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    Labour’s policy is to extend Free School Meals to all pupils in primary schools. We now know that Theresa May wants to take them away from millions of children in infant schools.

    This affects children over the whole country, however, a survey commissioned by the London Food Board and carried out by IPSOS Mori found that 74,000 children in London alone regularly go to bed hungry. For many children, the food they get in school at lunchtime is their only nutritious meal of the day. As a long-time campaigner on school food, and co-founder of the Labour Campaign for Free School Meals for All, I genuinely like the idea that every child would be entitled to a free breakfast. However, this must not be at the expense of a healthy lunch. When the previous government introduced Universal Infant Free School Meals – on the basis of evidence provided by pilots commissioned by the Labour government – they recognised that universal free school meals can save families an average of £487 per child per year. They also acknowledged that universal free school meals improve attainment of all children, not just those who would previously have been eligible for free school meals. By committing to scrap universal free school meals for infants, Theresa May is breaking a cross-party consensus on this issue. With experts also saying this will damage attempts to tackle childhood obesity, she is also being short-sighted and mean-spirited.

    If you agree that Theresa May is wrong, please sign my petition on Universal Infant Free School Meals and share it with your friends, colleagues and family –

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    Nearly one in five children in the UK is living in poverty and inequality is blighting their lives. Those from the most deprived backgrounds experience much worse health compared with the most affluent – a situation that means that UK performs relatively poorly when it comes to child health when compared to other Western European countries.

    The State of Child Health brings together data for the first time 25 measures of the health of UK children, ranging from specific conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, risk factors for poor health such as obesity and a low rate of breastfeeding, to child deaths.

    On nearly all of these measures, children from the poorest backgrounds fare worse.

    The tip of the iceberg: child deaths

    The UK ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries on infant (under one year of age) mortality and has one of the highest rates for children and young people in Western Europe. There is a strong association between deprivation and mortality, for example infant mortality is more than twice as high in the lowest compared with the highest socio-economic groups.

    Smoking in pregnancy

    The prevalence of smoking during pregnancy in the UK is higher than in many European countries (for example 5% in Lithuania and Sweden, compared with 19% in Scotland, 16% in Wales and 15% in Northern Ireland). Smoking in pregnancy increases the likelihood of death, disability, and disease – for example stillbirth, cot death and the risk of respiratory disease across the life-course. There is marked variation in smoking in pregnancy across the UK with a strong association with deprivation; for example in Scotland over a quarter (25.9%) of women in the most deprived areas acknowledged smoking following the birth of their baby, compared with 3.3% in the least deprived areas.

    Breastfeeding

    Breastfeeding has substantial health benefits for mothers and babies and yet breastfeeding rates in England and Scotland has shown minimal improvement since data recording commenced in 1975, with no improvement over the last five years, and remains lower than many other comparable high-income countries. At 6 months, only 34% of babies in the UK are wholly or partially breastfed, compared to 71% in Norway. Across the UK, 46% of mothers in the most deprived areas breastfed compared with 65% in the most affluent areas.

    Obesity

    Obesity leads to substantially increased risk of serious life-long health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Across England, Scotland and Wales more than one in five children in the first year of primary school are overweight or obese – and there has been minimal improvement in the prevalence of child overweight and obesity over the past decade. In 2015/2016, 40% of children in England’s most deprived areas were overweight or obese, compared to 27% in the most affluent areas.

    Smoking

    The percentage of 15-year-old children smoking regularly is 6% in England and 8% in Wales and Scotland – and starting to smoke during adolescence increases the likelihood of being a life-long smoker. Smoking continues to be the greatest single cause of avoidable mortality in the UK. The prevalence of child smoking is much higher amongst children from the most deprived areas; for example in Scotland’s most deprived areas, at least 1 in 10 young people are regular smokers.

    Bold action, clear policies

    Despite the fact that the health of infants, children and young people in the UK has improved considerably over the last 30 years, the fact that children living in the most deprived areas are much more likely to be in poor health is tragic.

