Socialist Worker

Institutional child abuse

by Hazel Croft
Issue No. 1879

NEW LABOUR ministers jumped to the defence of children's minister Margaret Hodge last week after her dismissal of a child abuse victim in an Islington care home as 'extremely disturbed'. The whole affair has typified the double standards that are a hallmark of New Labour.

It seems that government ministers who claim to put the victims of crime at the forefront of their policies only do so when it suits their own interests or careers. One of the worst excuses came from trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt. She claimed that Hodge could be forgiven because her comments were made in the early 1990s, when people didn't have a full understanding of child abuse.

But in the late 1980s there was a huge outpouring of debate and discussion about child abuse following the 1987 Cleveland case. As leader of Islington council, Hodge would have been fully aware of all these debates.

Tony Blair's defence of Hodge was that despite her past mistakes she's an excellent children's minister today, and should carry on implementing New Labour's 'child-centred' policies. What exactly are Labour doing for children?

Hodge's much-heralded Sure Start childcare programmes have not made real improvements in the availabilty of childcare for the vast majority of parents. This is according to the latest research by the respected Daycare Trust. New Labour's whole attitude to children is far more insidious and destructive than this.

It was summed up a few years ago by Hodge herself when I saw her on TV visiting a nursery. While the three year olds were shown laughing and enjoying themselves in the background, Hodge talked grimly about how instead they needed 'play with a purpose'.

What 'purpose' did Hodge mean? Did she mean preparing three year olds for the world of relentless assessing, grading and testing from the moment they enter school? Under New Labour, school children now sit more tests than any other generation.

Or did she mean preparing the three year olds for the world of a deregulated, flexible, non-unionised labour market Blair dreams of, where workers bow down to the dictates of the boss? New Labour has inflicted on children a brave new capitalistic world of relentless competition and tests that crushes children's imagination, creativity and potential.

Any child, or indeed parent, whose face or behaviour doesn't fit will be blamed, shamed and punished. So under New Labour there are more under 15 year olds in jail than ever before. The government is pursuing a policy of criminalising even more young people on working class estates with its draconian anti-social behaviour orders. This government has constantly lectured and blamed working class families for crime, drugs and violence.

Yet the very pro-business policies it pursues have made the Blairite idea of 'good parenting' impossible for most working class parents to achieve. The reality for millions of working class children is not the cosy middle class world of trips to museums and the countryside, and parents helping their children with homework, conjured up by ministers.

Just read the words of any of the bus, postal, hospital and other workers who speak out regularly in the pages of this paper. Their life means juggling time with their children with long hours, unsociable shifts, and with a wage that won't stretch to pay for clothes, trainers and educational trips.

The tragedy is that such pressures can only make worse the factors that lead some people to crack under the strain. This increases the likelihood of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental health problems and, in a small minority of cases, violence and abuse.

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Sat 29 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1879
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