Empty rhetoric and the risk of tragedy

Bev HughesBaroness Bev Hughes of Stretford is Labour's Shadow Children and Education Minister in the House of Lords

The rhetoric of the Queen’s Speech would have us believe that the government have put children and families centre stage.

We of course, welcome individual measures to improve adoption and services for disabled children and children with special educational needs; and we also welcome increased flexibility for parents sharing parental leave. Not least because these proposals all build on progress made by the last Labour government.

But in terms of how these measures square up against the scale of the crisis facing so many families, my optimism quickly fades. On women’s employment, on tax credits, on childcare benefits and on early years’ provision – services upon which many families depend to keep their heads above water – Ministers are carrying out the most sustained attack on families in a generation.

At a time when families are facing dwindling incomes against rising prices, growing unemployment and cuts to vital public services, the Queens Speech does nothing to address these real and urgent issues. It’s no surprise that the public concluded that the government is completely out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

The mantra spouted by Ministers is that there is no alternative; that they are dealing with the economic mess left by the previous Labour government. That contention is as dishonest as it is bankrupt. They know they have choices about how fast they cut the deficit and the priorities they protect along the way.

Rising employment amongst women has been the key to rising living standards for many families over the last four decades. Not anymore. In two years, this government has reversed that trend and women’s unemployment is now the highest for 25 years. Cuts in childcare benefit, child support, tax credits, and services available in Sure Start centres and elsewhere are taking a terrible toll on family life.

The LibDems claim that quietly, behind the scenes, they smooth the jagged edges of Conservative policies.  But so many times the public have been marched up to the top of the hill by Nick Clegg and his colleagues – on education, on welfare reform, on legal aid and on health – only to be marched right back down again, let down by the LibDems.

Not only is the Coalition undermining families’ ability to give their children a good start in life, they are pulling the rug from under young people’s feet.

By common consent, youth unemployment is at crisis levels, with over a million young people now out of work, long term youth unemployment two and a half times that of a year ago, only 7% of 16-18 year olds getting  an apprenticeship last year, the scrapping the educational maintenance allowance and trebling tuition fees.

At the same time, young people have been disproportionately hit by local authority cuts to clubs, activities, youth programmes, libraries and leisure centres. They are now stuck between a rock and a hard place, with fewer jobs than at any time in the last 20 years while the cost of staying in education has soared and financial support for those most in need has been abolished.

I truly believe we are risking a lost generation of young people, with a repeat of the worst policies of the 1980s and 90s, and all the same long term consequences for young people, their families and communities – indeed for the whole of society. And that will be a tragedy.

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