31 Mar 2007

Child Poverty - "Aiming high", but mixed messages from HMG

Aiming high for children: supporting families [March 2007] is in many ways an admirable document, but it fails to address the issue of competing messages from popular culture, probably because HMG itself is guilty of promoting the most crucially damaging messages that now form part of the UK's popular culture.

2.61 Parents who want to teach their children right from wrong and standards of behaviour and how to exercise discipline and self control, can find themselves competing with popular culture which often seems to be sending out competing messages and which then reinforces all the peer pressure on their own children.

"Nothing wrong with that", is how most people will react.

And few will complain about:

2.54 Children’s outcomes are best when they grow up in a stable family structures with a positive relationship between parents. The quality of each parent’s relationship with the other is vital. Government wants to support stable relationships between parents. However, where relationships break down, the Government also wants to provide the necessary support to ensure children get the best start.

2.55 There is a high correlation between family breakdown and poor child outcomes. However, parental separation is not an isolated event, but a process that starts long before the actual separation and can continue to impact after the parents have parted. The evidence shows that parental conflict can also be very damaging to children’s outcomes, and that support offered to parents can be effective to help minimise such conflict.

But if HMG really wants to "provide the necessary support to ensure children get the best start" why is its new mantra 'prevention and early intervention' limited to children and not applied to the relationships of couples before they become parents, by promoting marriage preparation? It's Ok to teach children moral values, but perish the thought parents should be asked to consider them! This is typical of the mixed messages that HMG is sending out. No wonder children and young people are confused!

1.8 .......... • prevention: Preventing poor outcomes from arising in the first place benefits children, young people and families directly. In addition, failure to prevent problems impacts not only on the family but also society more widely, for example in lost economic contributions, poor health, and the effects of antisocial behaviour.

"Government wants to support stable relationships between parents". Really? So what has it done about it? It's just cut the MARS [Marriage and Relationship Support] grants - which in any case were miniscule - so the 'message' it is sending out is that it does not value marriage and stable couple relationships. The Weekly Update of UK Marriage News - No 7.11 18/3/07 from 2-in-2-1 puts it like this:

CYPF Grant analysis: We have now had a closer look at the list of funded organisations for this year’s CYPF grant and can confirm that none of the grants made this year is for work that can be categorised as “MARS”. This means that the funding is simply that announced last year – ie some £369K LESS than in 2005/6. The main loser is once again Relate which has seen its core funding cut from £2.1M two years ago to £1.2M this year with a further reduction of £200K already announced for next year. The total MARS funding is now down to £3.63M from the £5M three years ago – a 33% reduction in real terms, with a further 9% cut forecast for next year. We leave you to draw your own conclusions on where the whole area of Family Breakdown really sits on this current government’s agenda.

And HMG complains about "competing messages from popular culture"!

So much for its assertion that "the quality of each parent’s relationship with the other is vital."

Aiming high for children: supporting families claims it is 'building resilience':

1.13 The Government has sought to work with parents and communities to reduce key risks or negative influences on children’s lives, through the priority attached to eradicating child poverty.....

Who will be inclined to believe HMG is 'building resilience' - or seriously concerned with 'child poverty' - when it can't even mention 'marriage' in a document about supporting families, and is consistently reducing such small grants as it makes for marriage support?

30 Mar 2007

Child poverty - socialists on the back foot

The Guardian has reacted quickly to the news that 'child poverty' is actually getting worse now under New Labour.

"You can't talk about children's well-being unless you dare talk about the inequality of their life experience" [whatever that means], wails Polly Toynbee.

"Here is even worse news: inequality grew again and is now back up to the level when figures were first collated (the Gini coefficient) back in 1961. This looks grim; here was one solid rock on which Labour could stake its moral claims. That astonishing promise to abolish all child poverty by 2020 was Labour's trump card when it faces the sullen looks of its shrunken remaining troops. Whatever Cameron may pretend is his "aspiration" to keep lifting children out of poverty, if his plans don't add up he has been let off the hook for now....."

