The National Trust has released a list of things every child should have done by the age of eleven, it is, to say the very least, a little bit Swallows and Amazons. Even so this has been sufficient excuse for a marching corps of columnists to wax lyrical about the joys of climbing trees and making mud pies.
Rather fewer column inches have been devoted to a survey conducted for the Consortium for Street Children (CSC), which showed that four in five Britons are unaware that a hundred thousand children run away from home in the UK every year, many of whom end up living rough. Most people, myself included, associate ‘street children’ with Africa of South America, that sort of thing doesn’t happen here we tell ourselves; only it does.
As Sally Shire, chief executive of the CSC told the BBC ‘whether they are a runaway from Derby or a street child in Delhi the factors that drive children to the streets are similar.’ They include poverty, abuse and addiction and the victims have little or no access to support.
Andy McCullough, UK policy lead for the charity Railway Children said ‘Street children are over-represented in the mental health system, the criminal justice system and there are clear correlations’, they also often go on to experience homelessness as adults.
If the authorities were serious about helping vulnerable young people they had, he said, to ‘go to the streets, the estates, the street corners’, he added, ‘you can’t expect them to reach out to you. This, Mr McCullough said, was not happening because local and national government officials were trying to solve the problem ‘from behind their desks.’
In response an spokesman for the Department of Education said local authorities were ‘responsible for targeted support for families with complex needs’ and that the government was ‘providing funds through the Early Intervention Grant which they can use to invest directly in services to safeguard vulnerable children’ and that they were working with ‘a range of charities and organisations to help them do this.’
Even though we contrive not to ‘see’ them we all know that Britain’s ‘street children’ are there. They don’t beg at the roadside, instead they’re the mob of youths in hooded tops hanging round outside after dark. It is their fists and feet that smash up the property of others because it happens to be in the path of some nameless anger they can’t control.
The poor, and even more so their children, are the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of the type of capitalism Britain embraced in the eighties, forever at risk of being harmed by the stupidity or capriciousness of someone in a, metaphorical, chateau far away from the carnage. It is an old and painfully unjust relationship to which a new and even crueler element has been added. These days government doesn’t try to solve the problems of poverty and social breakdown from behind a desk; it tries to do it through tabloid editorials instead.
This isn’t a new thing, ‘chavs’, ‘feral children’ and ‘sink estates’ have been journalistic clichés for the better part of a decade, but since the riots the façade of objectivity has been torn down. Quite reasonable disgust at individual crimes is used as an excuse to stereotype whole communities as being home to ‘scroungers’ and ‘thugs’ in a show of unashamed prejudice it would be unthinkable to heap upon any other social group.
This is another symptom of a ‘political class’ that is out of touch with the realities of everyday life being egged on by a media that increasingly has little of value to say. The latest wheeze is for MPs tax returns to be made publicly available, this is supposed to make their finances more transparent, but will really just give the media an excuse to fillet the resulting documents for more evidence of public money being spent on building duck houses and renting ‘artistic’ videos for ministerial spouses to watch.
Frankly I don’t much care about politicians building houses for ducks; I want to hear what they’ve got to say about the growing number of children who haven’t got a roof over their heads. I’d also like to see what they say reported and challenged by a media that sets its sights higher than providing celebrity tittle-tattle.
On mainland Europe disaffection amongst people who have been made poor by the recession, particularly the young, is translating into increased support for extremist parties of the left and the right. Here in the UK a sense of entitlement fostered by a quarter century of rampant consumerism has curdled into resentment, anger and as last year’s riots showed occasional outbreaks of violent chaos.
None of this is being reported in the media in anything other than the most simplistic terms and worse still our political leaders don’t seem willing to come out from behind their desks to engage with a rapidly fragmenting society. As a result for too many young people their childhood has more in common with the dystopian horrors of The Lord of the Flies than the soft focus fantasy of tree climbing and den building prescribed by the National Trust.