UK is now 'worst place in Europe to be growing up'

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The Independent Online

Children in Britain are more likely to be born into poverty than anywhere else in the European Union, according to a study published yesterday.

The report, by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), shows that nearly one-third of all children in the United Kingdom are living below the breadline compared with 13 per cent in Germany, 12 per cent in France and 24 per cent in Italy. The EU average is 20 per cent.

"The UK's record on child well-being is not entirely black... but the overall picture provides much cause for concern, with the UK emerging as a serious contender for the title of worst place in Europe to be a child," the report says.

Lisa Harker, research director of the IPPR, said that while the Government's initiatives to tackle child poverty were welcome, it would have to do much more to fulfil its pledge of eradicating the problem in 20 years. "Twenty years ago there were 1.4 million children living in poverty and that has now increased to more than three million. The figures are all the more shocking because Britain is one of the more affluent countries in the EU," she said.

"The reason the situation is so bad is because of the increase in the number of single-parent families and rising worklessness - households where no adult has a job. These two factors coupled with the previous government's failure to do anything to address the problem have led to the current situation. We acknowledge that the present Government is taking steps to improve the situation, but at the moment we are a long way behind the rest of Europe where many family-friendly policies have been established for 10 years."

A second study, by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (Case), published today, says that existing government policies to tackle poverty, through tax benefits and work incentives, would reduce the number of children living in poor families by one million but would still leave two million in poverty.

Even if the New Deal policies, which promote paid work among parents, resulted in every parent with children over the age of five finding work, the level of child poverty would still only be halved, it concludes.

The IPPR report said that of the measures used to determine a child's well-being, Britain came bottom in child poverty, worklessness and teenage pregnancies. In 1996, one in five households had no adult in work compared with 8.6 per cent in Germany, 8.8 per cent in France and 7.6 per cent in Italy. The UK is also below average for the number of children staying on at school after the age of 16, with 82 per cent going on to higher education compared with 95 per cent in Sweden, 92 per cent in France and 96 per cent in Germany. Only Luxembourg and Portugal are worse.

And in terms of what children learn at school, the report found that while Britain's 14-year-olds scored well in sciences, in maths just under half achieved the basic national average with mental arithmetic seen as the biggest problem. About half of British 13-year-olds could not calculate 6,000 minus 2,369 and their average results lagged significantly behind those of their peers in Austria, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Ms Harker said child welfare campaigners were hoping that next week's Budget would bring more family-friendly policies and cited both Germany and France where measures to improve the lives of both children and their parents were well established.