Let’s get radical

Nobody could claim that New Labour has completely ignored the
needs of vulnerable children. Although social services are still
regarded as twilight services and no grand speeches or promises are
ever made by the prime minister or key cabinet ministers on this
area of state responsibility, there can be little doubt that more
has been done by this government than in all the long years under
the Conservatives to get children out of the cycle of poverty, bad
health and under-achievement.

There are still too many children living below the poverty line,
and in households with high levels of physical violence and
emotional terror, and in families with low educational attainments,
and in environments where they get little affirmation and
stimulation and in housing which is inadequate and in high crime
zones. One in three children live in poverty and a quarter of all
British children know the heartbreak of a family breakdown. The gap
between children who have too much and children who have too little
has grown dramatically since the eighties.

A report, Other People’s Children, by Demos, the
left-of-centre think-tank concluded that: “Greater wealth has been
accompanied by greater inequality of wealth… children have lost
out in the process of economic restructuring because of their lack
of visibility and political power… one in 20 mothers say they
sometimes go without food to meet the needs of their child. For the
poorest 20 per cent of the population spending on toys, children’s
clothing, shoes and fresh fruit was no higher in real terms in 1996
than in 1968.”

The government takes this seriously. It has launched targeted
projects to make a difference to the lives of such children and
many of them have indeed produced tangible benefits. In education,
standards have risen as a result of tough minimum standards imposed
on schools. Disadvantaged children have gained more from this than
have privileged children whose parents have choices to opt out of
the state system. Programmes to improve home school liaison, the
Sure Start initiative to help people with poor parenting skills,
and well-crafted tax credits have positively affected the lives of
millions of British children. Government figures for the year 2001
showed that there were 0.5 million fewer children in poverty than
in the last year of the Tory government.

The latest idea is probably one of their best. Thirty five pilot
schemes have been set up around the country to test the idea of
children’s trusts. These will bring together, in the best
traditions of joined-up government, the educational, social and
health requirements of children in need. Hopefully, children will
have a strong voice in these trusts and within two years a credible
evaluation will reveal that these trusts may indeed be an answer to
the fragmentation and ad hoc service delivery which now exists in
different parts of the country.

Maybe after the first phase too, agencies on drug misuse and the
police too can join in to make an even bigger impact on the lives
of these children who should never be so deprived in one of the
richest, most progressive nations in the world.

But the positive outcomes which all decent people must want will
only be possible if New Labour is prepared to think the unthinkable
and take some radical steps. It is my view that the heart of the
problem lies in our libertarian economic policies which drive
society apart viciously and that these need to be re-evaluated in
terms of the terrible impact they have had on our society and on
all our children. The aspirations and lives of poor children and
middle class children have been corrupted by the driven
neo-liberalism which has taken hold of the West. Most people with
full lives care little about the empty lives of children and
families living down the road from them. They go to separate
schools, live as if on different planets. We must change that.
Secondly our government needs to get serious about the culture of
acquisition which the media and businesses have imposed on British
children. Why have they not banned certain forms of advertising
like they have in Sweden for example? Why don’t we have much
stricter regulation of the television programmes made for children?
How can we expect any results of the very good interventions to
improve the prospects for children when we reward selfishness and
the popular culture tells them it is all right to be a thug,
uneducated, rude and self-serving?

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a broadcaster and

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