Comment: Children we must not fail

We do not know how many children are living on the streets of Britain's cities. There are no statistics, nor official recognition that the structures of our civilised society can throw up children as young as 10 who don't go to school, don't return home at night (maybe have no home to return to), hide out in lorry parks and public lavatories, warm themselves at night huddled against air vents and each other, and chase away the terrors of their wrecked lives by sniffing glue and furniture polish. We do not know and maybe do not want to know.

Our report on the street children of Hull (front page and Review) covers a phenomenon that technically does not exist, since you cannot be "homeless" under the age of 16. These children, between the ages of 10 and 15, have slipped through all the safety nets; most have fled abusive and violent homes (parental or institutional) or homes of such shocking deprivation that the children consider themselves better off begging or stealing with their mates. Their undernourished lives have more in common with those of the street children of Rio than their British contemporaries. Legally they are "runaways" and if found by the police sleeping rough must be returned to whoever was last deemed to be caring for them. Such a verbal and legal framework makes it all seem misleadingly under control. They are bad children, we might convince ourselves, who need a stern ticking-off before being sent back home to behave themselves; they make the case for Jack Straw's "curfews". But home may be the very scene of violence that they are escaping; those who are returned waste no time in re-absconding in what social workers refer to as the "revolving- door syndrome". Sometimes the police, as our reporters found, are aware of that and consider it kinder to turn a blind eye.

This week the United Nations will release new figures on world poverty. Much will be said about its impact on children in developing countries and about the humanitarian mission of the rich world to reduce global poverty by early next century. Much less will be said about the devastating effect that the 1980s had on children in this country. The sharp increase in poverty, particularly for single-parent families, has left Britain with a higher percentage of poor children than any leading industrialised country: more than 18 per cent of children in the UK live below the poverty line, compared with an average of just over 10 per cent for all industrialised countries. The other legacy of that greedy decade was a perceived antipathy to paying taxes, the price of which was cuts in public spending. The services that suffered most were those not protected by legal obligations. Thus hard-presssed social services, obliged to spend on crisis management and emergency child protection, cut back on services and facilities that were targeted to help struggling families before children were at risk. We are now, say Save the Children workers in Hull, reaping the whirlwind.

The children identified in Hull may be luckier than their counterparts in other cities. Hull is one of the few authorities that have appointed a children's rights officer (there are 25 in the country). There is, if the children can be coaxed to use it, the beginnings of a framework that attempts to address the needs of children who fall through the net. Strengthening it and replicating it in other cities will cost money: money for open- door services - the Hull children are legally barred during school hours from the centres for over-16s where they might get help for their drug abuse, on the grounds that it could encourage them to play truant; money for health services; money for refuges. There are just four homeless shelters around the country for under-16s - the children can stay only 14 days and then are handed back to social services/ carers/home. None of the refuges has government funding.

More urgent even than money, say the children's charities, is a public shift of focus. We should wish for all children the justice, respect and dignity we would wish for our own. We cannot go on seeing children so young as an emerging underclass and indulge in the fantasy that tough treatment will solve everything. Government has to address their actual problems: homelessness, poor health and nutrition, incipient drug dependency. We have been given a warning glimpse of what the future could be like in every city in the United Kingdom if we fail.