A Childs Place In The Big Society Social Work Essay

It is a great privilege and pleasure to have been asked by Margaret Hodge and Patricia Hewitt to give the first lecture in memory of Henry Hodge. It is also a somewhat daunting task. At first sight I would not be an obvious choice to speak today, nor did I think my subject on children was obviously connected with a lecture in memory of Henry. There is however a strong connection between issues about children and his strong sense of social welfare was well demonstrated by his spending 5 years as deputy director of Child Poverty Action Group and his successful legal aid practice which included family and children cases. As a father and grandfather in his private life as well as in his distinguished public career he cared passionately about children. Margaret assures me that my decision to talk about children would have met with his approval.

My theme this evening is to examine how our children fit in to the Big Society which was at the heart of the Prime Minister’s speech in November 2009 and part of the strategy of the Coalition Government. I shall refer very briefly to a variety of problems children face, some of which are not as widely recognised as others. One aspect which is not always appreciated is how they are viewed by the adult public and the media and how they are treated. This has an important effect upon how they view themselves, their self esteem and how their voice is heard in our adult society. Much, if not indeed, all of what I say is well known but I feel that it is worth repeating at a moment when the phrase the Big Society is in the news and both government and the public need to have the welfare and rights of children well in the forefront of the difficult and challenging decisions which have to be made.

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The Big Society

The Prime Minister spoke of ‘Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems’. It was ‘an ambitious agenda to build a Big Society based around social responsibility and community action’. Oliver Letwin described the relationship between government and civil society as:

‘Government helping to sustain a society that is a rich tapestry of active citizens, families, places of worship, dedicated professions and independent associations’.

These are worthy ambitions in which families, schools and welfare play an important part. The Labour Government produced Green and White Papers dedicated to the theme ‘Every Child Matters’. They did some good work, including Sure Start, and it is encouraging that the Coalition Government intends to continue to support Sure Start and to target the poorest families. But, in a sense, they only scratched the surface of the multiplicity of the needs of children. No government should underestimate the size and complexity of the problems too many children face in growing up in this country and the financial cost of coping even with some of them. That financial cost, even in a period of austerity, must not blind us to the essential requirement in considering priorities to put children and what they require at the beginning, middle and end of all discussions and decisions which need to be made.

What are the problems children face in growing up? Many of them are common to all children and we ourselves as children had to work our way through them. But for too many children those ordinary problems of adjusting to the adult world are compounded by and sometimes distorted by their state of health, the health of their parents, the behaviour of their parents, the environment in which they live and above all by poverty. Clearly in the time available I can only touch very briefly upon some issues and those faced by children who live within or who come to the UK. For most children their problems may not be as immediate nor as life threatening as those in some other parts of the world but they are very real and can inhibit and undermine their childhood.

In a report from UNICEF Child poverty in perspective: An overview on child well-being in rich countries (2007) it stated, under the heading ‘children’s material well being’, that the evidence from across the world is that children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable; specifically they are likely to be in poor health, to have learning and behavioural difficulties, to underachieve at school, to become pregnant at too early an age, to have lower skills and aspirations, to be low paid, unemployed and welfare dependent. Of course, these problems do not apply to all children growing up in poor families but it does not alter the fact that, on average, children who grow up in poverty are likely to be at a decided and demonstrable disadvantage. I shall now look very briefly at how those words apply to the UK.

Children in poverty

Even after the recession, the UK remains one of the richer countries in the world. But the reality of life for some of our children is that 29% of British children live in poverty. Over one million children live in seriously overcrowded accommodation. Over 100,000 children in the UK live in temporary accommodation. Many poor children do badly in education. Over a million children truant from school and about 9,000 are permanently excluded. Such children tend to live in the areas of highest deprivation where there is a high incidence of drugs and crime. The UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe many of whom are schoolgirls. Well over a million school children are working illegally.

The government is committed to improving education and the new Secretary of State for Education has a number of innovative and exciting ideas. I was delighted that in the debate in the Lords on the Queen’s Speech the Minister for Schools, Lord Hill of Oareford, said that:

‘… raising standards, lifting aspirations and tackling behaviour are crucial. That will help all children but, above all, it should help those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who have suffered most.’

The problems of educating children from the most deprived areas are partly having good enough schools and teachers who enthuse and inspire but also motivating the parents as well as the children to the purpose and importance of education for a child’s future life. A lack of education has a devastating effect upon job prospects and a distressing large proportion of children leave school without the basic skills. If you cannot fill in an application form by hand or online you probably will not get a job. It is a huge task to motivate families to want education but it is crucial for the future of this country. One area of education which should be tackled by the Education Minister is the need for better education of children who are in youth custody. It is a crucial part of the fight against the high rate of re-offending. The London charity, Kids Company, helps to educate and support young people who stream into that excellent organisation which, at last, receives government support. I very much hope that such support will not be cut. To do so would be self defeating; a short term cost benefit but a long term expensive blunder.

