Where have children been in this election? The campaign has taken many twists and turns and ultimately has become, above all, an election about security, following attacks in Manchester and London. But there has been plenty of airtime for discussion about nuclear weapons, the IRA, Brexit, immigration, care of the elderly, the NHS, education and foreign policy.
But children have been absent. The closest we have come has been the farcical argument over whether infant pupils should be provided with free lunches or breakfasts, with people taking sides as if a child could do with one, but not the other. Yet even this debate fizzled out quickly, as grown-ups scrambled to argue about the stuff that really mattered.
And, apparently, the stuff that really matters is policing and security, for after the terror attacks that is where we have ended up. Who could have predicted that a nation that watched impassively as police budgets were scythed, year after year, would suddenly wake up to the devastating impact of this austerity?
I share the anger over police cuts. But why is there no outrage over the decimation of child protection? From frontline social workers and early intervention schemes, through family courts, legal aid, support for foster carers and for adopters. All have been cut to shreds over the past seven years. The landscape for child protection has changed beyond recognition, yet the general public remains oblivious, or indifferent, to the consequences.
If you are troubled by cuts to policing, here is something you should know about child protection. The outlook for children's services over the next few years is frightening. The Government is going to withdraw the 'formula grant' that local councils rely on for almost all child protection and care services. As Children England has warned, under current plans, by 2020, central government will not contribute any money at all to the services protecting our most vulnerable children. Instead, child protection will rely only on local business rates and council tax. Inevitably, this puts the poorest areas of the country at a further disadvantage. You can read about the change here https://www.childrenengland.org.uk/dont-take-child-protection-for-granted
The social care system not only protects those children at serious risk of harm, but works to support families to stay together when they're having difficulties, provides care for children with disabilities, steps in to help when families experience a crisis such as the hospitalisation of a parent, and works with young people to help them overcome hurdles to achieve their goals.
Councils have faced an unprecedented surge in demand for support over recent years that shows no sign of abating. More than 170,000 children were subject to child protection enquiries in 2015/16, compared to 71,800 in 2005/06 - a 140 per cent increase in just 10 years. The number of children on formal child protection plans increased by almost 24,000 over the same period.
What becomes of these children and young people, whose lives become the responsibility of a system that has reached breaking point? And how many vulnerable children who suffer neglect or physical and emotional abuse are being denied the protection they need? Austerity has devastated our social care system, while making it more likely that impoverished families and children will need support that is increasingly hard to find. We are rightly outraged when social care fails the elderly, yet rarely hear about how the very same system fails vulnerable children and young people.
Of course, effective child protection is not just about money, just as effective policing is not just about money. But you can only stretch resources so far, and the men and women on the front line only have so much to give. Unless there is a fundamental rethink over funding for children's services, children and young people will suffer harm. And in years to come some will seek to cause us harm.Suggest a correction