A perspective on Children England's State of the State event by Jessica Cripps

This was the question, posed by an audience member at Children England’s 75th anniversary speaker event, that resonated with the room. Rounds of ‘here, here’ were murmured in agreement.

The response seemed to be relatively positive: we have schools, we have hospitals, we have working roads and vital infrastructure. Despite devolution in the north of England and years of austerity affecting council budgets, the state is clinging on – just. But approach the question from the point of view of the other 18% of the population: children. Do our children, growing up in the 21st century, have the state they deserve?

Polly Toynbee and David Walker, authors of Dismembered: Britain’s Shrinking State and Guardian journalists, lead the discussion at the Free Word Centre on the outsourcing of the responsibilities of the state into the private and voluntary sectors.

Speaking in eye-opening detail about the effects of cuts on policing, border security and health provisions, Ms Toynbee cited that, due to podiatry services now limited to dealing with emergency cases only, 135 people a week lose a foot or leg because they cannot access early prevention care.

Ms Toynbee said: “David Cameron used the crash and deficit as an excuse for cutting back on our social provisions in the name of austerity. As a result, quite extraordinary cuts on public services have taken place which have gone way beyond anything Thatcher could have dreamed of.”

This was picked up on by Kathy Evans, Children England’s CEO, who cited our failure to meet the most basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: clean air, water, food, shelter, sleep, warmth and clothing.

An audience member noted the paradox that the state looks at these problems as if they are the responsibility of the parents, but the parents rely on the state to provide them. To give a child clothing, food and a warm home, the parent needs income which is the responsibility of the state to enable through employment opportunities and affordable housing. Only the state can protect the cleanliness of our water and air.

Ms Evans questioned how successful the state is at providing these things with a small example from Brixton, where they surpassed their annual limit for nitrogen dioxide in just one month. She said: “Air pollution is more poisonous for a small person than anyone else.”

Seventy-five years after the founding of Children England in 1942, the state is still not what our children deserve. Parents working three jobs to make ends meet receive no sympathy from the state: they are on their own. Similarly, parents who need to claim benefits are given no additional empathy for their children: the benefits must simply stretch.

Pressure is put on schools to provide results, as if high grades are the only indicator that a child is living their best life. How can a child who is bullied for claiming free school meals, or living in care, or experiencing a disrupted home life, expect to thrive academically if the state doesn’t recognise the additional support these young people need?

At the end of last year, a report revealed that £1.7bn had been cut from early intervention services over five years. But is this a surprise?

The youngest people in our country have no way to publicly voice their concerns: they cannot vote until they are legal adults. No politician campaigning to be leader of the country is going to waste time catering their manifesto to the concerns of non-voters.

Similarly, councillors hoping to retain seats would also rather take services away from the people who have no say in their re-election than risk upsetting potential voters.

The Victorian ideology of children being seen and not heard is one that is applied in modern politics, and sadly it is one that makes our children vulnerable and powerless.

Ms Evans said: “I think time moves in spirals than in straight lines. [In terms of State] I think we are closer to 1942 than we are to 1960.” Perhaps, if anyone asked them, children might be inclined to agree.

Jessica Cripps, journalist

Contact her at [email protected] or @jessica__cripps