On the Politics Show, Sunday 02 December 2007, Jon Sopel interviewed the Minister for Children, Beverley Hughes
Minister for Children, Beverley Hughes MP
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now from Manchester by the Minister for Children, Beverley Hughes.
Beverley Hughes, welcome to the Politics Show. Thanks for being with us.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: Thank you.
JON SOPEL: Isn't it fair to say that really, after ten years of a Labour government, would you accept that you're failing the nation's children.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: No, I wouldn't accept that and the starting point I think we've got to acknowledge is what the situation was in 1997 when child poverty in this country had become the worse in Europe. It had nearly trebled.
Over three million children in poverty, rising unemployment, schools and hospitals under invested in. School standards had, had flat lined and there was accelerating inequality between the poorest children and the rest. And those were the issues that rightly, putting children and young people as we did, right at the centre of our economic and social policies for the first time. Those were the issues that we had to address... (interjection)
JON SOPEL: But then why such little progress.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: Reversing those, well I mean dramatic progress really. Reversing those trends. Six hundred thousand children now out of relative poverty.
Children in absolute poverty, that number has halved. School standards, the best ever erm, and children now living generally, not all children, but generally, living in more affluent families who are able you know, to give them the where with all for a good experience of childhood and putting them on the road to success.
JON SOPEL: Sorry, so just - if everything is so great, so why do you need a children's plan then.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: I'm not saying everything is so great. I'm saying first of all it's important to really to understand the depth of the problem in 1997, particularly in terms of social and economic inequality. We have now reversed that trend. We've invested also in schools, in health services, so that children are getting a better quality of life. We're supporting their parents with services to a much greater extent.
But, you know, new challenges emerge. We've not finished that job in terms of child poverty either and so we're looking now with children and young people, with practitioners and with parents particularly, at what should be the priorities over the next ten years, to take in to account the job we've not yet finished, but also, new challenges that have emerged over that time. Internet technology, an opportunity for children, but also hazardous. Er, rising obesity, you know, maybe a result of more affluent life styles but none the less...
JON SOPEL: Okay.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: .. a significant problem. Parents concerned about safety and about the fact that their children aren't playing outside as your film rightly showed.
JON SOPEL: Yeah.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: So there's new challenges emerging that we're trying to address.
JON SOPEL: And a UNICEF report earlier this year says the UK takes bottom place by a considerable distance, for the number of young people who smoke, abuse drink and drugs, engage in risky sex, and become pregnant at too early an age.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: Well, as I say, there's been a whole range of indices upon which children and young people are doing much, much better than they ever did during the Tory years when children weren't part of the focus of the government.
Erm, but yes, there's new concerns that has arisen and one of those is about some of our youngsters, particularly teenagers, who do engage apparently, in more risky behavior, than some of their counterparts in other European countries and those are precisely the issues that we've been discussing with young people and parents, and their ideas, along with experts, as to what we should be doing to address them, and that is why a huge process of consultation we've had, with children and young people and their parents and experts... (interjection)... leading up to the Children's Plan, is about involving everybody concerned in identifying what the issues are and how we should be progressing them for the next ten years.
JON SOPEL: And one of the things that people might say that has changed over ten years is the fact that alcohol seems to have got relatively a lot cheaper, there are more kids on street corners, that seem to be drunk and we saw that in Max Cotton's report there, and we heard that from Esther Rantzen. She came up with a simple practical idea, ban alco-pops. Why not?
BEVERLEY HUGHES: Well, I think we have to address the issue of alcohol consumption. Actually, not just for young people but as we know there's middle aged and older people consuming large amounts of alcohol at risk to their health in their own homes.
So this is a problem that has emerged, actually not just in this society, in Britain but world wide and is partly a consequence of rising affluence, so we have to tell people what the consequences of that behavior are and we also have to, in relation to young people, as some of those young people said in your film quite rightly, involved their parents because actually, the government cannot and should not be policing people's individual behavior.
For children and young people it's involving parents, it's giving the information, it's giving them support as increasingly, we are able to do through Children's Centres, through extended schools, enabling parents to take the responsibility that actually is theirs, for their children's behavior.
JON SOPEL: Sorry to interrupt you, but don't you think that possibly, maybe for the best of intentions, you have contributed towards this, in making maybe some of our youngsters overstressed almost.
You look at school now, and the number of public exams that they're doing, they're doing sort of, eleven, fourteen, sixteen, GCSEs, 17 years old, AS levels, 18 year old, A levels. They feel over examined, over stressed in school and go wild outside it.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: Look, if I may say so Jon, I think that's a very simple argument and it's one I don't accept. If you look at the amount of time that children are spending being tested in schools it's something less than 0.2% of their total time in school, from five to sixteen.
And I think parents, and I certainly felt this when my children were young, they want to know how their children are doing and if we don't know how children are doing, then actually, it's the most disadvantaged children who suffer from that, because they don't make the progress that they need to make to make their way in the world.
But I perfectly accept the argument too, that life for children should be more than learning and testing, as important that is, they need to have a sense of well-being, they need to have a sense of confidence, we need to pay attention to their social and emotional development. We need to make sure that they're safe and we heard from young people expressing concerns about that and although actually... (interjection)...
JON SOPEL: And haven't you demonized a lot of young children by the talk of I don't know, hoodies and ASBOs and all the rest of it.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: No, I don't think we have demonized children. But I do think that, that in the media generally and in our public discourse about er teenagers particularly, that's very negative.
70% of media stories about young people are negative and young people don't like that and I understand why.
But you have to strike a balance between dealing with bad behavior that does actually create problems, not least for other young people, but at the same time, celebrate and applaud and acknowledge the vast majority of young people, who are actually doing great things for themselves, for their families and in their communities.
So I, you know, I think it's hard to strike that balance as a government, we have to deal with both. We can't be responsible for the way that's sometimes portrayed in the media.
But I certainly see it as part of my job, to be very positive about young people and that is why this government has put such emphasis on changing the conditions for children and young people and making sure that they do all have the opportunities they need, including kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are so badly let down and left behind under the Tory government.
JON SOPEL: Okay.
BEVERLEY HUGHES: We've not going to make that mistake.
JON SOPEL: All right, Beverley Hughes, thank you very much for being with us.
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The Politics Show Sunday 09 December 2007 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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