2012: Food banks, women bishops and benefit reform

What I learnt in 2012 was how hard it is to take the politics out of social affairs.

Poverty in the UK was a consistent theme, as the recession and public spending cuts affect every day life. But poverty, its nature and its causes are not as simple as either the Left or the Right would have us believe.

The rise of food banks and the reality that thousands of our children are arriving at school hungry each day made headlines. How many children live in poverty, and how to define poverty itself, were fiercely argued over by Left and Right. But nothing is as simple as the political soundbites suggest.

Hungry pupils, for example aren’t just the result of economic hardship. Lack of education, aspiration and basic nutritional information are at play here too, something that cash alone can’t solve.

Volunteers at the Black Country Food Bank prepare food parcels for vulnerable individuals and families at their base in Halesowen. Credit: Press Association

Benefit reform continued apace and the government remained safe in the knowledge that public opinion remains broadly in favour of the principle of making work pay. The Autumn Statement saw further cuts in the welfare budget, which included some measures which will affect the disabled and their carers, despite claims at the time that their benefits would be protected from the one per cent uplift. There is real concern and alarm amongst the disabled that the reforms will hit them hard. The public may not remain so supportive if the disabled lobby gains momentum and sympathy over the coming months.

Winterbourne View residential hospital in Bristol. Credit: Press Association.

There was broad support for the Government reforms announced last month to the care for those with learning disabilities in the wake of the Winterbourne Review. Long stay institutions will be phased out and more people in need of care placed closer to their homes in community environments. On paper, nobody could fault the plan – but as one seasoned lobbyist stated at the launch: “We have been here before; good intentions don’t always result in policy changes.” No doubt the families and Mencap will be watching carefully, ready to hold those responsible to account.

BBC Trust Chairman Lord Pattern. Credit: Press Association

The BBC has been busy trying to hold those responsible for failures in its journalism to account. The Jimmy Saville expose on ITV lead to a furore which was a turning point in our attitude to the historic sexual abuse of minors, which was the real issue which mattered behind the journalism. This, together with a new found determination to tackle the crime of on-street grooming of the type which blighted towns in the north-west, like Rochdale, may help to make our children safer.

Although experts like the police, CEOP and the NSPCC still point out that the greatest danger to children is still to be found in the home. That didn’t grab as many headlines. Indeed, earlier in the year failures in the treatment of children in care and in children’s homes lead our News At Ten, as we shone a light on injustices within that system.

The Church of England led our bulletins several times during 2012. First as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury resigned and then as his successor, Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham, was chosen. But it was its decision not to allow women bishops that dominated news coverage towards the end of the year. It was a turning point that even the church’s own leadership admitted was damaging to its image and standing. In 2013 I expect the church will try to reverse that decision as the issue continues to dominate its agenda.

Rowan Williams following the decision by the church not to allow women bishops. Credit: Press Association.

Other issues which dominated 2012 will remain central to our news coverage; notably welfare reform with the gradual roll out of universal credit and the changes to the welfare claims of the disabled.The issue of sexual abuse will remain current too. There is another major trial of an alleged grooming gang, this time in Oxford in the spring.

But it will be the fall out in our society from the on-going economic hardship, which I expect will dominate the social affairs agenda of 2013, with politicians and lobbyists blaming everything on opposing parties.

ITV News' Business Editor Laura Kuenssberg and I may return to the Great North Road, where we travelled this autumn, to asses the social impact of the economic downturn once more. The politicians and interest groups in London may do all they can to make social affairs political. But we at ITV News will do all we can to keep people, not politics, at the heart of our coverage.