Friday, February 23, 2007


Cliches often contain some truth; the well worn stereotype of the British as people who don't much like children is, sadly, just. We hardly needed last week's report from Unicef on the wellbeing of children in rich countries to tell us that we neglect our own quite shamefully. If neglect is abuse, then we are a nation of child abusers, both rich and poor. The children of the well-off suffer mildly from affluent neglect; the children of the poor suffer much more from the ordinary kind. They have no one to come home to, no one to look up to, nowhere to go except to hang out in the street.

Although I have some serious reservations about the report, the overall picture is so conclusively bleak, as far as a minority of British children goes, that we must accept some of its conclusions. In overall wellbeing, British children are the worst off in a list of 21 rich countries, and they are worst off, too, in the individual categories of relationships, behaviour and subjective wellbeing. Life is lonely, scary, unhealthy and dangerous for a large minority of British children.

Only 65% of British children eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week; thrown upon the company of other youngsters, only 42% of British children find them "kind and helpful". In a survey by Britain's National Family and Parenting Institute, quoted in the Unicef report, only 65% of children said they felt their parent(s) made them feel loved and cared for and only 76% said their parent(s) were always there when they needed them.

That makes a quarter or more of children who feel uncared for and neglected. When it comes to having an orderly, healthy breakfast before school, only about half of British secondary pupils say they get any. They may have been lying to shock the pollsters, but if not that means nearly half of all British parents cannot be bothered to ease their children into the day with breakfast.

Not surprisingly, British children are way ahead of others in the rich world in what are called risk behaviours. In plain English this means smoking, binge drinking, underage sex, eating junk food, obesity, teenage pregnancy, bullying, fighting and getting into trouble. In some cities the children are becoming feral. The recent shooting dead of two 15-year-old boys in the hellish estates of south London are the extreme manifestation of this terrible neglect.

What stands out from the Unicef report is that in this country parents either do not care enough about children to make time for them, or they cannot afford to make time for them. With high numbers of single parents and stepparents, with high numbers of irresponsible and absent fathers and full-time working mothers, that is understandable. All these things impose tremendous stresses on parents. Children get pushed out of their rightful time and place in their parents' lives, more so here than in the rest of Europe. What can be done?

It would be a start to enable - if not to force - parents to spend more time with their children. It seems blindingly obvious that this government's policy of driving as many women out to work as possible is counterproductive. The only acceptable reason for doing so is to control the welfare queens, who think having lots of babies will win them a meal ticket for decades - and that could surely be dealt with differently.

Most women want to stay home with their babies. Only 6% want to work full time and all mothers know that childcare is an expensive lottery. Yet 55% of working women are in full-time jobs. It is nonsense to shift money about to provide "affordable childcare", which is neither good nor affordable; it is less good than what most mothers provide themselves and it costs more, all in, than letting her stay at home.

The result is that working mothers are harried and tired, especially if they are single, and short of the time their children - and their wider families - need. Part of the reason for so many women working such long hours, against their real wishes, is the high cost of housing. That is the root of many social evils and there is no question that a big housebuilding programme must be a top priority for the next government.

It also seems obvious to me that fathers should be held firmly accountable for their children, as David Cameron argued on Friday. I believe that process should start with dismantling the crazy benefits system which makes a man substantially better off - cash in hand at the end of the week - if he abandons his wife or girlfriend, and which enables a feckless never-married girl to be just as well off as a respectable abandoned wife or quasi-wife. Unfortunately the government has proved quite unable to run the Child Support Agency and there seems little reason for optimism about this.

What is needed - and it is something governments cannot and should not try to engineer - is cultural change. We need a lot more of what John Stuart Mill called moral disapprobation; these days it is called stigma. It is a good thing to show disapproval, even anger. It is wrong for men to abandon their children. It is wrong for a girl to have a baby without having another parent for it. It is wrong to have children whom you cannot afford to support. It is wrong to neglect your children, to fail even to give them breakfast and make sure they get to school.

In the past 30 years there has been a general horror of being judgmental, but why? These actions, wrong in themselves because they cause suffering to children, are also wrong because they cause serious social problems for the rest of us. Society should express disapprobation, forcefully.

Governments can follow in expressing such disapproval. They could deny irresponsible single mothers the privilege of independent housing and offer them educational care hostels only. They could try punishing irresponsible fathers in their pockets. They could order schools to provide after-school exercise and clubs and hobby groups, every day, year round. They could give massive tax breaks to stay-at-home mothers and to marriage. They could support charitable mentoring schemes.

Above all, they could scrap the laws that terrify responsible adults out of trying to control other people's children. All this does, however, involve being judgmental so I don't suppose it will happen.



David Cameron said yesterday that he wanted to send his daughter to a state school and, like Tony Blair before him, entered into an educational controversy. Rather than choose a grant-maintained school, as Mr Blair did, the Conservative leader is opting for a faith school. “I’m quite a fan of faith schools and we’re looking at a church school we’re very keen on, but we’ll have to see what places are available,” he told You and Yours, the BBC Radio 4 programme.

Mr Cameron — who during his leadership campaign said that he did not attend church as often as he should — has become an active participant at St Mary Abbots Church in Kensington, West London, and hopes to get his three-year-old daughter, Nancy, into the highly prized and secluded school in the church grounds.

Mr Cameron’s regular appearances at the church risks raising speculation that, like many middle-class parents, his interest in the church could at least partially be influenced by his interest in its school. Mr Cameron’s aides denied the suggestion, insisting that he had always attended church regularly, near his home in London and in his Witney constituency. They said that he had been attending the church for about two years, that it had a crãche for his children, and that Nancy was 18 months from school starting age. “He goes to the church whenever he is in London on Sunday, which is very regularly,” a spokesman said.

St Mary Abbots Church of England Primary School lies less than two miles from Mr Cameron’s home. However, there are 46 other state schools that are closer, and not nearly as desirable. The ones closest to his London home are large and with low educational standards. The school, which was founded in 1645 and takes only 30 pupils a year, is among the best schools in the borough, with parents describing it as “gorgeous” and “traditional”. In stark contrast to his predecessors, Mr Cameron has often said that he wants to send his children to a state school. His four-year-old son, Ivan, who has cerebral palsy, attends a state special school.

Yesterday, in an uncanny echo of Tony Blair’s decision to send his children to the London Oratory School miles from Downing Street, Mr Cameron told the BBC that he wanted to send Nancy to a faith school. His main concern appeared to be that Nancy would be overwhelmed by an ordinary state school, with the two closest to his home having more than 300 pupils. “I do worry that some of the primary schools — maybe I’m being overprecious and protective of my daughter — but you sort of feel that your small child is going to go into this enormous state primary school and may get a bit lost,” he said.

However, unlike Mr Blair, who was criticised for sending his children to a selective school, there is no suggestion of hypocrisy. “I want parents to have a choice. In London you have a choice,” he said.

The school has a complex admissions procedure, but parents’ chances of getting a child in are far higher if they play an active part in the church. Father Gillean Craig, chairman of the governors, said: “We’re delighted with the way he [Mr Cameron] and his wife play a strong part in the church.”


British police get real about heroin: "The Libertarian Alliance, the radical free market and civil liberties policy institute, notes with approval the suggestion by Ken Jones, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), that "heroin should be prescribed to long-term addicts to prevent them from committing crimes to feed their habits" (The Independent). However, the LA suggests that this is a very modest step in the right direction. It calls on ACPO to embrace the full logic of its position and argue that heroin should once again be sold over the counter in pharmacies...."

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