Monday, 7 March 2011

Suffer the children?

Several years ago, I found myself in a debate about the role of the state in bringing up children. What I mean by ‘the state’ is the ‘big British family’, where we decide together what we need to do to ensure that each and every child is given the opportunity to realise her or his potential.

One Conservative MP was insistent in his view that the sole responsibility for bringing up children rested with parents and that the only time ‘the state’ should become involved was where there were allegations of child cruelty. He was prepared to accept the state offering a health visiting service – to identify any early development issues – and a place at school until 16, but nothing more. He called everything else ‘part of the nanny state’ to which he was totally opposed.

Following the debate, it didn’t take much investigation to discover that this MP had employed full-time nannies for his young children and then, when they reached five years old, had them whisked off to boarding school until they were eighteen. Further, as he came from an independently wealthy family, he’d had exactly the same experience as a child. To me, this seemed less like taking parental responsibility than contracting it out.

I was reminded of this because the outcomes of a number of the current government’s policies seem to be at total variance with their stated objective of supporting families.

Despite all the statements about ‘supporting families through the tax system’, we now discover that the effect of recent government tax and benefit decisions will result, on average, in a couple with children being £1500 worse off this year - more than double the loss of a couple without children.

And last week, despite the Prime Minister’s personal promise to protect and build on Sure Start, we learned that government funding for Sure Start is going to be cut by an average £50 per child throughout the country next year, with the poorest areas getting a cut of £100 per child. Overall, funding for ‘early intervention’ services will be down by 22% next year.

It’s rather difficult to reconcile the government rhetoric with the reality. Not only will families with children be financially hit the hardest, but they’ll also lose the collective support we give them to give each and every child the best chance in life.

These children are the ones on whom our future economy depends and whose support we need in our old age. So, it’s not just suffer the little children now, but long-term damage to the social and economic health of our country.