Poverty is one of the main reasons that the UK continues to underperform on child wellbeing and recent changes to welfare policy could set the country back even further, says a major new BMA report, Growing Up In The UK, released today (16/5/2013).
Growing Up In The UK is an update of the BMA’s 1999 report on children’s health and brings together the latest global research.
Although the BMA acknowledges that progress has been made since 1999, it is concerned that some government policies (for example cuts to welfare benefits and social care) could reverse these improvements by hitting the most vulnerable hardest, which would exacerbate child poverty and widen social inequalities. The report highlights research from Action for Children, The Children’s Society and the NSPCC which finds that changes to the tax and benefits system will have a negative impact on vulnerable households.
The BMA report highlights that the UK has moved up UNICEF’s league ratings – it came bottom in the 2007 table of child wellbeing among 21 wealthy countries but in a more recent UNICEF study moved to 16th out of 29 countries. However, there is concern that the improved rating may not reflect the current situation for children as the data relates to 2009/10 and does not reflect the impact of policies implemented post the 2010 election.
Chairman of the BMA’s Board of Science, Professor Averil Mansfield, says:
“The BMA is particularly concerned that any improvements in tackling child poverty are in danger of being eroded by some government welfare policies. Children should not pay the price for the economic downturn. Every child in the UK deserves a start in life that will help them achieve their true potential. While there has been some progress I still find it shocking that for a society that considers itself to be child-friendly that we consistently underperform in international ratings.”
Other international benchmarks are far from satisfactory, says the report:
- the 2012 ‘Report of the Children and Young People’s Health Outcomes Forum’5 concluded that, despite important improvements, more children and young people are dying in the UK than in other countries in northern and western Europe
- in 2011/2012 the highest number of children ever recorded in the UK were referred to local authority care, mainly for abuse and neglect (evidence shows that the future outlook for children in care is not good and the cost to the state is enormous)6.
A key message from the report is that intervention to improve children’s future health and welfare needs to begin before they are even born. This includes:
- providing parenting classes
- identifying at risk families (for example those where children will grow up in poor housing or where there is a threat of domestic abuse)
- targeting children who will be born into households with unhealthy lifestyles (for example smoking, illegal drug use, alcohol misuse, poor nutrition)
- improving maternal nutrition which will lead to healthier pregnancies and babies.
The report says that it is short-sighted to remove funding from health intervention projects as investing money to address the causes of social break down is far more effective than paying for the consequences. There is evidence that the cost of intervening early is much less than dealing with the health and social consequences later in a child’s life7 - the report highlights how every £1 spent on early intervention programmes for children and families, has been estimated to save £10.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Director of Professional Activities at the BMA, adds:
“Since the BMA published Growing Up In Britain in 1999, there have been improvements and these need to be acknowledged. Notably we called for an independent Children’s Commissioner to improve the UK’s poor record on child health and in 2005 Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green was appointed as the first Children’s Commissioner for England and he has been a champion of at risk children. However, we need to do more as we are failing our most vulnerable children. It is essential that we develop integrated policies where child welfare is central.”
Key recommendations include the following (a full list is provided in chapter 10 of the report):
- There is an urgent need for a health of the nation’s children annual report to review trends and assess what works best to improve child wellbeing
- Tackling the poverty that lies at the roots of most health disadvantages, for example developing evidence based initiatives that reduce social inequalities such as Sure Start and improving the quality of social and other housing
- Providing evidence-based parenting courses and raising awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding
- Providing education and practical support on healthy eating. This includes ensuring that schools provide nutritional meals and compulsory cooking classes.