Familiar demons

Respect is something of an overworked word at the moment but that hasn’t stopped the government using it as a title for the action plan that forms its latest salvo in the “war” on antisocial behaviour.

The new package of measures claims to strike a balance between punishment and prevention but the whole tone of the prime minister’s pronouncement this week was draconian, to say the least. Of course, this has been picked up and amplified by those in the media who revel in ideas like the “yobs direct helpline” and clamping down on so-called “families from hell”. But is ratcheting up the tenor of the debate more likely to prove counterproductive than genuinely trying to address the issue it professes to be tackling?

Demonising problem families rather than tackling the causes of their actions is not the way forward. It is suggested that those who refuse help and persist in their antisocial habits will be evicted, have their homes boarded up and their benefits cut. But then what will become of them? Will they suddenly see the error of their ways and turn into model tenants? Or are they more likely to be set on a downward spiral that will end up who knows where?

Among the more ludicrous suggestions is that children excluded from school must be held under virtual house arrest by their parents for five days until local authorities take responsibility on the sixth. Parents who do not comply will be prosecuted. But wouldn’t it save everyone a lot of grief if the young people went to pupil referral units from day one?

It is also not entirely clear that setting up a Parenting Academy for professionals to develop skills in dealing with families will be money well spent. Lack of professional training is surely not the main issue here.

However, there are some welcome developments among the proposals, such as the decision to use successful projects in Dundee and Bristol as models for the future. Learning from initiatives like these and others – Kids Company in London springs to mind – is surely the way forward. But the government should take heed that their effectiveness is founded on a
constructive approach that involves working with socially excluded families rather than taking action against them.

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