"Sure Start children's centres are the best hope of reaching every family to give every child a chance - but the 3,500 new centres are being rolled out without anything like the funds needed for intensive professional help. Everywhere, brilliant pilots and small schemes show what can be done: an opportunity tax should supply the funds to make them universal. None of that will happen unless voters will it. The child poverty target can't be hit by stealth."

All the more reason for the ONS to publish a Social Capital Index by neighbourhood so we can see what effect Sure Start's "brilliant pilots and small schemes" - and the programmes provided by other organisations - are having on social and domestic cohesion, as well as the effect they are having on the other indicators of deprivation.

But there is not a squeak so far from the Guardian about the need for a Social Capital Index so that the evaluations can be undertaken.

"Until now, the very word "inequality" has been banned from the political lexicon. But now the wealth gap is widening, Labour has to confront it. In the last decade every £100 increase in GDP growth has seen £40 go to the richest 10% of the people: the other 90% have had to share out the rest - and this pattern is accelerating. This argument hasn't yet been put, these facts are not out there in the political battleground, but here is prime territory for Labour to lay down a challenge" Polly Toynbee declares roundly.

Actually, the taboo is not "inequality" but "marriage", as most socialists can't seem to utter the word without choking on it.

"Sure Start children's centres are the best hope of reaching every family to give every child a chance" claims Polly Toynbee, as if it is an assertion that should go unchallenged. But surely "the best hope of reaching every family to give every child a chance" would occur if the fathers marry the childrens' mothers, love them, and remain married to them? Is that not something to be promoted?

"Gordon Brown yesterday admitted the government faced a big challenge to reach its key child poverty target but refused to pledge more money to address the problem" says Ashley Seager also in the Guardian.

"Giving testimony to parliament's Treasury select committee, the chancellor also faced accusations that last week's budget had left many poorer people worse off. The government was stung this week when its own figures showed that child poverty had increased for the first time in six years while overall poverty had risen for the first time under this government........... Figures out yesterday also showed take up of the pension credit had fallen last year."

"This is further proof that Gordon Brown's obsession with mass means-tested benefits is failing to help the most vulnerable people in our society," said Lib Dem work and pensions spokesman David Laws.

Meanwhile, in "The Politicizing of Poverty" Janice Shaw Crouse [27/3/07] is writing in the US:

"A headline about changing family structure wouldn't be effective, however, for two reasons. One, it would make reporters' eyes glaze over, and two, it does not lay the blame for increased poverty at the door of the current administration and its so-called "tax cuts for the rich." A third reason is that the problem relates to irresponsible sexual behavior. Much of the poverty problem is related to the growth of single-parent families, a fact that is recognized further down in the Brookings report in the following statement:

'Three of the most effective ways to reduce poverty are to increase work levels, reverse the growth of single-parent families, and improve educational outcomes.'

Note that even liberal social analysts must come to terms with the negative outcomes of dysfunctional sexual behavior. They try to formulate policy proposals to deal with the consequences of non-marital sex in terms compatible with their world view that sees social structures as the sources of problems and government programs as their solutions. So, they seek funding for yet another iteration of government programs rather than acknowledge the root moral-values issues, [my italics] which, to be fair, are the purview of today's religious leaders, many of whom have forsaken the true message of their calling.

We know, too, that ever-larger funding for education is not going to change the reality that children who grow up without a father present often turn a classroom into barely controlled chaos where learning is a very difficult proposition. But these realities have not yet penetrated the culture. The downward trend in the marriage rate among unmarried women age 15-44 continues. The marriage rate today is a little less than half of what it was in the mid-1960s. Also the unmarried birthrate of women 20 and older continues to rise year after year.

The charge has long been wielded that the rise in unwed birth rates was the consequence of poverty. Yet, with the advent of the abstinence movement, the rise of the unwed birthrate among American teens miraculously stopped climbing in the early 1990s after rising almost every year since WWII. The unwed teen birthrate has since declined by 25 percent. Funny, after listening to the left incessantly sing the song that youths could not control their raging hormones, yet another myth has been swept into the trash can..................

Sadly, it's not politically correct to focus on moral values and responsible sexual behavior but as the public relations folks at Brookings recognize, there is always a good market for yet another press release full of hopeful promises about governmental programs [my italics]."

