applied to the state pension to ensure children’s benefits rise in line with prices, earnings or by 2.5 per cent, whichever is the higher.

David Holmes, chairman of End Child Poverty, said: “It is deeply worrying that parents are having to cut back on food, heating and other essentials that their children need in order to develop and thrive.

“The new government needs to seize the opportunity in the Queen’s speech to stop the rise in child poverty. During the election campaign David Cameron promised not to cut child benefit, now is the time for him to keep that pledge.”

Mrs Rust said she met families having to choose between buying food or heating during her election campaign.

She said: “These children then have to go to school and try to learn, having been either incredibly cold and uncomfortable in the night or going to school hungry.

“This, in turn, impacts on future opportunities these children are going to be able to access, because without being able to feel full from a healthy breakfast, being warm and feeling nurtured, the children are not going to be able to fulfil their potential in school and, as young people, will enter the world without the necessary skills and attributes needed to make North West Norfolk economically sustainable.”

Mr Bellingham said the most sustainable way to relieve child poverty was to get more people into quality, well-paid, permanent jobs.

“I am very pleased unemployment figures have fallen again, and in Lynn we now have a number of companies paying way above the minimum wage,” he said. “The government also wants to get more people out of income tax completely. The threshold has been raised to £10,600 but we are planning on getting it to £12,500.”

“There’s a lot of positive things happening that don’t appear to have been considered in this report.”