One-parent families 'are crime red herring': Poverty and stress are more likely to cause delinquency, expert says

AN OBSESSION with family structure is the wrong way to tackle rising crime, an expert warned yesterday.

Despite statements by academics and right-wing politicians, connections between one-parent families and deliquency were not consistent, David Utting, of the Family Policy Studies Centre told the Families, Children and Crime conference, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Independent on Sunday.

A recent analysis of 50 US and British studies showed that children whose parents were divorced were 10-15 per cent more likely to become delinquent than children from two-parent homes. But the deliquent acts were usually under-age smoking, drinking and truancy rather than serious crime.

Another American study showed that adult offending was actually twice as common among boys from unhappy intact homes as those raised singly by an affectionate mother.

'Discord between parents - whether living together or apart - should be seen as one of many stress factors which affect the ability of parents to give children. . . care and affection,' Mr Utting said. Low income and poor living conditions were also crucial.

Mr Utting argued for more community projects to improve parenting skills and support families. But he added these would be of limited value if nothing was done to alleviate poverty and other external stresses.

Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary, supported the position. He told the conference that while young people had their own responsibility to lead law-abiding lives, society had a responsibility to improve their chances of development.

But Mr Utting's call for more parenting projects was rejected by David Willetts MP, former director of the right- wing Centre for Policy Studies, who said they had yet to prove their effectiveness.

'We need to socialise people - to tie them into rules they observe and that guide their behaviour,' Mr Willetts insisted. He said it was no coincidence that Switzerland and Japan, which had strong social codes, also had low crime rates.

The criminal justice system also had to become more 'comprehensive and vivid' to young 'impulsive and unintelligent' criminals. It had to become more 'fast track' with the shortest time between crime and punishment.

Mr Willetts claimed that while the quality of family life was important, it was silly to ignore the fact that children with two parents were less likely to commit offences than children with one.

The authors, Bea Campbell and Angela Phillips, said the debate on the family and juvenile crime virtually ignored the fact that most crimes were committed by males.

Ms Phillips, author of The Trouble with Boys, said: 'Why does nobody ever ask why it is that so few women, living in exactly the same unemployment, the same bad housing and cared for by the same lone mother as their male peers, end up in prison?'

Ms Campbell, author of Goliath: Britain's Dangerous Places, claimed the crime committed by young men on Britain's deprived estates was a celebration of masculinity.

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