Leading article: Every child matters

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The Independent Online

Ours is a Government that wants us to know how much it cares about children. For 10 years, we had higher child benefit, the end of child poverty, Sure Start, Early Years and free fruit. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister nine months ago, the rhetorical effort was redoubled. Mr Brown, who has been known to declare that "children are 40 per cent of the population but 100 per cent of our future", even renamed the Department for Education the Department for Children.

Indeed, so all-encompassing has Labour's concern seemed that the charge of nanny-statism is often made. Our children seem to be tracked, tested and monitored to an unprecedented degree. And yet, for all these professions of concern, and for all this machinery of surveillance, the Government seems to be failing in its duty to the most vulnerable children – and in particular to the one group of children for whom it has the most direct responsibility, namely children in the care of the state. As we report today, local councils and the police are disorganised and confused in their response to the 900 children that go missing from residential care every year, 160 of whom are still missing at the end of the year.

This has long been a neglected corner of the welfare state, with some of the worst excesses of the past only now being excavated – literally so in Jersey, a separate jurisdiction but culturally part of the same British society. Matters are, we hope, not so bad now, but our investigation suggests that there is still much to do.

Nor is this the only example of the state failing in its duty of care for children in neglected and unlit institutions. The Independent on Sunday reported in December on the shocking level of violence inflicted on children in custody. The use of painful "restraint" in young offender institutions and secure training centres has been condemned by Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner for England.

Of course, we do not pretend that nothing worthwhile has been achieved by this Government. Children generally are better off. This newspaper's concerns about the stresses of modern childhood, the fracturing of family life and the demonisation of some youngsters have been expressed against a background of rising hope and expectations.

We accept, too, that Alan Johnson, while he was Secretary of State for Education, did a great deal to raise the status of children in care as an issue across government. As an orphan himself, who owed his chances in life to the enlightened attitude of social services in allowing his teenage sister to look after him when his mother died, he has a personal stake in the subject.

Unfortunately, once again, words seem at least as important as actions; in this case, the replacement of one euphemism that had acquired negative connotations, "children in care", with another that means the same, "looked-after children". In time, unless the facts on the ground change, the new phrase will acquire the same unwanted associations as the old.

We also acknowledge that policy in this area has been increasingly complicated in recent years by, among other things, the increase in unaccompanied children seeking asylum. They are sometimes brought to this country by people traffickers, taken into care, and then disappear.

Our criticism of the Government on this issue is symbolised by the national child database, ContactPoint, a register of all the children in the country that is supposed to become operational later this year. This arose out of a Green Paper in 2003 called Every Child Matters, which sought to overhaul children's services after the death of Victoria Climbié. There is a problem with this approach that no minister has been brave enough to confront, which is that every child does not matter – to the Government – as much as every other. There are some groups of children on whom the public authorities need to devote more attention than others. The promise of ContactPoint, of a comprehensive safety net of co-ordinated agencies through which no child can fall, cannot be realised for the entire child population of Britain. But it is a promise that could be kept for specific groups that are known to be at risk: looked-after children, children in custody, the children of asylum-seekers and children who may be being taken out of the country for forced marriages.

It is only by focusing on the most vulnerable that the grandiose rhetoric of a child-friendly society can be matched by actions. Instead of constructing a database of every child in the country that is expensive and time consuming to operate and keep secure, the Government could be devoting a tiny part of those resources to ensuring a consistent national response to known categories of vulnerable children who go missing.