Cash handouts for parents won’t stop child abuse
Frank Field, given the mission of grappling with poverty by David Cameron, is one of the few MPs who remains an inspirational character.
Asked by Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable” and reform the benefits system, he was dumped a year later after a row with Gordon Brown.
Asked last week if Cameron might do the same, he wryly commented: “He doesn't have the same problems in No 11.”
True, there's no Gordon brooding in the background, but more than a decade later, Mr Field has a much tougher job.
For all Labour's claims that they would eradicate child poverty, it remains a problem.
And the middle classes (the people who voted for the coalition) won't be happy to see their child benefits cut to help the poor when many of them may face redundancy.
In an interview last week, Mr Field said he was looking at “age-relating” child benefit, phasing it out as children reached their teens.
But at least he wasn't talking about poverty in terms of class.
If child benefit ended at 13, the Government could save more than £3bn a year.
Mr Field says he wants to redefine poverty (currently set at 60% of average earnings) and calculate it in terms of ability to extend opportunities in life.
Most importantly, he talks of the need for good parenting as a fundamental factor in improving a child's chances.
He's on to a winner.
For too long, Labour decided that everyone but parents had to be parents. The state became like mum and dad, nagging us to eat five fruit and veg a day, take at least 20 minutes exercise and drink less than a certain number of units a week.
Then, the Government took over from parents, wasting £5.9m telling kids not to get pregnant, drink, smoke dope or have unprotected sex.
Those campaigns didn't work either; in fact, the teenage pregnancy rate went up.
Politicians ordered schools to broaden their remit.
The result: one-in-five teenagers leaves school without the necessary skills in English and maths to get a job.
Earlier this year the charity, Action for Children, produced a report proposing that the school day be lengthened to help to look after latch-key kids left at home for long periods without anyone caring for them.
The early teens are when kids go off the rails and, although 80% of their mothers are in work, there are only enough childcare places for one in 200 kids.
To what extent should schools be expected to take over from parents? To help his constituents, Mr Field has produced a five-star guide to parenting. He awards points to mums and dads who talk to their babies, read to toddlers and help them draw and read, and prepare them to be able to sit still in lessons.
He thinks that parents ought to be able to dress, feed and get their children to school on time, instead of dumping them in a breakfast club.
All of these basic skills cost absolutely nothing, except time, and that is the one commodity too many modern parents seem unwilling to expend.
I have just returned from a visit to the supermarket, where the sight of a busy mum losing it with her brood is all too common.
Kids whine and pester, but telling them to shut up means you've lost control. This summer the beaches of Europe will resound to the high-decibel racket of parents failing to control or discipline their children without resorting to verbal abuse.
No wonder Mr Field thinks the current generation of schoolkids might require lessons in parenting, as so many have no role models. My partner, a teacher, finds that many kids don't even have one person willing to be a proper parent, let alone two.
I wish Mr Field luck in his formidable task. One thing is certain: you won't end child poverty by chucking money at hopeless parents.