Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spin and Nurse-Family Partnerships

Nurse-family partnerships are a good idea which will help some parents be able to look after their kids better. The evidence from America where they have been tried out suggests that they do make a difference (though basic services for families in the USA are worse than in the UK, so results are likely to be less dramatic). This intuitively makes sense – many new parents who didn’t get much love and care from their parents can benefit from having a nurse visiting regularly and offering advice and support from 16 weeks into a pregnancy. It’s not a policy which will change the world on its own, but it is another building block towards a fairer society and trying to make sure that life is a little bit easier for families.

What I didn’t understand was the spin that had been put on reporting it - 'Unborn targeted in crackdown on criminality'. This doesn’t make much sense. The link between nurse-family partnerships and crime rates are likely to be at best tenuous, and having a nurse call round weekly to provide advice and support (with no special powers of sanction or punishment) is an odd sort of ‘crackdown on crime’. Why was it being reported this way?

And then I got to the Prime Minister’s quote, 'Some of these families actually cause wider social harms. The community in which they live suffers the consequences'. This policy was to be presented, not just as a way of helping families, but as a crackdown on bad parents and their criminal children.

He did this before, with the same policy, and the effect of this was to put parents off from taking part in this, and similar schemes run by charities. Hearing on the news that anyone who takes part in this is a bad parent and that the government thinks that your children will grow up to be criminals, parents took the obvious decision and stopped taking part.

It was a deliberate piece of spin for a cheap headline, it will do nothing to reduce fear of crime or make people think that the government is reducing anti-social behaviour, and it makes it less likely that the policy will succeed and less likely that the people who do benefit will think that the government is on their side. Of course tackling anti-social behaviour and crime is important, but there is no conceivable way that this policy can possibly make a meaningful difference to levels of crime and anti-social behaviour now or in the near future. Addressing crime and anti-social behaviour is important, but there is a difference between policies which will have a meaningful and visible impact on anti-social behaviour in the short term (like summer holiday activities for young people where there is nothing fun for them to do), and this sort of long term social policy.

The leftie/liberal media don't get a lot of credit out of this - the Guardian wouldn't have given prominence to this story if it hadn't had an angle about crime just as the Observer gave prominence to the housing story on Sunday because it was about immigration. But we have got to stop being scared to justify policies which promote social justice purely and simply on the good that they will do. Nurse-family partnerships should be a good story about something that the government is doing to help close the gap and support people when they need it most, not as an ineffectual crackdown on the undeserving poor.

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