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The right reverend Prelate has reminded us that it is 30 years since Section 17 of the Children Act placed a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area. Today’s debate, against the background of so many remarkable stories in the report, is about those in exceptional poverty; those at high risk of hopelessness, exploitation and abuse; those children and families without recourse to public funds; and the vital need for all concerned to listen to the voices of children.
Of course, the key finding of the deeply moving report by Project 17, Not Seen, Not Heard, goes far further than immigration issues, housing or homelessness. It has at its roots a challenge to us to listen to children and young people and, by listening, to act. So how should we listen? How best can we communicate, learn and engage? Ever since my youngest son ran the marathon to raise awareness and money for the outstanding charity YoungMinds, springing as it did from his deeply felt concern about the well-being of children and the growing incidence of mental ill-health among young people, I have learned that our concern should be not just for the poorest in society but for all those children whose voices go unheard—all those who are legally here.
As YoungMinds recognises, an estimated three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health problem, while 90% of school leaders reported an increase in the number or students experiencing anxiety or stress and low mood or depression over the last five years, yet fewer than one in three children and young people with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to NHS care and treatment. Since 2017, the YoungMinds “Wise Up” campaign has called for a rebalancing of the education system so that the well-being of all young people is as important as their academic achievement. Schools should not be expected to do the job of mental health services, but they have a crucial role to play in promoting good mental health in everything they do. It is time for important changes to the Ofsted framework. In that context, I ask the Minister if she will talk to her colleagues so that an outstanding school, for all children, is seen as one that prioritises the well- being of its students as much as its academic success.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could update the House on progress made following the Green Paper on children’s mental health, in which mental health support teams are to act as a link with local children and young people’s mental health services and be supervised by NHS staff. Surely an aim to roll out just 20% to 25% over the next five years means that the majority of all our children, and all our immigrant children, who need help will not be supported. When will we listen to the remaining 75%?
Our focus needs to be on challenging decision-makers to listen to and act upon the evidence of vulnerable children and young people. As Vicky Johnson wrote in the abstract for her exceptional article, Moving Beyond Voice in Children and Young People’s Participation, in seeking to understand if and how children and youth input was valued and acted upon by adults:
“Each case rested on the same value proposition: that inclusion of children and youth is critical to participatory democracy and so incorporating their views can move societies towards improved policies and services for”,
all children, all immigrant children, all young people,
“and a culture of mutual respect in intergenerational relationships”.
To me, creating participatory spaces and building dialogue and trust between children and adults are necessary preconditions for child and youth-centred transformational change in any society, particularly here at home, where such influence can be brought to bear.
Poor immigrant families are a prominent presence in the public realm but rarely have a voice. As Gill Main, who is undertaking excellent work at the University of Leeds in conjunction with the Child Poverty Action Group, wrote, children,
“rarely have the opportunity to influence how they are portrayed and to shape interventions purportedly designed to help them”.
To shape change, we need to shift our focus from what the poorest in society are doing and how they should change, towards listening to their perspectives on what they need and how society could be more fairly organised.
I was struck by Dave performing “Thiago Silva” at Glastonbury 10 days ago as he reached out to a 15 year-old boy, Alex, to join him on stage and accompany him through that complex rap in which Thiago Silva, the Brazil and Paris St Germain iconic footballer, who was once left almost for dead with tuberculosis in a small room in Russia, was recognised. Here, music became the language for Dave and Alex, representing a generation whose communication is through music. Today, I have spoken all afternoon on amendments to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill to ensure that there is a legacy of listening to young people, inspiring them and lifting them out of depression and, often, away from the escalator to crime, through the medium of sport.
We have an overriding duty to help those immigrant children with ways to escape their daily struggles, and to provide hope—not just to dream about a future but to use everything in our power so they can have a future and discover what they can be; to find means of advocacy, mentoring and engagement. We have an especial duty to help those child refugees who have nothing, forced to leave their country because of war or for religious or political reasons, reaching out while we as a society too often fail to take their hand and listen, fail to place them at the centre of our policy-making and fail to use our two ears in proportion to our one mouth when in their company.