    That’s why in State of Child Health, we’re calling for a series of measures, including:

    • Each UK Government to develop a child health and wellbeing strategy, coordinated, implemented and evaluated across the nation

    • Each UK Government to adopt a ‘child health in all policies’ approach

    • UK Government to introduce a ban on the advertising of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt in all broadcast media before 9pm
    • Each UK Government to develop cross-departmental support for breastfeeding; this should include a national public health campaign and a sector wide approach that includes employers, to support women to breastfeed
    • An expansion of national programmes to measure the height and weight of infants and children after birth, before school and during adolescence
    • A reversal of public health cuts in England, which are disproportionately affecting children’s services

    • The introduction of minimum unit alcohol pricing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, in keeping with actions by the Scottish Government

    • UK Government to extend the ban on smoking in public places to schools, playgrounds and hospitals
    • UK Government to prohibit the marketing of electronic cigarettes to children and young people
    • National public health campaigns that promote good nutrition and exercise before, during and after pregnancy

    We also want to see each Government across the UK to adopt a ‘child health in all policies approach’. That means that whatever policies are made, from whatever Government department, they must consider the impact on child health.

    Prevention is better than cure

    Investing in children makes not only moral sense, but economic sense too. It is well known that many of the mental and physical health problems experienced in adulthood have their roots in childhood. Getting it right early reaps benefits not only for this generation but for generations to come.

    ***

    You can stop the thumb sucking habit before it becomes unbearable by introducing a pacifier.

    You will want to find the best baby gyms for your child

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    The progress made to boosting the health visiting profession in recent years is, once more, in jeopardy, so much so that 11 organisations, including Unite, wrote to The Times  calling on ‘the government to secure funding for health visiting services’.
     
    The personal commitment to health visiting that was one of the few positive hallmarks of David Cameron’s premiership needs to be continued under the new government, otherwise there will be an adverse impact on families, children and the wider public health agenda.
     
    A Unite survey of the responses of 565 health visitors in July revealed that health visiting is a demoralised, stressed-out workforce doing loads of unpaid overtime and facing cuts to the profession – at a time when their skills are needed more than ever.
     
    Key Unite findings include:
    • 58 per cent of health visitors reported big increases in individual workloads compared with the previous year
    • 44 per cent of health visitors reported a slump in morale/motivation in their workplace, with 81 per cent pinpointing that drop coming from increased workplace stress
    • 70 per cent recorded ‘frequent’ staff shortages in their workplace in the last 12 months
    • 86 per cent say that they ‘always’ or ‘frequently’ work more than their contracted hours, with 71 per cent saying this means more than two hours each week and 31 per cent doing more than four.
    • 62 per cent said all their overtime was unpaid. 
    The picture that clearly emerges is that health visiting is a profession under a great deal of pressure as health visitors juggle increasing demands for their vital services with diminishing resources and shrinking pay packets.
     
    Ministers need to wake-up to the fact that the progress made by the last government with the Health Visitor Implementation Plan, which boosted the workforce by more than 4,000, could be under serious threat.
     
    The situation is further eroded by savage cuts to local government which now has the responsibility for health visiting budgets.
     
    This whole sorry saga is compounded  by indications from health secretary Jeremy Hunt that he wants to keep a firm lid on NHS pay, the argument for a decent pay rise for the NHS workforce, which has seen their income in real terms drop by more than 15 per cent since 2010, is irrefutable.
     
    Unite will campaigning strongly this autumn to make sure that the vast benefits that a robust health visiting service makes to the health of the nation remains at the top of the domestic political and health agendas.
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    The biggest changes come from incremental steps not silver bullets

    In the same week that the new mayor of London began the task of watering down his electoral promises the Government published its long-awaited “Plan for Action” for childhood obesity. The anti-obesity lobby attacked it because it lacked some of their favourite state interventions.

    David Cameron’s biggest flaw as a politician was to promise actions for which he had either little knowledge as to their impact or little inclination to worry about these future problems. Even before he became Conservative Leader he showed this tendency when he promised the Eurosceptics that the Conservatives would pull out of the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament. This was at a time when his party was exerting great influence in Brussels, through the EPP, when it had none in Westminster.  Of course the European Referendum was another electoral promise, with unknown consequences. On a smaller scale so was the promise of a high-profile action plan for childhood obesity.

    The childhood obesity silver bullets that so many campaigners have been calling for would simply create new hostages to political fortune. At least the sugar levy will raise some money as a hypothecated tax, even with no direct effect on obesity rates.

    The same cannot be said of the “junk food” advertising restrictions called for by obesity experts. A few years hence, once this has been shown to have no effect on obesity rates, what next straw does the regulator grasp for? It would certainly need to include greater regulation of social media.  Every time that the state takes action in this way it is also taking responsibility. It reinforces the message that obesity is the result of commercial practice by the food industry, with little to do with individual behaviour. In short, it is someone else’s fault, and the Government can fix it.

