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Doreen Massey on funding cuts to services supporting children and young people – and the need for a new national strategy

Given current concerns about child poverty and the levels of funding going to services for children and young people, it is perhaps timely that I am leading a debate on the issue in the Lords this week.

While adequate legislation should support children and young adults, local authorities must have appropriate funding to ensure delivery of high quality and targeted interventions in their areas of responsibility. It is concerning therefore, that overall spending power of councils has fallen significantly since 2010, at a time when demand for services has increased.

Children come from a variety of backgrounds and are influenced in their development by many factors – family, peer group, ethnicity, faith, culture, health, ability and disability. But other influences come from the contact they have with agencies in their local communities – via, for example, child care, health and education, and possibly social services and the police.

Early intervention is important if children are to become healthy, resilient and well-adjusted. But such systems of support for parents, families and, perhaps most importantly, vulnerable children are variable depending on locality and provision.

A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner suggests only a fraction of these young people are getting the help they need – a third of the 2.32 million who live in households with significant risk factors. It is suggested that around £10bn a year is needed to address the situation by 2025.

The past ten years has seen the closure of almost 600 Sure Start Centres and over 750 Youth Centres. And within just the first five years of the decade, over £42 million was axed from council sports and leisure services. In response, the government says it has put money into the Connections service and youth activities such as the Youth Parliament. Good, but nothing like having a local fixture where families or children can go for recreation, structured activity, support and advice.

With such diminution of community structures, as well as a lack of affordable housing and rising homelessness, we should not be surprised at the increase in gang culture and its attendant problems such as knife crimes.

Two thirds of councils have slashed funding for sexual and reproductive health services, with the Brook Advisory Centres also raising concerns about the risks to its provision. All despite Public Health England’s estimate that every £1 spent on publicly funded contraception would save the public over £9 in the next decade. Expenditure on substance misuse services has also been reduced.

While some schools are suffering in terms of equipment and upkeep, the National Education Union has also reported that special needs provision in England has lost out by £1.2bn. This relates to shortfalls in funding increases from central government whilst legal entitlement to support has risen by almost a hundred thousand in the corresponding period.

Ministers do not seem to understand or recognise that cuts to services for young people is short sighted and costly. Not just in relation to happiness and well-being but long-term savings to the public purse.

This is about local services. It is good therefore, to see that the Mayor of London has created the ‘Young Londoners Fund’ with £45 million to provide positive interventions. So far, this is helping fund 179 projects, aimed at supporting 66,000 young people in the capital.

As per usual, the voluntary sector is doing a magnificent job. Dedicated professionals are performing under increasing pressure. But we have no national overall strategy – just piecemeal approaches. Such a strategy is needed urgently and would contribute towards a comprehensive and holistic approach to improving the welfare of our children and young people.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer 

Published 17th July 2019

Compound impact

Doreen Massey on funding cuts to services supporting children and young people – and the need for a new national strategy

Ruth Lister on the government’s failure to grasp the SDG agenda and tackle domestic poverty and hunger

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the UN in 2015 broke new ground with the recognition that issues such as poverty, hunger and inequality must be addressed within richer countries as well as in the traditional international development context. No surprise therefore, that a Lords debate this week on the UK government’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) of progress towards the SDGs focussed on domestic matters. 

Earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Select Committee identified a ‘doughnut-shaped hole in domestic implementation of the SDGs’. Using SDG2 ‘zero hunger’ as a case study, it concluded that the ‘Government continues to see hunger and food insecurity as overseas issues’ and lamented its ‘blind eye’ to the issue. And cited UNICEF data from the Food Foundation which indicated a higher proportion of UK children living in severely food insecure households than in any other EU nation.   

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights places a duty on governments to ensure ‘the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger’. According to Human Rights Watch, the UK is failing in that duty as its research reveals families with children going hungry. One issue, integrating the domestic and global dimensions of the SDGs, concerns migrant families with no recourse to public funds and their children excluded from free school meals.   

The VNR document makes no mention of this shameful hunger. But it does refer to the welcome investment in the National School Breakfast Programme, whose organisers are driven by the knowledge that ‘some children are too hungry to learn’. The benefits reported by schools include improved behaviour, attendance and attainment. Yet Ministers refuse to confirm that the scheme will continue beyond March 2020, using the next Spending Review as cover. Given the sums involved are a fraction of the money raised from the Soft Drinks Levy, which funds the government contribution, surely an extension could be granted until the end of the next school year?       

