Home secretary David Blunkett spoke to Community Care’s
features editor Frances Rickford. He outlined the government’s
policies on the family, drugs and alcohol addiction and community

The challenges facing families today

The problem is not only the economic pressures that families of
most income levels are familiar with – the normality of trying to
balance working life and family life, of trying to balance the need
to have a decent quality and standard of living against that most
precious commodity of all which is time. But it’s also the
rapidity of social change. It’s what’s happening around
us – the pressures that exist, the instant communication, the
instant gratification which we’re all subject to increases
those pressures very greatly indeed. It’s not just
traditional gripes about what kids see on television, and what they
aspire to and whether it can be afforded. It’s also the
access to the internet, the information and knowledge that’s
available without necessarily the back up to understand it. And
it’s the pressures that exist in the broader sense of being
able to cope with that rapid change and the demands that it makes.
I think all of those bring the kind of pressures that have existed
in one form or another in families since time began but are now
stepped up.

The government’s role

I think it’s the job of government not to try to take away
the responsibility from the family but to provide the back up and
the support to help people cope. Policies like Sure Start which are
working with the baby and the parents from the moment the child is
born lay really important foundations for an understanding of how
to cope, but above all they aim to engage the wider community to be
part of the solution. So the mum or the mum and dad are not on
their own because there are people around them that form new types
of extended family where the previous family infrastructure has
disappeared or is so distant from them that they are no longer

With the news that mental ill health among children and young
people seems to be increasing significantly, what is your view of
the situation facing today’s young people?

The opportunities and the challenges have never been greater for
youngsters. But the risk to them has never been greater either.
Drugs is a phenomenon which has changed many communities. It has
created disfunctionality within the family and disfunctionality
within the community – and has certainly hit the constituency that
I represent, very hard.

There are two things that have changed since I was a child. One
was the emergence of mass unemployment again, and something is
being done about that. The other is drugs and I have responsibility
now for co-ordinating drugs policy across government with the drugs
unit having been pulled together under the home office. We are
developing policy with the Dfes and doh firstly develop the
information and education programme. Education is the foundation
for life and it is absolutely fundamental. The big risk, the drugs
and self-abuse side of it, is something we must root in that
education process. Not just in terms of achievement which is
important for confidence building and self-esteem although that is
important because if you’re doing very well you are less
likely to turn to something which is harmful to you. But also in
terms of an understanding of how drugs destroy the social fabric
more widely so I think getting that right is very important.
Secondly we’ve not been good at spotting and hearing and
perceiving what youngsters are shouting at us. The development of
two aspects that I was involved in when I was in the Dfee as it
was, one is the children’s fund where the investment needs to
be carefully targeted, but it also needs to be flexible enough at
local level to really do a job of work. Otherwise it will just
become another professionalised route for social work which is good
in itself, but isn’t what it was intended to do. And the
second is the Connexions programme for teenagers, because if we
could pull together as they are doing in the pilot programmes the
various services, we can really look at what the mental health
needs of this group are – what are the pressures that are leading
to emotional disturbance and poor behaviour. Hopefully we can then
link that to the 3,000 mentors now employed in inner city schools
through the ‘excellence in cities’, and how can they do their job
better by linking with the school nurse for example or with the
programmes we are developing through the youth justice programme
for those who have rubbed up against the criminal justice system,
to intervene and stop them becoming adult offenders. Because if we
can get in at that stage there is a chance we can turn things
around and prevention has got to be a lot better than cure.

What about a strategy on alcohol abuse?

