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20 October 2003

Every child matters

Speech by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Paul Boateng MP, at Toynbee Hall

It is wonderful to be here tonight, and to be at Toynbee Hall in particular.

Toynbee cares about both social policy, and about social activism. Indeed part of the Toynbee tradition is to help the children, parents, families and the elderly in east London. And I know that the numerous activities are centred on their needs, and continue to be extremely important to the local community here. On a previous visit here as an under-secretary I was here during the day, and I saw how this place was buzzing with numerous activities – enriching the tradition of volunteering.

However, Toynbee Hall’s great strength is that it is not just a place of action, but also of thought. It has long been a centre for the development of ideas and policy – acting as an incubator for radical solutions to deep-seated social and economic problems. In this intellectual role it has an influence within a vast range of organisations, across the country and beyond. This cannot be overestimated – it is impressive in its own right, and invaluable for our larger society.

Even the British government’s development of social policy and welfare has some roots in Toynbee Hall – and not just this government. Indeed, both William Beveridge and Clement Atlee spent time here and were particularly interested in the settlement house movement. This movement, an innovative means of meeting the needs of the poor early last century, clearly had a profound effect on them both – and went on to influence them in their subsequent construction of our modern welfare state.

It was William Beveridge who highlighted the five evils of ignorance, squalor, want, idleness and disease.

He called for “An attack upon the five giant evils – upon the physical want with which it is directly concerned, upon disease which often causes that want, and brings other troubles in its train, upon ignorance which no democracy can afford among its citizens, upon squalor…upon idleness which destroys wealth and corrupts men.”

The welfare state Beveridge helped to create sought to tackle these five evils directly – and it did so with considerable success. It improved the health of the nation and in large measure removed absolute poverty and destitution that scarred the land.

But, while British society may have changed a great deal since the days of Atlee and Beveridge, the problems faced by many people today remain depressingly familiar – the same issues of poverty with all its attendant evils.

In fact, it was here at Toynbee Hall that Tony Blair gave his agenda-setting speech four years ago – that pledged our Government to the historic aim of ending child poverty forever. As he said then, “Being poor should not be a life sentence.” This is true for everyone of course, but it is a particularly true for children… who have so much of their lives still ahead of them.

And, we don’t just want to tackle child poverty. We also want to develop modern policies that provide opportunity and fulfilment. We want to both protect children and maximise their potential.

“Security and opportunity must go hand in hand”. We want to reduce the number of children who experience educational failure, engage in offending or anti-social behaviour, who suffer from ill health and abuse.

There has been a great deal of recent government activity to try and tackle these issues. The Children’s Green Paper, which the Prime Minister asked me to draw together nine months ago, was published last month and will be in consultation until early December. There are also several reviews underway, including the Child Poverty Review and the Child Care Review, and a number of important and progressive initiatives such as the Children’s Fund and Sure Start. 

Clearly there is a lot going on. But I’d like, for a moment, to take a step back and try and give some context to what has been driving the Government’s approach to this area of social policy.

There are really two explicit roots to it. In the first place, there are the child protection issues that have arisen from recent child cases – including the tragic death of Victoria Climbie. This case, and the failures of the system revealed by Herbert Laming’s subsequent inquiry, was particularly horrific but we should also remember that it was only one in a long series of high profile inquiries into child deaths – more than 50 of them since 1950.

And this represents not just a loss of life, but all the horror that lies behind it. While we have seen a multitude of initiatives, the reality remains the same for all too many. Every year between 50 and 100 children, mostly under the age of one, die in circumstances of abuse. And sadly these rates of child homicide have remained at the same level for 25 years.

The second root to our policies on children is the desire to maximise potential. Looking at what lies behind youth disaffection and crime has brought us back again and again to the simple fact that it is often the result of problems earlier in that child’s life.

And this has led to the understanding that we need to tackle these problems as early as possible. We need to marshal resources and alter our structures to do this. We need to shift the balance of Government interventions from picking up the pieces to support and prevention at an early stage by tackling child poverty, improving early years education and care and raising school standards. It is all part of the same context.

We must also address these issues holistically. Only by doing this, is there a chance to give children what they really need – the best start in life and a chance to really be children.

I believe that there are four key elements to making this holistic approach work.

The first – which I have already mentioned – is the importance of early intervention and effective protection. Here the main goal is to intervene as early as necessary to prevent children reaching crisis points…and, importantly, to make sure that no child falls through the net.

However, acknowledging that early intervention can be a good thing is easy, making it happen is another matter. For this, there needs to be improved information sharing between agencies. It might be as simple as making sure that all local authorities have a list of children in their area – with information on the services and the relevant professionals they have had contact with.

And children known to more than one specialist agency should have a lead professional who is responsible for ensuring that the individual child is receiving the appropriate care at all times.

This may sound like common sense, but it has proved to be a significant barrier in the past – and the Government has a responsibility to ensure that the legislative, organisational and technological barriers to information-sharing between agencies are brought down.

Various initiatives have shown that it is possible. Telford and Wrekin’s AWARE system brings together data from schools, other educations services, the youth offending service, social care, primary care trusts and family protection units.

Effective intervention is also about integrating services around the needs of children, rather than around the capacities of agencies. This is particularly true with the provision of targeted and specialist services: especially mental health services for children and young people and social care for homeless young people. For children with communication or learning difficulties, there needs to be an integrated approach between health and education that allows them to access the full range of services available.

This brings me on to the second element which I believe needs to drive child social policy – the need for effective accountability.

This needs to be true in agencies at the local, regional and national level. The Government will shortly be creating Directors of Children’s Services  - who will be accountable at the local authority level.

In most places, this will be done through the creation of Children’s Trusts. An excellent example is the Sheffield’s Children’s Trust. This aims to be a whole systems approach – which will commission and provide all services to all children up to the age of 19 years of age.

