Theresa May – 2005 Speech on Improving Lives of Children in Care

Below is the text of the speech made by Theresa May on 12 July 2005.

Can I begin by thanking you all for coming here today. The events of the last few days have had a huge impact on the lives of everyone living and working in London. It is a sign of the resilience and determination of the people of London that we are all getting on with our business as usual. And I am doubly glad that you are able to join us today to discuss such an important issue, helping some of the most vulnerable in our society.

As you may know, the Conservative Party is currently engaged in a debate about it’s future direction, and about who should be the person to lead us. We have been given this opportunity by Michael Howard – an opportunity to take time to consider who and what it should stand for in modern Britain. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste. That is no idle threat. The reality is that, if we draw the wrong conclusions and set the wrong course as a result of the outcomes of this debate, then it will not only be our party that will suffer. In other words, this isn’t just about us.

Britain needs a strong opposition, it needs a Conservative alternative. Only then can we ensure that the Government is held properly to account, and that we have a genuine debate about the problems that we as a community face. So long as we fail to come up with radical solutions to the ills that are affecting modern society, then we will fail to leave the British public with our vision of a caring, compassionate society. By being seen as not addressing the issues that effect society today, we allow ourselves to be perceived as out of touch with the views of society.

The Conservative Party can do so much better than this. Our approach to politics and policy-making – based on an instinct for people, for local decision making, for trusting charities and voluntary groups, and for supporting civil society – can add so much to the quality of so many people’s lives. We genuinely have a positive and distinct story to tell about how we would deal better with problems like child support, family breakdown, about issues such as children in care, quality housing provision, improved educational standards, enhancing life and job opportunities, and urban renewal.

But if we are to do so we must first remind ourselves that there are no Conservative issues – there are just Conservative instincts, values and methods. That is why it is so important that we should address issues like the one we are discussing today.

As the political landscape has changed and as people’s priorities have changed, so must the focus of our efforts. In a democratic society such as ours, it is nothing less than our duty to do so. If we fail to do so, then we too will be failing the vulnerable in society. The challenge for us as a party is to give voice to our vision of what that society would be like, and how we would achieve it.

And that is why I am so pleased that so many of you have come along today to discuss this vitally important problem. Of course, the problem is that all too often, the work done by everyone sitting around this room today goes unnoticed.

Your difficult and often heartbreaking job of dealing with the aftermath of the breakdown of families, and the devastating effect that this can have on young lives is not glamorous or exciting. Often it is thankless and difficult. On most occasions it only reaches the headlines when something goes wrong. The breakdown in the system, the child that slips through the checks. The Victoria Climbie, the Adam case or the headline grabbing cases of ritual abuse. These are all shocking and terrible. We must never reach a point when such items do not wrench us from our comfortable television viewing, or shock us to the point of silence.

But what is equally as shocking, is that throughout this country, there are children who aren’t slipping through the net. They aren’t the children who will be headline grabbing cases of abuse or neglect. They are just the children who never quite get the life they deserve. The children who are quietly resigned to a life that they and that we should not accept. Everyday, there are too many children to whom this tragedy happens.

It isn’t because people don’t care enough. It isn’t because government or councils, social workers or charities aren’t concerned by the problem. It isn’t for any of those reasons. But it continues to happen, day in and day out. Young lives that should have been so happy and so promising are filled with tears, young people destined for a life on the streets, in and out of work, or even in prison.

These aren’t doomsday words, set out to paint the blackest picture to score political points. Many thousands of children leave care with hope and in families who love them. But too many children do not.

The figures speak for themselves. There are more than 61,000 children in care, the highest figure in over 20 years, an increase of 20% since 1997. More than 13 % of all looked after children were moved to a new placement three different times last year, 12 % of which were children under the age of 2, when emotional attachment and stability is so important.

But the harsh realities of life in care do not get any better as children get older. Despite the efforts of social workers and teachers, more than 1 in ten children in care miss 25 days of school or more a year. 6 in 10 children leave care without achieving a single GCSE to their name, and only 1% go on to university.

Government have failed miserably to achieve the target they set themselves that 75% of children leaving care should achieve a single GCSE. That the government has failed is not the thing that should lead us to take action. The thing that should force us to take action is the acceptance by government that one GCSE, one single qualification, in any way equips these young and vulnerable people for a life in the real world.

Whenever we hear government trumpet its aim to encourage 50% of all young people to go to university, we should all remind them, whether we vote Labour or not, that only 1%, a miserable one in a hundred children from care ever make it to university. This is a scandal that none of us would accept for our own children. Yet every day, we accept it for the children of others. Children that we the state, are supposed to care for.

How can we say that these are “looked after children”. The Government have the best of intentions and have made headway. But surely, if we are truly to “look after them” we must do more than resign them to a life that for many is without hope – where they are two-and-a-half times more likely to become teenage parents, where between a quarter and a third of people sleeping rough on the streets were in care as a child: where a quarter of those in our prisons were in care as children; we can and we must do better!

There are of course many good things going on to help these children. There are many initiatives to support families and prevent children being taken into care in the first place, and we will hear some examples later. There is some magnificent work to support such children in school, to help them achieve their goals, and make an independent and successful life for themselves. And there are many hardworking people, social workers working under difficult conditions, foster parents giving the time and the love that children need so badly, people working to reunite families, and to make new families and new homes for so many children., who are working day after day to give hope and a better life to these youngsters.

What I want to hear about today is how we can help. What more can we do? What can we as politicians do to help you make a better lives for our children? All our children deserve the best chances in life. We must work together to deliver them a better life.