Steve Richards: If we want to help children, the state has to step in. But will ministers dare advocate this?

No wonder in Europe kids enjoy themselves more. There is more to enjoy
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The much-trumpeted Unicef report on child welfare is an unreliable guide. There are too many sweeping assertions based on tendentious evidence. Even the authors admit they are still learning the most effective ways of compiling evidence. Yet in placing Britain bottom of the international league, it manages still to strike a chord. The authors are the equivalent of novice detectives that stumble on to something big.

First, let us consider the cause for considerable caution. The figures from the report are based largely on the period from 2000 to 2003. These years represent the doldrums of under investment in Britain, the final near-death groan from the 1970s and 1980s. As one of the authors, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, points out, the Government was only beginning to invest in health and education at this point. So the report cannot be seen as a negative verdict on the increased public spending in recent years. Indeed the report hails those countries that place a high priority on investment in public services. Britain will fare better when Unicef uses more recent data.

Some of the other specifics are not based even on outdated statistics, but on subjective claims. Unicef found that Britain had the lowest proportion of children who found their friends kind and helpful. Professor Bradshaw suggests this is an indication of a "dog-eat-dog society". Perhaps it is, but I am not sure that the responses of kids prove that to be the case. Yesterday the shadow Education Secretary, David Willets, blamed the education culture of the 1960s and 1970s for the report's conclusions, an even more contentious assertion. That is why the detailed findings of the report are so politically imprecise. Willets blames permissive education policies. The shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, blames Gordon Brown. Senior ministers blame the under-investment of the Tory years in power.

There are other factors in which culpability is even harder to prove. Some parents are too restrictive. Others are too lax. The booze culture plays its part. Family breakdowns are a factor. On a BBC phone in, one caller suggested that the British are not expressive enough compared with the Dutch - probably correct but not especially easy to address and without an obvious political implication.

Nonetheless the broader findings of the Unicef report and the premise on which they are based are part of an encouraging new political fashion in Britain. They focus on the quality of life, the degree to which poverty impacts on us all and subjective themes relating to well-being. So far the Labour government has been too scared to focus publicly on any of them, failing to recognise an exciting new trend.

In its distinctive way the report has echoes with Oliver James's best-seller Affluenza. James identifies the insatiable hunger for material well-being in Britain as a cause for clinical depression. To some extent James follows the economist Richard Layard, who called in his recent book for a new focus on happiness in determining government policy. This is all very different from the normal stuff we hear about the glamour of high incomes, the macho nobility of long working hours, the curse of taxes, the joy of glamorous new cars and the rest.

Instead all of them in their different ways look to an alternative culture that prevails in northern Europe. Unicef places the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in its top four. James's book is by implication a paean of praise for Nordic social democracy. Layard notes higher levels of happiness in countries with decent levels of public investment.

The report is both awkward for the Government and an opportunity. The cause for embarrassment is obvious. For a government with an ambition to abolish child poverty this is the equivalent of Manchester United or Chelsea sliding to the bottom of the Premiership table. What is more for all its primitive tendentiousness the report echoes what we know to be the case. British kids who go on sporting tours in parts of Europe marvel at the facilities compared with the public squalor here.

In Britain it takes the staging of the Olympics to justify investment in equivalent projects. When new sporting venues do open up they are inundated with kids from dawn to late at night, but after 1997 the current government followed Thatcherite orthodoxy and continued to sell off playing fields. There are not enough openings. A similar lifeless lack of imagination applies to the provision of music and drama facilities. No wonder in Europe the kids enjoy themselves more. There is more to enjoy.

But the report also opens a door for Labour by legitimising a debate the Government has been too fearful to initiate.

Coincidentally tonight the cabinet minister Peter Hain makes an entire speech devoted to the issue of tackling poverty. For his audience it will be the equivalent of hearing the Arctic Monkeys sing Tosca. Normally cabinet ministers do not talk about poverty at length. But Mr Hain goes for it, arguing that the inequality gap does matter and calling for a range of measures to lift more children out of poverty. This will be dismissed as merely another bid for the deputy leadership, which of course it partly is. But the point of leadership campaigns is to raise issues and Mr Hain is doing so. Conveniently the Unicef report provides political cover. The Government stands condemned for not doing enough. Mr Hain calls on it to do more.

By implication the report also calls for more regulation, a word that always provokes screams of angry indignation in British politics. Kids in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden see more of their parents because of much more generous paternity and maternity arrangements. More generally parents in these countries work fewer hours. In Britain the debate is confused. For example some newspapers hail the importance of family life and yet rail against any form of government regulation that would help to bring it about. Characteristically the Government has intervened stealthily, legislating for more generous maternity and paternity provision, but has yet to put the case openly.

If ministers dared to do so they would leave the Conservatives with a dilemma. Astutely David Cameron and his chief adviser, Steve Hilton, have recognised the importance of the work-life balance and wider quality of life debate. At the end of last year they held animated conversations with Oliver James on the subject. I would not be surprised if the British authors of the Unicef report were to be invited for similar discussions soon. Yet Mr Cameron calls for less regulation and tax cuts. He suggests that social responsibility will fill the gap. I wonder how and in what form.

The Unicef report sets a challenge: which of the main parties can get Britain to the top of the league and away from the humiliation of bottom place? The report has many flaws but might ignite one of the more worthwhile political contests of recent times.