Spend money and you won't spoil the child, says Treasury

A children's Budget may cut juvenile crime and give help to families. By David Walker

TREASURY officials are leading a major review of policy for young children based on the pro- position that more spending on "early interventions" in their lives could save billions later on.

Taken together with Gordon Brown's forthcoming "Children's Budget" - a slate of measures in the Budget on 17 March which aims to assist mothers and children - the review is being seen as further evidence of the Chancellor's determination to put his stamp on social policy. This would have the effect of challenging the family man next door to him in Downing Street.

Mr Brown's determination to lead policy thinking is shortly to open the doors of Number 11 to a series of high-powered seminars led by the likes of Harvard professor and Nobel Laureate Armytra Sen. Normally penny-pinching Treasury officials have thrown away their red pencils and are asking whether the pounds 10bn a year spent by government on the under-seven age group is enough. Their focus is whether schools, parents and pre-school groups do all that they could - and have enough government money - to prevent children ending up as juvenile offenders or under-achievers. Special attention is being paid to the children of divorced parents and those growing up on local authority housing estates.

In private, Treasury officials acknowledge that their own spending rules are part of the problem. It is now admitted that more spending on pre- school provision could save millions on prisons, remedial education, probation and youth work.

The rest of Whitehall has been perplexed by a department renowned for its Gladstonian sternness requesting position papers and academic studies on schools, playgrounds and pregnancy. Social services directors, child psychologists, education professors and playgroup organisers have been surprised to receive faxes bearing the Treasury logo asking them to swap notes on the condition of the young.

Although the review is under the leadership of the health minister Tessa Jowell, it is very much the Treasury's brainchild. While a review of spending on children conducted by the Department of Health would not be expected to produce policy changes elsewhere in Whitehall, the fact the Treasury is involved has led to high expectations. Among possible recommendations is a nationwide programme of pre- school classes involving trained nursery teachers financed by a fund for educating under-fives.

Mrs Jowell convened a final seminar to draw together the evidence and hammer out policy recommendations. It is understood that Mr Brown may absorb some of its preliminary results in his Budget, a centrepiece of which will be proposals for child care assistance for mothers and extra support for poor parents.

If mothers are going to receive assistance with child care for pre-school children, officials are anxious to ensure that "at risk" children are not just placed with minders but directed towards "education rich" programmes in organised nursery classes.

Other results from the review will feed into the "comprehensive spending reviews" taking place across Whitehall under the Treasury's aegis. Some 11 departments spend public money on children, and more co-ordination is being sought. The Treasury team is being led by Norman Glass, head of its social spending division. An economist by background, Mr Glass operates a network of contacts among social researchers and sociologists.

The Treasury review is separate from the initiative announced last year by Tony Blair when he set up a social exclusion unit in the Cabinet Office - though officials from the unit have been kept informed. Even before the unit was operational the Treasury had convened a seminar on children and social exclusion with inputs from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and Sir Michael Rutter, the eminent child psychologist at London University.

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