Hunger is a symptom of poverty – the focus of SDG1. Analysis by the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development warns ‘unless the UK takes a different tack, everyday life for its most financially challenged will continue to become more stressed and the prospect of achieving SDG1…is a remote possibility’.

Responsibility for SDG1 lies with the DWP. According to the VNR report, ‘each UK government department has embedded the Goals in its Single Departmental Plan’; each plan ‘outlines how planned activity will support the delivery of the goals’. Yet there is not a single explicit reference to them in the Department’s ‘objectives’.

Indeed, there are no UK wide poverty targets, supported by a delivery strategy – something you would expect if SDG1 were genuinely integrated into the plan. It reads as if drawn up without reference to the SDGs before officials have added in parenthesis where they thought an action could be presented as contributing to them.

While target 1.2, reducing poverty in all its dimensions, is key for the UK, target 1.1. ‘eradicating extreme poverty’ is also relevant. A Joseph Rowntree study developed a measure of destitution appropriate for a wealthy country and estimated 1.5 million people in the UK – including 365,000 children – were destitute during 2017. And those numbers are likely to be worsening as the benefits freeze and other cuts push people further below the poverty line.

The government expresses pride in what it has achieved with SDGs while acknowledging the need for humility in the face of what it has not. Independent analysis underlines the need for that humility. Although shame would be more appropriate given that it has failed to grasp the potential of the SDGs to drive forward domestic action against poverty and hunger.

Baroness Ruth Lister of is a Labour Peer and Honorary President of Child Poverty Action Group

Published 11th July 2019

Own goals

Ruth Lister on the government’s failure to grasp the SDG agenda and tackle domestic poverty and hunger

Toby Harris on the strange, unresolved tale of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery

At the height of the Second World War, the St John’s River Shipbuilding Company in Jacksonville, Florida, built 82 Liberty Ships for the United States government. The vessels were regarded as expendable and they were not built to last.

In August 1944 one of these ships laden with over 6000 tonnes of high explosive was instructed to berth over the Sheerness Middle Sands. The instruction came from the King’s Harbourmaster, who overruled the advice of his deputy that the water was too shallow.

On 20 August in a force eight gale, the SS Richard Montgomery dragged her anchor and ran aground. Its plates began to buckle and crack, and the crew abandoned ship. For the next few weeks, attempts were made to remove the munitions until this was considered too risky. (The Admiralty refused to pay danger money to the salvage crew).

While it is generally thought that over 3000 tonnes of bombs and shells are thought to remain on board, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency believe it is more like 1400. Either way, it’s a lot – given that a half-tonne unexploded bomb closed London City Airport last February.

Since 1944, virtually nothing has been done to make the wreck safe or remove the remaining explosives. Yet, the SS Richard Montgomery sits only 2.4 kilometres from the town of Sheerness and its 11,000 population. And perhaps even more worrying, 3 to 5 kilometres from the Isle of Grain with its oil-fired power station and four storage tanks (each the size of the Royal Albert Hall) of liquefied natural gas, as well as 18 more used for storing oil. 

It is also a mere 200 metres from a busy shipping lane. In May 1980, the Danish-registered Mare Altum, a chemical tanker of almost 1600 gross tonnage – carrying low flash-point toluene – was on a direct collision course with the wreck. A catastrophe that was only just averted.

In 1970, The Royal Military College of Science estimated that in the event of an explosion, the remaining cargo could see a 3000 metre-high column of water and debris, followed by a five metre-high tsunami. With the latter then overwhelming Sheerness and the water wave – possibly carrying burning phosphorus – reaching the petrochemical installation at Grain.

It strikes me as rather odd that nothing has been done in the intervening decades. So this Wednesday I will lead a short debate in the House of Lords where I hope the Minister responding for the Department for Transport will provide some answers to a number of concerns.

What is the current assessment of the state of the munitions that remain and how does the government know, given that the periodic surveys only look at the exterior of the ship? What are the contingency plans for the protection of the Isle of Grain and the residents of Sheerness? Why were the offers made by the US government to make the wreck safe rejected? And what does the UK government plan to do instead?

My fear is that Ministers are hoping the problem will simply go away, leaving them to bury their heads in the Sheerness sands.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a Labour Peer and a member of the joint parliamentary committee on National Security Strategy. He tweets at @LordTobySays

Published 2nd July 2019

Heads in the sand

Toby Harris on the strange, unresolved tale of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery

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