With the 7 May general election rapidly approaching, we have reviewed the manifestos of the five main political parties, standing in all UK regions, to determine what they are offering our children in 2015. All children exist in a context that shapes their health and wellbeing, and from which they cannot be separated. As advocates for children, it is our duty to engage with the political system and to be aware of how policies impact on our patients.
All of the political parties made some reference to children in their manifestos, but predictably with emphasis on different areas and with varying degrees of assurance. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has also published its own manifesto, “A vision for 2015,” which outlines key priorities for the incoming Parliament.
One in three children in the UK is living in poverty and the majority are in a family where at least one parent is working. Unfortunately, none of the parties had a clear strategy to tackle child poverty. In fact, the Conservatives plans to deny child benefit to any immigrant who has not contributed to the UK for at least four years, and UKIP’s desire to limit claims to the first two children could potentially lead to increased levels of deprivation.
Given that the UK has one of the worst child mortality rates in Western Europe, it was also surprising that only the Labour Party highlighted this as a “key area” of improvement for the NHS. All of the parties promised increased funding for mental health, with the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, and Green Party mentioning child mental health specifically.
All of the parties also gave some mention of child abuse, but only the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats specifically pledged to increase the number of social workers. UKIP and the Conservative Party plan to abolish the Human Rights Act, separate themselves formally from the European Court of Human Rights, and create a new UK “Bill of Rights”—the contents of which are not outlined.
Given that one in three children in the UK is now overweight or obese, it was disappointing to see that policies on nutrition and physical activity were lacklustre. Only the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party promised to engage with marketing and industry.
Adolescents featured in a few policy areas. The Conservative Party plans to put restrictions on housing benefits for 18-21 year olds and replace the job seekers allowance with a “youth allowance,” which will be limited to six months after which an apprenticeship, or similar, will be compulsory. UKIP and the Green Party specially stated that they would maintain housing benefit for young people. All of the parties placed some emphasis on apprenticeships and vocational courses, with the Greens promising to end exploitation by terminating any unpaid apprenticeships lasting more than four weeks.
Only the Liberal Democrats stated that it would introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol—a recommendation of the RCPCH—while UKIP would oppose such a policy. Other policies included compulsory age verification to access pornographic websites, proposed by the Conservative Party, and the introduction of 20mph speed limits in built up areas suggested by the Green Party—another policy championed by the RCPCH. Unfortunately, none of the parties came close to addressing all of the suggestions made by the RCPCH.
As the sixth richest economy in the world, we can afford to give our children a happy and healthy start in life. Adult disease and wellbeing are shaped in childhood, and we cannot expect a healthy future for the UK if a substantial proportion of our children are left behind. Where the voices of paediatricians are not being heard, we must work harder to engage with the political system and guide policy makers.
Caoimhe McKenna is a paediatric trainee working in London. She has a special interest in public health, economic inequality, and the social determinants of health.
Rosie Kyeremateng is a community paediatric trainee in the South West of England with interests in public health, global health, and children’s environmental health. Rosie is author of the “Infection in Schools” module of the RCPCH Healthy Schools Programme, and she has contributed to a child rights curriculum in association with the Open University. She is also the trainee representative on the International Society of Social Paediatrics (ISSOP) executive committee.
Competing interests: None declared.