Care or curfew?

7th June 1996 at 01:00
The expansion of the Prince's Trust volunteer programme may seem a more constructive response to fears of growing anomie among the young than Jack Straw's curfew proposals. But both tend to treat the symptoms rather than tackle the root causes of youthful alienation and delinquency. They are more likely to assuage the middle-aged fears of yobbery and fecklessness than to provide the security, hope, encouragement and opportunity all young people need if they are to grow into contributing citizens.

That is not to dismiss either project out of hand; it may be necessary to tackle both causes and effects. But neither is a sufficient response in itself. Rather, it underlines the depth of neglect of children and childhood, and parenting and parenthood, when the law has to be invoked to compel families to take such a fundamental responsibility, or to protect a community from its youngest members. And what does it say about our existing opportunities for education, training and personal development when the Prince of Wales has to set up a rescue operation for those who fail to realise any self-worth?

A society is entitled to have expectations about the care and control of children and about reasonable behaviour in general; no one seriously objects to prohibitions on the exploitation of minors up chimneys or down mines, or in their modern equivalents. True liberty may involve striking a balance between freedom from nuisance and the freedom to commit it. But there are plenty of grounds for scepticism that Jack Straw's home-by-nine rule for under-10s will do much to curb unruly congregations of older youngsters, let alone crime and vandalism committed during daylight hours.

Even by Tony Blair's pressure-with-support dictum - "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - it stands out as a half-measure. It might coerce a few adults into being more attentive towards young children but it offers little real help to parents - particularly single parents - struggling with child-rearing, without extended families or networks. Yet education for parenthood, or family support beyond nursery education, seem to have no place so far in Labour's vision.

Straw's curfew might boost the viewing figures for television after the nine o'clock watershed - or worse. But otherwise it offers children nothing to meet their need for exercise, social independence, friendship, role models and opportunities to improve self-esteem - if only through notoriety. These are the things children will seek on the streets, with disturbing consequences, if schools or organised youth services do not offer them extra-curricular opportunities. But so far we have heard nothing from Labour about restoring the support for this grievously eroded sector, let alone any entitlement.

The 25,000 volunteers recruited by the Prince's Trust will no doubt gain confidence and teamwork and communication skills. But how successful such community service can ever be in rescuing the deeply disaffected and unemployed is an open question, as is the likelihood that the party leaders who turned out to support the launch of the Prince's prestigious scheme have many fresh ideas themselves for reversing the economic and social causes of that hopelessness.

As one Coventry grandmother put it (page 4):"We need to let young people know we care about them having a future." Advice that parents and politicians alike should be heeding.

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