Imagine we’re building a country. Our hypothetical nation is a society like any other, made up of people – parents, nurses, pensioners and toddlers. It will need infrastructure, laws, services and taxes, and a set of values to guide us on how to arrange each of them.
Now imagine a whiteboard with bullet points of our first priorities. What’s the first that comes to mind? Hospitals? Schools? I propose one: to keep children safe. No matter what else we manage as a country, protecting kids from harm seems a simple place to start. After all, what kind of country can’t even manage that?
As Jeremy Corbyn stood in a lunch club in Swansea last week, he lambasted the government for “failing a whole generation of children”. By any definition, he is right. The last decade has witnessed the active, tireless underfunding of Britain’s children, where a toxic blend of austerity and profit-driven ideology has left the most vulnerable neglected, and the remnants of the state buckling under the pressure.
Take a look at children’s social care. Research by the Local Government Association this week shows desperate councils were forced to overspend on their children’s social care budgets by nearly £800m last year simply in order to try to keep children safe. As demand for urgent child protection services has grown, and budgets have been gutted, councils have been forced to become firefighters, diverting money away from prevention services that support families earlier and towards costly services to protect children now in danger.
Services designed to prevent families falling into crisis saw cuts of £743m – more than a quarter – between 2013 and 2018, with children at risk of abuse and neglect “left to fend for themselves” as Sure Start, youth centres, and mediation services shut their doors. Over the same period, spending on child protection and children in care rose by £597m, as rising poverty has fuelled record numbers of children being taken into care.
Removed from their families, these children are not protected by the state. A Guardian investigation last year found councils were inviting private companies to “bid” for the most vulnerable children in the care system – “like cattle”.
Meanwhile, thousands of homeless children are living in converted shipping containers and old office blocks. Last week it emerged that at least 210,000 young people in homeless families in England are being put up by councils in temporary housing that can be unsafe, disruptive and overcrowded. The number of children living in temporary accommodation has risen by 80% since 2010 as a cocktail of “welfare” cuts and lack of affordable housing struck. Office-block conversions are the unnatural next phase: a ghetto of poor kids stuck on industrial estates, living in what are, in essence, hot metal blocks, as the government cuts “red tape” to make it easier for developers to build more.
For some kids, even food is out of reach. As child poverty spreads, thousands of parents are struggling to afford meals throughout the summer holidays. Charities reported last week that vulnerable teenagers are being bribed by gangs to sell drugs in exchange for meals while others routinely dig through bins for food. One eight-year-old boy resorted to chewing toilet paper to stave off hunger pangs. “It makes my tummy pain go away,” he said.
It is horrific, all of it, but that is not the worst of it. That Britain is currently failing to fulfil its most basic duties towards the most vulnerable citizens not only causes great harm to those children themselves, but also dilutes the arguments being made to defend them. Time and time again, we are forced to spend our energy and time arguing the most obvious of truths: that children should be fed and housed and kept alive. It unwittingly buys into the narrative of low expectation, that the most we can ask of one of the wealthiest economies in human history is that the state refrains from housing children in giant metal boxes.
It is a distraction from the real fight: that every child deserves to be nurtured to flourish, learn and be fulfilled – and that it is well within our capability as a country to do those things. The price of abandoning this ideal is increasingly not only financial – the long-term costs of cutting services for vulnerable children will be immense – but moral. The British state is failing the children who need it most.