We’ve got agreement with the doh that we need to move
rapidly to putting together a programme on alcohol and related
abuse alongside the developing strategy on drugs. We’ve
decided to take a look at the 10-year drugs strategy in the light
of the evidence that has emerged over the last two years, the
rethink the way we want to link harm minimisation with education,
reshaping the targeted areas to focus heavily on category A drugs
without losing sight of the overall messages we need to get across.
We need to reinforce those both through the application of law,
because if kids can pick it up easily and that’s true of
alcohol in off licenses or going to the pub then we’ve got to
deal with that. And though government needs to accept its
responsibility for getting the framework right, and the investment,
and the messages and policy right, there is a responsibility all
the way down the line, through parents themselves through what we
do in schools, to the way in which industries perform. One of the
biggest challenges that has hit parents with teenagers is alcopops
where the industry has not only made it easier to get hold of
alcohol, but very much more attractive and less painful. There are
real pressures and come-ons now that didn’t exist before,
reinforced by the image of life that people see on telly including
satellite broadcasting which opens up things that weren’t
available before. So there are pressures there. I think we’re
only at the beginning of this process. We are seeing – and this is
being reflected in the home affairs select committee deliberations
on drugs – the beginning of a holistic approach to these issues.
But we are a long, long way off getting it right. It’s about
changing what is seen as acceptable behaviour. This is not just
about self esteem and confidence because I appreciate there are
quite a lot of high achievers who like to play with these things
and experiment. I think that ‘s why the question of harm and
understanding about self harm is very important. It’s why the
inclusion of health in personal and social education was very
important, and also the development of citizenship education so
that people could see their role in society and what substance
abuse does to themselves and others. We’ll never ever
eliminate these things because we all do daft things at different
times of our lives and we all make mistakes. But it’s trying to put
it in the context firstly of dissuasion and secondly of early
intervention because if we spot that something’s going wrong
we can get in very quickly as parents as teachers as health workers
or youth workers in the Connexions service. People can spot it and
do something that redeems the position, that stops them being
dragged in. In drugs for instance, young people’s involvement
with criminality – robbery petty burglary, things of that sort – is
often linked into the fact that they’ve been hooked into
having to get the cash to buy the product And often they get into
pyramid selling because they start to sell on the drugs to other
people in order to pay for their own habit. So we’ve got a
really big challenge to break that cycle and therefore break the
demand because that in the end will be the effective bit. We can
disrupt the supply, and custom and excise are capturing more crack
and heroin than ever before – twice as much as last year. But it
doesn’t affect the supply on the streets because while the
demand is there they will find a route.

Community diversity and family policy – how do they fit

You can have diversity with stability. You can have the
integration of people of different backgrounds, religions,
persuasions, family structures and still have stability.

The development of our active communities unit and the reach out
which will come from establishing a unit in the department to
concentrate on social cohesion are important. And we can shape our
family support grant system to link up with what is going on in
other parts of government and other agencies. Because we only have
small money on these programmes. Other people have quite big sums
that they don’t always think are relevant to these areas. So
if we can join up a bit more using our grants as a facilitator for
best practice, for development of ideas, including what’s
working across the country we can get others to see that their
bigger budgets are relevant to this then we can make a difference.
And in the end it is the individuals and families who make up all
sorts of communities. Because community today is not quite the
geographic entity that it was. It is made of interest groups –
people make connections at work, or because of a particular
interest about their kids, or because of a social outlet that they
go to – but they are still communities of interest and if we can
reinforce those, support them, see that as part of the job of
government, then we’ll get somewhere. We declared last
December that social cohesion was a government policy area, and it
had never been so before. We have a role but not the primary role.
It is a supportive, enabling role because the primary role must
come from leadership within the neighbourhood or interest group
itself. We can reinforce that, we can support training for people
in all sorts of ways, we can reinforce as we are doing with
community champions through the Dfes. We can develop community
leadership programme schemes, we can develop the neighbourhood
renewal programmes that have been working and beginning to give
confidence to turning round communities. But in the end it will be
people in those communities that make the difference. Not what we

Will family support be a priority in the forthcoming
spending review?

The discussion about prioritisation in the spending review is a
very interesting one. What we’d like to do and I think what
the Chancellor would like to do is to see that instead of pigeon
holing particular spending areas and particular programmes, we ask
the question what are we trying to achieve, what are we trying to
do, and join those up between departments as well, I have to say,
as within departments because that’s not always the case. I
am slightly tentative about anything that creates new bureaucratic
structures as an endeavour to do that. We have agencies that have
to be regulated, we have strategies that have to be supported, we
have structured that have to be staffed by people who should be
doing a job of work instead of meeting each other in meetings.
There are so many meetings taking place locally and nationally that
it’s a wonder that people have time to turn up at work at
all. So we’ve really desperately got to avoid the development
of the great strategy rather than the funding, resourcing and
backing of action on the ground and I’m a real advocate of
this. I think there’s a danger that at the centre, where
you’re detached from that delivery process you think that a
strategy is the delivery. And it isn’t.

There are concerns that the government’s
preventive programmes like Sure Start are triggering a big increase
in referrals of families in crisis to social services which they
cannot meet, because they don’t have the

Well there’s some truth in the suggestion that the
government’s endeavour to do the right thing actually does
lead to the opening of a Pandora’s box, not just in terms of
aspirations about what might be done but also in revelation about
what is not being done. So we are looking through a window and
discovering what we knew. We perceived that if we didn’t
first of all appraise and secondly do something about the problems
that people face we would then pick them up later on in life in
other forms of spending. Whether it was major health and recovery
programmes, whether it was the criminal justice system, whatever.
How to switch the resources from remedial action when it’s too late
to prevent and early investment to get in at the ground floor, at
the root, is a 24 million pound question. I just feel that we are
only exploring this at the moment. And we are calling on other
services that are already overstretched saying to them is there any
space for you to help now to prevent you doing with other families
and other cases later in life what you’re having to do at the
moment because we didn’t have a Sure Start programme, and we
didn’t look at the moment the child was born when the
parenting skills were most needed. Now that’s a full circle
if you like and I think we’ve really got to think that
through as to how much can we do to meet that need. Partly social
services should pull out the strengths of the community as well as
the weakness. I accept entirely that it is revealing crises in
families and desperation, a cry for help. And the minute you say
you are there to help people rightly expect you to. They want
something more than they’d expected before. The expectation
and aspiration within different communities has actually been very
low. They’ve not expected a lot of other people. Now they are
beginning to realise that they should, and we’ve got to be
able to do that. But we’ve also got to be able to say within
such communities are great strengths, there are survival skills
that are amazing. We need to be able to work with them rather than
think that a traditional pattern of casework crisis intervention is
the only way of doing it. Because otherwise I think everyone will
be swamped and what happens then is a return to lethargy and
despair where we all think there’s nothing can be done.

Where there is despair there also has to be real hope of

We know that families are changing rapidly, that many
children now live in different sorts of families at different times
during their childhood and that more than one in four live in a
lone parent family. Is there a link between family change and the
problems we’ve been discussing, and is it the
government’s job to try to influence how people behave in
respect of their family lives?

I think there is a relationship between family change and things
like mental ill health and drug use. I am judgmental about myself
as well as other people in the sense that if I do something that is
amiss then I’m responsible for that. But I would expect, as I
would in my own family, that we as a society would be able to
support and work to be able to help with that. I see the job of
government as firstly trying to reinforce what people want for
themselves. They want a better life, they want stability, they want
to be able to function well. So we should help with that. So
helping one-parent families into work has been a positive exercise,
not a threat. 122,000 people getting a job has got to be a good
thing for their own independence, dignity, self reliance. The
ability to support families through universal nursery education,
which I’m very proud of and it gets no publicity at all. Yet
10 years ago no-one would have believed it was possible. The
transformation in terms of being able to provide working families
tax credit, which the chancellor has brought in and which makes
work worthwhile and enables families to cope better. Overcoming
basic child poverty which is a clear goal of the government. These
are major contributions by government. In the end however people
will live their own lives, and all we can do is ensure that the
social as well as the economic policies we follow reinforce the
ability to function well, and create some stability. What we
can’t do is determine who lives with whom, what their
relationships are and how they manage it because that’s down
to all of us as individuals. I’ve never preached and
I’m not preaching a back to basics. I’m only talking
about reinforcing what we all want for ourselves rather than seeing
that disintegration accelerated by what we do.

Parents need a lot more support. We’ve got Parentline, and
we’re looking at broader policies that reinforce what works.
Our family support grants for next year will be put out at the end
of this month. Since the general election we haven’t had the
time to bring about radical changes so there won’t be a
radical shift but the ability to try to relate to what is required.
Work with young fathers is a way of responding to new needs. To
reach out to people who have not been in the spotlight before –
people have not worked with them. I want to change the nature of
support for parents so it doesn’t just focus on parenting
orders when something goes drastically wrong but on a similar but
tailored schemes for parents full stop. We do it in colleges but we
want also to make it available when we all need it.

God forbid we should have a strategy for families. Save us all
from Blunkett’s diktats on what we should do – I’m not
interested in that. I’ve learned quite a lot over the last
decade about what we shouldn’t do as well as what we should.
But there is a hell of a lot more we could do to see that what we
do in one area is instrumental in helping in another. I’ll
leave it to Mary (MacLeod – chief executive of the National
Family and Parenting Institute) to institute the broader
intellectual thrust.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned the
word partnerships during the interview, not because I don’t
believe in it but because it’s so overworked at the

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