Intervention at an early stage with problem families is crucial. Some parents as well as their children need help and I am reminded of an excellent voluntary preschool initiative which was set up in a poor part of London some years ago. It concentrated on young single mothers and required them to attend with their children. One mother had almost never talked to her little girl. After 3 months attending with her child they were seen at Christmas dancing down the steps both singing Christmas carols. The place closed for lack of funds. It is important for government, in funding voluntary initiatives, to keep on giving support and not just start up costs. All too often otherwise they fold as that one did. I turn now to other groups of children who have problems, some but not all connected with poverty.

Children in need of care

Two children die each week from abuse or neglect within the home. Social workers are the thin line of protection of children at risk. They are criticised when they intervene and when they do not intervene in dysfunctional families. It is crucial for the well being of children at risk that the work of social workers is better understood and that social workers are given the status they deserve. It is not just a question of pay; it is also recognition of the importance of the work they do. There is no doubt that some children have to be removed permanently from their families. But it is a sad reflection on our system of care that looked after children do markedly less well at school than other children. More support for children in care is needed.

Around 5,000 children under the age of 16 are used for prostitution in the UK, including those moving across borders. Children are trafficked into the UK not only for prostitution but also for forced labour and begging. Boys from Vietnam are brought into the UK to tend cannabis plants in well to do suburbs of big cities such as London: there are over 3,000 cannabis farms in England and about 300 in London. Very young children, often Romany children, are brought into the country and taught to thieve in a modern day Fagin style. Bulgarian children are brought here by gangs to work the London underground system and Bulgarian police are working with our British Transport police to deal with it. Trafficking of people is now more lucrative for the gangs than drugs. The last government signed the European Convention on trafficking and incorporated it into English law. The Metropolitan Police has been engaged in excellent work with other countries which receives some European financial support and, up to now, some government support. One problem is that the UKBorder Agency does not uniformly recognise the welfare needs of young people who are victims of trafficking and much more training and flexibility in decision making is necessary.

Immigration and asylum children coming here and living here are treated very differently from citizen children although I understand that the new government is intending that such children should no longer be detained. The Family Justice Council, at the request of its Voice of the Child sub-group, has set up a discussion with the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and they have held two meetings. They are looking at the concerns of the Children’s Commissioner about the treatment of asylum and trafficked children both here and on their return to their own homes. They agreed that an Adjudicator Guidance Note from Henry Hodge in 2004 on ‘Unaccompanied Children’ would be a good starting point. I think Henry would have been very supportive of these discussions.

There is another very large group of children, many of whom do not come from deprived backgrounds but who face problems which may have an inhibiting and sometimes devastating effect upon their development. The most obvious is the family in which one parent is violent to or threatening and intimidating towards the other parent. Generally it is the man but a minority are women. I know of cases where children hide in the kitchen with the TV on very loudly so as not to hear what is going on. Children do not have to be physically attacked to be victims of domestic violence. I was concerned to read that in the case of Raoul Moat the prison authorities informed the police domestic violence unit. I hope that did not mean that the warning was not taken seriously. I must however pay a tribute both to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers who take domestic violence very seriously. But domestic violence is widespread and children are also the victims.

There are also children, also not from deprived backgrounds whose life is turned upside down by the separation of their parents. When parents part many, of course not all, do not sufficiently consider the effect upon their children or even tell their children what is going on. When I sat as a judge in children residence/custody cases, I often thought that the last people who should be making decision s about the children were the parents. Over 60% of fathers who leave do not stay in touch with their children more than occasionally, most of that 60% not at all. They do not tell their children why and the children do not even have the consolation of a bereavement process. Children, even young children, can often have a sensible view of what would be best for them. Some years ago in Michigan children of all ages whose parents had separated were asked their views about the process. The views ranged from sadness, confusion, guilt that they were responsible for the parting to anger and frustration. All parents considering separation should see or read about the effect on their children and many parents would be astonished. Fortunately only a small minority of parents go to war over their children. But those who do make endless applications to the courts which may last for years. Almost always both parents are to blame and the children are the victims. Those children also may do less well at school and may find it difficult to make lasting relationships as adults.

It is very important that there should be access to justice in all child welfare cases. I am, of course, aware of the huge burden of legal aid. The last government made substantial cuts to legal aid in family cases. The Ministry of Justice is likely to be making further substantial cuts. But the welfare of children is the paramount concern of the courts in the Children Act 1989. It must not be lost sight of by the government in its austerity measures.

Children who offend

England and Wales are seen as a punitive country in our approach to young offenders. We lock up more young people than any other Western country and most countries in the world. Well over 2,000 children aged between 15 and 17 are in Young Offender Institutions and some who are much younger. The four Children’s Commissioners of the UK said in a joint Report in June 2008 to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child:

‘There is a very punitive approach to misbehaviour by children and young people and the criminal justice system is used too readily. Compared to other European countries, England has a very low age of criminal responsibility and high numbers of children are locked up.’

We know from research the ways in which many children become criminals. There are many reasons and I am sure you all know them so forgive me for rehearsing some of them. I do not believe that children are born wicked although some may be born with mental illness or behavioural problems which may predispose them to serious misbehaviour. But for many children it is the environment and not inherent characteristics which are likely to set them on a course of crime. Poverty to which I have referred earlier is obvious and there is a link between poverty in childhood, poor health, low educational attainments and lack of future opportunities which encourages crime.

