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Who is speaking for Britain's children and young people?: a challenge to the children’s sector

The announcement that children's charity Barnardo’s will work with the Coalition in the proposed replacement for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre throws into stark relief the dilemma facing children's advocates in the UK. Should they be accomplices to contentious policy, or stand back and maintain their credibility?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green, former Children's Commissioner, has urged UK children's advocates to stand up to government. Now children's charity Barnardo's is to work with government in the rebranding of child detention in the UK.  

The announcement that Barnardo’s will work with government in the proposed replacement for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre throws into stark relief the dilemma facing important organisations in the children’s sector. Should they be accomplices to contentious policy, or stand back and maintain their credibility and authority? Many in the sector are surprised by Barnardo’s decision, not least since they say it gives Government welcome legitimacy for its plans for detention under another name.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive says that the organisation will not be ‘running’ the centre, and that its function is to support the welfare of children at a very difficult time of their lives. This is true, but is she correct to suggest that by being there they will be able to hold government to account over the way it is managing children and families facing deportation? How will they do this when receiving government funding for their services? Isn’t scrutiny the function of the Government’s inspectorate of services for children and the independent Children’s Commissioner?

This worrying development raises key questions, namely, are the big children’s organisations effective advocates for children, or are they friends of Government? Can they be both, and if so, how and with what evidence of impact?

Let’s look back at the history of some of these organisations. Outraged by the appalling effects of Victorian industrialisation and urbanisation on the lives of children, a small number of social reformers spoke out, exposed to public view the impact on children, and put their needs firmly on the political map of the time. This then led to transformed lives through legislation.

Many of the organisations they founded survive to this day, with a long history of working with the most disadvantaged. Yet, as we experience the current ferocious political and financial turbulence, we need to ask some tough questions. In recent years, have the organisations in the children’s sector been as effective as they could have been in speaking for the needs and best interests of children and young people, and what should be their role and activity in these hard times?

International benchmarks all point to outcomes for our children that are already far from satisfactory, being way below those achieved in other developed countries. Credible reports include the UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 7, 2007, the concluding observations of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2008, the OECD Report, 2009, The Good Childhood Inquiry, 2009, and the most recent UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 9, 2010. Sir Michael Marmot’s new report on increasing inequalities in society highlights the failure of politicians to address childhood poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

Moreover, our position in the international league tables for education attainment shows a steep decline in subjects as diverse as reading, mathematics, languages and science, whilst the poor outcomes for many aspects of children’s health, especially mental health, should be matters of grave concern.

The blunt reality is that we have been failing far too many of our children and young people for many years. The reasons for this are complex including society’s low value placed on children and childhood, long standing political failure to give children policy priority and resources by governments, coupled with a failure of effective political advocacy for their best interests by the children’s sector.  If they had been effective advocates then surely we would not be at the bottom of the international league table for so many outcomes?

The impact of the current financial difficulties on children, young people and families is already being seen daily with major cuts in services across the country for vulnerable families and the young. These must, inevitably, make their outcomes worse. Young people are facing soaring rates of unemployment and difficulty in accessing higher education, whilst their lack of hope, expectation and purpose in life are searing indictments of how we are failing them.

But, who is speaking out for children, young people and families? Has the children’s sector and its famous organisations forgotten the outrage of their founders? Why so low key over the circumstances of children now? Why in the midst of so many savage cuts is there so little explicit, effective and above all concerted challenge to government? What would the famous founders say were they to be with us today?

There may well be important activity behind the scenes, but hard-pressed practitioners at the front line need to have confidence that someone is batting for them effectively.

Being dependent on public money for their survival, could it be that many organisations are too close to government? 

Recent news reports on the alleged interference by government in the furore over the proposed loss of independence for the Children’s Exploitation and Online Protection Unit suggest that fear of offending government thereby threatening funding might be inhibiting robust challenge, but this is very difficult, if not impossible to verify.

Calls for a joint Health and Education Select Committee investigation into the impact of the NHS reforms on health services for children have been ignored, and it is symptomatic that key Parliamentarians, too, have not risen to the challenge.

What is sorely needed now is leadership and cohesion in the sector in its public advocacy for children, and evidence of impact in how it is working with Government to ensure that children, and not just education, are a political priority.

Of special urgency, the statutory bodies that have true independence should speak out and be seen to be doing just that in measured and authoritative dialogue with government.

Above all we must have the courage to open some thoughtful, evidence-based and open debate on the role, efficacy and value for money the organisations in the children’s sector deliver in speaking for the best interests of children. If they don’t advocate effectively, who else will?

About the author

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green Kt. Former Director of Clinical R&D, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, first National Clinical Director for Children, Department of Health, and first Children’s Commissioner for England.