Joan Smith: Children, curfews and capitalism

Who created these youngsters who are so selfish and unsocialised they make others' lives a misery?
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What kind of children will find themselves subject to the Government's proposed night-time curfews and tough new control orders? Somehow I can't help thinking that the little Joshuas, Olivers and Jessicas whose names are so popular with middle-class parents will be under-represented as Tony Blair's ministers carry out his instructions to get tough with young tearaways.

Perhaps I'm wrong and the offspring of bankers and barristers will find themselves forcibly enrolled in literacy and numeracy classes, while their mothers and fathers risk fines, or even jail, if they fail to attend parenting classes. But it seems more likely that the unruly youngsters who are to be subject to wide new powers of social control will come from poor families and attend failing state schools.

Mr Blair wants a wide range of authorities to be able to apply for parenting orders. These will allow the state to intervene in a an extensive range of behavioural problems, so that officials will be able to impose curfews, ban children from shopping centres and force parents to accept support and advice on discipline.

Controversially, and unlike the present system, which applies only to the parents of teenagers who are already subjects to Asbos or have broken the law, the new orders will be used to deal with children as young as 10 who merely display a "propensity" to get involved in anti-social behaviour.

It is all part of the Government's "respect" agenda, its attempt to tackle the problem of unruly behaviour among children before they "go off the rails". This is a genuine problem, judging by the barrage of complaints from people who say they have been terrorised by children below the age of criminal responsibility. MPs' postbags and local newspapers are full of such anecdotes, and there is no doubt that the elderly suffer disproportionately from such behaviour, or the fear of it. In that sense, and viewed in isolation from the rest of the Government's social agenda, the new measures may (like Asbos) prove popular, especially among Labour voters who live in areas of social deprivation.

They tend to worry less than the liberal intelligentsia about the erosion of civil liberties by Mr Blair's Government. Yet if the measure is successful, it's hard to see why the police wouldn't want similar orders to apply to dodgy adults; think how the crime rate would drop if the cops were able to clear the streets each evening of everyone they considered likely to commit a burglary or steal a car.

Several novels and a recent film starring Tom Cruise have examined the moral dilemmas which would face society if it were possible to predict with certainty which individuals are likely to commit murder and lock them up in advance; such ideas are still the stuff of science-fiction, but only just.

In Mr Blair's Britain, a creeping authoritarianism may have popular support but that doesn't mean we should passively accept each further step. We should be anxious, I think, about a justice system that differentiates between classes, identifying and punishing badly behaved children on council estates while trusting middle-class parents to do as they think best. Can we assume that the new parenting orders will apply, for example, to wealthy single fathers whose children dress up as Nazi SS officers and get involved in altercations with photographers? Or hereditary peers whose sons have a hard-drug habit? This is not idle speculation, for child cruelty cases demonstrate that state officials apply different standards to working-class families, having lower expectations and sometimes ignoring signals of abuse until it is too late. But it is not only the class aspect of these proposals that should concern us.

Time and time again, the Government agonises over bad behaviour without demonstrating a consistent analysis of what it is or what causes it.

Thus we have rape laws that fail to protect women, but no consistent strategy to reduce male violence; we have widespread anxiety about drunken, violent behaviour by young men in town centres, yet the laws on alcohol consumption have just been relaxed; in complete contrast we have laws which suggest that using recreational drugs is a bad thing, although ministers seem unable to make up their minds about cannabis.

Perhaps the largest unaddressed contradiction is the way in which a Government that believes whole-heartedly in faith-based initiatives appears terrified of doing anything that might inhibit the impact of no-holds-barred capitalism. Last weekend the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, intervened in the debate (for want of a better word) about the use of the word "Christmas" in greetings cards, arguing there was no need for people from other faiths to be offended by Christian usage. How much more interesting it would have been if Straw had confronted the fact that a religious festival has become the excuse for an annual orgy of consumerism, in which those of us in developed countries waste vast quantities of cash and resources on items we don't need or want.

What the Government's "respect" agenda is trying to tackle, in a piecemeal way, is the consequence of living in a culture in which identity is constructed out of continual acquisition. Every adult can see for him or herself the way even quite young children absorb the values of competitive consumerism, becoming desperate to impress their friends by possessing the most desirable brand of trainers or must-have toy. These are the values they grow up with in a world dominated by advertising and messages about instant gratification, to a point where it is possible to argue that we have become consumers first and citizens second. Now the Government proposes, in its dreadful Education White Paper, to give big business an even larger say in state schools, in return for a modest financial investment.

Mr Blair's government came to power in 1997 with promises about joined-up thinking, which struck me as a typically empty New Labour slogan. Who created these youngsters who are so selfish and unsocialised that they make other people's lives a misery? Many of them are products of a state education system which effectively selects the brightest children on the basis of class, geography, and increasingly religion, leaving the rest to struggle.

The Government's White Paper offers big business even more power and influence over young minds, while announcing with a straight face that the Prime Minister wants to tackle the root causes of antisocial behaviour. His latest proposals are worse than illiberal, a charter which will allow officials to punish poor families whose children have absorbed the solipsistic values of a grossly materialistic society.