We also know that dysfunctional families create an environment where children offend. There are children and young people who have never had a good home; never had a secure background; may or may not know who their father was; or may live in a family with drink, drugs, mental illness, serious domestic violence, abuse towards the children or serious neglect. These problems at home create situations, not surprisingly, in which children react adversely. In some families no-one loves the child or shows affection other than in an abusive situation. He may be and probably with such a background will be disruptive at school, permanently excluded and offered little or no education at home. Children truant for a variety of reasons and truanting leads to crime.

Increasing numbers of young people are on drugs and have to find the money to pay for them. He, and increasingly she, will be roaming the streets and joining gangs. The gang becomes the family, the security and, while they are feral towards the community, they support each other. Because no-one has ever cared about them, they care about no-one outside the gang. Why should they? Many such young people do not understand the concepts of good behaviour, honesty or kindness that we expect from our children and grandchildren. We are shocked, I certainly am, by the appalling brutality of some of the attacks by teenagers, often on other teenagers, but I believe many of these young people would not understand why we were shocked. They live in an entirely different world from us. One can see why many of the public react adversely to children who offend and especially teenagers. Yet a Chief Constable recently went on record saying that the police alone could not deal with the feral gangs of young people and society had to do something about it.

The Labour Government did some good work with Youth Offender Schemes (YOTS) and other initiatives to divert children from crime as well as dealing constructively with those who had already offended but much more needs to be done. It is often pointed out that to keep a child or young person in custody costs substantially more than sending a child to Eton. So it is very encouraging to hear that the Lord Chancellor is looking at reducing the prison population. He should start with the children and young people in youth custody. Of course some children have to be locked up for the safety of society and often of themselves but we surely should not be at the top of the European countries in our figures of youth custody.

As a result of our signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (although not incorporated into English law) the UNCRC Committee reported in October 2008 on the UK and recommended:

‘… that the State party (the UK) take all appropriate measures to ensure that the principle of the best interests of the child, in accordance with Art 3 of the Convention, is adequately integrated in all legislation and policies which have an impact on children, including the area of criminal justice and immigration … and recommends that the UK fully implement international standards of juvenile justice.’

I hope that this government will takes those comments to heart so that the next UNCRC Report will be more encouraging than the previous ones.

The Prime Minister sees the Big Society based on social responsibility and community action and I was interested to read about a proposal for a National Citizens Service for 16 year olds. I strongly support the encouragement of local initiatives and have already referred to Kids Company. Other examples are a police scheme in Sheffield to divert 6 year olds from being couriers for local gangs and a drop in centre in Tiverton in North Devon which concentrates on advising and counselling young people between 11 and 19. The Tiverton project is entirely funded by local donations. If, however, there are to be other good local projects round the country, there may need to be some financial support which would be very cost effective in diverting children and young people from crime, prostitution and drugs and protecting the community. Restorative justice is another area which is being successfully explored.

I know that we live in a time of financial stringency and austerity. I do not for a moment suggest that the government can immediately improve the lot of the children whose problems I have set out but, in implementing financial cuts and allocating scarce resources, our children must be at the forefront of all decisions which affect them.

Children in the media

I turn finally to an entirely different subject but one about which I feel strongly, the way in which the media portrays children. I refer again to the Report of the Four Children Commissioners in June 2008 who referred to the negative image of children and said:

‘In the UK there is a widely held fear of young people which has been partly fuelled by the consistently negative portrayal of young people in the media. Seventy one percent of media stories about young people are negative and a third of articles about young people are about crime. Young people feel the media represent them as anti-social, a group to be feared, selfish criminal and uncaring. They believe that the media stereotypes the majority of young people based on the bad behaviour of a minority. The incessant portrayal of children as “thugs” and “yobs” not only reinforces the fears of the public but also influences policy and legislation.’

Examples of the press portraying in vivid language the wickedness of children and young people were starkly illustrated in the cases of Mary Bell and Thompson and Venables. In both cases the tone of the press and the tone of those who responded to the press was that such children were the embodiment of evil and should never be released from imprisonment for life. The approach of this country is vastly different from parts of Scandinavia, for example Norway where such children would more easily be reintegrated into the community. I recognise that such a move might be impossible here in the UK and the headlines in all types of newspapers would be ‘soft on youth crime’. In my view all parts of the media, but principally the newspapers, should reflect upon the views of children expressed by the Commissioners and take them to heart. This is one among many other issues where the voice of the child should be heard. Article 12 of the UNCRC articulates that right.


Finally I return to the 2007 UNICEF Report which said in its foreword:

‘The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children — their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialisation and their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies into which they were born.’

That foreword seems to me to encompass what we in this country should seek to achieve for our children. They are our future and there is little purpose in striving to improve society unless we are aware that what we do has to be for them or there is no purpose in our lives. Children must therefore be at the core and in the heart of the Big Society.

This article is based on the first Sir Henry Hodge memorial lecture given on 19 July 2010 at the Law Society, London.

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