27 Jan 2007

Unsustainable long term consequences of failure in the Youth Justice system

"Over the past three years, the number of juveniles in custody has shot up by 25 per cent to almost 3,000 and, as with adult jails, there are hardly any places left.

Prof Morgan, 64, a former chief inspector of probation, is highly respected in the criminal justice world and his criticisms will strike a chord among penal reform groups and children's charities."

So says Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor in The Telegraph today.

Prof Rod Morgan is calling for more emphasis on "early prevention" rather than locking up young people, where he says the criminal justice system is more likely to develop their taste for criminality than cure it.

He suggests concentration on:

  1. School attendance
  2. Academic achievement
  3. Pupils at risk of exclusion from school.

He talks about the unsustainable long term consequences of failure in the Youth Justice system.

Prof Rod Morgan's resignation adds weight to the argument that the issues around school attendance should be monitored and measured.

However, it does not yet appear to have dawned upon the authorities that nothing less than sustained measurement of the development of the non-cognitive skills will enable schools to accurately report on personal, social, and emotional progress.

13 Jan 2007

Social exclusion debate - more "lies", statistics and "earache" for MPs

The Guardian 'Yesterday in Parliament' report included a reference to the debate in the House of Commons on social exclusion on 11th January:

"Inequality - The government and the opposition clashed over levels of inequality with Tories claiming Labour's policy was having "little impact" on the problem. Both parties cited figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies with Tory spokesman Oliver Heald arguing that Labour had not halted the rise in inequality of income. Social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong said the IFS called Labour's record a "remarkable achievement" although she later conceded it also said inequality had been "largely unchanged" under Labour."

Maybe the IFS thinks it is a "remarkable achievement" that under Labour income inequality has not got worse.

The debate lasted from 12.30 to 6pm. 17 Labour members, 8 Conservatives, 1 Liberal Democrat and 1 Plaid Cymru member spoke or intervened. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab) spoke movingly when he described his constituency:

"Fifty-eight per cent. of youngsters are born out of wedlock. I make no moral judgment about that, but it is a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed. One in seven young people who go to secondary school cannot read the first lesson that is put in front of them. My constituency sends the lowest number of youngsters to university. These and many other statistics underline why it is vital that social exclusion—as someone said, why don’t we call it social inclusion?—is paramount on the Government’s agenda.

For me, the key thing is that we start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences. That is where the debate has moved on to. We have seen today from the Front Benches—all parties have been responsible—that we chase after the difficulties and try to mitigate them, because that is what gets into the newspapers and what we get earache about. But we should take our political responsibilities even more seriously and work back to find out how we can prevent things from happening in the first place. It is evident now that the Government are addressing the problems in that way."

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab) was in no mood to humour the House when she said:

"I am going to break the sort of consensus we have seen in the House today—I would like to vent my spleen about the report on social justice produced by the Tory party........"

The Member responsible, Iain Duncan Smith, was not present. Maybe he had been warned of Mrs Engel's spleen. Not for her was it a matter of concern that 58% of Mr Allen's youngsters in Nottingham are born out of wedlock.

"..... to suggest that the breakdown of marriages is the reason why we have social exclusion in our society is not only wrong but deeply offensive ........ " she railed, even though Graham Allen was saying:

"........ it is a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed........ For me, the key thing is that we start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences."

Oliver Heald (Conservative Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire North East, Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) provided some clues as to how MPs might "start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences", ending his speech with:

"We also need to trust local government, and to accept that civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall might not have all the answers. We need to move away from thinking that everything is the responsibility of the state, and towards a new spirit of social responsibility in which we work together to empower local people and local communities. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that politicians have all the answers. Our approach should not be solely about what the Government can do. It should be about what people can do, and what society can do, because we are all in this together."

Did he mention how "to empower local people and local communities", possibly by persuading the ONS to publish local figures and an index about social and domestic cohesion? I am afraid not. It seems the Conservative leadership can't or won't make this connection.

In response to such a suggestion from Andrew Selous MP in the debate on the Statistics and Registration Bill [8th January], John Healey said:

"I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to elaborate on that point in the debate on social exclusion that will take place on Thursday........ I am sure that the point that the hon. Gentleman has made—and which he might develop in Thursday's debate—will be taken into account by the statistics board when it comes to discharge its functions."

Sadly, no Conservative MP - let alone a member of the shadow cabinet - was willing to do this. But as T.S. Eliot wrote in both the Four Quartets and in Murder in the Cathedral, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality".

10 Jan 2007

Children's centres - an opportunity for family learning?

A report by David Singleton, 10 January 2007, in Children Now draws attention to both an opportunity and a potential problem:

"Four children's centres have joined forces to dismiss Government claims about the money being spent on children's centres. The Kent-based centres spoke out after children's minister Beverley Hughes told a select committee that children's centres are being funded at around 66 per cent of the funding level associated with the original Sure Start centres (Children Now, 29 November-5 December 2006).

.......... "The figures we have seen propose that centres in Kent will have to run on close to £160,000 per annum. This compares with an average peak funding level of around £750,000 per annum for Sure Start centres."

Funding problems in children's centres were also flagged up in a major progress report published in December by the Government's spending watchdog.

