Even with the mistrust so many Britons now feel about this
government, and even with the suspicion that rises each time we
encounter every newly spun policy, it is undeniable that children
are receiving more and better attention in our society today than
they ever did under the Tories.
Much more needs to be done to protect and nurture the nation’s
children, but the Children Bill is a good and sure start. I still
believe Margaret Hodge with her abysmal record in local government
is the wrong person to be the children’s minister but she is rising
to the task. Children have moved up the national agenda.
The Children Bill came out of a case that shamed our country.
Victoria Climbie’s short, tormented life in Britain haunts us all.
There was murderous cruelty on the part of her relative, horrific
neglect on the part of various authorities, sickening cover-ups and
the dishonourable use of antiracism to deflect culpability. The
child was never asked how she felt. She suffered and died, violated
by her tormentors and gagged by the indifference and incompetence
of professionals. What is there in this bill that may just prevent
another such victim?
A lot, actually. The different professionals who dealt with this
child along the way clearly failed to communicate adequately with
each other. As Hodge says: “We must break down the culture of
suspicion between professionals where they don’t trust each other
sufficiently to share information.”
If efficient information-sharing systems were legally binding, that
would make an impact. However, we have just witnessed the humbling
of a police force which tried to use data protection as an excuse
for failing to warn the school which employed Ian Huntley about his
previous alleged sexual interest in young girls. Greater
clarification is obviously needed on the balance between the rights
of privacy and the right to protection. As this bill travels its
course, it is to be hoped that clarity will emerge.
I have long argued for a children’s commissioner, which is one of
the key parts of this bill. It is said that the person will be an
independent champion. But what is the point of this job if the
commissioner cannot conduct investigations into individual cases?
The commissioner in Wales can do this, but in England Hodge says
the government wants the appointee to focus on “the wider
This is unacceptable. In a growing human rights culture, why should
a vulnerable child who is being failed by the system not have an
advocate who can authoritatively castigate those responsible? What
is the point of the job if the minister is already suggesting that
soft activities such as media monitoring of images is the really
useful thing the commissioner can be getting on with? If the
commissioner did have the right to oversee individual cases,
whistle-blowers would know where to go, and others too who know
full well that, as soon as there is a whiff of institutional blame,
a defensive mentality descends to block questions.
Those of us who have been fighting for equality since the 1960s
understand that state interventions have to be a clever mixture of
punitive measures and educative programmes. One without the other
It was noticeable that there has been no mention of the need for an
investigation into the way big business and media outlets target
and exploit children, deliberately enticing them into lifestyles,
identities and patterns of consumption they know can only damage
them. Yes, it would be interesting to have a report on how children
are portrayed. But to take a more incisive look at business and the
media would upset the rich and powerful business community and, as
we know, New Labour never wants to do that.
Finally, it is important that we aim always for higher standards
for the care of British children and this bill is part of that
ambition. Lack of money is not the whole reason why we still fall
short of these standards. But, as expectations increase, it is
disingenuous to argue that progress can be achieved by getting more
value for the money spent.
We have spent billions on bombing the families of Iraq, yet we
never have enough money to spend on building the lives of their
children or ours.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and