With Christmas Eve only 10 days away, a traditional time for happy family reunions and celebrations, I wonder, what does the festive season mean for children in care or from broken families?
One man who has the answer is former Children's Minister Tim Loughton who was inexplicably sacked in the latest Cabinet reshuffle after 11 years fighting passionately for this cause, both in opposition and for government.
He has made clear that he has no intention of giving up this agenda and now feels free as a backbencher to speak out more loudly, as he did earlier this week when he challenged the Conservative party's failure to reintroduce tax breaks for married couples.
He is certainly a hard act for his successor Edward Timpson to follow who, by all accounts has an excellent background in this area, coming from a family whose parents adopted 90 children, is chairman of the All Party Parliamentary group on Adoption and Fostering, and, as a family law barrister, specialised in cases concerning vulnerable children.
Disappointingly, while Tim found time to meet the inspirational Francesca Polini and fellow adoption reform campaigners from Adopt a Better Way to hear their adoption experiences and thoughts about how the system could be improved, Edward Timpson has told them he has no free time in his diary to share views. It would be appreciated if he found time in the New Year.
Tim also found time to meet with disadvantaged young people from the age of 11 four times a year to hear their personal experiences and to listen to their thoughts about changes which would improve their lives. He spent time shadowing social workers to see firsthand how they work with vulnerable young children in care and broken families. He was the undisputed star of A Tower Block of Commons.
Praise was heaped upon Tim from the audience when he gave a lecture at the Centre for Social Justice this week entitled, The State Our Children Are In, which I attended. He joked that he did not realise he was attending a "fanfest".
There are plenty of financial stats to support Tim's case that the government should give fiscal rewards to married couples. Is there any reason why this not be achieved at the same time as the government's urgent plans to support gay marriages in the church? It is startling to know the latest international comparison figures which show that UK one-earner married couples with two children on an average wage face a tax burden that is 42% greater than the OECD average. Family breakdown costs society £44 billion a year and 48% of all children will tragically see the breakdown of their parent's relationship; a youngster is more likely to have a television set in his bedroom than a father living at home.
And Tim also quoted Lord Hill of Oareford whose research suggests that the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all the the richest 20% of cohabiting couples.
This is Tim's 10 point plan for a government serious about promoting the value of family:
1. Rebalancing the relationship between state and family
The role of the State is surely to support families, not supplant them. For many, the surreptitious influence of the anti-smacking brigade, the obesity police of the accusing bureaucracy of excessive CRB checks (which the government are now reversing) has led many decent parents to question their own right and capability to parent.
2. Intervening early is key
Strong attachment between a child and parent shapes the whole of childhood from birth. Where that attachment is missing, it needs rehabilitating early. Those with poor speech at the age of two, for example, are doomed to a lifetime of failure unless they receive help. The government is rightly promoting early attachment, be it through an extension of the health visitor role, early year's assessments and making sure that children's centres and family hubs are accessed by those most in need, but least likely to access them.
There are huge gains for early intervention at an early age, or early intervention at an early stage, for older children in chaotic families. But it needs to be part of a co-ordinated and joined up family policy that addresses why those problems happened in the first place and keep happening.
3. Shared parenting means both parents
Dadlessness impacts heavily on teenage boys especially, yet still too many willing fathers are frozen out of their parenting role after an acrimonious split. The government needs to stick to its guns to introduce a long overdue full presumption of shared parenting in the forthcoming Children Bill. It will again face a barrage of opposition from vested interests, but we must see it through. It does not undermine the paramountcy principle of the welfare of the child if legislation requires courts to insure that both parents play as full a part as possible in the upbringing of their children, however acrimonious a split may have been. In 91% of cases it is the father that is likely to be the non-resident and potentially increasingly marginalised parent. An absent father leaves a gap that no-one else can every quite fill.
4. Role Models
If you ask teenagers today who their role models are, they would like as not mention some footballer or reality show C List celeb who have probably both been plastered all over the tabloids stumbling out of a night club plastered, and with the remnants of a line peppering their nostrils. Yet as Mariella Frostrup observed in her Mail on Sunday column last month, surely we should be using the cult and power of celebrity to communicate strong messages to impressionable young men in particular. She advocates a 'Man Army' determined to change cultural stereotypes amongst those who condone, or worse still, engage in some of the more appalling forms of sexual abuse that have hit our headlines too often over recent months. They need to say "loud and proud, that rape is for cowards, child abuse is despicable and treating girls like pieces of meat is simply unacceptable".
Not that long ago youngsters would have identified their role models as a favourite grandfather or successful aunt or event resident father. Seldom is that the case now. And with politicians, police, public service broadcasters increasingly smeared and demonised in the public eye with varying degrees of justification, who are our children and grandchildren supposed to look up to?
5. When Harry met Granny
Reg Bailey's excellent report int he Sexualisation and Commercialisation of Childhood made specific recommendations to support responsible parents battered on all sides by advertisers and media intent on making their children prematurely grow into adult consumers. Research for UNICEF UK reiterated that children in the UK feel trapped in a materialistic culture and don't have enough time with their families. The implementation of the Baily Review needs to become a priority in government. So far it has been more about warm words than urgent action. Its implementation needs to be in partnership with parents and children and not in isolation from them.