    During my Department of Health days we were rolling out the first ever concerted public health strategy, the Health of the Nation strategy, comprising “key areas”, each of them replete with firm targets. We faced a powerful lobby by the National Asthma Campaign for a new key area to be created, to tackle the rising incidence of asthma. The Campaign had a very strong case, and it was very well made. But some of the existing key areas were already proving problematic in practice, particularly in mental health. Government simply lacked the appropriate knowledge at the time and the necessary policy levers over human behaviour to hit some of the targets.  Adding another key area on air quality and asthma could exacerbate this problem, raising excessive expectations of what the Government could achieve. There would be huge costs involved, but no clear indication of effectiveness. We had to say no. At the time I worked closely with the National Asthma Campaign to build another way forward that would make a real difference, amidst the disappointment around the rejection of their case. We needed to work on the cause rather than thesymptoms. The same is true of the new obesity strategy. It may not offer silver bullets, but it does indicate a determination to tackle the human problem behind the headlines.

    Prime time advertising of “junk foods” is also just symptom of the lifestyles of today’s households. The Government has already gone a long way towards heaping blame on the food industry, and is right to be cautious about going much further in this direction. It is human nature to want to find an external reason for our problems, but it is damaging for politicians to manipulate this natural bias for short term popularity.

    On the other hand it is right for politicians to step in when there are measures that it can take that will make a difference when confronted with complex, strategic challenges: The Climate Change Act is the most obvious example. It imposed a step-change in the regulatory burden on the energy sector that was probably unprecedented in the sixty years since the Clean Air Act of 1956, and willingly imposed new costs on all energy users. But the Act followed decades of incremental measures, responding to the evidence base as it developed, and to new capabilities in energy production. The Childhood Obesity Plan of Action signals that a similar, rational approach will now be taken in tackling the obesity epidemic. Most of the time the biggest changes come about in incremental steps.

    First published on the British Politics and Policy blog.

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    More must be done to give the UK’s most vulnerable children a fairer start in life

    UNICEF’s long-running Report Card series provides a regular assessment of how rich countries fare in promoting child well-being. The latest Report Card, Fairness for Children, assesses ‘child well-being gaps’, which measure the distance between the most disadvantaged children and the ‘average’ child in each country. While much of the debate about inequality today focuses on the top 1 per cent, these measures capture the extent to which the most disadvantaged children fall behind the levels of well-being their peers can expect. This focus on so-called ‘bottom-end inequality’ therefore captures the extent to which each country allows their most vulnerable children to fall behind.

    Unicef_report_card

    The Report Card examines four domains of child well-being ­– income, education, health, and life satisfaction – and the UK’s performance can be summed up as ‘could do better’. Overall, the UK is ranked 14th (from best) out of 35 countries (Figure 1). It ranks mid-table in three of the four child well-being domains: 25th out of 37 countries on educational achievement gaps; 19th out of 35 countries on health gaps; 20th out of 35 countries on life satisfaction gaps. The UK, in common with many other countries, has made little progress in reducing gaps in these child well-being domains since the 2000s.

    The UK does rather better in terms of protecting the incomes of the most disadvantaged children, ranking 7th out of 41 countries. But while the gap has narrowed significantly since 2008, this is because the incomes of children at the middle of the income distribution have fallen rather than as a result of a dramatic improvement in the incomes of children at the bottom of the distribution. Hardly, in other words, a good news story.

    7556589672_46a41204e1_o

    That said, there is a good news story here: the incomes of the UK’s poorest children did not dramatically fall following the recession. Clear contrasts can be drawn here with many other countries hit hard by the economic crisis, particularly those in Southern Europe. This reflects the comparatively strong role social security benefits have played in protecting the incomes of many families with children in the UK. Indeed, across Europe no other country’s social security system does more in reducing the gap between the incomes of the poorest children and the average child (Figure 2).

    However, social security protections for working age people have been the major focal point of the UK’s austerity agenda. Ongoing cuts to social security provision are likely to affect the well-being of the poorest children in the UK in future years, and risk widening inequalities in child well-being still further. Indeed, theResolution Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group have warned that low income working families face losing relatively large amounts of income because of recent changes to Universal Credit that are about to take effect.