28 Mar 2007

Child poverty - swings and roundabouts

"Budget 2007: Benefit and tax changes will lift 200,000 children out of poverty" says Tristan Donovan, 28 March 2007 at "Children Now".

In the nick of time, so it seems, as according to the BBC, Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK:

"More UK children live in poverty" - "Figures showing a 200,000 rise in UK children living in relative poverty last year have been described as a "moral disgrace" by Barnardo's."

It's difficult to know what and who to believe.

Let's try Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab) speaking in the House of Commons on 26th March 2007:

"I want to focus on the measures to reduce child poverty. I welcome the decisions that will lift 200,000 children out of poverty, and the recommitment to halving child poverty by 2010 and to abolishing it by 2020 ............. It is clear from the criticisms that we have heard that Her Majesty’s Opposition basically do not understand the phenomenon of child poverty, which is presumably why they allowed it to treble under the last Tory Government. It has also become clear to us that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has completely misled his colleagues by suggesting that family breakdown is the prime cause of child poverty in this country. In January, there was a lot of talk about the UNICEF comparisons of child well-being among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but I have looked at the more up-to-date comparisons between European countries by Jonathan Bradshaw of York university. They were published in a journal called Social Indicators Research in January this year, and they show that family breakdown is not the prime cause of child poverty in any of the European countries. Indeed, if we strip out the experience of the United Kingdom, we see that there is a positive correlation between child well-being and the number of single-parent families, with Finland and Sweden at the top of the table............... The key factors influencing child poverty were found to be income inequality, child poverty itself, obviously, gross domestic product per capita - at is, the overall wealth of a country - social spending and spending on children and families. That is why the strategy announced in the Budget for tackling child poverty is the right course of action."

So there we have it! Or do we? Is Professor Jonathan Bradshaw the last word we need to hear on the subject?

If the Labour "strategy" is so virtuously and manifestly the correct one, how is it that Barnado's are complaining about the "moral disgrace" that 200,000 more children have just slipped into poverty?

Let's hear it from another professor:

The Extraordinary Effects of Marriage [January 2002 in Accountancy] By Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics, Warwick University. Visit his website at www.oswald.co.uk

"A new branch of research is finding that marriage has powerful and beneficial effects on human beings. Currently this work is done by applied statisticians, and appears only in arcane journals. But its findings deserve to be read by everyone in western society. The work proceeds in a way common in modern social science. Large random samples of families are followed through time. They are interviewed every year about their lives, and their incomes and psychological wellbeing levels are measured.

The first finding is that marriage makes you richer. In virtually every country ever studied, workers who are married earn between 10% and 20% more than those who are single. This figure holds after many other influences are factored out (in other words, it bears in mind there are lots of other forces that affect pay, including someone’s age and education and gender and so on). Economists argue about what this finding means. Some say that it is because ‘better’ people -- healthier, more tenacious, more conscientious, better looking, more productive, stronger -- are the ones who get married. Marriage itself, on this line of argument, is not doing anything to a man or woman's earning power. Those with large pay packets simply choose to get hitched more than do those on low earnings. That sounds plausible, but actually it does not fit the facts. For one thing, if you study people in their early 20s, then those who are married barely earn more than singles. It appears that the ‘marriage wage premium’, as it is sometimes called by researchers, actually gets stronger through time as the years pass and the marriage gets longer. This suggests that marriage is more a cause than an effect of higher pay....

The second main finding from modern statistical research is even stranger. Marriage makes you live longer. Although most members of the general public are probably not aware of it, there is now some consensus among epidemiologists that you can prolong your life by marrying. Marriage keeps you alive about 3 extra years, on average. Numerous studies have shown this. One of the most intriguing followed male graduates of Amherst College in the United States in the late nineteenth century. At age 18, all these men had their health, height and weight measured. Their later occupation was also recorded, and much else about them. Then they were followed through their lives. All are now dead, of course. Strikingly, those who married lived much longer, even bearing in mind other influences.

