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What can we expect from the new Government?

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What can we expect for vulnerable children and young people under the new Government?

Action for Children’s mission is to act early so that children get the care and support they need, and to speak out fearlessly on their behalf. A Government with an overall majority means a clearer than expected political environment in which we can  work for a better deal for the most vulnerable children.

Manifesto promises

Manifestos do not represent the totality of a party’s intentions, but they are the pre-election shop window that voters may browse. They offer two important markers: promises that governing parties can be held to and how the party wishes to be perceived on certain issues.

The Conservative manifesto includes promises to prevent the most acute abuse, improve young people’s employment prospects through education and training, and provide interventions to reduce child poverty.

As headlines, these are hard to argue with. The manifesto states, “Every child deserves a warm, loving home, and to feel safe online and at school”. The question is whether the policies we currently know about can deliver that.

Spending decisions

The policies with perhaps the greatest impact on children and families are not those specifically targeted at them. They are financial. A promise to eliminate the deficit by 2020 means an additional £30bn will need to be saved from Government budgets or raised in additional taxes. Combined with the promise not to raise VAT, income tax or National Insurance, plus an extra £8bn for the NHS, the Government will have little room for manoeuvre. There is a very real danger that the pursuit of these ambitious goals will lead to short-term decision-making stalling long-term goals.

The much reported £12bn reductions to social security benefits – though we don’t yet know how and where these will fall – are likely to mean life-changing decisions for many families. We know the benefit cap will be reduced by a further £3,000, making it harder for families who lose work to stay in areas like London. There is also a pledge to remove automatic housing benefit entitlement for under-21s, though we don’t yet know how this will affect children who have no safe home to return to. However, for families in work, linking the personal tax allowance to the value of the Minimum Wage will take more low-earners out of tax altogether.

In the devolved nations, ongoing negotiations around increased devolution and country-based taxation could see significant changes to the way that revenue is raised for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Local government

Local authorities will be watching the unfolding agenda carefully. Local government must make savings but has limited choice about where these should be made. Both spending and revenue raising are controlled nationally, with legal requirements to deliver certain services and local referendums required for council tax increases above 2%. Reductions, therefore, will fall on non-statutory services even as the cost of delivering statutory services is rising.

There are also opportunities for us to raise the volume on decisions affecting children and young people. The Queen’s Speech will introduce a Scotland Bill to take devolution further and may allow the Scottish Government to take greater control of social security policy. It will also pave the way for the scrapping of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a Bill of Rights, a chance for a national debate about the rights of children and the bounds of corporate parenting responsibility.

Children’s issues in the manifesto

The Conservative Manifesto specifically addresses:

Child protection and safeguarding - The focus here is on the sharp end. Child sexual exploitation has, quite rightly, attracted a huge amount of public and political interest over the last few years. But it’s not the whole story. There is no mention of child safeguarding outside this now high profile area, despite the fact that we know one in 10 children in the UK will experience neglect. This is a harder problem to tackle and it doesn’t lend itself to headline-making policies. Action for Children will keep making the case for early family support that prevents neglect and helps parents build a safe, nurturing home.

Looked-after children – Regional adoption agencies and more support for social work recruitment and training programmes like Frontline do not address the problems faced by the most vulnerable children in our care system. The lack of support beyond 18, insufficient resources to make home a safer place to return to, too much movement between foster placements, all work against children finding stability and happiness.

Early years – All of the main parties competed hard to outdo one another on childcare offers in the run up to the election. The Conservative Manifesto pledged 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds where all parents are working. This is added to the tax-free childcare scheme announced by the Coalition Government in March. The manifesto also promises to protect the Pupil Premium “at current rates”, but doesn’t indicate whether this will be protected in real terms.

Child poverty – Commitments  to work to eliminate child poverty by focusing on some of its causes, such as worklessness, family breakdown, and drug and alcohol addiction. However, there is no mention of reducing intergenerational disadvantage,  or alleviating the immediate impact of poverty on children. With the welfare reform agenda now taking centre stage, the impact on vulnerable children needs to be part of decision-making.

Still to come

Many decisions are yet to be made. Over the next few weeks, we will find out who will be running different government departments and for which areas of policy they will be responsible. Action for Children will be working hard to ensure that consideration of prevention, child development and emotional well-being is not diminished.

An early Budget and summer Spending Review should give us greater clarity about the overall settlement, but will set in stone tight spending plans – leaving less opportunity to pursue long-term solutions.

There are no easy choices available over the coming years, but we believe passionately that the needs of the most vulnerable children cannot be ignored because services are reduced to crisis-only interventions. Our remit is to speak out fearlessly on their behalf and we will do so.

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