    Unicef_report_cardMoreover, the UK’s social security system has to work harder than those of most neighbours because underlying levels of inequality are comparatively high. While the government’s ‘National Living Wage’ is a step in the right direction here, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggest it will have little impact on poverty or inequality. In fact, after modelling the cumulative impact of recent changes to tax, benefit and labour market policies, the IFS is projecting a rise in relative child poverty from 17 per cent in 2014-15 to 25.7 per cent in 2020-21 and a rise in absolute child poverty from 16.7 to 18.3 per cent over the same period.

    The analysis presented in the UNICEF Report Card suggests the government may struggle to improve child well-being outcomes without addressing rising income differentials. Countries that protect the incomes of the poorest children most strongly tend to have higher levels of overall child well-being. More generally, countries with more equal income distributions also tend to be those that do better in minimising adverse child well-being outcomes.

    Newly released data from the latest (2014) wave of the Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey included in the Report Card shows that, across rich countries, children living in less affluent households are more likely to be unsatisfied with their lives than their peers. This confirms patterns found in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 HBSC data. It is hard to imagine a more powerful argument for addressing social inequalities among children than the fact that across all rich countries, and on every occasion this century they have been asked, children from economically disadvantaged households are consistently more likely to have told HBSC researchers that they are unsatisfied with their lives.

    Child well-being gaps are a concern in their own right, but a further reason for policy makers to prioritise reducing them is that smaller gaps tend to benefit all children. Fairness for Children shows that countries with more equal child well-being outcomes tend to also have: fewer children living in poverty; fewer children lacking basic educational skills in reading, maths and science; fewer children reporting ill-health on daily basis; and, fewer children reporting very low levels life satisfaction.

    UNICEF ’s report cards suggest the UK has made progress in addressing overall levels of child well-being since being ranked bottom of the table in the early 2000s. Stephen Crabb used his first speech as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to pledge ‘a relentless focus on improving life chances’ by mobilising ‘all parts of government to tackle poverty’ and creating ‘a welfare system that does protect the most vulnerable’. If the government is serious about this agenda then it must to do more to close child well-being gaps and give the UK’s most vulnerable children a fairer start in life.

    This article by John Hudson and Stefan Kühner, was first published on the British Politics and Policyblog

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    Children and youngsters spend more and more time online (as do we all), often alone or at least only in touch with others remotely through the internet. This poses various questions for parents concerned about what their children now spend much of their days doing.

    A recent survey of headteachers reported a growing number of children self-harming as mental health problems among pupils rise. This has led to calls for improvements to children’s mental health care.

    Last year, it was reported that heavy web use harms a child’s mental health, with each extra hour online compounding the problem. And research collated by Public Health England in 2014 reported that ChildLine now receives greater numbers of calls linked to internet-related problems such as cyberbullying.

    What’s the implication here? That children are facing real and growing mental health problems? Or that parents, teachers and doctors are more aware of mental health problems among children?

    Looking more closely at the suggestion that the internet is to blame, the headteacher survey didn’t track an increase in actual numbers over time, but rather asked head teachers if they perceived an increase – not exactly a rigorous standard of evidence.

    I’d rely more on the representative national surveys of children conducted as part of the Good Childhood Report 2015, in which four waves of surveys from 2009 to 2013 revealed little change in the self-reported “subjective well-being” of British 10-17 year olds, neither for better nor worse.

    Another, the Key Data on Adolescence report covering 1997-2015, agrees that “the majority of young people rate their well-being as good”, although there is older data that shows around 10% of five- to 16-year-olds suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. As they add, even though three quarters of mental health problems start before the early 20s, funding cuts mean that we lack up to date evidence on whether mental health problems are rising – or not.

    It’s no surprise that critical sociologist Frank Furedi says that it’s time to stop getting anxious about the anxieties it’s claimed are found in children.

    Guilt by correlation, not causation

    The implication that the internet is responsible for these problems in children ignores the many alternative causes. The increased exam pressure, for example, or expectations for success weighing children down. We should also consider the debate over the reality of what internet or gaming “addiction” might really mean – the statistics are slight to say the least, and don’t really bear out the public’s concerns.

    Blaming the internet for everything underplays the potential benefits, for mental health or otherwise, from internet use which may compensate for any drawbacks. The Children’s Commissioner for England reported that children are seeking mental health advice onlinein preference to asking their doctor or school nurse, for example. And ChildLine reported that most (82%) of their counselling sessions about suicide in 2013/14 were conducted through email or one-to-one online chat – a considerable increase.

