Just recycling old prejudices?

In Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit she sings about how a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” goes a long way. It is a message the prime minister seems to have taken to heart nearly 40 years later.

The Respect action plan is the government’s latest attempt to stamp out antisocial behaviour.(1) Published last month, the document brings together current measures for tackling antisocial behaviour along with new mechanisms to cover housing, the judicial system, parenting and schooling. The cross-departmental initiative is overseen by Respect task force co-ordinator Louise Casey, formerly head of the antisocial behaviour unit, and is backed by £28m in new funding. The measures will include increasing support to parents and creating a network of 50 family support projects to provide intensive support, outreach, a residential centre and aftercare.

Yet, some professionals who work with young people are sceptical. Pauline Batstone, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, describes it as “political expedient”. She says: “The government wants popularist, eye-catching headlines. No one would argue about wanting to make society a better place to live in but we are concerned about the summary justice message.”

She adds that the government’s approach to curtailing antisocial behaviour results in people – such as those who break their antisocial behaviour orders – being dealt with in the criminal justice system “without normal recourse to the law”.

Will McMahon, acting director of think-tank the Crime and Society Foundation, is equally scathing about the government’s Respect agenda. He says the plan takes social policy backwards in two ways: first,  through the re-emergence of the “problem family”, a concept stemming from the 1950s which blames families themselves for their social problems; second, by the sense of déjà vu that long-serving social care professionals will feel as a result of the government’s approach.

“The government is repeating the cycle of analysis by Sir Keith Joseph, Conservative social services minister in the 1970s, which is that problem families are the source of all our problems,” McMahon says.

But Jan Stoll, UK service development manager for children’s charity NCH, is more positive. She welcomes the action plan because it includes dedicated resources to fund preventive services and recognises the need for support programmes as well as enforcement measures: “This starts to address the balance to support and enable and facilitate change.”

The government has clearly taken it upon itself to act as the barometer for deciding what qualifies as respectful behaviour. At the document launch home secretary Charles Clarke said: “Building on our progress against antisocial behaviour, we are now setting out a tough drive to tackle the root causes of disrespect.” But is the government the correct agency to create and promote such an agenda?

It is, according to Janet Batsleer, head of youth and community work at Manchester Metropolitan University. She believes the government has an important role to play in furthering the vision of the society it wants to create – with the help of social care professionals. “The methods need to be considered by practitioners who are nearer to the issue than the government. Communities and young people’s voices also have to be heard within this vision.”

But McMahon says the government should not be the agent dictating what is deemed respectful behaviour given that it has failed to address the “bedrock of poverty” since coming to power. “If we want a society where people live well in communities we need to look at the drivers, and two of the drivers are income and poverty.”

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says the government should behave respectfully itself towards citizens and then hope they follow its example, not the other way around. “The example set by government ministers is often woeful because they classify all young people as thugs and hooligans, which is not the case and is not very respectful.”

A key measure in the action plan is to extend the number of parenting orders issued to families whose children behave antisocially. These require parents to attend a parenting programme for up to three months and may include a residential stay.

Stoll says the government needs to provide more information on its plans to extend parenting orders and notes that they are not suitable for all families. She adds they should be part of a range of options to assist a family and should come after earlier preventive work has been attempted.

Batsleer considers parenting orders to be stigmatising because they start from a deficit model which views a particular group of people to be lacking in skills, rather than beginning from the idea that all parents need help. She wants the orders to be extended from poorer, working-class families to middle-class families. “Parenting is a demanding role and as parents we all need a lot of support to do the job well.”

Another proposal involves creating a national parenting academy where practitioners – such as social workers – who work with children and their families could undergo training. Batstone believes an academy could monitor the parenting work carried out by professionals. “It would recognise the importance of parenting work already being done,” she says.

As well as new ideas the Respect plan contains some of the old favourites, such as antisocial behaviour orders. It makes clear the government’s intention to review Asbos given to young people after one year “to allow changes in behaviour to be taken into account”.

However, just changing the length of an Asbo may not be enough. Stoll thinks more individual support orders (ISOs) should be issued alongside Asbos – between May and December 2004 only seven were given out to young people compared with 600 Asbos. Stoll says: “Having an ISO built into an Asbo will improve the balance between enforcement and support because an ISO requires a young person to undertake an activity, such as using drug and alcohol services.”

As the government waits for the dust to settle on its proposals, what else could it be doing to ensure respect flourishes?

On this McMahon is clear: help the 12 million people living in poverty.(2) “If you show people respect then their behaviour changes. You can show respect by having a redistribution of resources in society.”

(1) Respect Action Plan, Home Office, January 2006
(2) Joseph Rowntree Foundation, www.poverty.org.uk


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