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Feckless or floundering?

Over the centuries, innumerable strategies have been devised to deter the young from criminality and delinquency. We have tried execution and excommunication, boot camps and holiday camps. There have been psychological, sociological and criminological studies by the score. But no one has yet established beyond question what the causes or solutions are.

Last year, Professor Sir Michael Rutter of London University's Institute of Psychiatry published a panoramic study, revealing that since the Second World War there has been a dramatic rise in psychosocial disorders, such as depression and criminality, among children and teenagers across the western world. However, even he was unable to offer firm conclusions about causation. The possible factors he cited included rising expectations encouraged by education, the increasing autonomy and isolation of adolescents, and high levels of family discord. Poverty was another cause, but not the most important.

However, the confirmation that we know less about youth crime and disaffection than we think has not interrupted the constant flow of "solutions". This week we have two more: the Audit Commission's proposal that parents of young offenders should pay compensation to their victims, and Gillian Shephard's plan to allow grant-maintained schools to set up their own pupil-referral units in competition with those run by local authorities. The latter does not merit the attention it has already received, although some local authorities, resentful at having to find places for children excluded from GMS schools, may welcome this particular form of competition. The "market" cannot solve problems of this kind, and neither this scheme, nor Wandsworth's notion of providing the parents of disaffected and excluded pupils with vouchers, will make any appreciable impact.

The Audit Commission's idea of visiting the sins of the son on the father - and mother - is more interesting, even though it is obviously not the best method of dealing with problems that originate in low-income, single-parent and abusive homes. Neither is it original. British courts can in theory already make parents responsible for any fines imposed on 10 to 17-year-olds, and the former education secretary, John Patten, promoted the idea of creating a new offence - "failure to prevent child crime" - during his stint in the Home Office in the late 1980s. More recently, 18 US states have passed laws to ensure that parents are penalised for their children's offences. Parents in Oregon can be fined up to $1,000 if their child violates a curfew, and one South Carolina judge attracted worldwide notoriety by ordering that a mother and daughter be shackled together for a month.

The Audit Commission's philosophy is slightly less punitive. While favouring a tougher approach to feckless or wilfully negligent parents, it also wants to see more advice centres for floundering families and more parenting classes for young adults before they start families. This is hardly a new concept either, but as youth crime now costs Britain an estimated Pounds 7 billion a year and the tally of human misery is even greater, it is time that such proposals were taken much more seriously and acted upon. Although so much is open to conjecture, one thing we do know is that the art of successful child-rearing has become even harder now that extended families have been swept away by the tide of social and occupational change. Government - and the whole of society - must therefore give parents their support or be prepared to live with the consequences. As the founder of the National Children's Bureau, the late Mia Kellmer Pringle, once said: "Just as the country gets the government it deserves, so I believe it gets the children it deserves."

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