    Unhappy, but what’s to blame? Eakachai Leesin/shutterstock.com

    ParentZone has just released some new research on the subject. There are some interesting findings in the report, but one point especially jumps out and helps make sense of my doubts about the “evidence” or otherwise regarding children and the internet.

    The survey of students aged 13-20 and teachers is a small sample, but it suggests a great difference in perception between the two groups. Around a quarter (28%) of students felt that the internet is bad for young people’s mental health, while the perception that it was bad for children rose to around half (44%) among teachers. Around 45% of students said they would follow advice read online, but 86% of their teachers thought that their students would.

    Asked about the biggest influences on young people’s mental health, teachers felt that family (49%) was a positive influence but saw the peer group (27%) and the internet (24%) as negative influences. Yet they rarely saw parents (9%) or family (8%) as negative influences, in stark contrast to the reasons children give for calling ChildLine, for instance, which are topped by family and school problems.

    We cannot identify from this the true source of children’s difficulties. But it’s striking that teachers are more negative about the internet than their students are – and more negative about their students, too, thinking of them as gullible or uncritical about their use of the internet. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that headteachers blame the internet for the problems in children’s lives. And the space between these views makes it all the more important for more rigorous research to be carried out.

    So I’m not arguing that the internet isn’t bad for children’s mental health. But I am arguing that we really don’t know either way – despite the overwhelming anxieties portrayed in the media. And given the amount of attention that continues to be devoted to this question, that’s a sorry state of affairs.

    First published on The conversation

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    Changing the Law Alone Will Not Put a Stop to It

    Today Parliament is debating the Policing and Crime Bill which contains provisions to end the detention of children with mental health problems in police cells. These measures are welcome and long overdue. Whilst our understanding of mental health may have grown in recent years, there remains many elements of mental health care that have no place in the 21st century; locking up a very ill child in a police cell is one of them. Yet despite these welcome proposals, changing the law alone will not be enough to put a stop to this practice.

    The Bill, if passed, would ban the use of police cells as places of safety for children with mental health problems, and will prescribe that they are only used in exceptional circumstances for adults. It also proposes to reduce the maximum length of time a person can legally be detained whilst waiting for a mental health assessment from 72 hours to 24 hours.

    These changes look good on paper but they will not solve the problem of why professionals are often left with no other option but to detain sick people in police cells or why assessments take so long in the first place. To tackle these challenges, the Government must address the lack of appropriate alternative places of safety for children and young people, the shortage of trained professionals to carry out the assessments, and the severe pressure on hospital beds for those that need inpatient care.

    The choice of places of safety that can be used for a mental health assessment is incredibly limited and does not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Despite being over represented in detentions under the Mental Health Act, there is a lack of culturally sensitive places of safety for black African Caribbean men; and many places are not able to accept under-18s due to safety and safeguarding requirements. The Care Quality Commission has reported that there isn’t a single health based place of safety that can be used for under 16 year olds in many local authority areas including Devon, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Bristol and Bath.

    Likewise, reducing the time limit for a mental health assessment will not guarantee that there will be enough trained professionals to complete the process within 24 hours. The CQC’s review of crisis care in 2015 found that the most common reason for delayed assessments was the lack of specialist doctors, nurses or Approved Mental Health Practitioners (AMHPs) to carry out an assessment. An FOI request in 2013 found that the number of AMHPs had fallen in almost half of councils.

    If a person does need to be admitted to hospital then current guidance states that the assessor should not complete their assessment until they have found a bed for the person to go to. Yet, as pressures on the system grow, this is becoming more and more difficult. It is estimated that around 500 people with mental illness have to travel over 50km to be admitted into hospital every month, a figure which has risen in recent years. Last year leaked emails revealed that hospitals were being advised to adopt emergency procedures and admit young mental health patients to adult wards because of a national shortage of places for children. 391 children were placed on adult mental health wards last year alone, an increase of 10% on the year before.

    Without reforms to tackle the root of the problem – lack of capacity – there is a risk that the proposals in the Policing and Crime Bill will add pressure to an already pressured system and bring unintended consequences. Professionals may be forced into the impossible situation of having to choose between sending someone who needs inpatient care home or breaking the law because they haven’t been able to find them a bed within the 24 hour window. The CQC has recently warned that the burden already placed on AMPHs could be leading to people being detained unnecessarily under the Mental Health Act because it’s the only way to guarantee a patient will get a hospital bed.

