We care about two sweet, unabused little girls, but the thousands rotting in care homes hardly get a thought

Emerson put it well. "As soon as a child has left the room, his strewn toys become affecting," he wrote. In other words, those of us required to build a model plane with a fractious toddler may secretly yearn for quality time to be up. The deadline past, we shall be delighted - over a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon (kindly imported by hopefully non-homicidal nanny) and a debris of Lego sufficient to reconstruct the Spruce Goose - to regale glassy-eyed droppers-in with every detail of our child's progress. But only once he has left the room.

In leaving the country, the Bennett sisters, Jade and Hannah, went one better. Their disappearance to an Irish hideaway with their foster parents, Jennifer and Jeff Bramley, unleashed a torrent of sentimentalism. Even before the sisters' safe return and the start of Mrs Justice Hogg's hearing on whether the Bramleys would, after all, be allowed to adopt them, the public jury had supplied its verdict.

Cambridgeshire social services were castigated (justifiably on the evidence in the public domain) for thwarting the couple. Adoption procedures were labelled (as if such flaws were a surprise) a bureaucratic mess, lacking fairness or accountability. The girls' natural fathers, feckless and absentee parents, spoke respectively of seeking custody and becoming a "for ever daddy"; fuel for all-round revulsion.

But the Bramley story demonstrated an echo of such Damascene conversions in most of us. While the hopeless futures of children brought up in care homes, detailed in a recent report, failed to evince more than a whisper of public reaction, the story of two unknown little girls - well-fed, non-abused and cross-matched to a pair of sweet-faced portraits - inspired an almost proprietorial involvement in their fate. This public empathy was eclipsed only by the second child-centred story of the week.

The killing of Caroline Jongen by her Australian nanny was a freak tragedy demanding, by way of reaction, chiefly sorrow for the baby's parents and a vow to be more vigilant in choosing minders. Not good enough. Everyone wanted a slice of the Jongen story. Commentators told of how they had saved their children from certain death by detecting that Miss Too-Good-To-Be-True was actually a psychopath/serial arsonist/unstable bulimic prone to ingest ten tubs of Chunky Monkey ice-cream and stuff the cartons behind the Conran sofa. Others attacked the government's refusal to regulate nanny agencies, beyond awarding Kite marks to those attempting to weed out Category A-type applicants.

Behind the lurch from the public to the personal lies a very British anxiety. Disasters are a cue-card to worry about our own nanny-reared or child-minded offspring or, briefly and when prompted by the media, to fret for other people's children. But, however anguished our posturing over child welfare, inertia remains the norm. In a fortnight, local authorities will hand to the education department - against a background of no discernible media interest - audits on the provision demanded under the national childcare strategy; the supposed exit clause from our bottom-of-the-range, worst-in-Europe daycare.

The current shambles does not simply mean that fewer lone parents can work (although only 41 per cent do so, compared to 82 per cent in France). A better system would affect the way children thrive and might even colour the way we regard them. The French and Italians, accustomed to farming out their kids almost from birth, also treat them as social companions rather than Nintendo attachments.

Americans and the British - particularly those rich enough to buy themselves some distance from their offspring - are more ambivalent in their adoration of children. A recent television documentary tracked the experiences (predictably miserable) of the infants of rich British parents consigned, for weeks at a time, to a children's hotel reminiscent of an upmarket cattery, while a New Yorker cartoon illustrated the umbilical bond with a sketch of a one- year-old baby, clad in a nappy with a black box clipped to the waist. "So how many times do I have to beep you?" demands the irate mother, forced to trudge to the nursery.

Not the British way? Count the playground beepers - totem of a detached relationship between adult and child. That is not necessarily a problem, as long as we recognise that the hysteria over every high-profile media victim is evidence less of national maternalism than of a discomfort pitched somewhere between complicity and guilt.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.