Curran leads attack on antisocial behaviour

Scotland’s new minister for communities, Margaret Curran,
has just been entrusted with seeing through the Scottish Labour
Party’s manifesto pledge to deal with antisocial behaviour.
As the new post-holder, she is also responsible for poverty,
regeneration, and the voluntary sector. But who is she?
asks Bob Holman.

Born in 1958 to working class parents who had arrived in Glasgow
from the Irish Republic, she attended local primary and secondary
schools. Aged 17, she proceeded to Glasgow University where she
immediately joined the Labour club.

After a degree in history and economic history and a
post-graduate course in community work, she became a welfare rights
officer in the east end of Glasgow and then a local authority
community worker. By this time married with children, she took time
out before lecturing in community work. Active in women’s
politics, she obtained the nomination to fight the Ballieston ward
in the first elections to the Scottish parliament.

Ballieston includes the socially deprived area of Easterhouse.
Curran knows it well as her in-laws still live there, while her
sister was a long-serving Easterhouse community worker. She is
devoted to the area and declares: “If you can’t put
things right in Easterhouse, it is not going to work. It is the
test ground for getting social policies right.”

She won that election and, before long, was the deputy minister
and then minister for social justice. With no experience as a
councillor, she had to learn on the job and was tested when she
took on board the legislation to enable Glasgow to transfer its
housing to the Glasgow Housing Association.

The transfer was bitterly fought and, on TV, Curran showed that
she was one of the few Labour MSPs who could take on the articulate
Tommy Sheridan, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party.

In the Scottish parliamentary elections this year, Labour lost
some ground. Not so Curran. She recorded the largest swing to
Labour in any constituency – a swing she attributes to the
fact that she is rooted in the constituency. She soon established a
local office which is open most week days.

She insists on giving credit to her two energetic staff, Marie
Kerrigan and Maureen Burke, who do much of the casework. Despite
being a minister, and despite having two teenage sons, Curran is
often seen in local schools, voluntary bodies and other agencies.
She says: “Politics is seen as something that happens in
Edinburgh and London. We want it
to happen here.”

“One of my greatest pleasures is going in on a Monday and
saying to civil servants – many of whom send their children
to private schools – ‘You’ve got it wrong,
that’s not how it is to local people’,” she adds
with a laugh.

During the election, Jack McConnell, the Labour leader,
emphasised tackling antisocial behaviour, particularly by young
people. Once back in power he immediately appointed Curran to the
new post of minister for communities, charged with carrying through
the new, tough policies.

Did the former community worker really want this role? 
Apparently so. “Antisocial behaviour is such a serious issue
here. It dominates my constituency workload,” she says. She
talks of gangs, of vandalism, of threatening behaviour, of older
people being scared to go out and young ones frightened to enter
nearby territories.

On 26 June, as minister for communities, she published a paper,
‘Putting Our Communities First’. Its main proposals are:

– Electronic tagging to ensure that children aged 12-16 conform
to curfews and exclusion from certain areas
– Antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts
for young people under 16
– Powers for police to disperse groups of three or more
persons
– Fixed penalties for minor vandalism and graffiti
– Parenting orders to ensure that parents control their
children’s behaviour with the possibility of prison if they
do not comply

The proposals have provoked an outcry from academics, voluntary
societies and some police officers. They are seen as putting too
much emphasis on punishment and not enough on prevention.
Electronic tagging has been described as an authoritarian measure
which could well be seen as a badge of honour by some children yet
a badge of shame by others.

Parents of children who are tagged or subject to antisocial
behaviour orders will be put in the position of nagging warders,
some argue, attempting to control their children for fear of going
to prison themselves.

Duncan MacAulay, president of the Association of Directors of
Social Work, says the jailing of parents will result in more
children being taken into public care. Moreover, research in
England by Ming Zhang shows that prosecuting the parents of truants
does little to reduce absenteeism.1 Scottish critics say
that the prosecution of parents of antisocial children will be just
as ineffective.

The police are fearful that, by concentrating on a minority of
young people, the Scottish executive is creating a negative image
of young people in general.

Perhaps the strongest criticism is that the proposed approach
will not tackle the social deprivations which are at the root of
anti-social behaviour. Colin Fox, of the Scottish Socialist Party,
protested: “Labour should concentrate more on social justice
and dealing with poverty and inequality which creates the despair
among young people rather than bringing forward ever more draconian
measures.”

Curran remains unmoved. She can point out that tagging has been
used in England and Wales for two years, and that the home office
claims that it reduces reconvictions. She says that prison for
parents will be a last resort, but that: “We will no longer
tolerate a situation where parents wilfully encourage their
children to participate in criminal activity, violence and
harassment.” The problem after all is hardly a minor one; a
recent Mori poll in the west of Scotland showed that one in five
young people had been attacked in the past year.

The minister does agree that more prevention is required and
that frequently it is voluntary bodies who can divert young people
from trouble. The government has decided that voluntary agencies
need three-year core funding, but Curran acknowledges that this may
go to the prestigious national societies rather than to locally-run
community projects.

She acknowledges that it is the latter that are at the hard end,
and says: “I’m moving to the view that we must make a
distinction between the large voluntary sector and small community
groups.”
Many of her constituents in Easterhouse will watch to see if she
can ensure that local projects receive proper funding.

As the minister responsible for poverty, Curran talks
passionately about the way in which improved health and educational
services can remove social disadvantages. She is less articulate
about the need for higher levels of benefits and minimum wage which
come under Westminster not the Scottish parliament.

When asked whether she agrees with the prime minister’s
view that the rich should not be taxed more in order to promote
greater equality, she gives a look as if to say: “You know
very well that, as a minister, I can not criticise Tony
Blair.” However, she continues: “I think the Scottish
executive should form a closer working relationship with
Westminster. We need to say: ‘Here is our social agenda and
we need to talk about the ways in which your policies may affect
what we are doing’.”

If Curran does succeed in making a dialogue with Westminster,
she will be one of the few politicians who is in touch with New
Labour, Scottish Labour and the residents of places like
Easterhouse.

1 M Zhang, “Are you
his mum?” ‘0-19′, July 2003

Bob Holman is a community worker in Easterhouse,
Glasgow.

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