    The changes we are debating today have the potential to make a big difference to some of society’s most vulnerable people. However for this to be achieved, the Government must show they have a plan to translate this legislative change into reality on the ground. How many additional places of safety will the Government commission and how will they be paid for? How many AMPHs will be needed to meet these new requirements and will the Government commit to funding them? What action are Ministers taking to ensure that we have enough inpatient beds and what are they doing to improve outreach and triage support in the community to ease the pressure on the beds we do have? These are the questions that the Government must answer robustly. Otherwise, they are in danger of making yet another promise on mental health that they are not able to keep.

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    Fizzy drink companies should put child-friendly labels on the front of their products spelling out the sugar content in teaspoons, in a bid to beat tooth decay and child obesity. The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils – with responsibility for public health – says many youngsters and parents are unaware of the high level of sugar in fizzy drinks.

    The call, which comes ahead of the Government’s forthcoming child obesity strategy, follows research that shows some energy and sports drinks have 20 teaspoons of sugar in a 500 ml can – more than three times the daily allowance for adults – while some popular juices and soft drinks contain between five and 15g of sugar per 100ml. A typical can of fizzy drink has around nine teaspoons of sugar.

    As well as being a key driver behind obesity, sugar is also a major cause of tooth decay, with a recent survey finding that 12 per cent of three-year-olds in England suffered from poor dental hygiene.

    Tooth decay was the most common reason for hospital admissions in children aged five to nine in 2012/13. Damning figures also reveal that in the same year, more than 60,000 children under 19 were admitted to hospital for removal of decayed teeth – half of which were aged nine or under.

    Treating obesity and the effects of oral diseases costs the NHS a combined £8.4 billion a year in England.

    With research showing it takes an average of just 15 seconds for shoppers to decide on an item, the LGA is calling for prominent and clearer labels on the front of fizzy drinks – spelling out the sugar content in teaspoons so that all shoppers can see it instantly.

    Youngsters in the UK are the biggest soft drinkers in Europe – with 40 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds drinking sugary drinks at least once a day. Poland is the second highest at 27 per cent, and Germany third with 18.5 per cent.

    Under-10s get almost a fifth of their sugar intake from soft drinks and for 11 to 18-year-olds, that figure is nearly a third.

    Better labelling of sugar quantities will raise awareness in children of sugar levels, and ensure people are as informed as possible to help them make healthier choices.

    Unless radical action is taken now to tackle obesity, councils are warning that the next 20 years will see the number of obese adults in the country soar by a staggering 73 per cent to 26 million people.

    Cllr Izzi Seccombe, LGA Community Wellbeing spokesperson said :

    “While we acknowledge that many soft drinks manufacturers are heading in the right direction with sugar reduction, the industry as whole needs to go further, faster and show leadership on the issue.

    In many cases, parents and children are unaware of exactly how much sugar these fizzy drinks contain, which is why we are calling on manufacturers to provide clearer, front-of-product labelling that shows how much sugar soft drinks have in teaspoons.

    On average it takes just 15 seconds for shoppers to decide on an item, so we need to have a labelling system which provides an instant at-a-glance understanding of sugar content.

    Raising awareness of sugar quantities and giving families a more informed choice is crucial if we are to make a breakthrough in the fight against tooth decay and obesity.”

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    A recent study of poverty in the UK has revealed that parents in poverty are going without necessities to provide for their children. Children are at a higher risk of going without essentials than adults. However, among adults, those who live with children have higher poverty rates than those who do not. Indeed, rates of poverty among this sub-group of adults are higher than among children themselves. Living in a workless household increases the risk of child poverty (mirroring official statistics), but a substantial majority of poor children – 60 per cent – live in households in which at least one adult works. These findings pose a challenge to government policy and rhetoric which positions poor families as trapped by a benefits system which does not provide the appropriate incentives for work, and poor parents as lacking the skills to provide for their children.

