Blair keeps it in the family

Far from stepping down, Tony Blair is to launch an initiative under which the state may intervene “pre-birth” to tackle anti-social behaviour. Political editor CHRIS FISHER expects controversy to outweigh effectiveness.

The prime minister has dismissed concerns that he will go on and on. But he also has made it plain, in an interview with the Times, that he has no intention of going soon. He is intent on cementing his legacy, and has lots to do. And that includes the launching next week of what could prove a highly controversial further initiative on anti-social behaviour and problem families.

It will aim at securing early help from, or intervention by, the state. So early, indeed, that a teenage single mother could be required to receive support and guidance even before her child is born. That is the headline-grabbing element in the plan.

Trailing it on Thursday, Mr Blair told the BBC: "If we are not prepared to predict and intervene far more early, then there are children that are going to grow up in families that we know perfectly well are completely dysfunctional, and the kids a few years down the line are going to be a menace to society and actually a threat to themselves."

Stressing that action could even be taken "pre-birth", he rejected the option of steering clear and saying it wasn't an area for the government to get into. In that case, "you don't deal with the problem," he said.

He further illustrated his thinking by reference to "someone who is a teenage mum, not married, not in a stable relationship". The new initiative could or would result in an intervention by which the state would say: "Here is the support we are prepared to offer you. We do need to keep a careful watch on you and how your situation is developing because all the indicators are that your type of situation can lead to problems in the future."

These comments are liable to produce strong reactions, both for and against.

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On the 'anti' side, it will be said that they are not merely insufferably patronising and a means of stigmatising all members of substantial social groups. They will be taken as a warning of a sinister extension of 'Big Brother' state control into family and private life to secure a population more compliant with the designs and wishes of our political leaders. It will be suggested - such comments have already been made to me - that this would be a slide down a slippery slope to a eugenics strategy by which the state would decide which citizens could breed and who could not.

On the other side of the argument it will be said that Mr Blair has set out an essentially rational policy for tackling the roots of anti-social behaviour and lifestyles rather than leaving the authorities to concentrate on mopping up the messes. People supporting him will argue that there has been far too much tolerance of dysfunctional families and too much deference to 'human rights' arguments for doing nothing. In this camp, many will respond to his words with an attitude of: "About time too!"

In this field, as in many others, there are strong arguments for acting early rather than late, or for seeking prevention rather than cure. Many people do seem virtually condemned to lives of criminality, anti-social trouble-making, sponging or general uselessness by the families - or non-families - they are born into.

Teachers and teaching assistants regularly encounter children who have had so much damage done to them by the time they first go to school that it is very hard if not impossible to put them on the straight and narrow. All the good done in the school is liable to be undone as soon as the child returns home.

The behaviour of such children can make them very unattractive. But how can it be the child's fault? The blame rests primarily, one might suppose, with the parents. But what if they also had inadequate upbringings and know no better? One of the most depressing aspects of such deprivation is that it has a marked tendency to pass down through the generations.

It should also be clear enough by now that financial poverty in absolute rather than relative terms doesn't necessarily come into it strongly. Many of those commonly regarded as poor today, have clothes and electronic equipment beyond the dreams of the ordinary man not many decades ago.

There have always been problem families. But today menace seems to be driving out shame in their collective attitude. Who are you, Mr Law-Abiding Citizen, to question their behaviour? If you do, do not be surprised if you get an aggressive response.

If early intervention by the state can help such prevent anti-social behaviour and attitudes from perpetuating themselves, is there not a case for it?

Even if it were well-planned, however, it would be fraught with difficulty. And how confident can anyone be that the latest Blair initiative will have that quality. Initiative-itis and legislative incontinence are on-going features of his regime. We are deluged with schemes. Each is the biggest since the last one. And having strutted for an hour upon the stage, most of them fade away and are never heard of again.

Do not expect much of the latest bright idea from a dying premiership.

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