Looking back on his years as a social worker in the 1970s, Paul O’Grady is horrified at how little has changed for children in
poverty over the past 50 years.
The TV presenter started working in a children’s home in Birkenhead when he was 18 before taking a council job providing respite care for families in North London three years later.
He was heartbroken by the things he saw.
Paul, 64, says: “You wouldn’t believe the Dickensian squalor. There were kids who had never had a decent meal, who had gone to school without breakfast and looked at me like I was a maniac when I made them food.
“They always had scabies, some of them had nits. It was awful. That was the 70s and I’ve always thought, child poverty has never left us.”
Paul is backing the Daily Mirror’s Give Me Five campaign calling for an immediate boost to child benefit.
Just a £5-a-week increase would see families gain £340 a year on average and lift 200,000 children out of poverty.
We also want the Government to restore child tax credits, scrap the two-child limit and axe the benefit cap.
Our campaign – launched ahead of next week’s Budget – is backed by the End Child Poverty Coalition, charities , politicians and unions.
Paul believes the Government has got its priorities very wrong.
He says: “I watch the news and sit there gobsmacked. Why do we need a railway that’s going to get us to Birmingham or Manchester 10 minutes earlier?
"We’re the taxpayer, it’s our money and it should be put to better use. Child poverty is something that they need to tackle. It’s going to get worse.
“These benefit cuts are draconian. We’re veering back to means testing and workhouses the way they’re carrying on.”
Paul says we owe it to children in poverty to try to make the change.
He says: “They are the future and if they don’t get a good education, aren’t cared for and aren’t given the basic things in life – like clothing, decent food and the odd treat – then God knows where they’ll be.
"The Government isn’t going to do anything about it. We’ve got to put pressure on. Boris can say what he likes, but until I see it on the table then I won’t believe a word.”
As a social worker, Paul witnessed everything from hunger to filth. He explains: “It’s so sad to see a hungry kid.
“School dinners were a joy – they would probably be the only kids who would go up for seconds. And when they came home they would be lucky to get a butty or something.”
He adds: “We used to go up and do the laundry in Kentish Town and I had a pram full of bundles of washing. And guys in their black cabs would be screaming laughing at me with this pram and a gang of kids.
“These families had nothing – they’d got lousy furniture, threadbare carpets and didn’t have tellys because they couldn’t afford the licence. It was rotten, it really was.”
And Paul often found himself in devastating situations while in the job.
He says: “I’ve had many a punch-up with drunken fathers. I’d have to take the child to a place of safety. That happened very occasionally – it was a really tough job.”
Nevertheless, because of his dedication, Paul made a lasting impact.
He smiles: “I still keep in touch with some of them now, even though they’re in their 40s. I get Christmas cards and a little note now and then.
“When I had the heart attack, I got loads of cards.”
Sadly, he says, life hasn’t got a lot better for many in society, even decades on.
He says: “They go to bed hungry and they wake up and go to school without any breakfast.
It’s not a teacher’s job to feed them – they are there to educate – but often a lot of them do, with their own money. It isn’t right.”
Luckily, child poverty was something Paul never experienced himself. He explains: “I had a lovely childhood and was really lucky. I had a big extended family and all of them were characters.
“I came from a big family of sailors and they’d come back from America with all these American comics and kids’ LPs and wine gums.
“But I went to school with some extremely poor kids.
"The thing with child poverty is that it’s not just about getting a decent meal – they don’t get to go to the cinema, to the theatre, to the fair.
"Christmas is miserable. It’s shocking and they get bullied because of this. Kids say ‘you’re a smelly kid’, a ‘filthy kid’ – I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Kids are cruel.”
And, after visiting a food bank with the Salvation Army in 2016, Paul saw how hard life was for their parents, too.
He says: “Most of the women who came in had jobs. There was one woman who had a cleaning job.
"At 5am, she’d go out cleaning and get back to take the kids to school and then she had another job.
"She still doesn’t make ends meet and she was humiliated at having to go to a food bank. She had two boys and she saw herself as a bad mother and that was obviously affecting her mental health.
“Working class people are proud and asking for help breaks their heart.”
The trouble, says Paul, is poverty is often cheek by jowl with extreme wealth, especially in the capital.
He says: “You come out of the food bank and across the road there are luxury apartments being built. In places like Tower Hamlets you have these fabulous flats on the corner of the street and you go a bit further down and there’s shocking old flats from the 60s, falling to bits.
“Meanwhile, down the road, there’s a kid who has only one change of clothes and hasn’t eaten. They’ve been forced into extreme poverty by these dreadful benefit cuts.”
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