Many of those who took part in the riots that shook London and other English cities in
August 2011 were children and young teenagers. For Prime Minster David Cameron and many opinion-formers, the blame lies with a lack of parental responsibility. “The question people asked over and over again”, Cameron asserted, “was ‘where are the parents?’” — the implication being that parents weren’t at home, didn’t care, or had lost control. The answer for the Government, therefore, is intervention into the 120,000 most “troubled families”, who, it is claimed, are responsible for terrorising neighbourhoods and cost the state an estimated £9bn a year of extra spending on the NHS, policing and social services.
To tackle this problem, the government has set up a Troubled Families Unit, headed by New Labour’s former ‘respect tsar’ Louise Casey. This includes plans for a network of ‘troubleshooters’ who will act as a single point of call to help ‘empower’ families to “take control of their lives”, drawing-up action plans for basics tasks such as ensuring children arrive at school on time and are fed, and helping parents on to work programmes. Families that refuse to co-operate could face benefit sanctions, the removal of their children from their care, eviction from their homes, or ASBOs.
Cameron’s plans synchronise existing family intervention strategies begun under the previous New Labour government, designed to prevent young people from becoming criminals. However, not only did these strategies fail to prevent young people from rioting, but some question whether the intrusion of officialdom into the family may be partly responsible for the inability of many parents to control the behaviour of their children in the first place: discouraging parents from disciplining their children and often inadvertently undermining parental authority. In addition, adults more generally have become reluctant, or even afraid, to intervene in instances of youthful anti-social behaviour. And when even the police stand back and allow youth to loot and burn down their own neighbourhoods, isn’t it disingenuous for the government to simply assign the blame to poor parenting?
Others think Cameron’s response to the riots is not so much harmful as pointless. For them, the coalition is in denial of the real problems, which are mainly of a wider socio-economic nature: unemployment, police brutality, and racism.
So have family intervention policies been harmful, useless, or not gone far enough? And will a new network of ‘troubleshooters’ help restore parental responsibility or make matters even worse?
Guest Chair: Mark Wanstall, a lecturer in Childhood Studies at Leeds Beckett University