Do rioters just need a good smack?

First published in Huffington Post

For those of you who are still wondering what was really behind those riots that shocked the nation last summer, we now have a new explanation. It’s nothing to do with the gaping ‘social deficit’ described by David Cameron, or a “feral underclass” of state dependents, described by Kenneth Clarke, secretary of state for justice. No, it was smacking, or rather the absence of smacking that caused it all.

So says David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where it all started. Well, at least that is what he was initially reported as saying. To be fair he makes some very important points that have been conspicuous by their absence until now. People “no longer feel sovereign in their own homes” he argues, as the state invites itself in. The Children Act of 2004 removed the right of parents to impose “reasonable chastisement” on their children, instead barring them from inflicting anything that might result in a “reddening of the skin”. For many of his constituents, he says with an eye for the racial-bias in this formulation, “this isn’t really an issue”.

The anti-smacking lobby have been out in force, chastising those who dare to suggest that a smack is just a smack. While a spokesman for the NSPCC thinks Lammy’s comments “misleading and unhelpful” and argues for a ban just to clear up any ambiguity; according to Professor Terence Stephenson of the Royal College of Paediatrics “all too often today’s smack becomes tomorrow’s punch.” Why? Because he says so. Nevertheless, the more thoughtful of Lammy’s critics at least understand what lurks behind the smacking debate. Dreda Say Mitchell, in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free, argues “it’s the shying away from adult responsibilities that’s one of the real causes of antisocial behaviour in children.”

“Corporal punishment has been bubbling under the parenting debate for a while” says Zoe Williams“and, as it bursts out, it has taken the liberal left by surprise.” As one of its number, she goes on to ask where should the line be drawn then, “Significant bruising? Hairline fractures?” Which rather misses the point. It’s not where the line is drawn so much as who draws it.

While Lammy’s comments are a welcome challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy that seeks to deny parents their autonomy vis-à-vis the state, pointing to the very different experiences of working class families subject to its interventions; there is something profoundly unsatisfactory about the terms of the debate. It’s hard to know who to despair of the most, the meddling medics and so-called liberals who presume to know better than parents how to raise their children; or the politicians and commentariat who can’t seem to get beyond such mundane matters. Yes, adult authority is in crisis and the anti-smackers could do with a well deserved slap for doing their bit to undermine it. But, in itself, whether or not parents smack their children tells us precisely nothing about the riots.

No justice for yoof?

The Youth Justice Board (YJB), under recent threat of abolition, was saved like the NHS and the benefits system before it, by the politically appointed of the Lords and the self-appointed of the commentariat. But, putting that to one side, the threat has brought to the surface an ongoing conflict in youth offending circles: should they be concerned most with criminal justice or with the ‘rights’ and welfare of children?

Rod Morgan, a former chairman of the YJB, has expressed his hopes that the reprieve will embolden it in its ‘progressive’ mission. But what does this mean? Particularly now, after the riots. Is it true that the fundamental problem facing society today is a lack of concern for the ‘rights’ of children and a neglect of their welfare? We are surrounded by such concerns. And yet, while critics are right to condemn the knee-jerk incarceration of young rioters – apparently increasing the already shockingly high number of children in detention by 8% – this has less to do with hostility to children’s welfare than with an absence of adult authority.

Regardless of whether or not we are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the legitimacy of which should be in question – what is of greater concern is the lashing out by a society, and its institutions, as they lose their grip on the morals and the behaviour of the young. Mark Johnson, a ‘rehabilitated offender and former drug user’ now heading up the charity User Voice, argues ‘there is no other way to access the lives and minds of the marginalised than by utilising the skills of those who have been there too’. Similarly, an advocate of ex-offenders going into schools says: ‘The corridors are intellectually bankrupt on this issue but the cells have more than enough wisdom to confront it’.

While I’m no fan of the punitive and regard myself as a progressive, is it really the case that the youth justice system and society at large have so lost faith in their ability to hold the line, that only ex-cons have any authority over young people these days? What’s progressive about that?

How about letting communities build themselves in 2012?

First published in Independent

Communities took quite a hammering in 2011. There were the riots, of course, in which the opportunism of the apologists for them among the commentariat was more than a match for the rioters themselves. Instead of an honest appraisal of what went on, there were shameless projections of prejudices onto those actually quite unprecedented events. I even found myself in the unusual situation of agreeing with Theresa May when she said the rioters ‘weren’t trying to make any political or social statement; they were thieving, pure and simple’. But even before the riots, those self-same commentators had been anticipating the damage to come from economic crisis and the government’s austere response to it. From rough sleeping, to wife-beating and rioting, no doubt, communities would begin to descend into all manner of deprivation and depravity, we were told. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned early in the year that ‘fortunes may nosedive’ for the poorest as community-builders lost their foothold (not to mention their livelihoods).

More recently, as the well and truly hammered were being picked up by the seasonal booze bus, the emptying out of the high street (of shoppers at least) met with dire warnings. Mary Portas, author of a government-commissioned report on the subject, talked of how they would ‘give a sense of belonging and trust to a community’ if only they could be revived. As if to confirm that all may not be lost, the organisers of Britain in Bloom (the UK’s largest voluntary campaign), reported that their tens of thousands of amateur gardeners still ‘built strong communities’. Nevertheless, the government’s flagship Big Society seems to have sunk without trace, living on only in a tiresome spat about cuts to public services and the voluntary sector; and in ongoing complaints, most recently by the public administration select committee (does anyone actually know what that is?) Without a Big Society minister, the select committee concluded, how could they (or we?) build a Big Society?

In its absence, Baroness Hanham rather pinned her hopes on the Localism Bill currently passing through the House of Lords. She thought it might help bring an end to a public sector culture that has ‘fostered dependency, with top-down targets, smothering bureaucracy and heavy-handed guidance’. But I continued to wonder whether localism – a creed that ‘attracts support across the political divide’ according to Hanham – was ever really going to make a difference. The consensus that localism is a good thing had done nothing to rebuild communities to date, and there was little reason to believe that more of the same would do any better. Having said that, I welcomed the deputy prime minister’s ‘very serious offer of more economic freedom and more political freedom’ to the nation’s core cities. There is a world of difference between advocating better local democracy and greater autonomy for cities and resorting to the petty parochialism that only tends toward a dismembering of the body politic.

Our communities, after all, are not blighted by distant political structures, redundant community-builders or deserted high streets, anymore than they were brought to ruin by the seasonally inebriated, horticulturally indifferent or riotously uncivil. They continue to stumble along despite community-worriers’ diminished view of their members as dependent, incapable of running their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. Perhaps instead of hammering communities into submission, we might be best to leave them to build themselves in 2012?

The riots? I blame the parenting industry

Yesterday evening, I attended a debate at the Palace of Westminster, organised by Family Law in Partnership and Researching Reform. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find much to agree with. Supporting families after the riots and the role of family law would, surely, just be another opportunity to blame the apparently 120,000 ‘problem families’ for the summer’s riots.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear Elaine Halligan, Director of the Parent Practice, argue that there is too much ‘parent bashing’ these days. We need to get beyond the ‘blame culture’ she said . Many of those young people rioted ‘despite rather than because of their upbringing’. Sadly, and rather incongruously, what at first sounded like a defence of parents turned into its opposite. There is a ‘crisis in parenting’, said Halligan, and we ‘need to help parents become good role models’. They need a ‘comprehensive package of support’. All of them. Sue Atkins, the BBC’s parenting expert, agreed. It is not just poor parents who are, well, poor parents. Parent classes are spoken of as if they are ‘akin to therapy’, she argued, when really they’re just about ‘coaching’ parents.

So they’re all pretty clueless. Atkins didn’t say as much but she may as well have done. Why else would she want to challenge the ‘taboo’ against parenting classes? If only they were taboo, I thought to myself, it would be a sign that parent’s retain at least a modicum of self-respect. And I wouldn’t have to sit through this depressingly familiar mantra. Tis a strange taboo that can be uttered so freely ad infinitum and provoke such consensus. So there were lots of nodding heads on the panel, and around the room, about the importance of instilling confidence in parents so that they can be more effective role models for their children. There was no end of agreement that yet more parenting interventions are definitely the way to go, but this must be ‘free from finger-pointing’ of course.

The idea that parents need to be counselled or coached in their relationship with their children is an insult. As I tried to argue, being a parent is a relationship not a practice or technique to be learned from so-called experts. To the extent that parenting had anything to do with the riots, it is the parenting industry not parents who we should be pointing our fingers at. Parenting classes don’t build the esteem of parents or make them any better at rearing their children. Quite the opposite. These sorts of interventions can only undermine parents confidence in themselves, and their children’s confidence in them. There isn’t a stigma about parenting classes, but there bloody well should be. I didn’t say that last sentence. I was trying not to get any more worked up than I already was. I tripped over my words as I struggled to know what to say. I didn’t know who to be more angry at: District Judge Nicholas Crichton, who wondered out loud ‘why did the almighty make the feckless the most fertile’? Or his fellow panellists who must have thought this an outrageous thing to say. They’re all feckless, aren’t they?

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector

First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat