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Home > Politics

Young People: Guilty Till Proven Innocent

8 September 2006

There are lots of elegant Latin names for bad arguments, like 'argumentum ad hominem', attempting to discredit an opponent, rather than attacking their argument. The ethicist Levi Strauss even added a touch of humour to the list, by coining the term 'reductio ad Hitlerum', or 'Reduction to Hitler' - the common fallacy that 'Hitler or the Nazi party supported X; therefore X must be evil.'

There's another term someone should coin: 'argumentum ad hysterium'. Whatever the issue, you can bet someone will make a point that is ridiculously melodramatic and hysterical. An excellent example could be found this week in a letter to The Guardian, when a reader criticised the government's plans to intervene early in the lives of 'problem' children. A reader (in fact a professor) said that Blair 'cannot be ignorant of the policies which led to the sterilisation and ultimately extermination of antisocial groups in Germany. It could happen here if people do not protest.'

Well, it *could*, in the sense that Sara Cox *could* lead an armed uprising and install herself as life president, but it won't. Blair's plan can be criticised on a number of levels, but preparing the ground for mass exterminations is not one of them. This sort of comment makes us want to pull our hair out - it's the sort of unthinking exaggeration that dogs every debate in the UK, whether it's stem cell research ('How long before we're *forcing* women to have abortions just so scientists can do their experiments?') or bus lanes ('Apparently they want to increase the fine for driving in a bus lane. How long before it's a shoot-to-kill policy?')

The problem is that Blair invites this sort of response because of his love of tough talk, presumably with the tabloids in mind. Last week he claimed it would be possible to identify the 'nuisance' families whose children would grow up to be 'a menace to society', and that intervention in some cases could be 'pre-birth'. This week Blair was slightly more circumspect, pledging more money for child care professionals and emphasising the 'help' aspect of his proposals. Even so, he still used emotive and faintly menacing language, saying that 'instead of waiting until the child goes off the rails we should act early enough with the right help and support and discipline framework for the family to prevent it'. He also outlined fairly draconian measures, such as home visits (by social workers, presumably) for two years for the parents of children identified at birth as at risk of offending in later life.

There are a couple of problems here. Blair is talking about helping people, while at the same time demonising them. It's as though he's incapable of getting away from the tabloid agenda. When he uses expressions like 'off the rails' and 'menace to society' he's conflating the minority of youngsters who are committing serious crimes or are actually dangerous with those who are a bit of a nuisance, or just deeply troubled. It's like saying we need to screen all adults to simultaneously prevent armed robbery, parking on double yellow lines and depression.

A much bigger problem is how any of this will work. At this point it's worth mentioning the government's planned central database on children, which will surely be the machinery for monitoring children and their families. This is essentially a massive database of all children in the UK, adding new information and collating existing records held by doctors, social services, etc. Whether it will be as successful as the massively-behind-schedule and over-budget central NHS database has not been explained. Various objections to the child database have been raised. A recent Channel 4 documentary questioned its legality and effectiveness, suggesting it might actually place children at greater risk if the details of vulnerable children (and families) were accessed by, or passed on to, paedophiles. Confidence in the scheme is not exactly inspired by the fact that the details of children of the rich and famous will have a special level of protection. Hey, your child may be being stalked by a paedophile, but at least no one's holding Peaches Geldof for ransom.

But whatever the practical route to identifying the at-risk and offenders-to-be, the problem is the 'top down' nature of identifying problem children (or indeed 'children-to-be'). New Labour seems to have a love of big projects that it hasn't thought out properly. The very act of assembling information on *all* children is daunting, and it's entirely likely that any such project will end up with masses of worthless information. If a child is born to a family where a partner has a previous conviction for assaulting a child, there is obvious cause for concern. But when it comes to identifying potential criminal or anti-social behaviour, how on earth will the system work? What are the indicators? A parent or sibling with prior convictions? A single-parent household? A parent with a history of alcoholism? All of these no doubt correlate statistically with a child having problems later in life, but none automatically mean that a child is going to turn out a bad 'un. It's most likely that where children are genuinely at risk, of abuse or developing behaviour problems, social services are aware anyway. The death of Victoria Climbie was the result of incompetence, not a lack of information.

And quite apart from the issue of 'innocent until proven guilty' (older readers may remember that concept - it was quite popular in the UK a few years back) the problem seems to be that when youngsters are committing crimes, they're not being dealt with effectively until something really serious happens, as evidenced by cases where, when someone is finally convicted of a serious offence, they've got a massive string of previous cautions, ASBO-type injunctions or actual convictions. And this is exactly the situation Blair is trying to prevent.

But this is the way it seems to work with Tony Blair. Every initiative has the same trajectory. It starts with a genuine problem, for example the misery inflicted on people by anti-social behaviour caused by don't-give-a-fuck kids. Nothing is done, until the press kicks up a fuss about it, demonising all youngsters and creating hysteria. Then the government realises the existing system is failing, but instead of fixing it comes up with an ambitious master plan as a sop to the press, who are only really interested in selling papers anyway. This master plan is then roundly criticised by those who know what they're talking about, e.g., the police and social services. The plan goes through various 'consultations'. At best, it then eventually appears in a massively watered-down form, or, at worst, is quietly forgotten about.

Call us cynics, but why do we think the government's plans to intervene with 'problem' children and families isn't going to be any different?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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