Why does The Children and Families Bill fall so short on disabled children's rights?

Two thirds of families with disabled children cannot get the most basic state and local authority support in their own area. Small changes to The Children and Families Bill could change all of that.

An article by Cherie Booth. Image with permission


Families with disabled children face immense challenges on a daily basis, and more often than not encounter a closed door when it comes to ensuring their children enjoy the same opportunities as other children.

Take Sarah*, a mother of a little girl with Down’s syndrome. In stark contrast to her son who is not disabled and can access a range of after school activities and sports, her local primary school doesn’t provide any accessible or inclusive social activities, and even excludes Sarah’s daughter from school trips questioning, ‘What would she get out of it?’

The impact this has on Sarah’s daughter’s life is profound. It leaves her isolated, severely inhibiting her ability to make friends and build relationships with others.

Families often face other problems. Four in 10 disabled children live in poverty; children with special educational needs (SEN) are 9 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school; and 3/4 of families with disabled children experience poor mental health as a result of the social, emotional, and financial isolation they face.

To put it simply, they are at crisis point.

And at the heart of this issue is the critical lack  of support for disabled children within their own community, support that other families simply take for granted - be it access to the right school or nursery place, or to leisure activities they can enjoy.

Recent research by the disability charity Scope has found that two thirds of families with disabled children cannot get this most basic state and local authority support in their own area. Instead they have to travel or stay away from home, often creating many more difficulties in terms of increased time and costs for families that are already struggling,

A supportive learning environment and access to extra-curricular activities provided locally should not be seen as a ‘luxury’ for families like Sarah’s. Disabled children have just as much right as every other child to be involved in their community and to deny these families such support is a violation of their rights.

This is important. The future of some of Britain’s most vulnerable families will be debated this week when the House of Lords begins consideration of The Children and Families Bill, which contains the Government proposed reforms to support for families with disabled children and those with special educational needs. One in fifteen of all families has a disabled child, and more than a fifth of children, around 1.7 million, have special educational needs, so this Bill will affect many thousands of people. 

But the Government’s reforms in the Bill fall woefully short of the kind of transformative change that is needed. This warning has also just been sounded by over 100 charities and parents’ organisations.

On top of that, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed serious concerns that the Bill will fail to ensure disabled children can fulfil their right to participate in their local community, and UNICEF, in their recent ‘State of the World’s Children’ report, has warned that much more needs to be done by Governments to adopt more inclusive approaches to disabled children - ‘making the mainstream work for everyone rather than creating parallel systems.’

In fact the Government can achieve this with a small change to the Bill: ensuring that the services all families need for their child to reach their potential - schools, nurseries, youth groups, playgrounds - are inclusive and accessible for disabled children. By doing this we can also tackle the common misconception that they always need ‘different’ or ‘specialist’ services, which are inevitably somewhere away from where they live.

David Cameron recently said ‘When you've had the privilege of bringing up a profoundly disabled child, you suddenly realise there are two different sets of places: those that are disabled-friendly, that are accessible, that are helpful; and those that aren't… And what this all about really, is greater equality in our country, making sure that all places are more friendly, and accessible to disabled people.'

But this welcome and undoubtedly genuine sentiment is sadly nowhere to be seen in the reforms in the Children and Families Bill. The Government must rectify this if families with disabled children are to be included in David Cameron’s vision to be most ‘family friendly government ever’.

An article by Cherie Booth. Image with permission
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Turkey's turmoil should worry David Cameron

Splits in the Turkish government could play into the Brexiteers' hands.

While Britain focused on Sadiq v Zac and Cameron v Corbyn, in Turkey an even more dramatic contest was coming to a head. For weeks there has been growing speculation about a split between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the wonkish prime minster, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the macho, mercurial kingpin of Turkish politics. The two men have differed over a growing crackdown on freedom of expression, the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s south east and Erdoğan’s ambitions to strengthen his own power. Yesterday, a nervous-sounding Davutoğlu confirmed on live television that he would leave his post.

To outside observers, this might seem like a faraway power struggle between two men with unpronounceable names. But it matters for Britain and the impending EU referendum in two crucial ways.

1. It throws the EU-Turkey refugee deal into doubt

The controversial €6bn agreement to stem the flows to Europe was born of the strong relationship between Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only does President Erdoğan have a far more ambivalent attitude towards the EU. He has also made Merkel’s life difficult by demanding the prosecution of a German comedian who penned a crude poem about him.

Though much criticised, the EU-Turkey deal has dramatically reduced the numbers being smuggled by sea to Greece. If it collapses, Europe could be heading for a repeat of last year’s crisis, when more than 800,000 people arrived on Greek shores. In Britain, such scenes will only fuel concern about migration - a key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

2. It plays into the narrative of the Brexit camp

Brexiteers have already sought to use Erdoğan’s growing illiberalism - and Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU - to win people over to their side. Turkey’s “palace coup” (as the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet called it) cements the image of Erdoğan as an all-powerful leader who will not tolerate dissent. The accusations against Turkey are often ill-informed and tinged with Islamophobia. But they are clearly seen as effective by both sides in the referendum campaign. Only this week, David Cameron was forced to distance himself from his previous enthusiasm for Turkish accession, insisting that the prospect would not be on the cards “for decades.”

For now, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the EU deal are unclear. Perhaps he would like to take credit for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen Zone (but not the UK) - an attractive perk promised in return for Turkey’s cooperation. But it is just as easy to imagine him watching it collapse before railing against the perfidious west.

Either way, there will be nerves in Brussels, Berlin and London. Diplomats see the president as a much more difficult partner than Davutoğlu. “Erdoğan has to be handled very carefully,” said one official. “If Jean-Claude Juncker says something too blunt, who knows what will happen?”

Turkey still has several hurdles to clear before visa-free travel is approved. Ankara has made clear that it will not hold up its end of the bargain if the promise is not fulfilled. With the deadline for implementation set for the last day in June, the deal could begin imploding towards the end of next month. That, David Cameron will surely note with a gulp, would be just in time for the EU referendum.