    Using an individualised poverty measure developed in the UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Study, which takes into account the shared resources within a household (household income), and how resources in the form of ‘socially perceived necessities’ are distributed among household members, we found that 22 per cent of the overall population were in poverty, compared to poverty rates of 27 per cent among children and 32 per cent among adults living with children. These findings have come at a time when the government is seeking to change the way in which child poverty is measured and currently governed by the 2010 Child Poverty Act. The Act was passed with cross-party support in 2010 and introduced several measures of poverty, based on equivalised household income or a combined measure of income and access to essentials.

    familyImage credit: mrhayata CC BY-SA

    Prior to a House of Lords defeat, the present government was proposing to drop these measures in favour of measuring the proportion of children in workless households, and the educational attainment of pupils at age 16. In doing so, the government is acting against the majority of expert advice it has received on the matter. The future of these proposals is currently unclear. Yet changes to the Child Poverty Act have been proposed amongst a raft of austerity policies. Austerity was initially positioned as a necessary response to the financial crisis with the promise that ‘we’re all in this together’ – that is, no particular section of society should suffer more than another. But in reality the proposed austerity measures, many of which have been defeated in the House of Lords or challenged through the courts, have targeted specific groups more than others. Targeted groups have included:

    • Young people, through removing their entitlement to housing benefit and increasing conditionality on income-related benefits;
    • Families, through restrictions on tax credits and Universal Credit limiting them to two children;
    • Working-age adults (including families), through freezing working-age benefits rates for four years, increasing the rate of reduction in tax credits as earnings increase, reducing the income threshold for tax credits, and lowering the benefits cap;
    • Disabled people, through the reduction of Employment and Support Allowance for those in the work-related activity group to Job Seekers’ Allowance rates.

    Redistributive policies are rooted in the idea that structures within society unfairly disadvantage some people and groups. In contrast, individual and cultural explanations of poverty are rooted in the idea that poverty is the result of poor individual choices and behaviours. These may be ‘transmitted’ from one generation to the next resulting in ‘cultures of poverty’.

    In contrast to Labour policies prior to 2010 which were anti-cyclical in nature and favoured (at least in part) redistribution, Coalition and now Conservative policy and rhetoric indicates a preference for individual and cultural explanations of poverty. This can be seen in decreasing social security entitlements and increasing conditionality. It can also be seen in how poor people are described: they live in ‘troubled families’, and may be ‘skivers’ who need motivating to ‘take responsibility’. Extra money is seen as unlikely to help, as ‘feckless’ parents may spend it on drink, drugs and gambling rather than on improving their children’s well-being. As a result, the problem of how to address child poverty is transformed from one best addressed through providing additional resources to poor families, to one best addressed by helping poor parents to overcome personal shortcomings.

    To assess the Conservative approach, we examined access to resources and economising behaviours among adults and children in poor households. We found that very few adults – around 1 per cent – had adequate resources themselves and lived with children who did not have adequate resources. In contrast, we found that 16 per cent of adults went without necessities themselves, but lived with children who did not go without necessities. This suggests that adults living on very limited resources may be sacrificing their own needs in order to provide for their children. Additionally, adults living in households with poor children were much more likely to engage in economising behaviours and many reported that they had:

    • Skimped on food so others would have enough to eat;
    • Bought second-hand clothes instead of new;
    • Continued to wear worn-out clothes;
    • Cut back on visits to the hairdresser or barber;
    • Postponed visits to the dentist;
    • Spent less on hobbies;
    • Cut back on social visits, going to the pub or eating out.

    Perhaps most striking of these was our finding that 69 per cent of adults living with poor children reported skimping on their own food so that others would have enough to eat. While the House of Lords defeat is to be welcomed, the future of the Child Poverty Act remains unclear. The fact that parents are having to make these sacrifices, in many cases despite being in work, challenges both Conservative explanations of poverty and the rationale for proposals to remove income and material deprivation from poverty measures. Indeed, increasing the financial resources available to families to help ensure decent living standards for all is indicated.

    First published on the British Politics and Policy blog

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    There is increasing awareness of the need to maintain our own health; messages encouraging us to eat ‘5 a day’ exercise regularly and stay well hydrated, are familiar, simple to communicate and easy to understand.

    What is less tangible is the process of both maintaining our mental health, the ways in which mental illness really presents and how best to treat such conditions.

    What is not fully acknowledged is the fact that physical illness impacts on mental health and wellbeing, and that mental illness can impair a person’s ability both to maintain their physical health, and to access care for physical health needs.

    We are all aware of the current economic climate, and the fact that difficult decisions are constantly made about which services to keep and how other services can be streamlined.

