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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

27 JAN 2016

Researching Reform: Why children will matter in 2016

Researching Reform: Why children will matter in 2016
Child welfare as an area of policy has never been regarded as a political priority, and, whilst children should always matter regardless of time or place, this has not always been the case in world history - or British politics.

Now, sustained campaigning by charities and reformers over the last decade has pushed child well-being to the top of the government's agenda, and it is set to stay there for 2016.

In a bold move which sets the tone for this year, current Children's Commissioner for England and Wales, Anne Longfield OBE, has called on the government to create a Cabinet Minister for children in order to amplify the voice of the child at the highest level and ensure that their needs are properly addressed.

The move highlights a shift in thinking on children's rights, and the realisation that child matters are enmeshed in every area of politics.

The relationship between children and government has, in the past, resembled that of an arm's length parent with little interest in their child's success, but the ties run deep. How we treat children as a society tells us a great deal about the health of our democracy. That much of last year's national media coverage was focused on the nation's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse had as much to do with the public's morbid fascination with child crime as it did with Westminster's part to play in covering up abuse committed at the hands of government officials. And, as democracy requires us to trust that our politicians are essentially good people, ministerial scandals involving abused and murdered children have slowly eroded what little public good will was left towards civil servants.

Prime Minister David Cameron is looking to recoup some of that good will, and further his vision for a Big Society (which has not yet caught on) by targeting family for the next 5 years - starting now. The overarching focus on family policy is thought to be underpinned by a drive to safeguard families from separation and, ultimately, poverty which can stem from family breakdown. The Prime Minister's first initiative - to make parenting classes the norm for all families with children - was unveiled earlier this month; but this too has sparked controversy, with parents calling the proposal 'heavy handed', and akin to Nanny State-style intervention. Not all parents, though, shared this view: social media commentary highlighted mixed views, including the belief that the initiative was a welcome move that could offer struggling families support.

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A slightly different take on the Prime Minister's vision of keeping families together has, this month, been offered by Conservative MP Lucy Allan, whose interest in the child welfare sector stems from her own personal experience of it. Ms Allan recently called on the government to go further to ensure more children are given the opportunity to stay at home safely with family or extended relatives, and, in doing so, reduce the number of children going into care. Ms Allan's motion, which was co-authored with former Home Secretary The Rt Hon Alan Johnson, enjoyed considerable support in the House of Commons, and has been widely praised by grandparents and other kinship carers who feel the Family Court still does not do enough to try to place children with relatives prior to making care orders.

Social care issues, too, will feature in government over the next 12 months as the nation's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse begins the first official phase of its work. This phase will see the Inquiry run 12 investigations in tandem, which will look at allegations of abuse involving religious organisations, schools, councils, and prominent public features. The preliminary hearings for these investigations are set to start in February 2016, with the Inquiry also focusing on immediate child protection concerns not related directly to past cases of abuse.

Further cementing child welfare within British politics are the debates taking place across the country looking into the conduct of not just government organisations, but also the media, over the extent to which abuse has been ignored or covered up in England. These discussions go to the heart of corporate policy, journalistic practice and ethics within politics. A child-centric take on the debate over EU membership has also surfaced from an unlikely source. Former director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has issued a stark warning: leaving the EU is not only a terror risk, but a threat to the safety of UK children as cross-border criminals (including paedophiles) could find it easier to evade detection without the policing network offered as part of our current membership status. 

A taboo as recently as a decade ago, discussing politics surrounding child welfare has now become forward thinking, even fashionable; but the government would do well not to spin too hard. Charities and pressure groups have been fighting for child welfare issues to have a 'top spot' in government for a long time, and any proposals it makes now will be met with an unyielding scrutiny. That 2016 is set to be a year with even more protests and public dissatisfaction - and we can assume legal aid and child welfare marches will be included in this rising trend - is a sign that now, more than ever, the government must play its hand earnestly and for the long-term when it comes to child-related matters.

Natasha is legal researcher and copywriter working on child welfare projects. She also runs the website www.researchingreform.net. Follow her on Twitter @SobukiRa.

You can read Natasha's A Day in the Life column here.


The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing.
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