Blaming troubled families: licence to parent?

Saturday 20 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2

Last summer, hundreds of British children aged between 11 and 14 participated in looting shops and wantonly destroying property in UK cities. Immediately after the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron noted, ‘The question people asked over and over again was “Where are the parents?”’. He went on to assert there were 120,000 ‘troubled families’ and that he would implement a new initiative to turn these families’ lives and prospects around, warning that his government would be less sensitive than before to accusations that its intervention was ‘interfering or nannying’. A similar explanation for rioting youth was one of the key findings of the Riots, Communities and Victims panel’s report, published early in 2012. That report used different statistics, referring to 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ who ‘bump along the bottom of society’.

Some of the practical policy consequences, such as the government’s commitment to spend millions of pounds giving mums and dads Boots vouchers for parenting classes, have been derided. But many critics argued Cameron’s initiative missed the target of real problem families, favouring more effective intervention rather than opposing it in principle. There is certainly a consensus among experts and policy makers that deadbeat dads and slack mums are responsible for all sorts of anti-social behaviour. Labour MP Frank Field reports that he has travelled the length and breadth of Britain and discovered there is ‘clearly a problem of chaotic families’. When Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, called for an aggressive ‘early intervention’ programme to educate parents about how they conduct their family lives, he echoed opinion formers across the political spectrum. It is now orthodoxy that what happens in a child’s first five years stamps them indelibly for life.

With so much emphasis on what has been called ‘parental determinism’, the case for the state taking greater responsibility seems to be growing in strength. Adoption tsar Martin Narey argues that many more children should be taken into care, while documentary filmmaker Roger Graef insists that ‘undue respect for birth parents’ rights’ amounts to a harmful political correctness. Is it wrong that children should be left in problem families? Indeed, are there some people who shouldn’t be parents at all? Is it true that without intense state intervention, we can expect more rioting youth in the future? Or is it not the place of the state to decide who are good and bad parents, and dictate what are the best outcomes for children?

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Sally Gimson
Labour councillor, Highgate; member, Camden Council's planning and housing committees; Camden's Equality Champion

Professor Roger Graef
CEO, Films of Record; award-winning filmmaker, including the Bafta winning Police series, Police 2001, Turning the Screws, and The Secret Policeman's Ball; visiting professor, Mannheim Centre for Criminology, LSE

Jane Sandeman
convenor, IoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny; director of finance and central services, Cardinal Hume Centre

Alison Small
CEO, Production Guild of Great Britain

Produced by
Jane Sandeman convenor, IoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny; director of finance and central services, Cardinal Hume Centre
Recommended readings
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Ruth Levitas, Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK, 21 April 2012

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