David Cameron went into the last general election claiming that his Government would be the ‘most family friendly Government ever’. These words came back to haunt him when former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton, a respected figure amongst Child professionals, claimed that children and families were simply ‘not a priority’ in the Department for Education. Loughton went on to say that his brief ‘was a declining priority within the department’ and that ‘the children and families agenda has been greatly downgraded since the reshuffle’, adding that there had been ‘neglect’ with children and families policy.
Such a scathing attack coincides with the latest Guardian/ICM polling which makes grim reading for a Prime Minister who is desperate to prove his party can appeal to women and families. But the Guardian’s poll confirms a continuing gender gap in voting behaviour – among women voters the Tories languish a massive 16 points behind Labour, securing a mere 29% support compared to Labour’s 45%. And no wonder when 81% of the key additional direct tax, tax credit, and benefit changes in the Autumn Statement will come from women, with the Government itself admitting that the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill will push another 200,000 children into poverty.
However nothing quite illustrates the Government’s complete disregard for the difficulties facing families today as much as their failure to address the needs of families with disabled children. The Government has already slashed the support provided to around 100,000 disabled children in half, with their families facing a reduction in income by up to £1,366 per year – more than £20,000 over the course of childhood. In addition, research by the disability charity Scope has found that the families with disabled children are being pushed to breaking point as result of a lack of local support. Two thirds of families with disabled children cannot access the services their children need in their local area such as childcare or nursery places, appropriate schools, essential therapies or even healthcare in their local area, with half of these families saying they are unable to hold down a job as a result. No one knows this better than Grace, a mother of an autistic child, who is forced to drive almost 400 miles a week just in order to get her daughter Lara to school and the therapy she needs.
And since the recent reshuffle where Sarah Teather left her position as Minister of State for Children, the issue has swiftly dropped down the priority list of the Department for Education. The forthcoming Children and Families Bill, which includes the biggest reforms to SEN provision in 30 years, simply fails to address the daily struggles that families with disabled families face to get even the most basic support. That the government is wasting such a vital opportunity to help these families is shameful. They must get their priorities right if they are ever to convince the half a million families with disabled children, and indeed the public at large, that they haven’t made yet another U-turn on their commitment to be the most ‘family friendly government ever’.
Teresa Pearce is the Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead