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The government is spending large extra sums of cash on combating
child poverty and exclusion, but do its proposals risk stigmatising
vulnerable young people, asks Mark Ivory.

When the chancellor announced an annual increase of £50m
for the Children’s Fund and extended its life by two years, it was
hard to see it as anything other than a vote of confidence in its
work to combat child poverty and social exclusion. As a result of
the comprehensive spending review, Gordon Brown said in July that
the Children’s Fund would have £600m to spend over the three
years from 2003.

But a month later, minister for children and young people John
Denham said exactly how the new money would be spent and some of
the optimism began to fade. While the money would be spent in
keeping with the Children’s Fund’s remit of developing preventive
strategies for  young people at risk of social exclusion,  the main
target now was youth crime. 

The brief is in fact broader than youth crime. Children’s Fund
partnerships will have to earmark the money for “identification,
referral and tracking (IRT) procedures” for children and young
people deemed to be at risk of offending, drug-taking, teenage
pregnancy, and other factors associated with social exclusion. But
the emergence of the proposals from a summer initiative to curb
street crime, and the requirement that the Children’s Fund spends
25 per cent of its budget in partnership with youth offending
teams, all suggest where the focus will be.

Commenting on the announcement, Charles Clark, the Association
of Chief Police Officers’ spokesperson on youth issues, said
children could be “identified and supported toÉ enable them to
avoid getting into a life of crime and antisocial behaviour”.
Norman Warner, chairperson of the Youth Justice Board, said the
money would go on the “needs of those most at risk of exclusion and

The emphasis will be on sharing information between agencies
about children at risk and overcoming barriers such as
confidentiality that often hamper attempts to keep track of them.
Writing in the October issue of 0-19, Children and Young People’s
Unit assistant director Kathy Bundred, who oversees the Children’s
Fund, said a review of children at risk had shown that the failure
to share information had undermined services.

“Those working in the field know all about the frustrations that
can come with different assessment and identification arrangements,
duplication of information gathering, and the failure to join up
working between agencies,” she said.

But far from welcoming the initiative, many of “those working in
the field” fear that keeping local registers of children at risk
under the IRT procedures will be counter-productive. “There seems
to have been a shift in emphasis from child poverty to preventing
youth offending,” said Tim Bateman, senior policy development
manager at offender rehabilitation agency Nacro. “It’s easier for
the government to get its teeth into.”

Bateman argues that the new approach could easily backfire.
“There are potentially serious pitfalls around data-sharing and
identification of these youngsters. However well intentioned the
aim, labelling children is likely to contribute to further

He admits that better information-sharing could have a
beneficial effect on the way in which agencies deal with children
and their families. But he says it could also influence agencies in
a negative way, for example by making schools reluctant to take
children identified under the IRT procedures because of concerns
about their future academic performance.

Sharon Moore, principal policy and practice manager at the
Children’s Society, suspects that the announcement is about
soundbite politics. “It’s a reflection of the government’s
obsession with crime, but children at risk of offending are only a
small proportion of children in need,” she says. “The money would
be better spent on general support for families who need it.”

The Children and Young People’s Unit denies that the initiative
risks branding children unfairly. “Rather than identifying someone
as a potential criminal, it’s a matter of asking whether they’ve
got problems in their life and nipping them in the bud,” a
spokesperson said. Much will depend on how Children’s Fund
partnerships meet the challenge in different localities, but few
doubt that it will be a difficult balancing act to pull off.

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