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A greater good – The government needs a Secretary of State for Children

Helen Clark makes the case for why Ministers overseeing responsibility for the country’s children and young people ought to have a place at the top table

  • A greater good – The government needs a Secretary of State for Children

The pandemic burst upon an unsuspecting world just under two years ago, and as Europe braces itself for the inevitable ‘phase four’, its end seems as remote as ever.

Yet we’ve been here before, when the ‘Spanish Flu’ killed an estimated 228,000 in the UK, making 1918 the first year on record in which deaths exceeded births. In 1919, the Ministry of Health Act was set up in direct response to the pandemic.

Its role was to, “Take all such steps as may be desirable to secure the preparation, effective carrying out and co- ordination of measures conducive to the health of the people.”

That new ministry later evolved into today’s Department of Health and Social Care, which is currently tackling the challenge of how to best move on from COVID-19. And I would maintain that appointing a Cabinet Minster for children and young people is how today’s adults can help the COVID generation achieve that same goal themselves.

A lowly position

There’s a growing consensus that the government’s ‘build back better’ objectives ought to include a parallel aim of ‘levelling up’ British society, and that the wellbeing of children should be integral to post-pandemic life.

The former Department for Children, Schools and Families may no longer exist, but successive governments have previously appointed a Minister for Children and Families at a sub-Cabinet level. The post presently sits within the DfE and the current holder is Will Quince.

His responsibilities include, but aren’t limited to, child protection (including protection from sexual exploitation and safeguarding); children’s social care within LAs; family law; the government’s childcare policy; early years policy (including inspection, regulation, literacy and numeracy); and funding and policy regarding free school meals and SEND.

Yet the post itself remains a junior one, and its lowly nature is such that previous holders have never had a slot at national COVID-19 press conferences, taken oral questions in the Commons chamber or forged strong links with relevant agencies. By contrast, a Children’s Minister with Cabinet status would have the authority to oversee and audit policy for its impact on children across all departments, rather than being corralled in one.

A greater good

A Cabinet Minister for Children and Young People with the power of departmental audit would be able to take an integrated overview of the ‘whole child’. A properly holistic strategy would prioritise a fit and healthy childhood, in order to achieve a greater good for the greatest amount of people.

On his appointment as Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi said, “I know what a beacon of opportunity this country can be, and I want all children, young people and adults to have access to a brilliant education, the right qualifications and opportunities to secure good jobs. That’s both vital for them and also our economy, and is more important now than ever before.”

A Cabinet Minster for Children and Young People, working with departments across the entire field of government policy, would vastly enhance and augment the creation of innovative policy on child health and welfare, and help generate far greater understanding of children’s needs throughout the UK.

The Education Secretary has previously acknowledged that “Education is a crucial part of our levelling up agenda.” A new Cabinet Minister would enable every child to make the most of their education, improve their life, and in turn, the new world that they will inherit.

Helen Clark is a policy consultant specialising in children, families and young people and Lead Author for the Children’s Alliance; she is also a former MP and previously a teacher of English in the maintained, independent and FE sectors. For more information, visit childrensalliance.org.uk or follow @ChildrensAlliae

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