Liverpool’s next Archbishop Malcolm McMahon warns of child poverty problem

Catholic leader says ‘malnourished’ schoolchildren are becoming commonplace in first interview since appointment

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One of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic leaders has delivered a stark warning over the level of poverty in this country, saying children are coming to school malnourished.

The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, who will be the next Archbishop of Liverpool, said a “veneer of prosperity” in Britain’s redeveloped city centres masks “every day” child poverty and hunger.

The bishop, who is chairman of the Catholic Education Service – responsible for overseeing one in 10 schools in England and Wales – said teachers observed deprivation on a daily basis.

“There is a poverty which we witness every day in our schools,” he said.

“Children come in and we know that they’re not nourished properly, they can’t keep up with the other children, with their lessons,” he said in his first interview since being appointed to the influential position in the staunchly Catholic city.

His comments come as the Children’s Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson warned young people were hit hardest by the Government’s austerity programme. “The poorest families, and therefore their children, are paying the price now,” she told Total Politics magazine.

The archbishop-elect, who began his career working for London Transport as a bus engineer, said the problems persisted despite vast levels of public investment in recent years.

“You notice it when you drive through Liverpool, it all looks nice and glossy. But this city will be like many cities, from what we experience in Nottingham or Leicester or other places,” he told The Tablet.

His comments closely echo those of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who last month warned of the crisis caused by the Government’s social reforms, which he said had “torn apart” the safety net leaving many in “hunger and destitution”.

This followed criticism of the gap between rich and poor voiced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the leaders of the Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed Churches who claimed welfare cuts were unjustly targeting the most vulnerable.

Anti-poverty campaigners welcomed the Archbishop’s intervention. Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group said the problem was rising again in Britain.

“Even in the wealthiest parts of the city there will be some poverty hidden behind pride and closed doors. The Government is currently consulting on a new child poverty strategy and we need bold action from them to stop the growing scandal of child hunger, child poverty and damaged life chances in Britain today,” she said.

Department of Work and Pensions figures published last month revealed that 3.5 million children in the UK were now growing up in poverty. In Liverpool, where a third of children are from poor families, more than £1bn worth of regeneration projects started last year.

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson welcomed the comments but said investment was the key to growing prosperity across the city.

“The Archbishop is absolutely right. With the greatest respect he needs to come around and have a look at those areas of high deprivation and see what we are trying to do to create investment and jobs.

“I am delighted that we have got somebody that will highlight the challenges and the issues we face. It is about time that leaders of faith groups of whatever denomination speak out,” he said.

In Leicester, which has also undergone a £1bn investment programme in new building including the Highcross shopping centre, Curve theatre and Phoenix Square cinema, it is estimated there are 23,000 children living in poverty  – 29 per cent of the city’s total.

In Nottingham, Bishop McMahon’s diocese since 2000, the figure is 32 per cent. The city has just signed a deal for the £150m redevelopment of a shopping centre, on top  of the £40m upgrade of another mall.