Have we forgotten our commitment to supporting children?

Evidence suggests that the Coalition's approach is making things worse, not better, for our children.

This is a response to my series on childhood in Britain by Tom Rahilly from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Kate Bell of Child Poverty Action Group, and Roger Harding of Shelter.

Every parent wants the best for their children. From keeping them safe to ensuring that they flourish, they have a common set of aspirations which is echoed by the rhetoric of our political leaders. Ed Miliband has described his concept of the "British Promise": each generation expects their children to do better than them, while David Cameron has asserted in his New Year Message that “We are doing what’s right for our country and what’s best for our children’s future. And nothing could be more important than that.” It seems clear that the prospects for our children are a political priority.

But is this priority translated into action when it comes to making decisions? Or as we focus on resolving the economic crisis, have we forgotten our commitment to supporting children?

The picture is pretty gloomy. Research by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) shows that children’s services have been hit disproportionately by spending cuts. The majority of local authorities have scaled back or closed services. In 2011/12 some councils were forced to slash their children’s services budget by more than 20 per cent, compared to overall cuts of around 10 per cent. Councils are avoiding cuts to statutory services, especially in child protection, and as a result cuts are inevitably falling on preventative services and family support such as Sure Start.

More broadly, research for the NSPCC, Action for Children and the Children’s Society shows the impact that changes to tax and benefit changes and responses to the economic crisis are likely to have on families. The number of vulnerable families is estimated to rise to over one million by 2015, with increases in the number of children in workless households, maternal depression, families in material deprivation, and numbers living in poor quality of overcrowded housing. Current measures to protect families from the impact of austerity are insufficient to stop this trend.

What about the key priority for Government and parents: keeping children safe? The Government has placed high priority on improving support for children in care. The Children and Families Bill, published on 5 February, aims to speed up public law proceedings and reform the process of adopting a child. These measures are welcome but do not in and of themselves improve the quality of support that children in care receive or the family support needed to prevent abuse and neglect before it takes place. An estimated 45 per cent of children in care have mental health difficulties as a result of abuse, neglect and their experiences in care. But too many children don’t receive the support they need - a 2010 study found that 49 per cent of children with an apparent mental health problem were not receiving or accessing a service from mental health services. Councils report that support for children in care is becoming scarcer; a trend that is likely to continue as funding pressures hit home.

These pressures are likely to get worse. Since 2008, the number of children in care has risen from 59,380 to 67,050. The government is right to highlight the difference that care can make. But the focus on early intervention appears to have been lost. The government recently cut support for early intervention by £150 million to support adoption. More help for adoption is welcome but it doesn’t make sense to fund it by cutting earlier support, which can help prevent initial harm. Early help was a key recommendation of the Munro review, supported by ministers just 19 months ago.

When we turn to child poverty, there is a better story to tell. Between 1998/99 and 2010/11, the number of children in poverty fell by 1.1 million, with real benefits for children’s prospects. Looking at child wellbeing between 1997 and 2010, the University of York found that 36 out of 48 indicators across the fields of material wellbeing, child health, subjective wellbeing, mental health, education, housing, child maltreatment, children in care, childcare crime and drugs, had moved in the right direction. The only indicators showing negative trends were immunization rates, diabetes, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases.

But these trends look likely to go into reverse, as child poverty rates are set to dramatically rise in forthcoming years. The IFS predicts that an additional 800,000 children will be in child poverty (measured on the relative measure of 60 per cent of median income) by 2020. From 2010-2015 a working lone parent will lose over six per cent of their weekly income, compared to just over two per cent for a working single person; a couple, with kids, struggling to find work, will lose around 11 per cent compared to just over 8 per cent for the same couple without children. This assessment was made before the impact of the Welfare Uprating Bill, which restricts increases in financial support to 1 per cent across the board. It is likely to result not only in rises to relative poverty rates, but an absolute decline in living standards, as prices rise faster than families’ ability to pay for them.

And when we look at housing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that children are hit harder than most by our chronic lack of decent, affordable homes. For the rising number of children growing up in private rented homes, the dream of a stable place to live seems further away than ever. With the doors to home ownership or social housing locked for many, some families are seeing whole childhoods play out in homes that they can’t make their own. A private rental system designed decades ago, when most renters were students or young professionals, means that most are living from one six or twelve month contract to the next.

For parents, this means sending children to school in September without knowing where they’ll be living come the summer term. Living from tenancy to tenancy, on a merry-go-round of bedrooms, schools and friends, many of the 1.3 million families in privately rented homes wonder when their voices will be heard. If the government is to address the fundamental family need for stability, they must now look at reforming this system and give families a home where they can put down roots.

Examination of these three areas suggests that the rhetorical commitment to children’s prospects is currently just that. And nor has the relationship between different areas of policy been thought through. The Chief Executive of the Child and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS) has warned that record numbers of children are likely to be taken into care this year, due to the effects of benefits changes and public sector cuts. Poverty is widely recognised as one of the factors that increase the stresses in families that can result in abuse and neglect. It also is critically linked to poor housing. The rising cost of paying for a home is a major contribution to family budgets squeezed far beyond the comfort zone, and more than a third of renting families say that they’ve cut down on food to pay the rent.

Times are undoubtedly tough. People know that and, to some degree, accept it - the response to the economic crisis is the defining issue of the 21st century so far. What people will never accept, though, is giving up on their dreams for their children. Whatever the response to our economic crisis, it has to keep the hope for our children centre stage. Sacrifices today have to pay off for children and families tomorrow. However, across areas like care, family support, family income and housing, the danger is that we are not only sacrificing today but sacrificing our children’s tomorrows.

The Coalition’s programme for government promised to make society more family friendly. Evidence suggests that this has not been the case. It’s time we think about how we can achieve the best for all children. Our future generations depend on it.

A playground in Tower Hamlets, where a recent study has shown that 42 per cent of children live in poverty. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt