Nip it in the bud

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Antisocial behaviour can be turned around with early intervention. Successive governments have known this, they just don't want to spend the money, says Oliver James

More than 30 years ago, Sir Keith Joseph called for measures to break the "cycle of deprivation". Successive home secretaries have proposed identifying and helping the small minority of children (6 per cent) who go on in later life to commit more than half of crimes. Your current ultra-troublesome secondary pupils could have been predicted at age three with 80 per cent accuracy.

Whether they will subsequently become a convicted criminal could have been predicted at age seven in three-quarters of cases. So what has been done, what should be done and will Gordon Brown do it?

Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, exhorted us recently to remind ourselves what life was like in 1997, to "think back. No, really think back". I can recall my high hopes only too clearly. I attended bi-monthly lunches with Jack Straw from soon after his arrival at the Home Office, and he was well aware of the potential for prevention, like his successors. Not nearly enough has been achieved.

The main predictors of which seven-year-olds become criminal are: low IQ and income, behaviour problems, and having a convicted parent who is not good at child-rearing, typically showing lack of warmth to the child and using erratic punishment.

At the age of 32, they are also the most likely to drink, smoke heavily and take drugs, to be promiscuous without using contraception, have tattoos, gamble and have unstable employment patterns.

It's been a no-brainer for decades that if you put the money in early on to support the families that cause these antisocial folk, you will save a fortune later, in terms of grief as well as cash.

Gordon Brown can justifiably point to a reduction in child poverty as preventing a lot of future crime. Thatcher's policies increased the proportion of poor children (from 19 per cent in 1979 to 31 per cent in 1981), creating 17,000 extra violent males a year. However much one may cavil at the increasing gap between rich and poor during Brown's exchequership, the reduction in the number of poor children (albeit limited) was along the right preventive lines.

More debatable has been the conversion of the Sure Start programme into a giant creche. Although never said on the record, New Labour grandees will say privately that the (often single, often young) mothers of the poorest infants and toddlers are frequently too emotionally disturbed or disadvantaged by their own upbringing to be good parents. It's seen as win-win to get them back to work if their kids get decent care, and the mums are cheered up by not being at home and not penniless. And that's not to mention the savings in the benefits bill.

As prevention, this would work better if the substitute care on offer was one to-one, rather than the group daycare that has proved potentially damaging. Funny how hardly any of the grandees use group daycare for their nippers (they have nannies), but when it comes to forking out for our most disadvantaged children, the degree of care provided by a nanny is too expensive.

Equally important could have been parenting classes. Done well, they provide a golden opportunity for parents to share problems and solutions. They can be especially helpful where the parent realises the degree to which their pattern of nurture reflects what they received themselves.

Alas, haphazard funding means no guarantee of a class near you. Likewise parenting support in the home, such as Home-Start, and programmes designed to change antisocial behaviour in the child. At their best, according to a meta analysis of 200 behaviour programmes, these can reduce criminality by 40 per cent in the most damaged children. But there is no systematic provision to ensure the availability of good programmes everywhere.

The political mood music has been "prevention, prevention" for more than 30 years. What a shame more has not been achieved in the past 10, a period of affluence that may come to be looked back on as a one-off golden opportunity.

Are there any voters who would not have preferred giving a higher spending priority to prevention programmes than to invading Iraq or the forthcoming pound;20 billion upgrade for the Trident missile system? Hello Gordon, can you still hear me or has the line gone dead?

Oliver James is the author of Affluenza How to be successful and stay sane. The second edition of his They F*** You Up How to survive family life is out now See page 39, What triggers tension?


Predictors of crime: Farrington, D.P., 1995, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 360, 929-64; Scott, S., 1998, BMJ, 316, 202-6.

Recent government paper on prevention: Respect Action for Parents, 2006, Home Office.

17,000 extra violent men: James, O.W., 1995, Juvenile Violence in a Winner Loser Culture (Free-Association Books).

Latest group daycare evidence: Belsky, J et al, 2007, Child Development, 78. 681-701.

Meta-analysis of behaviour programmes: Loeber, R. et al, 1998, Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention, 7(1), 7-30.

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