The Government says has improved the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the UK. It wants to make its record here a centrepiece of its election campaigning. But a just-published report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England shows the Government is failing to protect children from abuse, depriving some children of an education, putting vulnerable children at risk, and falling a long way short of its pledge to “eradicate child poverty”.
In October 2002, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report on the UK’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee inspected UK performance in 2002 and made 78 recommendations for improvement, including calls for a ban on smacking and reform of juvenile justice. The Children’s Rights Alliance re-examined the UN recommendations and found New Labour had made progress in only 17 areas.
Some improvement has been made on child poverty. Four years ago 2.8 million children lived in households which could be considered low income. In 2002-3 the figure was 2.6 million. That’s progress.
But like the Tory government before it — which was constantly changing the way unemployment was counted — New Labour has used the method of counting low income most flattering to their target-driven policies. The government figures do not take into account housing costs. Include housing costs, and, although there have been decreases in absolute poverty, a staggering 3.6 million children are still poor.
The reality of poverty? That cannot be adequately described by a government statistician. It means such things as the conditions highlighted in a 2004 report by the Food Commission — 43% of parents on low incomes regularly go without food to ensure their children have enough to eat.
The Alliance’s report tells us a lot about the general approach of New Labour to problems of deprivation and social decay. The government is increasingly using the criminal justice system to intervene into the lives of poor families and their children. This is their method of solving society’s problems.
Thirty years ago welfare agencies and local government services were expected to help families and communities. Governments had to think about, if not actually implement, job creation schemes. The welfare state may have fallen short of ideal, but there was a presumption of social solidarity and that everyone’s lives should be made better.
In contrast New Labour makes life better for the bosses and more stressful for the workers. They provide incentives for employers to employ people at very low wages through privatisation, a low minimum wage, and tax credits. They ever more crudely police the workers who do not make, or who cannot make, the grade in this low-wage society.
Anti-social behaviour orders (half of which are issued to children) go along with locking up parents who don’t send their children to school and having the police pick up children under 16 who are “hanging around”.
Small wonder that so many children end up in prison. The Alliance’s report gives a graphic account of the “criminalisation” of children.
In 2004 more than 6,000 children were incarcerated — the UK has the highest rate of child imprisonment of most industrialised, democratic countries. At least eighty-one children have been locked up for breaching an anti-social behaviour order.
Prison, even the secure units which are prisons for children, are a brutalising environment especially for young and maybe vulnerable people. Depriving anyone of their liberty is a very harsh punishment indeed. That is why 27 children have died in custody since 1990, most through suicide. Two children have died in custody this year, both in privately run secure training centres.
Many hundreds more resort to self-harm.
Even if children survive the loss of liberty, there are other deprivations:
• Being restrained: 12 to 14 year-olds were restrained 11,593 times in secure training centres in the past four years.
• Being lonely: in 2003 a quarter of children in young offender institutions had not received a family visit in the previous 12 months.
• Being humiliated: “special cells” were used on 174 occasions in young offender institutions in 2003. The cells often have no furniture or sanitation and it has been reported that children are sometimes stripped of their clothes. In one young offender institution, Stoke Heath, a child was kept in an unfurnished cell for 20 hours and 45 minutes.
• Being drugged up to the eyeballs: a 2004 survey of 1,200 children in Prison Service custody showed that 48% of girls and 23% of boys were taking prescription drugs
• Being left to rot: children in custody are excluded from the statutory right to education. In March 2004, Prisons Minister Paul Goggins said that “inmates” of young offender institutions (aged 21 and under) received on average 7.1 hours per week education the previous year.
There is an ideology that underlies the Government’s punitive treatment of children. It feeds into the dog-eat-dog philosophy which New Labour have so enthusiastically embraced. Children — because maybe they have a little bit of the devil in them — must be beaten into shape, and that is the way to ensure “civilised” behaviour.
The logic stinks. How can locking children away, refusing to educate them and allowing them to be so alone they feel the need to hurt themselves, be right?
If many children are out of control it must, logically, be entirely the fault of adult society, for it is adults who guide and educate children. It is to society, with its increasing inequality, intolerance and lack of human solidarity that we must look to for cures.
Before we can do that we need to have a clear and positive vision of what we want for children.
In 2004 the Government introduced legislation to improve child protection. Introduced in response to the official report into the horrific murder of Victoria Climbie, the legislation proposed, among other things, to restructure local services and establish a Children’s Commission. At the time experts on children’s issues criticised the proposals for having no concept of children’s rights. There was more wrong with the legislation than that, not least the inadequate funding to implement the changes. However the centrally important flaw was that this law does not recognise that children have rights.
With that in mind it becomes increasingly clear that certain things about our society are just intolerable.
It is a crime that adults still have the right, however attenuated, to hit children. Children should have the right to not be assaulted. It is crime that some refugee children will be locked up with their parents in “accommodation centres” with no right to an education. Children have the right to a place of safety, to freedom, and to an education
What should society do? It is quite simple. It is what the German socialist August Bebel advocated 110 years ago. Society must care for its children:
“Every newly born is a welcome addition to society, for society sees in him the prospect of its continuation and its own further development and, therefore, also feels the duty to defend the new human being to the best of its ability.”
We advocate such things a:
• full employment; publicly funded job creation, especially in the public services;
• an increase in benefits across the board and a linking of benefit rates to average wages; a restoration of benefit rights to 16 and 17 year olds.
• a much higher mimimum wage, the same for all from 16 and upwards;
• an end to all incarceration of children;
• rebuild and increase funding for all social services such as youth services, child protection, health services (such as health visitors);
• ban all corporal punishment;
• children to have the right to be a part of the decision making that affects their lives.
Bits and pieces of good work have been done by New Labour: the Sure Start Schemes, education for teenage mothers, money to counteract bullying in school.
But such initiatives are no substitute for fully-funded welfare services that would once have provided a comprehensive “safety net” for working class people. And they are all very marginal set against the impoverishment and suffering millions of children in the UK live with.