31 Dec 2006

".......aspects of social exclusion are deeply intractable" [or are we just failing to measure them properly?]

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in a speech entitled, "Our sovereign value: fairness" :

"...... some aspects of social exclusion are deeply intractable. The most socially excluded are very hard to reach. Their problems are multiple, entrenched and often passed down the generations."

There is a hint - with "generations" - that the most intractable problems are connected with parenting, though nothing to suggest that the difficulties in parenting could be connected with the relationship of the parents.

In contrast, the Conservatives seem to be suggesting that both the relationship of the parents and the family structure are important, and they point out that the break up rate of couples with children is much greater for cohabiting as compared with married couples.

Tony Blair identified 4 groups with special problems:

"1. ...... 61,000 children in care at any one time. They run very high risks of being unemployed, having mental health problems and becoming teenage parents. We need to be frank - we are not yet succeeding. 1 in 10 children in care get 5 good GCSEs compared to 6 out of 10 of other children. Only 6 per cent make it to higher education compared to 30 per cent of all children.

2. Second, families with complex problems - the Respect Task Force identified 7,500 such families. A child born into the most disadvantaged 5 per cent of families is 100 times more likely to have multiple problems at age 15 than a child from the 50 per cent best-off families. One of the biggest problems we face is parents who misuse alcohol. One in eleven children in the UK live with at least one such parent. These children have to take on more responsibility for running their family, they worry that the secret might be revealed, they often struggle at school and many start to use alcohol and drugs themselves.

3. Third, teenage pregnancies, of which there are 40,000 in the UK at any one time. Like looked-after children, teenage parents are more likely to end up unemployed, have mental health problems and themselves have children who have babies as teenagers. We have made some progress here - conception rates are at their lowest for 20 years.

4. And fourth, mental health patients. Between 125,000 and 600,000 people in Britain have a severe and enduring mental health problem. About 70,000 are on Incapacity Benefit and employment rates among the mentally ill have been falling, despite the fact that the majority are keen to work. The links with other problems are notable: half of those mis-using drug and alcohol have mental health problems.

The fact that we have yet to succeed with these groups is not for want of spending. The state spends £1.9bn acting in loco parentis for children in care. It costs about £110,000 a year to keep a child in residential care. And there is very little relationship between spending and outcomes. Families with complex problems cost between £50,000 and £250,000 each. Every teenage pregnancy costs an average of £57,900 in the first five years. A mental health bed costs £1,365 a week.

The problem is not that we are not trying, nor that the money is not being committed. It is that we need a radical revision of our methods. The Social Exclusion Plan will be guided by five principles: early intervention, systematically identifying what works, better co-ordination of the many separate agencies, personal rights and responsibilities and intolerance of poor performance.

......... The protective factors are not surprising - affectionate families, adequate attention from parents......

......... It might mean that a more intense health-visitor programme is arranged. Or it might mean parenting classes are offered.........

......... Of course prediction will never be perfect. But the combination of risk and protection means that we can now be reasonably confident that we can identify likely problems at a very early stage.

At any one time, children in care make up about 0.5 per cent of all children. But one quarter of the adult prison population has been in the children's care system at some point.

Around a third of looked-after children end up as NEETs (not in employment, education or training).

The daughter of a teenage mother is twice as likely to become a teenage mother compared with a daughter of an older mother.

Children from the 5 per cent of the most disadvantaged households are more than 100 times more likely to have multiple problems at age 15 than those from the 50 per cent of most advantaged households.

Boys with a convicted father are over three times more at risk of being convicted of a crime than those with a non-convicted father.

125,000 children have a parent in custody - and 65 per cent of children with parents in prison go on to offend.

We then need to be clear about schemes that work and encourage the spread of good practice. We will provide a government hallmark for programmes that have proved to be effective........ We will incentivise good practice.............."

[Like marriage? Preparation for marriage?]

It is not for the State to tell people that they cannot choose a different lifestyle, for example in issues to do with sexuality. All that has changed and rightly. But where children are involved and are in danger of harm or where people are a risk to themselves or others, it is our duty not to stand aside. Their fate is our business."

There is a stark anomoly - amounting to hypocrisy - in what Tony Blair is saying:

a) "It is not for the State to tell people that they cannot choose a different lifestyle, for example in issues to do with sexuality.............." [i.e. 'cohabit if you wish'] and, in the same breath

b) "We will incentivise good practice" [but in practice do the opposite by incentivising cohabitation and single parenthood].

In fact, far from "systematically identifying what works", Tony Blair and his colleagues take a myopic view of the research that points to the benefits of marriage and of research informed marriage preparation programmes.

Is it adhering to the "sovereign value: fairness" when you only look at research which supports your point of view?

Like Labour the Conservatives tend to quote national figures.

The most powerful motivator would be to publish all the relevant neighbourhood statistics for social and domestic cohesion - combined with an index - so local leaders, GPs and health visitors, parish councillors, school governors, faith and other community leaders can easily measure whether their area is becoming more or less cohesive, and to what extent local policies and programmes are working.

Labour have created a precedent for this with their local authority league table of performance in reducing teenage pregnancy.

But teenage pregnancy is only one aspect of social and domestic cohesion; figures for the other elements and an index should be published, and by neighbourhood, as well as by local authority.

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