Doctors’ union report condemns austerity drive that hits most vulnerable and drives inequality, poverty, and ill health
A raft of coalition policies threatens to have profoundly deleterious effects on children’s lives, driving widening inequalities and sending more families into poverty, according to a scathing report by the British Medical Association.
In the 250-page analysis, entitled Growing up in the UK, the BMA’s board of science delivers a sustained assault on government flagship policies covering welfare and health, warning that they are likely to hit the most vulnerable patients in the NHS.
The doctors’ union says that, despite the prime minister’s pledge to make his government the most “family friendly” ever, “the administration’s policies are unlikely to be described by health policy analysts as family friendly”.
The report says that cuts to child benefit, Sure Start centre closures, and regressive tax policies, have affected women and children.
This has occurred, it adds, at a time when there appear alarming trends for young people in society driven by poverty and inequality.
Extreme disparities include 250,000 children a year failing to meet a school standard of good development, such as the ability to speak, recognise words and dress themselves, the BMA reports. It says it is not acceptable to fail children on such a grand scale.
Even when the government has made the right noises about alcohol and cigarettes, it has drawn back from legislating for minimum pricing and plain wrapping for tobacco, the BMA notes.
Where ministers have acted on healthy eating, they have done so by co-opting the fast-food industry to tackle the spiralling rise in obesity, the group says.
Overconsumption of snacks, fizzy drinks and fast food has caused 20,000 children now starting school to be obese at the age of four.
But the BMA maintains that the government’s “responsibility deal on food” has at its heart a fundamental conflict of interest.
The BMA calls for the government to pull out of deals with big business over fast food.
“While the food industry has a role to play, this should be when a strategy is in place and regulations are being implemented.
“It is essential that government moves away from partnership with industry and looks at effective alternatives to self-regulation to ensure that there is a transparent and effective policy.”
Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, the first children’s commissioner and adviser to the BMA, said that more worrying still was the government turning a deaf ear to global evidence on health policy.
He pointed out that Canada had recently begun public information campaigns warning that drinking while pregnant increased the risk of brain damage and “the link to criminality” in the unborn child.
Aynsley-Green said: “I wrote to the chief medical officer about this issue, which is a live one internationally. She gave me the brush-off saying ministers were awaiting WHO guidelines. They are not taking it seriously.”
The BMA says rising levels of poverty and inequality will place enormous pressure on the NHS where “there are still significant numbers of children whose deaths are avoidable”.
Death rates from pneumonia, asthma, and meningococcal disease are higher in the UK than in comparable European countries.
“If the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden around 1,900 children’s lives could be saved each year,” the report states.
The BMS report arrives at a time when there are fears over the gap between the number of paediatricians employed by hospitals and the number required safely and legally to staff existing acute services.
Doctors say that the coalition will have to take responsibility for the fallout of its policies.
The BMA warns that the most recent international studies place the UK 16th out of 29 nations in terms of child wellbeing – and that this “may not reflect the current situation … and does not reflect the impact of policies implemented post the 2010 election”.
Although Britain has improved from its position at the bottom of the global rankings, in 2007, the report says this advance could be “reversed … hitting the most vulnerable hardest, which would exacerbate child poverty and widen social inequalities”.
The authors say they found shocking details for a society that considers itself to be child-friendly.
They point out that the Department of Health’s own work in 2012 concluded that “more children and young people are dying in the UK than in other countries in northern and western Europe”.
It also highlights data published last month showing that the highest number of children ever recorded in the UK were referred to local authority care, mainlyover abuse and neglect issues.
The report calls for several measures, including parenting classes, improvements to maternal nutrition and policies aimed at children in need.
It also argues that measures are needed to create a more equal society as “current government austerity policies are predicted to cause child poverty to rise substantially”.
A government spokesperson said: “There’s a lot of misleading stories about the effects of our tax and benefit changes. The truth is, our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with universal credit making three million household better off and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.
“And by next year we will have taken two million of the lowest earners out of paying tax altogether.
“Every child should have the same opportunity to lead a healthy life, no matter where they live or who they are. Working with a broad range of organisations we have pledged to do everything possible to improve children’s health.”