The National Audit Office found that children's centres are valued by most of the families who use them, but warned that 13 per cent of centres are forecasting a financial deficit for the year. Furthermore, 52 per cent are doing no work to identify the cost or cost-effectiveness of services.

Children's centres were also shamed for not doing enough outreach work.

The report stated that fewer than a third are proactively identifying and taking services out to families with high levels of need. The Government recently revised practice guidance to state that children's centre managers must do more to get marginalised families using their services (Children Now, 6 December 2005-9 January 2006)."

Clearly Children's centres can - potentially - be an important access point for family learning services.

But how will their effectiveness be measured? Being "valued by most of the families who use them" is surely insufficient.

I believe nothing less than an acknowledgement that the measurement of change in 'social and domestic cohesion' by neighbourhood will do. Without proper evaluation, all the talk about 'respect' and ASBO's is mere rhetoric. Truancy, teenage pregnancy, abortion, out of wedlock births, the marriage/divorce ratio, domestic violence - all these are indicators of change in social and domestic cohesion, and could be expressed in a neighbourhood index.

9 Jan 2007

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

The debate about the Statistics and Registration Service Bill [8th January 2007] is interesting.

Much of the data about 'social and domestic cohesion' is already 'collected', but it is not published in a coherent form by neighbourhood with an index, whereas the other 7 indicators of deprivation do have statistics published, and an index for each. This means there is a league table for each topic for all neighbourhoods. Over time it would be possible to see which neighbourhoods are climbing out of deprivation and which are sinking into it.

There does not seem to be any good reason for suppressing the information about family breakdown. No one in the Government or on the Labour benches seems to be at all anxious to explain why 'family breakdown' is omitted, and only a very few Conservatives seem to be at all concerned. David Cameron has spoken a lot about family breakdown, but he has not - as far as I am aware - said anything about the need to publish relevant neighbourhood statistics.

Kali Mountford MP said in the debate that Andrew Selous MP "talked about understanding deprivation, and ... seemed to have already made a judgment about what [he] thought might be an underlying cause—the breakdown of family life".

Family breakdown is already one of the causes of deprivation listed at HMG's social exclusion website, so it is understandable people draw the same conclusion. Since HMG has already concluded family breakdown is one of the causes of social exclusion, it is perverse in the extreme not to try to measure it.

It would improve the services of UpMyStreet if they publish relevant statistics, indices and league tables [based on ONS figures] about deprivation by neighbourhood.

1 Jan 2007

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" - are we getting any closer to the truth about family breakdown?

Lord Skelmersdale spoke for the Conservatives in the House of Lords [21st November 2006] in the debate on the Queen's Speech. He said:

"....... That brings me on to statistics. No one who heard Her Majesty on Wednesday could have missed the laughter when she said:

“Legislation will be introduced to create an independent board to enhance confidence in Government statistics”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/11/06; col. 4.]

Statistics are at the very heart of social security. Even if a Minister thinks that it would be a good idea to change something, such as creating a new benefit, they will get nowhere without discovering what is going on now and with how many people, and how many gainers and losers there will be as a result of the proposal. My honourable friends and I have recently been trying to get to the bottom of social exclusion—a very big subject. We recognise that we cannot do so until we know exactly how many adults and children are involved. The Social Exclusion Unit, which this Government set up, lists the main causes and consequences. Statistics exist for all of them, except family breakdown. Yet, recently, in a Written Answer, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, told me:

“It is estimated that each year between 150,000 and 200,000 couples with children separate”. He will remember that, no doubt. He continued:

“This is made up of 100,000 divorces, and between 50,000 and 100,000 cohabiting relationships breaking down”.—[Official Report, 18/10/06; col. WA 191.]

That is not very helpful. Both he and I would need much better figures than those to convince a Treasury colleague to spend money on even a part of the problem. I can only hope that the new board will sort this out and, most importantly, that members of the board, not Ministers, decide what is to be subject to the proposed code of conduct and Ministers do not have a veto on their publication. Is that a pipe dream? Maybe it is, but no more than many of the aspirations underlying the legislation proposed in the gracious Speech."

In an earlier speech in the House of Commons, [25th July 2006] Andrew Selous said:

"........... My third point is the need for an index of social and domestic cohesion. That sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but the House will have an opportunity to do something about it when the Bill on the Office for National Statistics is introduced in the autumn. It is a curious fact that the social exclusion unit lists eight indicators of social deprivation, one of which is family breakdown. All the other seven indicators are reflected in the indices of deprivation published in the ONS neighbourhood statistics, but family breakdown is not. There is no reason for that omission and we could rectify it in the House in the autumn. I urge my Front-Bench colleagues and the Government to consider the matter when the Bill comes before the House."

Both Lord Skelmersdale and Andrew Selous are Shadow DWP Ministers, concerned with the issues of work and benefits. It is encouraging that they are talking about the provision of relevant statistics for family breakdown, or social and domestic cohesion, which places the issue in a broader context.

How long will it take for either the Labour Government or the Conservatives to announce a policy for improving social and domestic cohesion and reducing family breakdown?

This policy should include publishing an index and neighbourhood statistics which can be understood and used by local leaders - GP's and health visitors, school governors, parish councillors, faith and other community leaders - in order to measure local changes in social and domestic cohesion.