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Now be tough on the causes of deprivation

Shh. Can you hear the slithering of the buck when we discuss the Causes of Bad Things? It hardly matters which of society's ills we are talking about - smoking, driving while talking on a mobile phone, violence, unemployment - there is a natural progression of blame. The first stop is to condemn individuals' failings, but if that were all that were needed the previous government would have eradicated crime, not tripled it. It was one of the new Prime Minister's simplest insights to say that by looking to the causes of wickedness we do not excuse it. So we must then ask why people behave badly and try to change the way they behave - through education. If only we could teach children "the difference between right and wrong", or that drugs screw you up, or that crossing the road is hazardous, then all would be well. Jesuits have long applied the principle that if you can get to the child, you can shape the adult. But the more we pursue the causes of social ills, the clearer it is that we are on a treadmill running backwards. Secondary school is too late for sex and drugs education, so it has to be started at primary school. But primary school is too late for moral education. And much schooling effort is hindered or negated at home. Off bounces the buck: the root cause of crime and anti-social behaviour must be bad parenting.

Step forward the arch-villain of modern malaises, the Bad Parent - usually the father. Vandalism? Dad wasn't there to exert discipline. Unemployment? Dad didn't care about homework. Lone mothers? Deadbeat dads abandoned them.

At last, help is at hand. No, not a Labour government dedicated to the notion of the "strong family". We are talking about self-help (see page 3). A book, How to Succeed as a Parent, is about to be published. So all the guilty fellows lurking in the shadows need do is read and inwardly digest the handy hints and lists of dos and don'ts?

Unfortunately not. The most important advice from the book's author, Steve Chalke, is for fathers to be there. Time is the "greatest gift" a father can give to his child. But, 10 years after the breakdown of a relationship with the mother, half of all fathers have lost contact with their children. Mr Chalke does not actually attend to the real problem of parenting in broken and deprived families, but to the rather different one of the guilt of middle-class parents. Attitudes towards good parenting have gone through a revolution since the Fifties. Self-help manuals have transformed fathers' attitudes, especially since the publication of the Gospel According to Dr Spock (never mind that yesterday Dr Spock's sons revealed that the guru of touchy-feely parenthood was himself cold and distant). Nowadays it is considered compulsory, for example, for fathers to be present at the birth of their children.

Mr Chalke's advice (don't say, "I wish you'd never been born") is misdirected at parents who worry that they do not spend enough time with their children. That angst is real, and the debate about "quality time" with one's children is a serious one, but it is a world away from the problems of children who are neglected or abused by their parents - some of whom say, and mean, that they wish their children had never been born.

A survey of teenagers finds that Paul Gascoigne, Grant Mitchell and Prince Charles are "Britain's worst fathers". The blurring of distinctions between fact and fiction (Grant is a character in EastEnders, whereas Gazza and Chazza are notionally real people) is diverting, although the message is clear: they do not spend enough time with their children. One of Gazza's crimes was to have gone on a drinking spree while his wife gave birth to their son.

But the important difference is between children who have a loving relationship with their parents, but want to see more of them, and those who feel abandoned and want their parents to love them. This is where the search for the causes of so many social problems ends, and it is no wonder that the interrelated problems of crime, poverty and educational underachievement seem insoluble. We do not hear so much from Tony Blair nowadays about the "causes of crime", because so many of the paths of causation are circular. But it was encouraging that Mr Blair made his first prime ministerial speech on social policy in a south London council estate last week, because although specifics were still missing it suggested that the Government understands how a number of factors interact and reinforce each other, creating a so-called "underclass" of moral and physical deprivation.

A government cannot legislate against bad parenting, or family breakdown, but provided it is not distracted by the punitive simplicities which dictated Conservative policy it can act to break some of the cycles of despair. The issue of child-care and nursery schooling has been caught up in the middle-class guilt trap, because some have argued that children need more time with their parents (who need to work shorter hours) rather than being shunted into the care of more strangers. These are irrelevant arguments when it comes to breaking the cycle of deprivation among lone-parent families on problem estates: these children need to spend less time with their parents, and their parents (usually their mothers) need to spend less time with their children. Otherwise, lone mothers will continue to be dumped from the labour market for 16 years or more.

From 1979 we had a government which seemed to be applying sticking plaster to the symptoms of growing social problems. Now we have a Prime Minister dedicated to tackling the underlying causes. On this, rather than last week's frothy opinion-poll rating, his place in history depends.