Government austerity measures could increase child poverty, warn doctors

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The UK is failing its most vulnerable children and any improvements in tackling child poverty are in danger of being eroded by Government welfare policies, doctors' leaders have warned.

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The British Medical Association’s (BMA) new report, Growing up in the UK, raises concerns that Government austerity measures could reverse improvements made to children’s health by hitting the most vulnerable.

It highlights research carried out by children’s charities, which shows that changes to tax and benefits will have a negative impact on those most in need.

The report also refers to the latest UNICEF figures from 2009/10 that placed the UK 16th out of 29 countries for child well-being, and data published last month showing that the highest number of children ever recorded in the UK were referred to local authority care, mainly for abuse and neglect.

A key message of the report, which builds on the same research 14 years ago, is that interventions to improve children’s future health and welfare needs should begin before they are born with measures such as parenting classes, identifying at risk families and improving maternal nutrition.

The BMA says it was short-sighted of ministers to cut funding from health intervention projects that address the causes of social breakdown, which are more effective than paying for the consequences.

'Growing up in the UK' makes a number of key recommendations for future policy and research covering pre-conception and birth, birth and infancy, early years, childhood, adolescence, child maltreatment and disability and emotional and behavioural problems.

Within the recommendations for early years, the report calls for an improvement in the quality and increase in the number of ‘drop-in’ services available through Sure Start and children’s centres, in particular to support breastfeeding.

It also suggests that nurseries and children’s centres engage more with families about the foods they introduce to their children and improving access to immunisation services through good service provision.

Another recommendation is that the uptake of the NHS Healthy Start scheme, use of the vouchers and availability and consumption of the vitamin supplements, should be monitored and reviewed.

Under the scheme, families on certain benefits can get free milk, fruit and vegetables with Healthy Start vouchers.

The report also recommends:

  • An annual ‘health of the nation’s children’ report to review trends and assess what works best to improve child well-being.
  • Tackling poverty as this lies at the root of most health disadvantages.
  • Providing evidence-based parenting courses and raising awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding.
  • Providing education and practical support on healthy eating, including ensuring that schools provide nutritional meals and compulsory cooking classes.

BMA board of science chair Averil Mansfield said, ‘The BMA is particularly concerned that any improvements in tackling child poverty are in danger of being eroded by some government welfare policies. Children should not pay the price for the economic downturn.

‘Every child in the UK deserves a start in life that will help them achieve their true potential. While there has been some progress I still find it shocking that for a society that considers itself to be child-friendly we consistently underperform in international ratings.’

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