    On a positive note, services are increasingly developed and improved by partnership working between service users, service providers and key stakeholders. This has led to acknowledgement of the need for community based care, and for services to be integrated. If a young adult has chronic asthma and significant difficulties with anxiety then it is reasonable for them to expect that they can attend appointments for both conditions in the same place and possibly on the same day, and that with their consent service providers will communicate with each other and work collaboratively. Similarly, if the young person with asthma experiences a deterioration in their breathing through smoking, and the clinician starts to see signs of undiagnosed ADHD, then the young person is more likely to engage in a mental health assessment in a familiar venue.

    Thus the case for ‘one stop shops’ that will offer comprehensive care is clear. What is also increasingly recognised is the fact that young people want to access the same services whether they are 17, 18 or 20. It is widely acknowledged that 18 year olds often still have a lot of ‘growing up’ to do. When we are able to offer services to vulnerable young people that are truly ‘barrier free’ regardless of whether they primarily affect physical or mental health, and services that they can access throughout college and in the first sensitive months of a first job or apprenticeship, while they transition from family life to their first flat or from being looked after children to being care leavers. Then we will truly be making steps to ensure that the excellent public health messages about wellbeing and health are accompanied by responsive services that are easily accessible when health problems occur.

    Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is committed to providing flexible and accessible services to all children and young people within Manchester and Salford. Adolescents are able to be seen in settings of their choice, for example colleges and their local general practices. Furthermore, there are outreach services for vulnerable young people such as young offenders. Finally, CMFT is proud to offer a wide range of services, for example services with specialist skills in working with children with learning disabilities or children who are looked after.

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    About half of all households in the UK have a pet, with cats and dogs being the most popular. There are many benefits to having a furry four-legged family member – but did you know protecting your children against allergies is one of those benefits?

    That’s right, alongside being a loving companion, lowering stress, providing a more harmonious dynamic for the family and aiding in a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, they also protect against allergies! Are there any negatives to having a pet?

    There are, of course, conflicting arguments, with some believing that exposure to pets early in childhood is a risk factor for developing allergic disease. In fact it has been suggested that pets are the major cause of allergic disease – with half of all asthmatic children allergic to cats and 40% allergic to dogs.

    However, new research is now suggesting that this is more likely to be the other way around and early exposure to pets may protect them against allergies.

    Scientists have long argued that kids who grow up with a pet, like a dog or cat, or live on a farm with plenty of livestock are less likely to develop asthma or allergies. But, they didn’t know exactly what protected these kids. There was speculation that modern lifestyles are too clean and therefore immune systems aren’t exposed to enough bacteria, viruses and parasites to build up proper immunity.

    Now a new study has found that infants in homes with furry pets were found to share some of the animals’ gut bacteria – which could go some way to explaining how early animal exposure may protect against some allergies.

    The research used an ongoing probiotic study of pregnant women with a history of allergies. The participants included 51 infants of families with furry pets such as dogs, cats and rabbits, in the home and 64 infants with no pets in the home.

    When the babies were one month old fecal samples were collected from their nappies and tested for the DNA of two types of Bifidobacteria that are specifically found in animal guts: B. the rmophilum and B. pseudolongum. One third of the pet-exposed group had the animal-specific bacteria, compared to only 14% of the comparison group. This is because when children live in close proximity with an animal, there is likely to be a transfer of microbiota, when the dog licks the child, for example.

    At six months old the babies were tested for allergies to various allergens such as cow’s milk, egg white and bananas – 19 infants had reactions to at least one. None of the babies who reacted had the B.thermophilum bacteria in their fecal.

    Human Bifidobacteria has beneficial health effects and the research would suggest that the animal-specific strains might also be beneficial to us.

    While this research is part of a small preliminary study, it does suggest that we shouldn’t rule out owning a pet during pregnancy or the first few years of our children’s lives – quite the opposite!

    So, before you stock your cupboards full-to-bursting with potions and remedies, you might want to check out the pets for sale from Freeads. But remember, pets are for life not just to prevent your children developing allergies!

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    A Labour Mayor needs to take a strong, pro-active approach to children’s mental health.  To deal effectively with the  rising number of children and young people with mental health problems, the Mayor must develop a strategy for supporting families and supporting schools to understand what is needed for good mental health.  Parenting support needs to be made available where families are struggling to cope with difficult or worrying behaviours.  Schools need to be resourced to ensure that services are in place for children whose mental health is fragile.  In order to identify those children, teachers need to be trained in child mental health, which the mayor should campaign for alongside many professionals in the field.
    Children and young people who enjoy good mental health contribute positively to safer, happier communities.
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