By Ed Balls
It’s become a depressingly familiar sight. Whenever something awful happens in our country, up pops former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith to proclaim it as just the latest example of our so called “broken society” – and that, somewhat bizarrely, David Cameron is the man to fix it.
Don’t get me wrong – I had the same reaction as everyone else when I saw The Sun newspaper last Friday morning. Whatever the facts turn out to be about this tragic case, it was appalling to see pictures of a very young 13 year old boy “Dad” cradling a tiny baby while playing with a Playstation.
My first reaction was to check that everything was being done locally to make sure the young lad, the teenage mum and the baby are safe, properly protected and that they get all the support they need. These young people should be in school studying, not on the pages of the newspapers.
That case brings home to me how vital it is as a society that we do everything we can to keep teenage pregnancies coming down. We’ve got the lowest level of teenage pregnancies for 20 years – but they are still too high. Which is why the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, is now making sex and relationship education compulsory.
But the idea that this tragic case means “Britain is broken” is absurd. As was David Cameron’s shocking claim in a Sunday newspaper that the appalling way in which Karen Matthews locked-up and abused her daughter, Shannon, could well be repeated by the 5 million mothers who currently receive income-related benefits.
So now is the time to expose and stand up against this Tory slur that “Britain is broken” and that David Cameron is somehow a great social reformer.
Firstly, the Iain Duncan-Smith strategy simply ignores the facts. Over the last decade teenage pregnancy rates have fallen. So has child poverty. And thousands more young people are volunteering.
Yes, there are some parents who don’t take their responsibilities seriously – and have to be made to do so. There are also a small minority of young people who persistently break the law and ruin things for other young people. And it is right that the criminal justice system is tough when they do.
But these Tory “broken Britain” claims are not only highly offensive to the vast majority of parents who do a great job bringing up their kids; they are also totally unfair on the vast majority of law-abiding young people who work hard at school, play by the rules and, in my experience, deeply resent these attacks.
Secondly, the Conservative Party consistently refuses to support our Children’s Plan policies to tackle the causes of under-achievement, poverty or crime.
The fact is that it’s this Government which is expanding one-to-one help to young and vulnerable parents through our Family Nurse Partnerships, as well as Family Intervention Projects which provide non-negotiable support for families at risk. It is our Government which is making Sex and Relationships Education compulsory, and providing extra funding for organisations which provide relationship support and help for children whose parents do split up.
Thirdly, Tory policies would makes things worse – as we all remember from the 1980s. In my Department they want to cut £200 million each year from Sure Start, when everybody knows that investing throughout the early years is critical to a child’s life chances.
They are also pledged to cut £300m next year from children’s services – just at the time when we are working hard to get children’s services working together to tackle all the barriers to a child’s progress and well-being inside and outside of school. And David Cameron’s inheritance tax plan would divert £1 billion to the richest 3,000 estates in the country without benefiting people on low or middle incomes at all – still a priority for the Tory leader, as he confirmed at the weekend.
The Tories oppose education for all to 18, our new Diplomas and our National Challenge interventions where schools are under-performing – preferring a free market approach with new schools where parents can shout the loudest paid for by cuts to other schools. They also oppose CCTV even though in constituencies like mine in West Yorkshire, it’s essential to cutting crime and reducing the fear of crime.
And their plan to give extra money to married couples – at the expense of the millions of children whose parents are separated, widowed or divorced – is about as unfair as it gets. It would effectively create two classes of children, hamper our efforts to tackle child poverty and do nothing to keep families together.
As Tory leader, cutting public spending and stigmatising single parents were Iain Duncan-Smith’s twin obsessions. Scratch beneath the surface and not much has changed. David Cameron’s Conservatives are not progressive and they’re not social reformers. Britain is not broken – let’s not let the Tories break it.