Comment: Children we must not fail

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prevention is better than cure if we want to save the NHS

Tanni Grey Thompson
Question time: Russell Brand interviewing Ed Miliband on his YouTube show  

Russell Brand's Labour endorsement is a stunning piece of hypocrisy

Lee Williams
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before