And while Children’s Commissioners already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - a Children’s Commissioner for England will also be created to develop this role in England. These Commissioners have already proven to be an effective way of championing the welfare and needs of children within Government and other key organisations – making sure that their voices are heard.

And of course there needs to be accountability at every level of government. At the ministerial level, Margaret Hodge, as the first ever Minister for Children, Young people and Families, is helping to cut across departmental boundaries in order to keep a focus on the needs of children. This focus needs to go up all the way to the Cabinet table level.

The third element I would like to outline is the need to support parents and carers. This has to be at the heart of any approach to improving our children’s lives. Again, this may seem like common sense but all to often parents have felt disempowered and undermined by our approach. Governments should not be seeking to substitute for stable intact families, but should support them – and strengthen the capacity of parents to raise their own children wherever possible.

The people who care for children – and the children how are themselves carers – have always been important for our Government. The National Carers Strategy was one of the first things I worked on. And the very first reception the Prime Minister and Cherie Booth had in Downing Street was for carers. Or at least, I should say, the very first external reception. The first reception was naturally for his party – to celebrate being back in No. 10 again.

To a certain extent, helping parents is about providing effective child-focused services such as good schools, health and social services. But it is also about resources. The Government has just introduced a £25 million Parenting Fund to build better support for parents and families throughout the voluntary and community sector.

The aim is to get parents more involved in their child’s development… and I have a wonderful example of how this can have a direct and immediate benefit to children’s educational experiences.

There is an initiative being run by Birmingham’s Local Education Authority that aims to involve parents directly in their child’s learning.  Parents, family members or even family friends are invited by the child to sit side by side with them and take part in practical activities such as writing a story or playing a game.

After the first year, 73% of the primary schools taking part reported increased educational activity in the home and 88%reported increased parental involvement and understanding in their child’s education at school.

And of course, if we are talking about creating and supporting stable families, then it is also about tackling child poverty – fulfilling that pledge made here by the Prime Minister 4 years ago.

And I am proud to say that we have made steady progress towards our goal of halving child poverty by 2010 – with the number of children in relative low-income households falling by around half a million between 1998 and 2002. This goal, championed by the Chancellor Gordon Brown, has seen financial support for children, including Child benefit, rise significantly above inflation. We have also introduced tax credits that make work pay and provide financial support to families, ensuring that those who need the most help receive the greatest support.

The recent announcement from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that we are making good progress.

The fourth and final area I want to outline this evening is the need to reform the children’s workforce – encompassing the thousands of professionals who work with children around the country.

We need to do more to ensure that working with children is seen as an attractive career. We also, as a society, need to place a higher value on this work. Our research has shown us that many of those who work with children and young people in vital front line roles feel undervalued, and in some cases feel themselves under siege.

Social work is where problems are at their most acute – the sector has taken some hard knocks recently as a result of some high profile and tragic child abuse cases. In social work, there is an 11 % vacancy rate nationally – but it is as high as 40 – 50% in some London Boroughs.

People who take on the work of protecting children at risk need formidable professional skills, persistence and courage. So we need to examine recruitment and training in particular. We recently released funds for the first ever social work national recruitment and retention campaign – and it was followed by increase in applications of 6.5%. We are aiming for a further increase of 5,000 positions by 2005-06.

And we are conducting a workforce review. The Children’s Workforce Unit will work with employers and staff to develop a reform strategy to improve the skills and effectiveness of the children’s workforce. This will look at the rewards and incentives across the children’s practice with the aim of moving towards a career framework that fairly rewards skills and responsibilities, and ensures effective incentives for good practitioners to stay on the front line. One of the problems in the sector is that once you have good hands on experience, the only progression involves you being removed from that front line.

The people who work with children are central to keeping them safe and helping them get the most out of life. It is about time that our society recognised them as such and valued them accordingly.

I feel that much progress has been made in the way the Government is tackling children-focused policy, but it is still only the beginning. There is so much more to do. Ensuring that each and every child is able to realise their full potential is what really matters, and to help achieve that we need to find ways to make sure they and their families get the right support at the right time and in the right place – and we know that this is a complex and demanding job.

It is also not just a job for central or local government – not even just for public sector organisations. It is a job that needs to involve the full breadth of voluntary organisations, charities and – crucially – our communities in all their diversity.

We have in this country a long tradition of social activism – of people coming together freely to improve the lives of those around them. It is a tradition that energizes our society today. It is a tradition that is amply demonstrated by the work of Toynbee Hall.   And it is a tradition that this Government is keen to encourage and develop.

I think that nowhere is this more relevant than in the field of child social welfare. The future of our children is, after all, a crucial issue for all of us. On them hangs the future of our country, our society and our economy. They are central to our government’s concerns.

And it is not just about a child’s current poverty and future employability. I feel very strongly that we have to value the very concept of childhood in all its complexities and ambiguities – its innocence, its mystery, in its mischievousness and its fun. We need to connect with our own childhood to do this.

All faiths and nations around the world see something special about children – it goes right to the core of who we are. And when the world is not safe for children, where children are exploited or abused, it is a challenge for all of us to protect the concept of childhood.

So, as I said, we all need to be held responsible and to play our part. It is clear that while there are some steps the state is best placed to take, there are others in which community and voluntary organizations may be better equipped. When we ask what are the causes of social exclusion, what perpetuates a culture of low expectations, we find the causes are often of a sort that the state is not able to tackle alone.

We need to work with the voluntary and community sector, as they can be better placed to make the type of interventions that really make a difference. Toynbee Hall, and all the work it does for children and families in particular, is an excellent example of this.

Thank you for coming to listen to me this evening and thank you Toynbee Hall for asking me to speak. I have very much enjoyed being here.

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