Fuelled by selective media reporting where every teenager is portrayed as a prospective hoody wearing mugger, young people appear increasingly cut adrift from our older citizens. But aren't we missing a trick here, not least for those teenage boys lacking a father's influence at home?
Should the state not be working with businesses and voluntary organisations to harness the growing pool of recently retired, but restless seniors, who can offer mentoring skills to dadless teenage boys, for example, who need direction in their lives? I want to see a national register promotional campaign and training support available to build such an army of volunteers.
6. Re-energising the Baily Review
Reg Bailey's excellent report in the Sexualisation and Commercialisation of Childhood made specific recommendations to support responsible parents battered on all sides by advertisers and media intent on making their children prematurely grow into adult consumers. Research for UNICEF UK reiterated that children in the UK feel trapped in a materialistic culture and don't have enough time with their families. The implementation of the Baily Review needs to become a priority in government. So far it has been more about warm words than urgent action. Its implementation needs to be in partnership with parents and children and not in isolation from them.
7. Flexibility around childcare
The government has a good track record around flexible parental leave and expanding free nursery care for the poorest, but over-regulated childcare for the majority remains extortionate. Quality need not mean prohibitively expensive and we need to see measures that facilitate more imaginative schemes such as work place co-operatives run by parents themselves and where regulations are proportionate to accessibility.
The CSJ's own excellent study in this area published earlier in the autumn revealed how without reform of childcare, a single parent with three children needing after school care would be 17p an hour worse off if she or he took a job. A single parent with two children would only be 2p an hour better off in work. With 445,000 UK families receiving state support towards their childcare costs and average payments amounting to £232 a month this is not some fringe activity and the government really needs to get a grip on an issue which is bound to weigh heavily in election manifestos.
8. Cotton wool kids
We need a renewed crackdown on the 'elf and safety' mentality which risk assesses rough and tumble activities out of sight. Kids take knocks, pick themselves up and learn from them - get over it! But it is more complicated than that.
Figures last week showed that half as many children are being admitted to casualty after falling out of a tree as they were ten years ago. But children are almost twice as likely now to go to hospital for injuries caused by repetitive and strenuous movements such as playing on their computers and X Boxes for too long. That is hardly surprising when it has been estimated that by the time they turn seven, children born today will have spent the equivalent of an entire year watching some form of small screen. What is potentially worrying about that is that internet addiction causes changes in the brain like those seen in alcoholics and cocaine addicts.
Should the state be intervening to rebalance the average child's day with ten times as long spent on the computer or watching TV as playing outside? Is it up to the State to take away the cotton wool, wrap up warm and propel minors outside as they do from an early age in Scandinavian kindergartens or should we just be making the healthier options more attractive? And as regards our attitudes to sport are we in danger of fritting away the Olympic legacy in a misguided mutually exclusive search for academic excellence?
9. Keeping kids safe online
The government has acted urgently to improve safeguarding against child abuse and particularly expose and counter child sexual exploitation. But for most parents the everyday fear of children exposed to adult and violence images or to grooming and bullying via social media is a minefield. The UK Council on Child Internet Safety which I chaired has done some important work to bring the whole industry together in a united and complimentary collection of practical solutions. The aim is that wherever you turn children and concerned parents will be confronted with warning messages about the hazards that lurk on the internet if not used responsibly and what to do about it.
Whilst inappropriate access to adult and violent images is a serious worry and can certainly be linked to attitudes by impressionable teenage boys to sex and relationships, I believe an even bigger worry is the use and abuse of social media and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Social media is everywhere. It is the future. A report in last week's Telegraph revealed that Twitter and Facebook have become so pervasive that a third of young adults admit to using them even while in the bathroom.
Whilst the government is trying to tackle abuse and harassment online, trolling as it is more commonly known, in the Defamation Bill, this is a debate that we have only just started and one where more than most the state has a leading role in so many aspects of a child's life.
10. Remember kids are kids
Children have rights and parents have responsibilities, but when 14 year olds girls who have been lured into sexual abuse by child sex exploiting gangs are described as having made 'lifestyle choices' then misguided political correctness has knocked common sense out of court to a dangerous level. Parents need the confidence and support of Government that the parent child status remains paramount until that child becomes an adult.
And that is the most important basis of my observations here today. We complain about society's commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood yet when we seek to put child rights ahead of protection that children need whilst they remain children, then surely the state is complicit with it. When we strive to proscribe in such terms how children should be brought up or taken away we must do it in a way that does not undermine the confidence of good parenting that in the vast majority of cases is the bedrock of strong families which produce resilient and balanced children?
Children are children for a reason - they are still growing up and need their parents to help them, guide them and protect them in that process The state which generally makes for a lousy parent needs to remember that first and foremost.
Let's remember those children in care and from broken families this Christmas and ensure their needs remain a priority with our government.
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