Jeremy Corbyn's speech to the Labour party conference centred on kindness and equality. So, how might this translate into policies that promote child wellbeing? Zoe Renton, NCB’s Head of Policy, considers #Lab15.
With a brand new leader and shadow front bench, Labour's party conference this year was unlikely to provide big policy announcements on children’s issues. However, there were some hints of Corbyn's priorities, and fringe appearances by key spokespeople gave us a sense of their emerging plans.
Corbyn's emphasis on family security, cuts to welfare and affordable housing will be welcomed by many in the children's sector, where there are grave concerns about government plans to cut tax credits and eradicate the very concept of child poverty, rather than child poverty itself! (See the Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently going through Parliament). But, given the opposition failed to block the Bill a couple of weeks ago, you'd be forgiven for wondering how they will really make a difference, while at the same time developing alternative policies that they can sell to the public in the 'age of austerity'.
In a fascinating fringe debate, a new labour MP challenged his party on just that, saying they needed new ideas and to reframe the debate. Nevertheless, the new shadow employment minister and NCB's own local MP, Emily Thornberry, explicitly refused to compromise on the party's mission to eradicate child poverty – welcome news for NCB and other members of the End Child Poverty coalition which is calling for the same triple lock on children's benefits as has been given to pensioners.
Health inequalities and the impact of poverty on health – key themes of our recent report 'Poor Beginnings' – were highlighted by the new shadow public health minister, Andrew Gwynne MP, who talked about the ten year difference in life expectancy between those living in the affluent and disadvantaged areas in his constituency. He said he wanted the transfer of responsibility for children's public health to local authorities to provide the catalyst for ensuring that children's health and well-being strategies are embedded across all local services. This is a useful start for organisations, like NCB, working to improve the health of children, keen to see a cross-government approach at the national and local level.
A week into the job, Lucy Powell MP, the new shadow education secretary continues to show an interest in her former brief, childcare, a sign of the Commons opposition preparing for the Childcare Bill. The Bill will enable the government to double the amount of free childcare available for working parents of 3-4 year-olds, but with little detail on the plans, NCB is concerned that while the policy is welcome in principle there won't be sufficient funds to ensure the care offered is good quality, delivered by a highly skilled workforce and accessible for disabled children or those with special educational needs.
Corbyn’s speech touched on children and young people’s mental health services – recognition of the need for investment and reform. He also indicated that under Labour responsibility for all schools, including academies and free schools, would be returned to local authorities – perhaps recognising that the government’s weakness on education could be their focus on structures rather than the purpose and quality of education.
So it was useful that we heard something about children in Corbyn’s speech, underpinned by his stated vision for a society that has 'aspirations for all children not just the few'. Nevertheless, there’s a way to go before we have a more detailed understanding of what Labour might be saying about children and families when (or if) he leads his party into the 2020 election.