N.B. The author is Tim Hewish – my Parliamentary Researcher — Steve
My attention was recently drawn to the reduced £13 million funding for State initiatives to provide books to pre-schoolers in the form of Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up.
I can sense the reactionary response: Why would any Government withdraw money for children’s books?
However, as a first principle, that accepts the premise that it is the State’s obligation to offer a selection of books to infants. We should be allowed to question whether the Government has a right to be prescriptive about the books to which our children are exposed.
Ed Miliband said:
The abolition of Bookstart will deprive children of an early opportunity to discover the joy of reading.
The rhetoric is worrying as it implies that without government intervention families do not have the inclination to seek out books and resources for themselves. Rather, one can discover the ‘joy of reading’ without a Government crutch.
To say that this is a policy to help the disadvantaged is infantilising. Most communities have a vast range of libraries which are sadly often under frequented. However, in Wycombe we are fortunate to have a brand new library, which has seen increased membership and usage.
Libraries have such a large array of books from which to choose, by setting a child off running in a direction of their choice, they are discovering for themselves in an autonomous manner which books they will enjoy. It is not the job of Government to parachute down and provide books in the private sphere.
The other philosophical question is whether it is right to tax infants and at a later date burden them with more debt for books that could be found elsewhere.
Socially, if the fear is that children watch too much television and play too many video games the solution to this is not governmental; it’s parental.
This is against the backdrop of two concerning reports: Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibilities: the future of child maintenance and the other Early Intervention: The Next Steps. On first reflection they sound cute and fluffy, but on a closer inspection there are undercurrents of accepting that the State’s authority on these private sphere matters, which more often than not forces citizens to stump up extra cash through punitive levels of taxation and borrowing.
It goes back to the fundamental question can you compel what is good and does the State have a moral right to instigate or decide what is good. Can good be coerced in the heart of Man? Surely, good is good because it is freely given? Yes, it is a moral good that children should learn to read and discover the joys of reading — this is beyond doubt — but can a governmental authority stake a claim to know which books ought to be read?
All of this is a symptom of the State reaching into our pockets when the statists themselves have failed to find an adequate solution.
This is a cautionary tale: what may at first appeal to sentimentality and emotionalism may, in fact be the wrong decision for public and social policy.