NEARLY a quarter of children in St Helens were living in poverty last year, new figures show.

Children’s charity Barnardo’s said youngsters “can’t be happy and healthy if they are going to bed in a cold home, on an empty stomach”.

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show 7,543 St Helens children aged under 16 were living in relative poverty in the year to March 2023.

It meant 23% of children in the area were in a family whose income was below 60% of average household income before housing costs. They also claimed child benefit and at least one other household benefit.

This was up from 20.3% the year before and the highest rate since comparable records began in 2014-15.

Of all the children facing poverty in St Helens, 2,351 were below school age.

Lynn Perry MBE, CEO of Barnardo’s, said: “Living in poverty means children miss out on opportunities and the activities that make childhood fun and support their development.

“The Government needs to urgently focus on reducing child poverty.

“That should start with a strategy for ending child poverty, including ending the two-child limit ‘sibling penalty’ on benefit payments and ensuring struggling families can afford essentials like food and household bills.”

Overall, there were 375,559 children experiencing poverty across the North West last year, who accounted for 26.7% of all children in the region.

Cllr Nova Charlton, St Helens Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, said: “As a council, our number one priority is to ensure all children and young people have the best possible start in life which is evident through the range of initiatives and services we deliver, including the Holiday Activity and Food programme (HAF) during most school breaks, and the work coming out of our Family Hubs and children’s centres.

“Our Family Hub offer is ever-increasing, offering support not just for child, parent or carer alone but for the family as a whole. Through the Hubs, we are working with a range of partners including Mobile Food Pantries, Department for Work and Pensions, library services, YMCA, Home Start and many more to provide services and support that local families need. All activities are free and are available throughout the week, with extended opening hours to support those who are working.

“Even so, the cost-of-living crisis continues to affect local families placing more and more households into financial hardship. So in addition to the work we’re doing here in the borough, we’re supporting residents to access the Government’s Household Support Fund locally, for those who are struggling to afford energy, food, water and other essentials.

“We are also calling on Government to expand free school meals and review the eligibility criteria so that more children can access them, easing the burden on households and helping to alleviate food insecurity and poverty, while supporting good nutrition and improving health and learning.”

For information on what support is available for a range of cost-of-living topics, visit: Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride said: “I know the last few years have been tough, with the aftershocks of Covid and the war of Ukraine driving up inflation and cost of living pressures.

“That’s exactly why we stepped in with the biggest cost of living package in Europe, worth an average of £3,800 per household, and this unprecedented support prevented 1.3 million people from falling into poverty in 2022-23.

“We’re also going further in April, by uprating benefits and pensions to support millions of people on the lowest incomes and extending the Household Support Fund to provide vital support for those most in need.”