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Children’s Commissioner accuses Government of ‘bias’ against young

Anne Longfield will step down from the role after nearly six years, reflecting on government 'failure' to cut child poverty
The Government's determination to cut Universal Credit is "not compatible" with the fight to end child poverty, Anne Longfield said. "Back to School" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Children’s Commissioner accused ministers of viewing children as “data points on an annual return” in the scathing final speech of her tenure.

Anne Longfield challenged Boris Johnson to put kids at the heart of his Covid recovery plan, adding that the Government “fails” the most vulnerable children and has allowed them to suffer further during the pandemic.

“This is not just about missing a few chapters in a textbook,” the Commissioner said in her livestreamed final speech in the role.

“Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said educational catch-up was the key focus of the entire Government – yet we still don’t know if next month he is planning to take the Universal Credit uplift away from millions of families. The two positions aren’t compatible. 

“If the Government is really focused on educational catch-up, it wouldn’t even countenance pushing 800,000 children into the type of devastating poverty which can have a much bigger impact on their life chances than the school they go to or the catch-up tuition they get.”

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The Universal Credit increase, introduced at the start of the pandemic and worth over £1,000 a year, is set to be removed in April despite months of appeals and campaigns by child poverty prevention groups.

“The Prime Minister’s promise to ‘level up’ is just a slogan unless it focuses on children,” Longfield said. The speech was final public speaking engagement as her tenure comes to a close at the end of February.

Appearing alongside the Commissioner, former homelessness advisor Dame Louise Casey said children in poverty were falling through cracks in the system while the pandemic had “turned those cracks into absolute chasms”.

Casey cited figures showing nearly six million people now rely on Universal Credit to make ends meet, plus another two million on so-called “legacy benefits” and four million on furlough.

Many of them are “turning to food banks,” she added. “We know that through the work of many organisations who have had to step up and provide more food relief. Food relief, in the United Kingdom in 2021.

“We shouldn’t need one of the legacies of the pandemic to be more food banks and more food relief. There has to be something we consign to history. There shouldn‘t be any child hunger in the UK.”

The Commissioner branded the attainment gap between rich and poor a “national scandal”, adding that nearly a fifth of children leave school without any qualifications.

“That is abysmal,” she said. “I don’t know what’s more shocking: that these things happen, or that they’re hardly recognised. 

“No one can honestly believe that 20 per cent of children are incapable of achieving basic qualifications.”

Longfield, formerly chief executive of charity 4Children, was made Children’s Commissioner for England in 2015.

New research published alongside her final speech in the role showed that three-quarters of young people who do leave school without qualifications were either experiencing an unstable home environment, child poverty, social and emotional health problems or communication difficulties, or caring for a family member.

A child growing up in poverty is nearly 90 per cent most likely to have a special educational need than a well-off peer, researchers said.

The Treasury has “consistently refused” to examine how spending decisions impact families, according to the Commissioner, particularly for those with experience of children’s centres, the benefits system and health visiting.

“The Treasury has committed just £1 billion to in-school catch-up and £200m in wider support, while giving tens of billions to other sectors of the economy. What all this shows is an institutional bias against children. 

“Whatever the data, the outcomes, the successful interventions – the system still says no.”

Last month Longfield slammed the Government for a “postcode lottery” in children’s mental healthcare leaving hundreds of thousands without help through the pandemic.