The government’s new drive on antisocial behaviour was launched last week with a hardline speech by the prime minister.
Outlining his Respect agenda, Tony Blair emphasised plans to extend summary powers that punish people immediately without going to court, for example with a fine.
Pilots will be introduced with fines for antisocial children under 16. Blair praised antisocial behaviour orders for criminalising “general behaviour” rather than “specific individual offences”. Parenting orders are to be used more widely, and could be compulsory. [See 19 January issue of Community Care for more on parenting orders].
Children’s charities including NCH and The Children’s Society and children’s commissioner Al Aynsley-Green have warned of the dangers of a punitive approach to vulnerable young people that can demonise and stereotype.
However the tone of Blair’s speech is at odds with the detail in the government’s Respect action plan, published to accompany the prime minister’s pronouncements.
It includes many constructive ideas, much already previously announced, with a strong emphasis on the familiar social work mantra of integrated multi-agency working.
The Association of Directors of Social Services has welcomed the new Respect action plan, although it has strong concerns about funding, stressing that the £70 million allocated for achieving the agenda is “inadequate”. Initial central cash will kickstart schemes but then local authorities will be required to pay for the work from overall funds, already tightly squeezed in social care.
ADSS president Julie Jones says it is “refreshing to hear young people’s circumstances and concerns debated coolly and rationally” and praised the government for initiating a “sophisticated debate about how we can help improve the lives of all our young people”.
Jones is “very pleased” at the examples of excellent practice cited by Blair as models for future work on antisocial behaviour.
“They all relied for their success on the early identification of risk, early planning across the whole range of local authority services, and early intervention and support where appropriate. They were models we can all learn from,” says Jones.
Over the next two years, the government will give an additional £52 million “to start a national programme of change in the way public services respond to parents”.
The government wants local authorities to improve “planning, commissioning and funding of parenting services”.
There will be new guidance for children’s services directors; a new online commissioners toolkit to help identify the “most suitable parenting programmes”; and a champion for parents in every local authority.
New national occupational standards will improve skills and training for all children’s staff working with parents.
Increased and better co-ordinated “integrated targeted” support for parents of children at risk is to be introduced in a series of pathfinder schemes, from April this year. More support for teenage parents and for young offenders who are parents is also planned.
A national parenting academy will train staff including social workers and youth justice teams in the “skills necessary to deliver high quality parenting support and receive the ongoing supervision that is needed to maintain quality”. An expert panel will “steer” the academy.
Andrew Webb, co-chair of the ADSS children and families committee and children’s director at Stockport Council, praised the academy idea. Webb said there is currently no national overview to identify which parenting programmes are effective and ways of developing knowledge are a positive move.
He said the most important thing for parents is “easy access to non-stigmatising support”. It is more valuable to offer large numbers of parents early intervention when problems first emerge than a “punitive approach to small numbers of very bad parents,” he added.
Webb also emphasises that funding is a crucial issue. ADSS figures show that three quarters of councils are already overspending on children’s services.
“If I am going to introduce a new approach to parenting in my authority and divert money into the work I will have to cut elsewhere,” he said.
The government is also to establish a national network of family support schemes, using “intensive tailored action, with supervision and clear sanctions”.
It says “problem” families often receive high levels of services but the net effect is “disappointing”, perhaps due to lack of co-ordination by the many agencies involved.
The model for projects is the Dundee families project, run by children’s charity NCH, which claims an 84 per cent success rate.
The government says a key feature is a single member of staff co-ordinating all services and professionals involved with each family, to provide consistency.
Projects will vary and may include outreach with families in their own homes and residential work and be delivered by councils and voluntary agencies.
New funding of £28 million will help start the schemes. But by April 2007 local authorities will be required to have family support projects in place “where they are needed”.
Punitive sanctions for antisocial families refusing help could include withdrawing housing benefit.
New powers to temporarily “close down and seal” homes or licensed premises, whoever owns them, if the people living there are constantly antisocial. This power has already been used 10 times in Scotland, since it came to force in 2004.
Proposals on school discipline, truancy, preventing exclusions and improving provision for pupils who are excluded are all in the action plan. Many of the measures are in the education white paper, to be published as a bill early this year.
The government will implement many of the proposals in the youth green paper including a national volunteering programme for young people. There are also plans to involve disadvantaged young people in sport and art and to expand mentoring projects.
The above extensive programme illustrates how the prime minister is determined to make addressing antisocial behaviour a priority during his third term. Some of his more draconian pronouncements about bypassing the courts to dish out instant punishments may not survive or be workable in practice but many of the better ideas should flourish. But who will pay for them?