This article appeared in the Friday 16th August 2019 edition of the South London Press.
At the end of June I was delighted to join the Shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport team as the new Shadow Minister for Civil Society.
The first question people usually ask when they find out my job title is “so what exactly is civil society”? The answer is simple, if rather daunting. Civil society covers all organisations which operate outside of government and business. This includes charities, community groups, cooperatives, social enterprises, trade unions and any other not-for-profit organisations. In other words, it’s a huge sector!
The summer holidays have given me the perfect opportunity to get to grips with my new brief, not only because MPs are able to spend more time away from Parliament, but also because the holidays highlight the important role that civil society can play in the lives of our young people.
Nine years of austerity under successive Tory-led governments have left many on the breadline (or below it). Local authorities have been forced to cut their services to the bone, which means that advice and support services are severely limited.
While many children look forward to the school summer holidays and six weeks of freedom, around three million of their peers face a month and a half of food insecurity. Without the certainty of a free school meal at lunchtime, the children or other family members are forced to reduce the amount they are eating or skip meals altogether.
Existing financial difficulties are exacerbated by additional childcare costs for younger children and the need to keep older children occupied. The latter might previously have used youth clubs, but 600 of those disappeared between 2012 and 2016 and many parts of the country have no recognisable youth services at all.
This is where civil society is having to step in. And it’s doing a good job, but it shouldn’t have to. For example, Trussell Trust foodbanks gave out 20 per cent more emergency food parcels last summer. Many of the children who benefitted from them will receive free school meals during term-time, so why does the Government assume that their families won’t need the same financial support during the holidays?
I’m looking forward to using my new position to not only hold the Government to account, but also to amplify the voice of our civil society and ensure that it is part of every important conversation. The sector has a huge amount to offer, but it shouldn’t be responsible for plugging the gaps the Government has created itself.