Two stories in Monday’s Times show how some of those who affect to care about children are much more interested in the appearance of caring and in the alleged purity of their views than in the actual effect of their actions on the children. Both are cases of do-gooders doing obvious harm.
The first article was headed Price of healthier school meals may be just too high for many. It is about new nutrition regulations which will come into force later this year and which require schools to provide details of calories, fat and nutrients in each meal. As with everything else from this government, there are targets for these things, and with them an extra expense which must be borne by the schools, the parents or the caterers.
430,000 fewer pupils ate school meals last year than in 2006, so the campaign for healthier food kick-started by Jamie Oliver has already driven large numbers of children away from the school canteen and out into the streets, where they buy what they like – crisps and coke generally – and annoy shop-keepers and passers by. They just don’t like the food they are being given. The new regulations will certainly drive more of them down the same route.
Now, the principle that children should get healthy food at school is clearly a good one. It comes at a price, however, in this case two prices. One is literally a matter of price – someone has to pay for the (allegedly) higher-quality food and, as always with New Labour, that someone is not the government which imposes the burdens (the “extra” money which the government promised in a panic to buy off Oliver’s successful campaign proved, in true Gordon Brown style, not to be new money at all).
The other price is one of supervision. The more time children spend under the eye of their teachers the better, particularly when it is clear that many of them get no adequate training from their parents in the social, as well as the nutritional, value of eating with others.
Of all New Labour’s new laws, the one which recurs most is the law of unintended (though usually foreseeable) consequences. It comes as no surprise that regulations intended to improve diet should in fact result in 430,000 children dropping out of what was probably the only proper meal they had. If it was less than ideal in nutritional terms, it was certainly better than the crisps and coke.
Inevitably, a Labour minister has a prescriptive solution. Someone called Kevin Brennan is apparently the Under Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families – with driftwood like Beverley Hughes and Jim Knight as Secretaries of State one would not expect too much from an Under Secretary of State. Kevin Brennan has said that children should be forced to stay at school at lunchtime. He did not, it seems, ask head teachers what they thought about this, or he might have found in advance that they consider the idea unworkable. He appears to have no positive suggestions as to how children might be encouraged to stay in school – NuLab is not very strong on positive suggestions, and even less strong on the idea of taking the views of those who actually have to deal with the day-to-day consequences – to say nothing of the costs – of their regulations and pronouncements.
The second article concerns adoption. Headed Social workers are urged to be flexible on ethnic adoptions, it reports that the adoption agencies’ insistence on ethnically matching would-be adoptive parents with children needing adoption is resulting in large numbers of children being left in care, whilst otherwise suitable adopters are ignored. One of those responsible for this stance is quoted as saying “When we talk to couples, we explain that they have to meet all the child’s needs and ethnicity is one of their needs. They would struggle to meet that, no matter how well-meaning and understanding they are”.
Whose perception of needs are we talking about here? Not the child’s, nor the would-be adopters. What this woman is saying is that children are better off in the dubious care of a local authority where some form-filling functionary will tick a box to show that their “ethnic needs” are being met, than in a loving family.
There are of, course, many excellent and devoted social workers. It is not a job I would choose to do. It is, however, a line of work which attracts rather too many who fancy playing God with the lives of others, and who elevate their own ideas of what is ideal and correct over the real needs of real people. It does, of course, have the incidental advantage of creating work for social workers, especially the desk-bound, form-filling kind with a “degree” in box-ticking.
In a perfect world, every child would be offered a meal at school which he or she would positively enjoy eating, and every child of whatever ethnicity would be matched by adoptive parents of the same origin and beliefs. This is not a perfect world. It is the brown, unpleasant, world of Gordon “Heathcliff” Brown. New Labour’s blind certainty that it knows what is best for us has passed down into the hands of a vast army of interfering zealots who have carved out for themselves roles way beyond their abilities – the sort of people who do not care if 430,000 school-children would rather skip meals than eat their virtuous food, and who prefer that children remain in care rather than breach their purist guidelines on ethnicity.