Britain is resembling the two nations of the Victorian era once again

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By Josh Nicholson, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice

There are those that are getting by, and there are those who are not. Britain is deeply divided – in every metric that the Social Justice Commission used, we found deep gaps between the general public and the most disadvantaged.

For the most disadvantaged, work is barely worth it; their lives are marked by generations of family breakdown, their communities are torn apart by addiction and crime, they live in poor quality, expensive and insecure housing and they are sick, both mentally and physically.

These are some of the findings of the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) landmark Two Nations: The State of Poverty in the UK report, published in December 2023. This report was led by the Social Justice Commission, made up of politicians from all parties, including Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, business and charity leaders and big names from the media.

‘Two Nations’ is the Commission’s interim report, which diagnoses the root causes of Britain’s deep malaise and social breakdown. A final report of solutions will be published in the Spring of 2024.

The Commission travelled the length and breadth of the country to speak to charities and lived experience panels. We held six Big Listen events across the UK, where we convened roundtables of charity leaders to hear what the biggest issues and best solutions were, including one in Manchester for the North West. We also polled over 6,000 adults, 3,000 from the general public and a special 3,000 boost of the most financially deprived.

What the Commission found was a tale of two nations.

40% of the most deprived self-diagnose as having a mental health problem, compared to 13% of the general public. We forecast that over 1 in 4 children (27.8 per cent) aged 5-15 will have a probable mental disorder by 2030. This is nearly twice as high as what would have been forecast if the COVID-19 pandemic had never happened. The general public are 60% more likely to say they will progress at work in the next year than the most deprived. Nearly 3 in 4 of the most deprived worry about the cost, security, and quality of their housing.

While many of these issues are decades in the making, the tumultuous lockdown years were blamed by many for pouring petrol on the flames of social breakdown. Here’s what a few charities in the North West of England told the Commission at our Big Listen event.

Oasis Centre, Big Listen North West:

“Lockdown caused so many people to relapse into debt, gangs, addiction. People were making choices that didn’t help them, but they were thinking ‘oh whatever’.”

Barnabus, Big Listen North West:

“Pre-pandemic we saw people with different levels of need accessing support – now they all have high needs.”

Big Listen North West Attendee:

“Children were educated at home via Zoom for a couple of years. So, their social interaction, their social norms have been affected. We are seeing a big rise in teenagers who are unable to have a healthy, respectful relationship.”

Demand for charity services skyrocketed in lockdown and has not come down since. Successive lockdowns devastated Britain’s most deprived communities and so far, no one has offered a plan to match the scale of the problem.

In this election year, it is critical that both Labour and the Conservatives are offering solutions to heal the gaping wounds that are decades in the making, as well as the recent social and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges facing the most disadvantaged were not taken into account when demands where made to lock down during the pandemic. If post-COVID, there is no effort to tackle the root causes of poverty in a comprehensive manner, Britain, as a whole, will always be poorer.

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