Friday, September 01, 2006

Let's hear it for the Nanny State

"When help is available it often seems conditional, rather than offered in a genuine spirit of support" concluded parents living in poverty who participated in 'Get Heard' workshops, designed to get contributions from people living in poverty about what government policies were working and which weren't. And should anyone doubt that they are correct, along comes Tony Blair, back from his summer holiday, to announce plans to, as the BBC reports it, 'tackle 'menace' children', including intervention in families before a child is born, and sanctions for parents who don't co-operate. He specifically mentioned families with drug and alcohol problems and teenage mothers as groups of people at whom this policy would be aimed.

Helping families who have problems and who often struggle to cope with looking after children is a good idea. There is currently a failure to provide help at a time when it could do the most good, which is early in a child's life. The consequences of this failure, for the families and for others, are enormous. The detailed proposals haven't been set out, but anything which genuinely helps parents with young children deal with the problems that they face, be it showing people where to get good advice or parenting classes, can only be an improvement on what happens now. There are things that can be done, and should be done, which would directly help improve the lives of thousands of parents and children, and indirectly help millions who suffer in one way or another from the failure to help people when they need it most.

What is sad is that the way of presenting this policy is all about punishment and coercion - "ASBOs for babies", "Tackling 'menacing' children", which stigmatises all parents who are living in poverty, and particularly those who have drug and alcohol problems, or who are young mums. This spin can't all be blamed on the government - the media decides which kind of headlines it chooses to write - but the policy won't work if it is seen as a punishment for parents rather than an opportunity to help them, and it is hardly as if this is the first time when the government has consciously taken the decision that the way to present new ideas is for them to be understood as ways of punishing the 'undeserving poor'.

In a better world than this one, the policy debate in response to Blair's comments would be about how to make sure as many people benefit from this kind of early intervention as possible, how best to make sure that it genuinely helps parents and children, rather than punishing them, and how to involve people who are having these problems in working out the best way to sort them out. Instead, the opposition, from both Tories and Lib Dems, is to the principle of the state intervening to solve problems, with Oliver Letwin suggesting that the voluntary sector should be encouraged to help people, and Norman Lamb not actually suggesting an alternative at all. The idea of the voluntary sector acting instead of the state is one of those ideas which sounds nice until you think about what, if anything, it means. At best, it could mean that the voluntary sector is better placed than the state to deliver projects which help parents, even though the only way that this would be possible would be for the voluntary sector to receive lots of money from the state to do so (presumably not what Letwin has in mind).

Reading Iain Dale's Diary, though, I get the feeling that what Tories mean isn't, in fact, about which sector is best placed to deliver early intervention programmes, but that trying to help parents who have problems looking after their children is a bad idea full stop. As Iain puts it, "it probably involves sending parents of the yet to be born little hoodie on a taxpayer funded trip to Barbados to let them discover their inner selves," and if that isn't an ignorant piece of prejudice then I don't know what is.

This is in fact the level at which the political debate is currently conducted - is it better to get tough on people living in poverty with tough new tough policies, or are these policies a bad idea because spending any money on the state intervening is wrong in principle because it all gets wasted as I know because I read something about how these social workers waste it on politically correct outings for chavs.

Anyone who is doing their best to raise children while still a teenager or while struggling with drink or drug addiction deserves extra help and support and is doing something hundreds of times more worthwhile than what Tony Blair or Iain Dale do. One of the many good things about political correctness is that it is impossible for mainstream politicians to speak with spite and venom about people who face certain kinds of discrimination and prejudice. Unfortunately, hatred and contempt for people who have drug and alcohol problems or who are teenage mums isn't just seen as acceptable, but is taken for granted when discussing new policies which will affect their lives.

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