There is plenty of British evidence too. In the late 1960s, 20,000 middle – aged male civil servants had a medical examination and were then tracked for the next two decades. At the end of that time, 14 out of every 1000 married men had died, compared to 21 for widowers, 17 for those single, and 21 for those separated. This study is interesting because it appears to pin some of the blame, if that is the right word, on cardiovascular disease. Unmarried men had much higher blood pressure. The current conventional view in the epidemiological journals is that marriage works through some kind of protective effect on mental wellbeing. It lowers stress and worry – presumably because sharing worries halves them, just as tradition says. Partly, too, married people smoke less and eat in a healthier way."

So you can take your choice, if you want to reduce deprivation and end child poverty:

(1) Trust Helen Goodman and Gordon Brown to continue to tinker creatively with taxes and benefits, or

(2) Ask Iain Duncan Smith whether he is going to try to persuade his Conservative colleagues to support the amendments I am proposing to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

16 Mar 2007

Contraception and Abortion (Parental Information) - Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Angela Wilkinson MP sought:

"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require practitioners providing contraception or abortion services to a child under the age of 16 to inform his or her parent or guardian; and for connected purposes."

The Noes won by 169 to 87 (majority 82) with 4 tellers, making a turnout of 260.

Opposing the motion Evan Harris MP said:

"The answer, however, is not more ignorance, which is what the hon. Member for Upminster has prescribed: it is more information. "

Actually, it is Dr Harris who is on the side of ignorance - but for parents and guardians - with the medical profession left cheerfully providing contraceptive services and abortions to those under the legal age of consent without let or hindrance.

It is difficult to imagine a recipe more likely to give encouragement to young boys and male adults who wish to coerce underage girls into having sex with them.

"There's no harm in it. You won't get pregnant. Your parents need never know."

The facts are different. As Mrs Wilkinson said:

"The provision of lots of sex information has not worked, so sex information should be replaced with sex education. In education about the real risks involved and the likely outcomes, the advice to under-age girls should be to abstain, to wait, to delay, and to resist, rather than to use contraception and believe that they will not come to any harm. Parents need to be part of that process."

She also said:

"Advice on abortion may be provided and accepted without the parents' knowledge. Just a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a constituent who had been required to leave his place of work, find a chemist and buy a tube of antiseptic cream, go to his son's primary school where the child had grazed his knee, apply the cream and then return to work. Apparently that procedure was too risky to be undertaken without parental involvement. We live in a contrary world that rates the application of cream to a grazed knee, or a visit to the dentist, for which parental consent is also required, as a greater risk than an abortion on a minor."

It is a pity that Mrs Wilkinson won't get a chance to bring in her Bill.

However, for those who are wanting to bring about improvements in social and domestic cohesion in the broadest sense, there are realistic opportunities to insert significant amendments in the:

Statistics and Registration Services Bill

and the

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

Please see earlier posts.

4 Mar 2007

"Blair U-turn over forced marriages" - The Observer 4th March 2007

Some excellent news in The Observer:

"Tony Blair is to back moves to make forced marriages illegal. The move, a U-turn in government policy, will ensure the introduction of a new law [Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill] enshrining powerful rights for victims, many of them under age, who have been compelled to marry against their will.

The Prime Minister's change of heart, revealed in an exclusive interview with The Observer, means that legislation introduced in the Lords by the Liberal Democratic peer, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will obtain the government backing it has previously been denied."

'We listened to what people were saying,' Blair said. 'I was told we were in the wrong place on this, that the bill should be supported and that we should think again. I reflected and realised that, if you approach the problem through civil law, it's very sensible. It [forced marriage] is a terrible thing.'

Very rarely do Governments support Bills by private Members of Parliament. Even more rarely do they back down from a position of opposition. So, 'two cheers' for the Prime Minister for this - thus far.

There is more joy in heaven etc....

The next question is will HMG back the amendment that I am proposing should be added to Lord Lester's Bill?

I am suggesting two additional clauses should be added to section 2 of the draft Bill concerning 'guidance', which starts with 2 (a) the difference between arranged and forced marriage:

(e) the opportunities and advantages for the parties to protect themselves and each other against any possible accusations about the marriage being one that is forced or bogus by participating together in a research-based educational programme of marriage preparation - including an independently validated psychometric inventory - to assist them in confirming to the Registrar or deputy Registrar the voluntary nature of their commitment to the marriage.

