Friday, November 17, 2006

Re-post: Tony Blair's lecture on Social Exclusion - Oct 06

From Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I wandered over to 10 Downing Street’s website to see if they do have a Customer Services desk. You can email Tony Blair, so I guess they kind of do (if you dare!) But I also found this transcript of a lecture he gave recently on Social Exclusion, which I think is of great interest to families everywhere, so I’ve dissected it and noted my thoughts on it.

I started with a plan of pulling out the salient points and responding to them one by one. This is impossible. Almost every sentence contains a salient point. I did try to read it with an open mind and from the assumption that he’s a fundamentally decent person just trying to do a good job, without any ulterior motives. You may think this approach to be a naïve one and you may well be right, but it seemed fairer than starting from an established cynical viewpoint. I managed to suspend my disbelief in this respect until about three-quarters of the way through.

I actually found myself liking some of what I read. Thinking about, for example, a young child whose parent(s) are alcoholics, and/or drug addicts and therefore who are incapable of engaging with him/her and providing for their emotional needs, I think something does need to be done. But I disagree with him about the solution to the problem. He’s right when he says these issues are inherited and do go back generations in some families.

But I think they need to look deeper to find the cause. Why do some people need to get ‘off their face’ on drugs or drink, even after they have children? I think it’s because sober reality is too painful for them. They’re scared of it because it hurts. What’s gone wrong to put so many people in that situation? TB thinks too little state intervention. I think too much, of the wrong sort. Rejection and/or abandonment by parents is the most hurtful thing that can happen to a child, and state intervention (including forced schooling) encourages this to happen, in my view.

I think the school system detaches parents from their children emotionally and the child grows up cut adrift from its roots, and less able to bond properly with other people and with its own children. Yes, it’s a problem that goes back generations and gets worse every time (exacerbated by the latest idea that all mothers should be in full-time employment within the first few weeks of their child’s birth) so that nowadays we have some parents who are incapable of supplying their young children’s emotional needs, but how is a daily visit from a health visitor going to help that? Or a family support unit that imposes regular mealtimes and bedtimes? Strangers, strangers - always paid, professional strangers. People who don’t care, will never care, can’t really care. The only people who can care are family and neighbours. Yes, the answer is social cohesion but you don’t get that by more state intervention. You get it with less state intervention.

Onto what he actually says, and my thoughts on it. I tried to cut it down to snippets but as I said at the start, it’s not easy.

‘early intervention is crucial if we are to tackle social exclusion’

Scary, Orwellian terms. Early intervention. Does this mean: “We’re going to take your babies away from you?” It sounds like that.

‘I am not talking about "baby ASBOs", trying to make the state raise children, or interfering with normal family life.’

No, if you manage to qualify as being a ‘normal family’, you will be left alone – thank goodness. I searched the essay for any signs that single parents were going to be targeted and I don’t think I found any, though I’m not 100% sure ( – see further on, about Income Support.) But if you want to keep the professionals at bay you had better avoid any drug, alcohol, criminal or mental health problems and you had better keep your children out of the Care system. Open season is to be declared on teenage mothers, if it hasn’t already started. There is talk of the ‘least advantaged 5%’ – so poor families are on the list for receiving attention, but I got the impression this was of a lower priority than the other categories, though it could be a smokescreen. Also, what’s their definition of ‘least advantaged’? If it's a purely financial term, we might have more to worry about that it first appears.

‘A cash transfer, at least on it’s own, is not what is needed.’

On this point I agree. My family is living proof that you can bring children up quite successfully on a very low income with no intervention of any kind – early or late. Because of my own experience, I know that the problems to which he refers do NOT have a financial cause.

‘The vast majority offered help, take it.’

Offered? Does he know what he’s saying? Social Services come to the door demanding admittance and an interview with children and this constitutes ‘offering help’? The vast majority offered help, feel like they have no power to refuse it would probably be a more truthful way to put it. Perhaps TB really doesn’t understand this.

Having said it’s not about money he then goes on for paragraphs about what New Labour has done to improve the financial position for so many families, etc blah blah. So is it about money? Isn’t it about money? This is very confusing.

‘And we have acted to improve public services for the least well-off, especially early in their lives. Beveridge's stated ambition was care from cradle to grave. In fact the welfare state more or less disappeared after childbirth until it was time for primary school. We have begun the process of filling in the gap.’

