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David Willetts: It's time to give children back their childhood

Speaking today at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, David Willetts said:

"There is a big principle which lies behind many of the different issues raised in our debates. Many of us in this hall have had extraordinary opportunities, far greater than our parents and grandparents. But are we confident that our children and grandchildren will enjoy the same opportunities that we have enjoyed.

This is above all what parents worry about today.

• Are their children safe coming home from school?

• What kind of education are their children getting?

• Will their children ever get started on the housing ladder?

As Conservatives, we want to pass on to the next generation opportunities better than we have enjoyed. But the stark evidence from the UNICEF report shows that we are failing to discharge that fundamental obligation. We are bottom of the league for childhood.

David Cameron asked me to investigate why we are at the bottom of the league and what we should do about it. One thing which children, especially young children, really need is stability.

Strong families matter.

Gordon Brown has designed a system that penalises one-earner couples because he wants to drive as many mothers as possible back to work. It is for them to decide, not for Gordon Brown to tell them what to do. Gordon Brown wants work-friendly families. We want family-friendly work. We need to make families stronger.

Today we have released the initial findings of the Childhood Review on how we get children out of their bedrooms and playing outside. I would like to pay tribute to the fantastic work of Maria Miller, Alastair Burt and Julian Brazier in this area.

One of the most aspects of this issue which struck us immediately was how many children are the victims of crime. The whole nation was shocked by the tragic murder of Rhys Jones.

He was a happy, well-behaved eleven-year-old boy, out playing football with his friends, who was shot in the neck as he walked home. Events like this are thankfully rare, but it was a terrible reminder of a wider problem:

• The people who suffer most from disorder, violence and gang culture are children.

The real scandal is that the public areas which we set aside for our children can themselves be very dangerous.

• A Home Office study showed that almost half of gangs meet in parks and recreation grounds.

• One quarter of all children have been the victims of an assault or theft.

• Children living in such conditions then have to turn to gangs for protection.

• 12% of 14 to 16 year olds have become gang-members

For some children the best way to avoid being a victim is to become a criminal yourself. This is one reason why young people committed 1.8 million crimes in a single year. We have abandoned public space and so crime and disorder flourish.

The police need to do more to deal with the low-level crimes which are making life miserable for so many children. This is why the Childhood Review supports community policing. Neighbourhood police officers who can reassure parents that their children will be safe outside. Neighbourhood police officers who know the difference between children who are drawing lines for hopscotch, and children who are ruining their environment with graffiti. Neighbourhood police officers who get out from behind their desks and out on the streets.

We also need to make sure the police have an incentive to keep an eye on children. The government attaches a lot of importance to the British Crime Survey, but it does not include crimes against children. At the moment beating up a 25 year-old counts in the Government's survey of crime. Beating up a 10 year old does not. The Government does not include crimes against the most vulnerable members of our society. I propose that we change the Crime Survey so that children aren't excluded from it.

It is not just for public servants to change; it is for all of us. We need eyes on the street, people who know their neighbourhoods and are willing to get involved. It's about stronger communities and social responsibility.

Adults have become afraid of approaching or talking to children. I think of the driver who saw a toddler wandering in the street but decided to do nothing for fear of being accused of abducting the child. Later that afternoon, she drowned in a garden pool.

There has been a breakdown in contact between the generations. I recently visited Spain to find out why it scored so highly in the UNICEF report alongside the Scandinavians, the goody-goodies who are always at the top of these charts. One of the reasons why the Spanish do so well is that adults have an easier relationship with children. Parents trust other adults and are more willing to let their children play outside unsupervised.

But in Britain, children find it harder to go outdoors.

Children need to play games and take risks. If we do not allow risk in adventure activities which are supervised, children will end up getting involved in much more dangerous activities that aren't supervised at all. Children need to learn to deal with risk if we are to keep them out of real danger. This is why David Cameron's proposal for a National Citizen Service has struck such a chord.

However, teachers, volunteers and sports coaches avoid creating these opportunities because they fear being sued or prosecuted if there is an accident, however sensibly they have behaved. We have a problem with fear of litigation; the real damage done by the 'compensation culture'. We have all heard about schools which have banned conkers unless children wear safety goggles. The school which banned daisy-chains because they are unhygienic. The council which banned backstroke in its swimming pool to avoid collisions. But there is a right to childhood. Children should be able to enjoy a world of conkers, yo-yos and snowballs.

Nine-tenths of Scout Leaders think that compensation culture is reducing the activities they can offer our children. And the Central Council for Physical Recreation reports that the compensation culture is the single biggest problem stopping adults from getting involved as volunteers. Even where people are still willing to volunteer, the insurance premiums are extortionate. Tim Gill, former Director of the Children's Play Council, has pointed out that our public playgrounds are closer to the interior of a fast food restaurant than anything else. It is compensation culture which means our councils provide multi-coloured climbing frames over rubber mats rather than exciting natural playgrounds.

The Government say that they are aware of the problems of the compensation culture. Ed Balls complained about it over the summer. But a "ministerial steering group" on compensation culture was set up two years ago and nothing has changed.

The old politics of this Government is to talk, but it is the Conservatives who are getting on with practical proposals. We are the change.

I can now set out a six point plan for tackling the problem:

First, for legal cases involving adventurous activities, we propose to amend the Compensation Act so as to introduce the concept of "reckless disregard". As long as you have parental consent and they have taken sensible precautions, the organizer will only be held liable if they show deliberate intent or reckless behaviour. Teachers and youth volunteers should not live in fear for allowing a child with parental consent to take the ordinary risks of walking in hills, playing sports or getting into a canoe.

Second, we believe courts should take into account the social value of these risky activities. Judges should recognise the special benefit of sports and adventure when making decisions.

Third, we will make risk-management training for adventurous out-of-classroom trips a requirement of teacher training so teachers have the confidence and the ability to take children on exciting, fun and safe trips.

Fourth, the Health and Safety Executive has, this year, taken over the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority. The Health and Safety Executive, however, does not have a culture which is conducive to the idea of beneficial risk. It is all about eliminating risk.

We would therefore take the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority back out of the HSE and provide it with a remit to oversee all sport, adventure and playground activities, including those in school and on school outings.

Fifth, we propose change the law so there is no obligation on activity organisers to warn of an obvious risk.

Sixth, we will change the law so there is a presumption of contributory negligence if any individual participating in sport or an adventure activity ignores risk warnings or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

These six proposals can really help give children back their childhood. We can do so much better than we have been doing under this stale old government, led by a man who was co-pilot for ten years but suddenly wants us to believe that whenever we hit any turbulence he was at the back watching the in-flight movie. People across the country are hungry for change. Our children deserve so much better.

But Gordon Brown isn't the change. It is David Cameron who is the real change the nation needs."

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