A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Alienated Britain for our children

A United Nations report provided a devastating indictment recently of life for young people in new Labour's Britain. When it comes to children's well-being, Britain ranks 21st in a list of 21 economically advanced countries. The US is 20th. The scope of the United Nations committee on the rights of the child report ranges from concrete statistics to hard-to-measure indicators of well-being. It makes disturbing reading. British children are more likely to grow up in poverty than children in any of the other countries studied. They are relatively poorly educated, with 30 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds not in education or training and with no aspirations beyond low-skilled workers. British children feel alienated from their parents and from their peers. They smoke, drink, take drugs and have unprotected sex in higher numbers than their counterparts in other rich countries. They are demonised more. New Labour's attacks on children started in 1998 with the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders and child curfews. Modern ultrasound devices used to disperse groups treat children like dogs. School exclusions have become a first rather than a last resort. The British media participates in and promotes "a general climate of intolerance and negative public attitude towards children." TV reality shows come in for special criticism for potentially violating the rights of children who participate. Corporal punishment inflicted on children, which is legal in Britain when carried out in the home, should be criminalised, says the UN, as it has been in 18 of the other 20 countries surveyed. British children face the sanctions of criminal law at a younger age than children elsewhere - the British age for criminal responsibility is eight in Scotland and 10 in England and Wales. Children's campaigners have called for it to be raised to 12.

England and Wales imprison more children than any other country in western Europe. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that there were 2,440 children in prison in England and Wales in 2006 compared to 646 in France, 244 in Germany, 10 in Norway and none in Spain. Children represent 3.1 per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, again the highest proportion in western Europe. Just under half of the children sentenced to imprisonment in 2008 had committed non-violent offences. Between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of children appearing in the criminal justice system do not receive legal representation. Life is pretty bleak once a child is in the criminal justice system. As the Howard League says, prison is not safe. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990 - 29 suicides and one as a result of restraint by staff. Self-harming by children in prison is common. There were over 1,000 incidents in 2007. Physical restraint is often used and children are strip-searched on their arrival in prison - forcibly if they refuse to comply. Prison is also ineffective. Seventy-nine per cent of boys and 57 per cent of girls aged 15-17 reoffend within two years of their release from custody. Our government imprisons children who are not accused of having committed any crime.

More than 2,000 children are detained in the UK every year while their parents' asylum claims are considered. If their parents are deported forcibly, so are the children in immensely distressing circumstances. Asylum-seeking children who arrive in the UK on their own can be X-rayed before social services will provide accommodation and support, because it's assumed that they are lying about their age. Even the government doesn't dispute that its treatment of asylum-seeking children breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But the government has not sought to raise standards. Instead, it has insisted for the last 17 years on a British opt-out from that part of the convention. If we, as a society, treat asylum-seeking children as not entitled to internationally agreed basic rights, is it any wonder that those failings start to apply to British children as well? Gordon Brown was supposed to be the man who, for all his other faults, understood child poverty; over a decade ago he committed the government to halving child poverty by 2010. Two weeks ago, in his speech to Labour Party conference, he announced that he would legislate to eliminate child poverty entirely by 2020. On the government's current form, nobody who campaigns on child poverty believes that these targets will be met.

Citizens' Advice reports that one in three children in Britain lives below the poverty line, defined as weekly household income of £226 - most significantly, the figure is rising by around 100,000 a year. As fuel and food costs and debt rise, more and more children will fall beneath that poverty line. Brown's fiendishly complex system of tax credits has resulted in more than £10 billion a year going unclaimed by households who are entitled to that help. And households living on benefit are still subject to the poverty trap. High housing costs are the chief problem, along with the loss of "passported" benefits such as free school meals. In Scotland, the SNP is doing something more than talking about child poverty. All children aged five to seven in Scottish schools are to receive free, nutritious school meals. Among other benefits, this removes some of the intricacies of the poverty trap for their parents. Credit lies with the Scottish Socialist Party for initiating the demand for universal free school meals in the Scottish Parliament. The SSP Free School Meals Bill proposed free nutritious school meals for all pupils. Free school meals for all five to seven-year-olds isn't enough, but it's a good start and something that Brown seems unable even to contemplate. The idea of lowering the voting age to 16 trickled out of the Labour national policy forum last July. It was one of those new Labour ideas designed to give a progressive veneer but with no possibility of finding its way onto the statute book. The question is, would any young person vote Labour under Brown?

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