At midday today applications close for the next children’s commissioner for England. There was never greater need for a fearless defender of children to take over from the admirable Anne Longfield, whose six-year term ends in February. After a decade of destruction there is a crisis in every children’s service.
Taking on this job will be a dauntingly dispiriting task, as report after report from every quarter chronicles rising numbers of children falling into deprivation with dwindling help. The post carries a Cassandra curse: to see all that’s happening, to keep waving red flags of irrefutable evidence but with no power to act.
No doubt the government would prefer to abolish this post. Why appoint someone to shout in your ear and draw public attention to all your delinquencies? But shutting it down would make more noise than it’s worth: ministers seem at ease with ignoring evidence of what their policies do.
From this point of view at least, the choice is in safe hands: the final selection is made by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary. The shortlisting assessment panel is chaired by an undistinguished former Tory MP, Simon Burns, with no known previous interest in children’s policy. (Apart from voting against gay marriage, his one memorable act was persuading the Commons administration committee to give MPs the right to jump cafe and restaurant queues). He’s unlikely to upset this government’s unrivalled record for appointing to public posts Tory cronies, donors, and those with commercial interests or favours to repay. If the government wanted the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Child Catcher, he’d probably nod it through.
How did Anne Longfield ever get appointed by a Tory government? She was a great Sure Start advocate: her 4Children charity ran many of the best of them. She was chosen by the MP Edward Timpson back in the days when the Tory party had room for a few reforming moderates.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, former head of the Child Poverty Action Group, ponders gloomily whether children might fare better under a compliant Tory who might, now and then, use a little influence. But then she says children need a boat-rocker to raise the alarm too.
Whoever lands the job can’t ignore the rising levels of distress in every area of children’s lives. They will find an office knee-deep in reports, each more upsetting to read than the next. Pick them at random: help for families in trouble fell, numbers of children in care rose by 28% in the austerity decade. In the pandemic 44% more children need foster care, with fewer families able to take them in.
In next week’s Covid Kids report, the commissioner will tell of children stuck in B&Bs, of loss of education, of hundreds of thousands without laptops or wifi for homework, of poverty and hunger; Longfield lobbied the chancellor unsuccessfully for an extra £20 a week on child benefit. Marcus Rashford had more leverage.
The new commissioner confronts a great political puzzle: why do children come last? Pollsters report people repeating the old platitudes: children are our future, they say, and are keener to back welfare for them than for their “feckless” parents. Yet, since 2010 children have been at the back of every queue, hardest hit by benefit cuts and caps that force young families to keep moving schools and districts. The starkest evidence is infant mortality rising for the first time in my lifetime – while birth rates fall steeply in a country turned harshly unwelcoming to babies.
Within an already miserable budget compared to that for physical health, children’s mental health gets least, £92 per child patient compared to £225 per adult. The commissioner’s report finds in places such as Knowsley, Merseyside, 64% of children referred for help get none. Why? Catching problems early can rescue people from a lifetime of suffering.
But early help has been wasting away, along with the demise of Sure Starts. Nurseries are now in crisis, 71% teetering on the edge of financial collapse. The Educational Policy Institute reports disadvantaged pupils are 18.1 months behind their peers, those on free school meals 22.6 months behind, with “persistent poverty” a cause. Without policy change, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted one in four children in Britain will fall into poverty. Wherever the new commissioner looks, there will be no avoiding inconvenient truths, such as the effect of school budget cuts, a third fewer school nurses than in 2010 and health visitors rare as hens’ teeth.
But the commissioner does have important powers that Anne Longfield has used to the full. She can command information from any public body. She can enter wherever children are kept: in care, in prison, in mental hospitals or dumped miles from home by unregulated care companies: “A report says a child is in a suite of rooms: I go in and find she’s in one room with a toilet and no therapy.” Overseen by the social data expert Leon Feinstein, who first proved social class overtakes natural ability by the age of six, her commission reports have confronted government with often devastating evidence. The annual vulnerability report for the first time assembles children’s data from every department. The annual stability index on how often children in care are moved is used by Ofsted when inspecting councils’ treatment of children.
She tells the government its “levelling up” must start with children. It’s not about construction, railways and status projects, “It’s about people and their chance of confidence and enjoyment in life starts as a young child.” We wait to see how her successor matches up to her.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist