There is no revelation in saying that you have to catch the problems early in life. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the judge who gave a teenager a prison sentence and then told her that being parted from her soon-to-be-born child would be a further punishment, we know that the life-chances of the child (the one to be born, not the mother - it's hard to distinguish in these cases) are pretty low. Her mother is too young; her grandmother has a record, and her father is, even now, spending some time in one of Her Majesty's establishments. This typical cycle condemns hundreds of thousands each year; the precise definition of the "underclass" involves not just poverty, but a disastrous continuity of underachievement from generation to generation. The emergence of an urban underclass is not just caused by poor housing and unemployment. The Americans suggest that it's largely to do with race. It may be true that the American underclass is largely black; but the roaring success of Caribbean Americans and South Asian Americans demonstrates that not all blacks are part of the underclass. Here the group is largely white.
All the reputable evidence tells us that the fundamental factor in the emergence of an underclass is parents who, for one reason or another, cannot cope with parenthood (or choose not to). I have recently had to review a decade of London Weekend Television's reporting on two issues: drugs and education. In both sets of programmes the levels of parental disregard towards their own children were staggering. Back in 1994 the mother of the two worst truants in London acknowledged that her two teenagers had not been to school in five years, but more or less said it was up to them. Another mother, confronted with the fact that her daughter had bunked off continuously in order to follow some miserable teenage band around the countryside, took a puff on her fag and philosophised: "Ah well, you're only young once." There are some parents who probably don't want to accept the responsibility of setting limits on their children's behaviour. Most of these may themselves be so young that they barely know what being an adult is; for others, however old they are, they have no model of parenting in their childhood to copy. For these people, the combination of punishment and education may work. But I would guess they are in the minority.
What worries me far more are the parents who may want to be parents, but have simply given up. Parents are supposed to protect their children. But we found 10-year-olds who had consumed more dope than most of today's rock bands, and teenagers who had run the gamut of controlled substances from amphetamines to ecstasy to heroin. No doubt, some parents take what they consider an enlightened view on this kind of thing. One Staffordshire woman, a dopehead herself, even allowed her 15-year-old to smoke cannabis on the grounds that it would keep him off heroin - proof if it were needed that dope can rot your brain. However, most children who do drugs, do it without their parents knowledge, often when they should be in school.
The truth is that many parents just turn a blind eye. Some assiduously took their children to school and delivered them through the gates. When we showed the parents film of their children, having registered, clambering over the school fences to get out during the time they should have been in lessons, they simply shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs on the issue, arguing that it was the school's business what happened after they had passed through the gates.
This is perhaps Mr Straw's greatest challenge - the parent who no longer feels responsible for the health of his or her child. Some are just negligent; others, I believe, are both physically and psychologically so intimidated by their own offspring that they lack the will to assert any authority at all. An hour spent in the homes of these families reveals a peculiar inversion, lampooned by Absolutely Fabulous, but tragically true for many underclass families. It becomes clear that it is not the parents who run the household; it is the children who, bullying, cajoling, blackmailing, threatening, exert the real control. These children, some under 10, simply terrorise their own families into submission.
Mr Straw's punishment may have a marginal effect. Time spent in any young offenders' institution will convince you that despite their often casual cruelty towards their own families, some delinquents are genuinely soppy about their mums. The threat of state-backed action against their parents may be a slight deterrent. However, there are two other steps that Mr Straw might urgently consider.
One is deadly serious. Possibly the only group of people who can spot and deal with some of our childhood terrorists effectively are child psychotherapists, who in this country are highly professional and rigorously trained. There are only a few hundred of them, perhaps because the training is long - it can take up to 10 years to become qualified - and expensive. Yet we put no state money behind them. Nor do we offer families help to pay the fees. Thus their skills are disproportionately directed at the affluent middle-classes.
Government money spent here might be dismissed as a long-term investment. Not so. These people are dealing with some of the most dangerous young individuals in our society right now, and their intervention could well avert another arson epidemic, or an attack on a pensioner this weekend. The Home Secretary, if he is serious, should talk to his colleague at Education on Monday morning.
The other step the Home Office could take if it were imaginative enough and not so terrified of being ridiculed, would be to set up a scheme for the support of parents, particularly lone mothers, who are physically incapable of restraining their own children. Few are willing to call the police - no mother wants to put her son in jail. But, today, 16-year-olds all seem to be bigger than their parents, and many are willing to use their strength - or the threat of it - to get their way.
There is a Childline for children who face the overwhelming physical power of adults. Shouldn't there be also be a hotline for the support of those parents who know that if they try to stand in their children's way, there will be a smacking - but that they will be on the receiving end, and that the punishment handed out will be more akin to a Mike Tyson assault, than a light tap on the wrist?Reuse content