(f) the advantage of obtaining a certificate from the facilitator of the programme of marriage preparation that they have satisfactorily completed both the educational programme and the inventory.

And the question after that is will HMG support the amendment that I am proposing should be added to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill?

The opportunity arises with the Statistics and Registration Service Bill to insert a clause for publishing a Social Capital Index. There is already a clause [19] to provide for the Retail Price Index. My proposal is:

[20] Social capital index
(1) The Board must under section 18
(a) compile and maintain a social capital index by neighbourhood, and
(b) publish it regularly, together with
(c) statistics and an index for social and domestic cohesion.

The amended Bills would have the effect of:

(1 ) enabling local authorities which decide to follow the guidance to train registration officers to introduce marrying couples to the benefits to them of undertaking an approved programme of marriage preparation, and
(2) measure the changes by neighbourhood in social and domestic cohesion as a result of the LA's policy and the marriage education programmes local voluntary groups are providing.

The US government has sponsored a Healthy Marriage Initiative and included a list of approved assessment tools. Two of these psychometric inventories - FOCCUS [which I and Marriage Care and Scottish Marriage Care provide] and PREPARE are widely available in the UK.

Please see Criteria for Inclusion of Relationship Assessment Tools on the National Healthy Marriage Web site.

3 Mar 2007

"The best chance to grow" by Terry Prendergast in The Tablet

Would that more journals concerned with religious and moral issues could attract writers like Terry Prendergast [The Tablet 3rd March 2007] to dig a bit deeper than most of our politicians on the subject of marriage:

"But take a closer look at the politicians' chief concerns about marriage or the lack of it. When National Marriage Week was launched last month at the House of Commons, the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith spoke about his recent report, Breakdown Britain, which highlighted that the cost of family breakdown appears to have risen by about £7 billion in a 10-year period. However, what was most striking about his comments was that he stressed the importance of marriage for the stability of society, never once mentioning the importance for the couple themselves, their health or their well-being.

This is a typical approach for a politician, as government, and would-be governing parties, tend to be concerned more with social stability than with personal and emotional health. And that reflects a clear failure to understand that the former depend on the latter. "

What to do then?

Well, I have suggested in an earlier post that people can write to their MPs [it's easily done, see this page on the right] and to the Odysseus Trust to ask them to support an amendment to Lord Lester's Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill. This would include in the 'guidance' for all couples getting married information about the benefits of undertaking a research-based programme of marriage preparation, including a pre-marital inventory.

There is also an opportunity with the Statistics and Registration Service Bill to insert a clause for publishing a Social Capital Index. There is already a clause [19] to provide for the Retail Price Index. My proposal is:

[20] Social capital index
(1) The Board must under section 18
(a) compile and maintain a social capital index by neighbourhood, and
(b) publish it every year, together with
(c) statistics relating to social and domestic cohesion.

Again, it is a simple matter to write to your MP about it.

There is a further reason for taking action now:

The Statistics and Registration Service Bill "will also establish proper employment status and rights for registration officers (as local authority employees) in England and Wales." Whereas in the past registration officers - not being employees of local authorities - could not be required by local authorities to promote marriage education programmes, it will soon be much easier for a local authority to do this, if it has thought through and published a coherent policy for social and domestic cohesion for its area.

In an earlier debate [4th November 2002] Ruth Kelly said:

In our White Paper, [Delivering Vital Change] the Government explained that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as ........ marriage preparation...... I believe that there is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to develop those services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities, now and in future. A wider role for the registration service will improve on the current piecemeal approach by local authorities and will be underpinned by the proposed national standards.

Sadly, the proposals - which were contained in a Regulatory Reform Order, not a Bill - eventually failed to come into effect. The conclusion was:

"The Committee reports that the proposal for the Regulatory Reform (Registration of Births and Deaths)(England and Wales) Order 2004 is not an appropriate subject for a regulatory reform order. The proposed order should not be proceeded with."

Fortunately, the Statistics and Registration Service Bill and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill together - if passed with the amendments I am proposing - could start to transform the culture in favour of marriage.

But I suspect our parliamentarians will need much 'encouragement'!