Well, well, well … Who knew it? ukip’s latest policy on welfare was out there all the time! Basically, they aim to be tough on those in poverty and well to the right of IDS when it comes to social policy.
How do I know this? I was chatting with someone the other day about ukip’s all things to all men (women know your place!) Bedroom Tax policy and I mused about where they stood on other Social Security issues. My friend sent me this link to their last set of policies. One of which alone kills dead the idea that ukip would really stand up for the left behind, the axing of Sure Start.
Yes, I know, we must await the much anticipated Manifesto, whose unveiling has become like a particularly arthritic Dance of the Seven Veils. First, it was to appear early this year; next Friday 23rd May, conveniently a day after the European Elections; then later in the summer; then later this month, but the last I read was that only a few key policies would be unveiled in Doncaster. Would they be those of which Farage has already spoken? For example, the National Minimum Wage and tax ‘cuts’ policy and the ones listed in this article? Until they repudiate their previous anti-poverty proposals then we may assume that they are still current or, at the very least still being considered for their Manifesto.
Sure Start, established under Labour; a major issue at the last General Election and broadly supported by the mainstream parties is practically the quintessential policy for helping the left behind within a few years of their leaving their cradles. It is a lot less controversial and judgmental than the current government’s Troubled Families Programme. Troubled Families expects almost overnight easily measurable outputs and outcomes. We will not know the full impact, good and/or bad of Sure Start until the first cohort of beneficiaries reaches the age of 18. Anyone who thinks Sure Start to be a waste of money is either ignorant, stupid and/or cares nothing for those who start their lives at the rear of the convoy and who steadily fall behind as the voyage progresses. No wonder Nigel Farage studiously avoids discussing ukip’s social policies in any open forum.
Sure Start, based on Head Start in the United States of America, aims to prevent poor children, often from very deprived areas, from experiencing an opportunity gap opening up between them and the children of those in higher income groups. Put simply, if the poorest children do not get a hand up before the age of 5 then in most cases they will never improve on the position at which they started. Truly, these children are the left behind.
I am in no way criticising the parents of these disadvantaged children. Many were themselves disadvantaged and could not break out of the poverty trap. Unlike so many of the Commentariat and the likes of Matthew Goodwin, I have grown up alongside them, met them and those working with them (and supported both during my career). I have not, Gradgrind like, sat at my computer and written reports, recommendations and so forth after just reading the latest statistics, opinion polls and the comment pieces of others. I suspect many of you reading this now have done the same as me and share my respect and awe for the efforts to which these parents (and families) go to try and give their children a better start in life than they had. Sometimes it is heartbreaking to think what the future may hold for these children. Sure Start is all about giving the poorest children a more than even chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Crucially, it also helps their parents to help themselves to improve their lot and thus the lot of their children.
Poverty is about more than just money, as important as that is to getting out of it, it also denies people the chance to experience new things and different cultures. It denies them the opportunity to go to art galleries, the theatre, the cinema, in fact to enjoy the rich and varied culture of our society and other societies that many, not in poverty, take for granted. I must confess I am a Bevanite snob, if it is good enough for them then it is good enough for us! You might even call me a Champagne Socialist. I have tried it, do not like it, but like a glass or two of port after a good dinner. And yet I sprang from the working class in what still is one of the poorest parts of Birmingham. And although Children’s Centres, a key component of Sure Start, do not I assume promote the drinking of port, they do in part aim to broaden the horizons of children.
There is something else about Children’s Centres. They are non means tested. Consequently, there was at least a hope that children across social groups and income levels would mingle and learn a bit about each other, thereby, promoting community cohesion and understanding. Who knows, they might just develop the friendships, networks and connections for which some parents send their children to private schools, public schools and Oxbridge. More than a touch of social engineering there? I am not sure if that has come to pass.
Locally, Labour rolled out the centres in three tranches, starting with the hardest to help areas. The Tories, on coming to power in Birmingham scaled back the third phase, but then the deprived children of Falcon Lodge might have met and played with the well off children of the rest of Andrew Mitchell’s Constituency of Sutton Coldfield, one of the most affluent areas outside of London and South East. We cannot have the kids off the estate learning that only money separates them from their ‘betters’, can we?
Story Wood Children’s Centre (previously Brambles/Sure Start Kingstanding) is one of the Children’s Centres I had the pleasure to visit in my time as a Civil Servant. Story Wood is at the heart of the community it serves and is on the site of Story Wood School. Some of the detail of what the Children’s Centre does is here. For me, Children’s Centres are my kind of Socialism and something of which to be unashamedly proud. I visited one a couple of times at a Junior and Infant School that I used to attend. And that was a very deprived area (in terms of money) when Mom, Dad, my brother and me lived there. Thankfully, things have improved somewhat and I helped a little with some of that improvement in recent years.
Whilst talking about ukip policies more generally, I would observe that Children’s Centres operate under the auspices of local authorities, but not all are run by them. Lakeside was set up by Enta, a widely respected Voluntary and Community Sector organisation and like a lot of Children’s Centres engages in a variety of ways with the parents who use the Centre’s services. Jargon like empowerment springs to mind, but not ukip’s ‘Power to the People’ ideas. Helping to run a Children’s Centre your children attend is power to the people. Closing it is not.
Were ukip to have its way then closing Children’s Centres would leave the left behind, both children and parents further behind; put trained professionals in a variety of child related disciplines out of work; remove community centres from communities with few or no other community facilities; waste a lot of money in a variety of ways and I suspect leave more than a few children heartbroken. Thankfully those who use and have used the centres are not easily fooled (which is a sign they are working). They made the survival of their centres an issue in the last General Election. David Cameron said none would be closed on his watch. Somewhere in the region of 250 have gone, but a network remains, even where authorities are Tory run. The equivalent of the NHS of the First Age has developed deep roots, thankfully.
Replacing Early Years’ Funding, Sure Start, the childcare element of Working Tax Credit and the tax relief on Employer Nursery Vouchers into a flat-rate, non-means tested Nursery Voucher to cover approximately half the cost of a full-time nursery place is no answer to the challenges facing the children of the left behind. The bulk of the funding being replaced by the voucher currently goes on the left behind. Under ukip, the likes of David (I claimed Disability Living Allowance) Cameron would get some of the money if he used a voucher. ukip proposes a simplistic answer to a complex set of problems and moves money away from where it is most needed. Could they be seeking the votes of Tories with a non means tested voucher?
And for any ukiper who has read this far, rather than posting a comment accusing me of a smear and/or being a paedophile, Children’s Centres provide childcare, support for lone parents and employ a lot of women. Is your blood boiling now? If you closed Children’s Centres you would reduce the amount of childcare, possibly pushing up the price of that remaining. We know you do not like lone parents, women in the workplace and seemingly women in general. However, let me cause you some more grief, men are lone parents too and men work in childcare. One of the latter I met had worked on the track at Rover before being made redundant. Oh, and around 8% of HGV drivers are women!
If Labour (and to a great extent) the other mainstream parties have left people behind through Sure Start then we are guilty as charged. Perhaps this policy is further proof that ukip is seeking to attract and retain the support and votes of the poorly educated, uncultured and those seemingly lacking in empathy? Why does one need to have a reading age of more than seven, because with it you can comprehend The Sun? Why do you need to know the difference between a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh? They are all ‘foreigners’, are they not? And, if you start developing emotional intelligence then you might just realise that the Muslim family down the road or the lone parent around the corner has a harder life than you. Why is this starting to sound familiar? These are the tunes played by the Hard Right since time immemorial. Divide and conquer, divide and rule.