Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Poor timing

The Unicef report [PDF] on child wellbeing in rich countries in many ways makes gloomy reading for the UK. On probably the single most important measure it looks at – the proportion of children in relative poverty (below 50% median household income) – we’re rated 23rd out of 24.

But if you delve into the small print, you find that the data used – the most recent available that allows for international comparisons – comes from this OECD report [PDF], which only goes up to the year 2000. So the last seven years of tax crediting, minimum wageing and all the rest aren’t looked at.

The media, ever keen to confuse ‘when something is published’ with ‘when it refers to’, have predictably said things such as “British children are languishing at the bottom of an international league table” and that this is a “Damning verdict on the ordeal of growing up in Britain today” (italics added).

The usual suspects are running with this angle:

“The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, said: ‘This report tells the truth about Brown's Britain. After 10 years of his welfare and education policies, our children today have the lowest wellbeing in the developed world.’”

Or rather: ‘I tell lies about Brown’s Britain. After three years of his welfare and education policies, two of which were spent following my party’s spending plans, our children seven years ago had…’

So what accounts for the way things were? Another pundit has his own idle opinion:

“Between 1979 and 1999, children were relatively neglected in Britain, child poverty rates rose rapidly, those living in workless households soared and the numbers not in education or training also rose… Since then, there’s been a big increase in spending on health and childcare, which is making a difference, but we’re having to reverse two decades of neglect.”

(That’s Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, one of the authors of the Unicef report.)

Anyone who thinks that the report is an accurate reflection of the UK today is wrong. However, anyone who thinks that everything has become fine since 2000 is also wrong (although I’m not aware of anyone who does think that). There’s been historically substantial but still painfully limited improvement in recent years.

The government needs to step up a couple of gears. And frankly, it’d be nice if more of the public could rethink their priorities.


jams o donnell said...

Well put. When I saw the news headlines this morning on BBC my heart sank but headlines and soundbiters don't lhighlight the "health warnings"

bgprior said...

It's not only that the data is out-of-date, it's that what is being measured is not childhood well-being in the industrialised countries. I've explained why in detail at For one thing, thanks allegedly to inadequate data, it's a rather selective set of countries, rather than the whole rich world, as the media and UNICEF itself have tried to imply. No Japan, no Australia, no New Zealand, no Singapore, no S.Korea. It's really a "let's compare Europe with a selected few Anglophone countries" exercise. And the questions asked are really questions of the extent to which a country has adopted European, egalitarian solutions, on the assumption that if it has, this is good for children. Which tends to produce a fairly self-fulfilling result. So, yes, Osborne and other government-critics are talking rubbish when they use this report, which if true would clearly suggest a Scandinavian solution, to criticise the Government. But those who rely on this report to promote a move to the left are also deluding themselves.