Editor-At-Large: Children need good parents, not a state nanny

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:22

Frank Field, given the mission of grappling with poverty by David Cameron, is one of the few MPs who remains an inspirational character. Asked by Tony Blair to "think the unthinkable" and reform the benefits system, he was dumped a year later after a row with Gordon Brown. Asked last week if Cameron might do the same, he wryly commented, "He doesn't have the same problems in No 11". True, there's no Gordon brooding in the background, but more than a decade later, Mr Field has a much tougher job.

For all Labour's claims that they would eradicate child poverty, it remains a problem. And the middle classes (the people who voted for the coalition) won't be happy to see their child benefits cut to help the poor when many of them may face redundancy if the public sector sheds a large number of jobs.

In an interview last week, Mr Field said he was looking at "age-relating" child benefit, phasing it out as children reached their teens – although he admitted that providing for a teenager can be expensive. But at least he wasn't talking about poverty in terms of class. If child benefit ended at 13, the Government could save more than £3bn a year. Mr Field says he wants to redefine poverty (currently set at 60 per cent of average earnings) and calculate it in terms of ability to extend opportunities in life. Most importantly, he talks of the need for good parenting as a fundamental factor in improving a child's chances.

He's on to a winner. For too long, Labour decided that everyone but parents had to be parents. The state became like mum and dad, nagging us to eat five fruit and veg a day, take at least 20 minutes exercise, and drink less than a certain number of units a week. They spent millions on public health campaigns. The result? We, by and large, ignored our new nannies. We still drink too much and suffer from obesity.

Then, the Government took over from parents, wasting £5.9m telling kids not to get pregnant, drink, smoke dope or have unprotected sex. Those campaigns didn't work either; in fact, the teenage pregnancy rate went up. Politicians ordered schools to broaden their remit, filling the curriculum with lessons on manners and citizenship. The result: one in five teenagers leaves school without the necessary skills in English and maths to get a job. And I haven't noticed that young people exhibit more social skills after all this state intervention. Quite the reverse. The ones who are socially adept probably have parents who take an interest in them – it's that simple.

Earlier this year, the charity Action for Children produced a report proposing that the school day be lengthened to help to look after latch-key kids left at home for long periods without anyone caring for them. The early teens are when kids go off the rails, and, although 80 per cent of their mothers are in work, there are only enough childcare places for one in 200 kids. To what extent should schools be expected to take over from parents? To help his constituents in Birkenhead, Mr Field has produced a five-star guide to parenting. He awards points to mums and dads who talk to their babies, read to toddlers, and help them draw and read, and prepare them to be able to sit still in lessons. He thinks that parents ought to be able to dress, feed and get their children to school on time, instead of dumping them in a breakfast club.

All of these basic skills cost absolutely nothing, except time, and that is the one commodity too many modern parents seem unwilling to expend. I have just returned from a visit to the supermarket, where the sight of a busy mum losing it with her brood is all too common. Kids whine and pester, but telling them to shut up means you've lost control. This summer the beaches of Europe will resound to the high-decibel racket of British parents failing to control or discipline their children without resorting to verbal abuse.

No wonder Mr Field thinks the current generation of school kids might require lessons in parenting, as so many have no role models. My partner, a teacher, finds that many kids don't even have one person willing to be a proper parent, let alone two.

I wish Mr Field luck in his formidable task. One thing is certain: you won't end child poverty by chucking money at hopeless parents.

Rude health: British artists rule the world in political satire

Instead of agonising over our global ranking at soccer, visit Tate Britain. When it comes to cartoons and political humour, we lead the world. Rude Britannia showcases a wealth of comic art from Rowlandson and Cruikshank to modern masters such as Martin Rowson and Alison Jackson. Marvel at Hogarth's Rake's Progress, Gillray's take on the excesses of 18th-century fashion, and Spitting Image's repulsive Maggie Thatcher. Great cartoonists have the ability to fundamentally change how we see someone. Take Steve Bell's grey John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers – the SuperUselessman. When Major left office, Bell produced a drawing showing those sad pants on fire outside Parliament. Who could take Mr Major seriously after that? He'll be lucky to be a footnote in history. Sadly, the modern artists on show don't add much to the mix. I hardly think sticking a sausage in a can of baked beans (Tim Noble and Sue Webster's contribution) or David Shrigley's stuffed cat holding a placard constitute heavyweight comment. There are also too many contemporary artists making jokes about art, and the feeble jokes from Viz's Roger Mellie, explaining 18th and 19th-century work, seem patronising. Overall, though, this show is thoroughly rewarding, unlike the horrid sale of tat in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition.

Who's paying for teenage kicks?

Would you let your teenager sail around the world alone? Last month, 16-year-old Jessica Watson hoped she'd landed a new record as the youngest person to complete the trip, although her achievement was diminished by yachting authorities claiming the route she'd followed wasn't long enough. Now, another 16-year-old attempting the same feat has run into difficulties in the Indian Ocean. When Abby Sunderland went missing last week, her parents said they feared the worst. US, French and Australian rescue teams combed the area in treacherous conditions. Abby has been found – but who's paying the huge bill? And why was she allowed to sail across the Indian Ocean in the stormy season? Parents should have to post funds to cover bailouts.

My £40,000 savings suggestion

The Government says NHS care won't be affected by cuts. At the same time, they are asking the public to come up with suggestions on how to bridge the £170bn gap in our finances. Can I offer a thought? Why not axe public health advertising campaigns? Can you believe that the NHS in Oxfordshire has wasted £40,000 on posters telling people to cheer up? Bus stops in the Oxford area are disfigured by posters with smiley faces and the message "Turn that frown upside down". A spokesman said they are designed to help people in areas of unemployment. You couldn't make it up.

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