Prepare future child-family agency so organization can live up to principles

Will a new agency be able to deal with the problems surrounding children and families and come up with bold measures to overcome the decrease in the number of children? This yet-to-be established agency must be well organized with appropriate staffing to be able to function properly.

The government has adopted a bill to establish a “child and family agency” that will be in charge of child-related policies in a unified manner, aiming to launch it in April 2023.

The agency will be established as an external organ of the Cabinet Office, and childcare and other services will be transferred from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to the new agency. It will have a cabinet minister with the authority to make recommendations to other ministries, and the government plans to increase the number of staff to about 300 from the initial plan.

The new organ will be responsible for a wide range of policy matters, from childbirth to adolescence issues, with the aim of creating a “society where children can grow up equally healthy.”

The government must clearly show a concrete path through the deliberation of the bill regarding how to realize this lofty principle.

One of the key challenges is to deal with the declining number of children. According to vital statistics released by the health ministry, the number of children born last year, including those of foreign nationals, fell 3% from the previous year to 840,000 on a preliminary basis, the lowest number since the statistics started.

In recent years, the government has been working on such measures as dealing with the issue of many children waiting to be admitted to nursery schools and making kindergarten education free, but the speed of the decrease in children has instead been accelerating.

In addition to structural factors such as the decreasing number of women of childbearing age, there are also social factors such as the lack of a stable income and the heavy burden of childcare due to the shift to nuclear families. It also cannot be denied that the spread of novel coronavirus infections has spurred the decline in the number of children.

If the population continues to decline at this rate, the country’s vitality might become weaker. The government should examine the measures it has taken so far and implement more effective policy measures.

Another important role of the new agency will be to support children and families facing difficult situations, such as bullying, truancy, abuse and poverty.

Regarding bullying, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will continue to handle cases that occur in schools, but the new agency will be involved in serious cases and will deal with bullying outside of school, such as ones occurring at test prep centers.

As online bullying has also been recognized, will the agency be able to overcome the vertical division of ministries and take appropriate action? To be able to deal with serious cases, it is necessary to set procedures for information sharing and methods to investigate the people involved.

The government is planning to set up “child and family centers” in municipalities to provide comprehensive support for families raising children. To unify two support organizations to establish the centers, the government will submit bills to revise such laws as the Child Welfare Law.

It is important for the central government, local governments and nonprofit organizations to strengthen their cooperation and promote child-centered support.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 28, 2022.