MP's anger at child poverty remarks

A FURIOUS MP last night branded remarks made by a senior Conservative councillor "disgraceful" after she linked child poverty in an Essex town with the Army.

A FURIOUS MP last night branded remarks made by a senior Conservative councillor "disgraceful" after she linked child poverty in an Essex town with the Army.

Bob Russell, Colchester MP, made his outburst after Tracey Chapman, an Essex County Council cabinet member in charge of the children's services, said because Colchester was a Garrison town there were large population movements that create an unstable community.

This, she claimed, can cause problems with drugs, alcohol and single parents – all factors that add to child poverty.

Mrs Chapman spoke out as a harrowing report by End Child Poverty – a coalition of child protection agencies – revealed that one in four children in eastern England live below the Government breadline.

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The report's authors, who are currently touring the region, said that in more than 50 council wards, at least 30% of children survive on benefits.

Four wards in north Essex were singled out for concern. Three are in Tendring, where Rush Green and Golf Green are afflicted with about 43% child poverty and Harwich east at 32.8%.

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And in Colchester, the St Andrew's ward, which covers the Greenstead estate, suffers 33% child poverty.

Mrs Chapman said: "The fact that Colchester is a Garrison town certainly skews one or two of the wards there.

"The population is moving in and out all the time and there's no stable community.

"There's a large problem with abuse and substances and single parents in the poorer areas – and that contributes to child poverty in one particular ward. "It's the issue around people moving in and out of the town because it's a Garrison that is the problem.

"We have a number of problems with children coming into care in particular areas - some families have drug and alcohol problems and they do have an impact.

"We need more research to find out whether the Army is the problem – but we would like to work more closely with them."

But Mr Russell said her remarks about Colchester were an "appalling slur" on the military.

He said: "I'm flabbergasted by what she said. She displays a disgraceful lack of knowledge about both the town and the Army family.

"I have seen with my own eyes the good work the Army does in terms of family welfare. Wherever you go you get a degree of single parent families, but the only time I have seen large amounts of them in Army circles is when husbands were away fighting in Iraq.

"The Army is much more permanent in the town than it used to be – and the St Andrew's ward mentioned in the report is the other side of the town from the Garrison."

A spokesman for Colchester Garrison, home to 16 Air Assault Brigade, said: "I simply do not recognise the picture she paints – it's in our interests to have a stable family life.

"We have a slogan 'Recruit a soldier, retain a family' and we put considerable effort into keeping families happy through counselling and support."

Typically, there are less than 10 divorces a year in a unit of 700 men and the common stint for a soldier in the town was two years, but the spokesman added: "With the arrival of super garrisons, soldiers will have Colchester as their permanent base for much longer periods, increasing the stability."

According to Government guidelines, poverty is defined as a single parent with two children surviving on £175 per week or a couple bringing up one child on £203 weekly.

End Child Poverty director Jonathan Stearn said: "The problem in East Anglia is very much a hidden one. People have an image of child poverty in inner city London, for example, but would never associate it with East Anglia."

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