This is where they really start to scare me. The reason why the welfare state backed off after birth is because this is the time for parents to bond with their children. The care of young children was seen as the job of the parents even then. TB seems to be implying that this is no longer the case.

‘The Sure Start programme; the expansion of early years education, into which £17 billion has been invested during our time in government; free learning and childcare for 3 and 4 year-olds, which will be extended to an entitlement of 15 hours a week, for 38 weeks a year, by 2010; we are piloting extending this provision to 12,000 disadvantaged 2 year-olds at the moment; by 2010 there will be 3,500 Children's Centres offering education, health and parenting services all on the same site.’

Free learning? This makes me laugh. Free learning for a young child means spending its time with its mother. Shopping, cooking, reading, talking, being with its mother. Just living. Why do we need Sure Start centres to facilitate or to somehow replace this? And - £17 billion???? That’s serious cash. They’re not going into this parent-replacement programme half-heartedly, are they?

‘But it is precisely because of the success that we have had that the persistent exclusion of a small minority now stands out. About 2.5 per cent of every generation seem to be stuck in a life-time of disadvantage and amongst them are the excluded of the excluded, the deeply excluded.’

- Meaning, one assumes, those of us who refuse to be replaced in our young children’s lives by a Sure Start centre. Which, I gather from reading recent reports about the scheme’s uptake, has been most of us up to press.

‘Their poverty is, not just about poverty of income, but poverty of aspiration, of opportunity, of prospects of advancement.’

Poverty of aspiration? So it’s not OK to be content with things the way they are. To keep in with the powers-that-be, (and therefore to be sure of raising our children without forced intervention) we have to constantly seek to improve our positions? I take this to mean we have to try to make more money. Being happy to have ‘enough’ is not good enough. You have to want more. This does seem to epitomise Blairite thinking, and if I was a megalomaniac I’d be tempted to try to impose some early intervention on the poor children of this obvious, deep, social malaise.

And here’s the key phrase, the essence of the plan:

‘In social exclusion we are also talking about people who either may not want to engage with services or do not know how to. Our universal services are all predicated on the assumption that people want them and know how to get them. It is not always a safe assumption.’ [my underlining]

= Families are not asking for help and some are even refusing it. This is where the ideas stray into Nazi-type territory. A fundamental component of a ‘free country’ has to be the freedom of individuals to deal with their perceived problems in their own way. If the ideas set out in this transcript become reality, that personal freedom will no longer exist for any of us.

‘It costs about £110,000 a year to keep a child in residential care. And there is very little relationship between spending and outcomes.’

£110,000 a year??? How? How do they spend so much money? It costs me about a 70th of this amount to feed, clothe and house each of my children. One 70th!! And I do a fine job. The State is being ripped off. No wonder taxes are so high.

‘There has been great progress in our ability to spot the risk factors associated with subsequent anti-social behaviour. We also know a lot more about how to protect people against these risks. The protective factors are not surprising - affectionate families, adequate attention from parents.’

This is the best paragraph in the document. It’s music to my ears. They know that the real solution is affectionate families and attentive parents – so why seek to intervene more in this matter? *Bangs head against wall.*

‘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.’

Hmmmm. “Children from the 5 per cent of the most disadvantaged households..” I wonder if we’re talking about those families (mostly single parents) who have declined the offer of Working Family Tax Credit and opted to stay on Income Support instead. The difference for the family in real terms between the two is about £15 per week which is soon eaten up by associated costs like snacks, work clothes etc., so there isn’t actually a difference at all. But on paper it might be enough for an excuse to ‘intervene’. Maybe I’m being paranoid.

‘Again for example, midwives and health visitors already routinely screen and visit new born children - though at present the middle classes tend to ask for, and therefore get, more follow-up help.’

Middle classes ask for follow-up “help”? Really? I’d like to see the statistical basis for this statement.

‘Under the new arrangements, health visitors and midwives will seek to identify those most at risk, most simply by asking young parents or parents to be about difficulties they may be having, or about their own background. This can be supplemented by information from other public services, where we need to break down barriers to sharing data.’

Here’s the meat of the plan. In practical terms, as I’ve blogged earlier, seemingly innocuous conversations with health visitors and midwives will (if they're not already) be designed to seek and provide the information needed by the State to force ‘early intervention’ on some families. We will all need to be increasingly careful about what we say to these people.

‘The vision is opportunity and freedom for all.’

Freedom? Someone give him a dictionary. Actually – no, don’t. He’ll have it rewritten.

posted by Gill at 10:03 PM 5 comments


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