Why politicians need to ‘take responsibility’ for children’s health too

This government is betraying children on a grand scale, and making positive ‘choices’ impossible.

Image: Clacton, Essex. Credit: Nick Ansell/PA Images, all rights reserved.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health rightly points out
that preventing ill health is crucially important in tackling the soaring costs
of health care. This week he exhorts
people to “take responsibility” for their health

But he omits to say that much adult ill health has its roots in
childhood. And current government policy is not only failing to give children
to the best start in life, but creating an economic environment driven by
austerity where parents and families are unable to take control of their
children’s health.

This government is betraying children on a grand scale, and making
positive ‘choices’ impossible.

Poverty stalks the land with more
than 4.5 million children living below the breadline
, over half of them being
trapped there for years. It is hardly surprising that those in hardship are
more likely to have poor health, bombarded with pressures to eat cheap fast
food, unable to afford
to meet government healthy eating recommendations
and without time or healthy
environments to take exercise in

Shamefully poverty
is especially prevalent in families with a child with a disability
. Just
imagine what it is like trying to provide for healthy food, sport and exercise
in a family with a disabled child requiring 24-hour care seven days a week.

Take the plight of mother Jo Cousins who is facing the loss of
vital support for her disabled son Seth as a result of Northamptonshire’s
dire finances closing the centre for respite care

The difficulties these families face is exacerbated by the “pointlessly
cruel” benefit sanctions
identified by MPs to be arbitrary and punitive.

The debacle over changes to Universal Credit expose a ‘group
think’ political mindset out of touch with real people and their lives
alongside a stark lack of compassion for the most vulnerable.

The heart-rending report of a 9-year
old child begging a charity for any work going to pay for food
since her
mum had died and her dad had lost his job is a devastating indictment of the
effects of this political attitude driven by the Treasury.

The number of homeless children and those needing protection is
soaring, with many authorities failing to intervene until complex cases reach
crisis point; around
two thirds of all looked after children (around 47,000) are under the care of councils
that, say Ofsted, are inadequate or require improvement

Eight years of savage austerity have devastated children’s
services so that we now have some of the worst
outcomes for children
across health, social care, education, youth justice
and poverty in the developed world.

The health of children overall is dismal including soaring rates of
emotional and mental ill health – despite the fact that the
challenges have been well known for at least 20 years
. Over 150 children
every day are being turned away from CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health
services) with some children being advised
by GPs to exaggerate their symptoms to get access to treatment

Over one third of children are obese, we have one of the lowest
rates of breastfeeding in Europe, poor control of diabetes, and inadequate
transition to adult services for children with physical and learning
disabilities. It all points to massive challenges
for families and children created by government policies

But it is not only in health and social care where there are shocking
examples of disastrous political policy, indifference to the best interests of
children, and an ideological fixation on making ‘choices’ which are, to many,
an impossible dream.

Thus, outstanding schools teach a minority of children where
parents can pay for independent education or live in the catchment of an
excellent state school; but there are countless other children whose parents
can’t. Children whose schools are hit by a government-triggered exodus
of experienced teachers
. A government that has lowered
the entrance requirements for teacher training
, and has cut school funding
so deeply that thousands
of head teachers have taken to the streets to protest
, that has imposed a
narrow test-oriented curriculum driven by zealots teaching to the test. A
government that dismisses the stress and even child exclusions caused by the
perverse incentives of SATS league tables.

It all points to an education system not fit for purpose today. Against
this we have a minister
being exposed to distort the statistics on spending for schools, deepening
public distrust of politicians

Alongside poverty and inequality of hope there is the revolving
door of young offenders returning to prison
in a ‘system’ attuned to the
Victorian ethos of punishment and control.

An objective observer such as an alien from Mars would see here
today a government that appears oblivious to the importance of children in

Through an economic lens we need healthy, educated, creative,
happy children equipped with the life skills for those who can to become
confident adults and parents in due course. And those who can’t through disability
or disadvantage must be supported to develop their full potential. Surely, this
should drive political policy, but it doesn’t.

My new book “The British Betrayal of Childhood” highlights the
need for a “paradigm shift” in our public and political attitude to children,
modelling an approach from the very best countries for children such as Canada,
Holland and Finland.

Building local community responsibility for children is key. “It
takes a village to raise a child”, as they say. In other words, the ‘nurture’
of children should be everybody’s business – parents and families, schools,
faiths, businesses, voluntary and statutory services – all driven by the best
interests of children in policies and practices that address their needs.

The Human Early
Learning Partnership model in Canada
describes the local context through ‘mapping’
children’s lives from routine data. The concept is simple – to ‘map’ by
postcode locality data on children’s lives – inputs, outputs and outcomes
across health, education, social care, youth justice and poverty. These data
are used by childhood coalitions, schools, government ministries and
researchers to inform advocacy for children’s needs, and to recommend changes
to policies and funding.

There is incontrovertible evidence that we really are
betraying our children on a grand scale in Britain today. Rather than exhorting
the poor, the young and the marginalised to exercise ‘choices’ they simply
don’t have, I call on politicians of all parties to listen to the reality of
child and family life, understand the enormity of what has to be done and
produce a coherent long term cross-party political agreement on what we should
be trying to achieve for our children. This can then be the basis for
consensual, common sense policies to improve outcomes. Politicians have
responsibilities for children too!

Sir Al Aynsley-Green’s book
British Betrayal of Childhood’ is published now by Routledge