Is charity enough?

Christmas is traditionally a time for charity towards the
neglected, the lost and those at the bottom of the social pile. So
instead of reviewing the topics and groups that dominated the
headlines, it is appropriate to identify those that did not.

In February, the trial took place of a man who battered
three-year-old Chloe Highley to death. It emerged that Chloe’s
mother had given her to a private foster carer without the
involvement of social workers. The case was reported in Scotland
but attracted almost no attention from the national dailies based
in London.

Chloe is not the only foster child to be neglected by officials and
the press. There are an estimated 10,000 private foster children in
Britain. Some are well cared for but others are in a position of
potential abuse. Local authorities are responsible for private
fostering but know of the existence of only a minority. The
government has failed to bring in a register of private foster
carers and, just as important, has failed to resource social
services departments so that they can seek them out. This Christmas
there will be thousands of children with private foster carers,
many of them black children with white carers, and many with no
visits from social workers or their parents. The government
neglects them.

A recent report by rehabilitation agency Nacro estimates that up to
100,000 children have vanished from the school system. Some drop
out because the schools cannot cope with them. Others are with
parents whose chaotic lifestyles mean that they move from place to
place. They are officially lost.

They are not the only ones. I came out of our flat door one morning
to find a young man sleeping on the stairs. A drug abuser, he had
been kicked out by his parents and was homeless.

There are others like him who prefer to stay with friends or sleep
rough rather than go to a hostel. They are not registered as
available for work, not on a housing list, not in receipt of
benefits. They are lost to the system and of little concern to the

At the bottom Britain is an increasingly unequal society. In terms
of income, the gap between the top and bottom ever widens with many
earning more than £100,000 a year while thousands exist on
less than £10,000.

The contrast is even more stark with regard to wealth. In 2001, the
richest 1 per cent of the population owned nearly a quarter of all
marketable wealth while 50 per cent owned just 5 per cent. The mass
media do not consider inequality a matter of importance so it is
useful that the government’s Office of National Statistics releases
these figures.

The effects on those at the bottom are both physical and
psychological. The children of manual workers are twice as likely
to die in infancy than those of professional parents. If they
survive, they are almost certain to suffer more illness and to die
years before their more affluent counterparts. Further, those at
the bottom in a rich society can feel rejected, helpless, defeated.
These feelings appear to be expressed in apathy, withdrawal, anger
and aggression which then provokes further condemnation and
rejection by society at large.

The neglected, the lost, those at the bottom, receive little
interest from the press and little help from the powerful. In
April, MPs cheerfully accepted a salary increase taking them to
£55,118 a year (£135,000 for cabinet ministers) plus
enormous perks. They display sympathy but refuse to find the public
resources to protect private foster children, to seek out the
homeless and penniless, to counter inequality. Within the
establishment, there is a soft callousness which is worse than the
outright cruelty of King Herod.

Some years ago, I attended the carol service at the local Salvation
Army. The captain was enthusiastically conducting the singing when
he suddenly walked out. After a long silence, my wife Annette led
“choose your favourite carol”.

Later the captain explained that he had spotted a shabbily dressed,
elderly man entering the hall at the back and he deemed the needs
of that one man more important than the carol service. This is the
Christmas spirit.

In 2004, if the neglected, the lost and those at the bottom are to
be treated properly, politicians, officials, the media, all of us,
will have to take on the captain’s practice that the most needy
must have priority.

Bob Holman is the author of The Unknown Fosters. A
Study of Private Fostering
, Russell House Publishing,

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