Monday, June 18, 2007

Think Family and the feral media

The Daily Telegraph has a story headlined 'The four factors in a life of crime'. It is a nasty and distorted piece. Here's why.

Hilary Armstrong's department launched a new strategy today called 'Think Family', which is about redesigning public services to help the 140,000 most deprived families in Britain. The main development in this report is that it recognises that to reduce severe poverty amongst children involves helping adult members of the family. While the government's focus on reducing child poverty is largely welcome, it sometimes doesn't acknowledge that child poverty can't be tackled without tackling family poverty - there are no rich children in poor families. A strategy which looks at things like how to extend what works in Every Child Matters to adult services may not make for exciting headlines, but is useful nonetheless.

The feral media have got a different slant on this story. According to the Daily Telegraph, the government is claiming that 'Children with black mothers are more likely to be involved in crime than their friends who have white or Asian mothers', and that the top four factors which predict whether a child would be expelled from school, develop a drink problem and get into trouble with the police are 'living in council accommodation, a lack of English in the home, being born to a single mother and being born in a home where "the mother's ethnicity is black".' Let's look at this a bit more.

Looking at pages 10 and 11 of the report, they have got their headlines by equating 'five or more family disadvantages' with 'involved in crime', and the table about which groups of people are most likely to have five or more family disadvantages. 2% of the general population have five or more family disadvantages. 6.8% of social tenants do, 6.7% of families where mother's main language is not English, 5.4% lone parent families and 4.5% mother's ethnicity black.

As for children who suffer five or more family disadvantages, 10.2% had been in trouble with the police in the past year. 21.4% had been bullied in a frightening or upsetting way in the past year, and 33% had strong worries about being mugged or were afraid to walk alone after dark. (All much higher than amongst children with fewer family disadvantages).

When the Daily Telegraph refers to the 'four factors in a life of crime', what it doesn't say is that over 93% of social tenants and families where English isn't the first language don't fall into this category, and over 95% of families where the mother's ethnicity is black. And nor does it explain that by 'life of crime' it means people who are between two or three times as likely to be victims of crime and anti-social behaviour as to have been in trouble with the police, nor that nearly 90% of children in these disadvantaged families had not been in trouble with the police in the past year.

There are significant weaknesses in the Cabinet Office's approach. Its assumption that life is getting better for all but a tiny minority of disadvantaged families isn't right, and it tends to prioritise narrowly targeted reforms to public services aimed at changing the behaviour of people who suffer from social exclusion, rather than identifying the changes which would help both the people suffering most disadvantage and the 1 in 5 people who are living in poverty in the UK today. There, for example, is very little said in this report about poverty as a cause of disadvantage, and nothing about inequality. But to do what the Daily Telegraph has done and spin it as suggesting that the children who face the most disadvantage are criminals and twist the facts to attack lone parents and black mothers is vile.

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