This is the second part of ConservativeHome's series looking at the conveyor belt to crime and how to lift young people off it. Yesterday, Samantha Callan looked at the value of early intervention. Today Jill Kirby outlines ideas for strengthening the greatest crime prevention tool of them all – the family.
What kind of mother doesn't know where her 15-year old is at 3 o'clock in the morning? What kind of father doesn't turn up in court when his 14-year old is being tried for criminal damage? Magistrates dealing with the aftermath of the riots have expressed their dismay at the casual reaction of the young looters' parents. What remedies are available to change their behaviour?
The threat of losing council housing or benefits might shock them into action but will not be a lasting remedy, and there is a danger that other children in the family will suffer – not to mention the difficulty of enforcement. Parenting orders, requiring attendance at parenting education programmes, probation orders and curfews, are likely to be the most widespread punishments. These are important, but unlikely to transform attitudes amongst parents who have so far shown no interest in controlling their children. On Monday, David Cameron promised more support for intensive intervention programmes targeted on chaotic families. Such schemes also have a role to play, especially where one family is causing grief to an entire neighbourhood. But they are too expensive to be viable as a widespread or long-term solution. And they are about picking up the pieces, rather than stemming the causes, of the broken society. In that sense, they are more about restoring public order than rebuilding family life.
So how do we fix these entrenched problems? I believe we should focus our attention now on the next generation of parents, taking the opportunity to influence current teenagers' attitudes to family and their own expectations of parenthood. That means educating them about the importance of good parenting, using an evidence-based curriculum which stresses the impact of parental behaviour on children's life chances. It also means expanding the remit of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms to reinforce the same message, through the allocation of benefits, and building good parenting practice into healthcare provision. A programme of policy changes in these key areas might look like this:
- Education. Children who lack a responsible adult model of behaviour need to be told about the importance of giving their own children a good start in life, and that this doesn't mean spending money, but spending time: providing loving and consistent discipline, rewarding good behaviour, helping others, respecting authority. Today's teenagers need to know that becoming a parent is the most important task they will ever undertake. This is not about judging their own family backgrounds but being given clear information, backed up by evidence (of which there is no shortage): that “authoritative” parenting makes for more secure and confident children; that parental input is the biggest determinant of educational outcomes; that fathers who stay around while their children grow up will double the child's chances of keeping out of crime, staying off drugs and getting a job.
- Welfare reform. Welfare payments for new mothers should be made conditional on the attendance of the child's father at a welfare assessment, so that their income is considered jointly, with emphasis on co-operation between parents and shared work requirements; payments based on joint income with no extra subsidy available in the event of break-up. In the provision of social housing, priority should be given to married parents; for teenage lone mothers protected and warden-assisted accommodation would be offered, rather than independent housing.
- Healthcare. Starting with antenatal care, health services must acknowledge and engage fathers, for example by requiring them to accompany their wives/girlfriends to a minimum number of antenatal appointments and parenting preparation classes. GPs, health visitors and other clinicians should be encouraged to talk to mothers about the role of the child's father and to involve him wherever possible in decisions concerning the child's health and wellbeing.
The Prime Minister has made a promise to test all policies to ensure they will strengthen families. Will this test lead to specific and lasting reform of the kind I have outlined? If so, it could provide a turning point in fixing our broken society.