Parenting orders have principally been used as a tool to improve the skills of parents of young people in trouble with the law, but the government’s Respect plan suggests an expansion in their use, and in the agencies that can apply for them.
They were introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and were at first available only to the courts and youth justice staff. They were then extended through the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 to allow the then local education authorities to apply for orders to address children’s behaviour at school.
While parenting orders have been widely used in the justice system – local youth offending teams arranged support for 1,400 parents on orders in the year to September 2005 – councils have been less willing to use the measure, applying for 373 in the year to July 2005. And in Scotland, no parenting orders have been issued since the powers were introduced there nine months ago.
The core requirement of an order is that the parent attends a parenting programme that can last up to three months. Training on parenting skills could be provided by local authority social services staff or a voluntary sector agency, and the order can also include a residential element if the court decides this is necessary to ensure the parent attends.
The order can also include specific requirements that a parent must comply with for up to 12 months. Breach of an order’s conditions can ultimately land parents with a fine of up to £1,000, a community order or a curfew order.
A study in 2002 of the Youth Justice Board’s parenting programme showed parenting orders have some positive effects; although parents subject to an order had a negative view of their parenting programme at the outset, they felt positive about them by the end. Also, there was no difference in the level of benefit reported by parents who attended training voluntarily compared with those referred via an order.
In the Respect plan, the government says it will legislate to extend the circumstances under which councils can apply for orders, from the existing trigger of exclusion from school to a new measure of “serious misbehaviour”, and will also allow schools themselves to apply for parenting orders.
Another proposal is to enable a wider range of staff, including housing officers, to issue orders.
But NSPCC chief executive Mary Marsh says the decision to issue parenting orders should only be taken by child care professionals.
George McNamara, policy officer at children’s charity NCH, also cautions against the plans, saying there need to be clear guidelines for other agencies issuing parenting orders and that consistency across different areas of the country is essential.
However, he says parenting orders are “probably necessary for a tiny majority of parents who, after being offered help on a voluntary basis, have consistently refused it”.
Charity Parentline Plus is also worried about the plans, saying the threat of punishment for parents whose children are in trouble or who play truant deters them from seeking help.
Jan Fry, its director of external relations, says other staff who will be given powers to issue orders need to have training, and this is where the government’s plans for a new national parenting academy to train professionals on parenting issues could play a part.
She says parenting orders only work if parents “trust the process and trust the messenger”.
Families evicted for antisocial behaviour could be fined or have their housing benefit cut.
Parents who do not supervise children excluded from school during the first five days of the exclusion period could be prosecuted.
At least 50 intensive family support schemes are to be established.
See special report on the Respect agenda