Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Children the victims in Blair's Britain

There is a crisis at the heart of our society, admits the children’s commissioner for England, Aynsley Green. Not the sort of remark New Labour wanted to hear after a decade in power during which time Britain has become a more fractured, divided society. Green’s remarks come in the wake of a damning United Nations report into the wellbeing – or lack of it – of children growing up in the UK. The UK is bottom of the league of 21 economically-advanced countries according to a report by Unicef on the wellbeing of children and adolescents. It is even below the United States, which comes second to last. The Unicef team assessed the wellbeing of children in six areas: material wellbeing; health and safety; educational wellbeing, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks; and young people's own perceptions of their wellbeing. The Netherlands came out top, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Spain. Nine countries, all of them in northern Europe, had reduced child poverty down below 10%, the report says. But it remains at 15% in the three southern European countries - Portugal, Spain and Italy - and in the UK, Ireland and the US. The UK takes bottom place "by a considerable distance" for the number of young people who smoke, abuse drink and drugs, engage in risky sex and become pregnant at too early an age. On education, the UK comes 17th out of 21. More than 30% of 15- to 19-year-olds are not in education or training and are not looking beyond low-skilled work.

Commissioner Green hopes the report will prompt an investigation into "the underlying causes of our failure to nurture happy and healthy children" and adds: "These children represent the future of our country and from the findings of this report they are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves at risk." These are fine sentiments but Green shouldn’t really have to look too long to identify the underlying reasons for the fact that the UK, along with the United States, are bottom of the Unicef league. These are the two countries where naked commercialism, corporate greed, inequalities and a money-is-everything approach are official policy. These crude features of corporate-driven globalisation have resulted in an emphasis on individualism and an ever-deeper alienation, not just among teenagers but throughout the population as a whole. For example, increasing sections of society are denied affordable housing because of a rampant housing market stoked by a government that stimulates home ownership on the basis that it is a route to wealth. Amongst the younger generation, white, black and Asian working-class kids especially are often excluded from many of the "opportunities" to get rich quick. Even with formal educational qualifications, they find that they live in a world of low-pay, unskilled work for the majority. Surrounded by commodities that they cannot buy, they will, however, be offered credit cards so that they can run up debts they will never be able to pay back. It’s not simply a question of teenagers being part of jobless households either. Researchers last year found that half the children in poverty have someone in their family doing paid work, which is another indicator of how wages are for many. Targeted by the Blairites, young people are increasingly likely to have an Asbo slapped on them or end up in youth custody, which is often a direct route to a life of crime. Britain’s class-divided society has produced a new generation that has few human and social rights. What an indictment of a decade of hard Labour.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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