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David_willetts
David is Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

The recent UNICEF report about
the well-being of children in the world’s richest countries was a
wake-up call for Britain: we come last among the 21 industrialised
nations.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Behavioural
problems in children have doubled over the last 30 years and emotional
problems have increased by 70 per cent.  Maybe it hit home because the
blow was so blunt; the report said that our kids are just plain unhappy.

The news comes against the
backdrop of other sobering social trends:  soaring crime and antisocial
behaviour, diminishing educational achievement, and failing public services. 
As David Cameron indicated when he announced that the Conservatives
would be leading a Childhood Inquiry, “The great challenge in this
decade and the next is social revival”. 

Today I can announce that the
Childhood Inquiry will be investigating six broad areas of childhood
in Britain, and each sub-group will be lead by a colleague with expertise
in the area.  Alistair Burt MP will be leading the subgroup of
Play and Space.  He will investigate how outdoor play and space
are being increasingly lost to a screen-based world.  Advertising
to Children will be considered by Tim Loughton MP, and will look at
how children can be better protected from commercialisation and sexualisation. 
Ann McIntosh MP will explore ways in which the wider family, especially
grandparents, can play a positive role in children’s lives by leading
the Extended Family sub-group. 

The effects of the Health and
Safety culture will be examined by Julian Brazier MP.  He
will look at the damaging social effects of the compensation culture
and the role insurance plays in depriving children of opportunities
to play.  Baroness Morris will lead the sub-group on Emotion and
Attachment, investigating the early development of children, and specifically
how emotional attachment of children to family and friends can be improved. 
Finally, Nick Gibb MP will head the sub-group on Bullying and Unhappiness
to look at how loneliness can be prevented and how bullying can be combated.

The blend of influences is
complex.  The challenge for the Childhood Inquiry is to isolate
the main factors that are adversely impacting our children and find
ways to tackle them.  Making friends, building relationships, experimenting,
imagining, taking risks, and making mistakes are important for the mental
health and well-being of children.  We have long warned about the
costs of red tape on business, we now need to worry about the red tape
on childhood.  We need to allow children to have vivid lives and
everyday adventures in the bosom of secure families and robust communities. 

Throughout the Inquiry, my
colleagues and I will consult closely with independent experts and draw
our conclusions from the empirical evidence.  A number of high profile
experts that are independent of the Conservative Party have already
agreed to contribute, including Lord Richard Best, former Director of
the Rowntree Trust; Sir Richard Bowlby, President of the Centre for
Child Mental Health; Tim Gill, Director of the Children’s Play Council
(now Play England) from 1997 to 2004; Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor
of Pharmacology and Director of Institute for the Future of the Mind,
University of Oxford; Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’; and
Bob Reitmeier, CEO of The Children’s Society.  Other experts have
already come forward to contribute and we will draw on their work too.

The decline in the quality
of life for our children has been a long time coming.  Putting
aside Labour’s ten-year assault on marriage and the family, our culture
has been transformed dramatically in the last 50 years through technological
and social change.  Televisions, computers, DVDs, ipods, mobiles
and constant advertising now permeate our lives.  There are numerous
benefits of living in a high-tech and highly connected world, but for
children the pace and quality of this life can come at a price.

Our family lives have also
shifted, often to the detriment of children.  There are fewer married
couples, higher levels of children living in lone-parent households,
high rates of divorce, and more complex family arrangements.  Many
families have tough work commitments that make it difficult to manage
childcare and family life.  Meanwhile we are increasingly separated
from extended families which once formed a critical support network
and resource for both practical care and moral guidance. 

Some could argue that this
is not a matter for the government—that just as politicians should
stay out of the bedroom, they better well keep out of the nursery too. 
But government can play a role in influencing debate and offering parents
and families more choices. 

As David Cameron said, “The
first test of any policy must be this:  does it help families?”. 
At the heart of any healthy society are healthy families; families that
are empowered to raise emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually
healthy citizens.  We must tackle the declining well-being of our
children, not just because we love our kids but because the social costs
will reverberate for generations to come.

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