Theresa May’s reshuffle put paid to a Children’s Minster sitting in the upper echelons of her government. Robert Goodwill was dumped from the post after little more than six months in the role, with the role of Minister of State for Children and Families abolished, and most of its remit passed to the junior minister Nadhim Zahawi, a parliamentary under-secretary.
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The role of parliamentary under-secretary is important. They do vital work in Government and often have a wide ranging brief. And I’m sure Nadhim Zahawi will do his best to make sure children’s issues are heard at the highest level of government.
But the move is a setback for children and young people, who now, more than ever, need to know that their needs are taken seriously.
The National Children’s Bureau, with colleagues from Barnardo’s, UNICEF, The Children’s Society, NSPCC, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and others, have expressed concerns that the loss of the Children’s Minister as a full minister of state signals that the role is being deprioritised.
We can’t afford to let the needs of children slip down the political agenda. Only last week, the Local Government Association confirmed the growing crisis engulfing children’s services, with one child being referred to social workers for help every 49 seconds. This increasing demand for support comes at a time when crippling funding cuts are leaving councils with capacity only to help the most urgent of cases. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau, recently found through an England-wide survey that 40% of councillors leading on children’s services said that a lack of resources prevented them from meeting their statutory duties.
The need for government action isn’t isolated to children’s social care. It was great therefore to see the Department for Education’s Social Mobility strategy and the Government’s Green Paper on Children’s Mental Health. But children and young people, particularly those in the most vulnerable situations, are facing considerable challenges which would be best faced by a cross-cutting, coordinated response from Government, with leadership from the very top.
The obvious example is child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the introduction of Universal Credit and changes to the tax system will see levels of child poverty surge to record levels by 2022, when the IFS expects 37% of children to be living in relative poverty. If this is to be avoided it will require concerted action on benefits, housing, education and regional investment. Having a senior minister with a focus on the bigger picture and the seniority to influence all levels of government is vital if the pressing needs of children growing up in poverty aren’t to be overlooked.
What is worrying is that other Government departments with a clear remit in their work for children and young people appear to be doing the same. The Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice have both allocated responsibility for children’s policy to parliamentary under-secretaries.
The MPs holding these posts are clearly dedicated to making a difference, and we hope they will achieve much for children, young people and families.
But the point is that a trend is emerging, one we saw clearly in last year’s budget which did a lot to court young voters but very little for the nation’s children. It seems that, when it comes to under 18-year olds the Government has bigger fish to fry, with Brexit at the top of the menu.