Will election promises bring real change to children lives, asks Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of NCB?
With all parties battling for our attention it feels like some sectors of the population are being wooed more than others. Children don’t get to vote so a cynic might say they don’t need to be wooed. We’ve waded through the manifestos of the three current main political parties, and had a look at those of some of the other contenders, to see if this is the case.
It is promising to see that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all made commitments in areas of children’s policy where the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has been calling for change – but the challenge will be ensuring that whoever forms the next government translates promises into action.
Child poverty and giving young people a say
NCB believes that the voices of children and young people should inform the development of government policy, the best way to achieve this is through a cross-government strategy for children and young people, with a priority focus on reducing child poverty and inequality.
We have been calling for the Office for Budget Responsibility to monitor and report on progress against child poverty targets. Now Labour has included this commitment in their manifesto, with the Conservatives making a more general pledge to target the root causes of child poverty.
The Lib Dems would enshrine the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child in British law in order to place children’s rights at the heart of law-making. Both Labour and the Lib Dems intend to give young people aged 16 and 17 the right to vote during the next Parliament; an issue recently debated at NCB’s ‘Generation Next: Tomorrow’s Voters’ event at the House of Lords.
NCB believes that children should have the best start in life through access to high quality pre-school education and early years services that help them to develop and flourish.
The Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Conservatives have all committed to increasing the number of hours of free nursery education for young children. In addition, Labour and the Lib Dems say they would protect the early years’ budget so that it rises with inflation, and the Liberal Democrats have promised that by 2020 every early years setting will employ at least one person who holds an Early Years Teacher qualification and an increase in the Early Years Pupil Premium. The Green Party wants to take things further, calling for an expansion of early education with compulsory school age rising to 7.
However, it remains to be seen how parties plan to ensure sufficient funding for a large scale expansion of high quality early education. It is essential to improve the quality and sustainability of nursery places, and increase the capacity and skills of the early years’ workforce.
Education alongside health is arguably the policy area that has seen the most change in recent years. In their manifestos, all three parties have acknowledged the importance of investing in children’s education and have committed to protecting the schools’ budget in real terms.
A number of policies align with NCB’s areas of work and the priorities of Young NCB (our advisory group made up of young people). These include, compulsory sex and relationships education (Labour) and Personal Social and Health Education through a ‘curriculum for life’ (Lib Dems); tackling all forms of bullying (all three parties); training teachers to support early intervention (Labour); and improved careers advice in schools (Conservatives and Lib Dems).
The National Health Service is shaping up to be a key election issue, with numerous competing promises for more investment over the next parliament. All three main parties have plans for improving access to GP services, something our work on primary care has shown is crucial for children and young people.
NCB and many colleagues in the sector have long been calling for more focus on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children so it is welcome that this features in several of the manifestos. Labour promise to increase the proportion of mental health spend dedicated to children, the Lib Dems committing to implement the report of the children’s mental health taskforce, and the Conservatives pledging to increase mental health spending overall.
Looked after children
There are around 70,000 looked after children in England at any one time, whose particular needs demand political attention, but this often cannot compete for the attention of politicians chasing votes up and down the country.
It is therefore notable that this group of young people are directly addressed in both the Lib Dem and UKIP Manifestos. The Lib Dems plan to increased focus on emotional wellbeing and resilience in the care system while UKIP have pledged to extend ‘staying put’ measures (that allow children to remain in foster care placements until age 21) to those in residential care – both issues we have been supporting government to engage with the children’s sector on over the last year.
Furthermore, both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have plans to make it easier for vulnerable children to be placed in a new loving home, through proposals to improve adoption, and all major parties want to support better identification of those who need help and support through enhancing safeguarding.
The election and beyond
Whatever the outcome of the General Election, NCB will be holding government to account for promises made about improving children’s lives and urging them to listen and respond to children and young people.
An analysis of what party manifestos contain relating to children is available here