Mary Dejevsky: Our national disease is lack of parental time

European parents work shorter hours for a higher living standard overall
Click to follow

If there was anything more telling than the conclusions of the Unicef report, which placed Britain 21st out of 21 rich countries for the well-being of children, it was the speed and all-consuming nature of the public response. As Labour politicians swerved frantically away from accepting the findings - variously blaming Margaret Thatcher, the subjectivity of the categories, or the supposed obsolescence of the statistics - large numbers of people across the country breathed a sigh of relief. Here was documentary support for their fears.

Airtime was cleared for phone-ins and discussions, and the torrent of contributors simply would not stop. After 10 years of official assurances that things were only getting better - greater all-round prosperity, less child poverty, more nurseries, fewer teenage pregnancies, improved exam results - callers and emailers embraced the Unicef findings as an alternative truth more in line with their own experience.

Compared with other rich countries, it turns out, Britain is actually not such a success after all. We might have a creditable record according to certain select indicators, such as economic growth and unemployment, but in terms of quality of life, and the quality of life of our under-18s in particular, our performance is a disgrace. On aggregate, it is worse even than that of the United States - a land which makes it almost a point of pride to promote the survival of the fittest.

There is a neat theoretical explanation for Britain's failure, and it is not without an element of truth. According to this, Britain falls between the South European (Catholic) model of family support structures and the North European model of extensive state support. A charitable view would be that Britain is dealing with problems other Europeans must still confront. Before long, family breakdown will impair the South European model, and the Nordic countries' high-tax, interventionist model will become financially unsustainable.

British ministers also have half a point when they argue that the latest falls in child poverty, teenage pregnancy etc postdate the figures used by Unicef. Statistics on health and perinatal mortality may also be affected by ethnic disparities. US figures, for instance, are dragged down by the high level of infant mortality among black Americans.

To anyone who has lived or travelled in Europe recently, however, evidence of Britain's failure in the family-life department is all too obvious: in the intimidating clusters of teenagers (and younger) on street corners at all hours; in our rates of truancy, vandalism and petty crime; and in the conspicuous absence of adults from so many children's lives.

The differences go far deeper, of course, than appearances. Income disparity is one issue. Averages often lie. Where incomes are low in Britain, they are very low - often too low, even where two parents are working, to support a family without state help. Increasingly either both parents are in work, or none. Luxurious private gyms and clubs may have proliferated, but public recreation facilities have languished and supervised activities for young people are among the first victims of pinched budgets.

Educational disparity is another. Rigid catchment areas have led to state schools segregated by income, compounding the state-public school divide. And while exam passes per pupil were rising, passes in English and maths were falling. Training for the less academic 14-18 year olds in Britain lags behind almost everywhere else.

But what distinguishes us most, even from the Americans, is time. In part this is a choice: parents are choosing work (and money) over family time - but it is a choice the Government encourages. For one parent to stay at home has become a luxury that only those who are entirely dependent on state benefits or one of a high-earning couple can afford.

European parents work shorter hours for pay which is often lower, but allows for a higher living standard overall, because housing, child care and leisure are cheaper and more convenient. In most other countries, too, the tax and benefits system does not act against the interests of lower-paid, two-parent families as it can do here, especially in areas of high-cost housing. Unskilled men often cannot earn enough to replace the housing benefit their partners would lose if they lived together. Even in better-off two-parent families, "shift-parenting" - dictated by requirements of work and money - militate against family life as it is enjoyed in much of Europe.

The Government's remedy is to try to rebuild a sense of community from the outside, with the so-called Respect agenda, Asbos and the like. It is a punitive substitute for the civilising influence of family life. And it won't work unless the root problems of parental time, money and inequity are tackled. Deep down, a great many people sense this: 21st out of 21 is not a position most Britons are happy to occupy, especially in a world they keep being told is so competitive.