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Speech Archive

"Speech on improving parenting", Watford 2005

Tony Blair (Labour)

Location: Watford

Thank you very much everyone, thank you for coming along, and it is good to be back here in Watford again and to say to you all that I know this is an important area, and to thank many of you who I know have been working very hard in trying to make a difference here.

Perhaps before I begin my speech, I hope you will forgive me if I just say a word about the events that have happened in America recently. The whole of this country feels for the people of the Gulf coast of America who have been afflicted by what is a terrible, terrible natural tragedy, and we want to express our sympathy and our solidarity and give our prayers and thoughts to the people who are affected by what has happened out there on the Gulf coast. And as I said to the President yesterday, this country will stand ready to help in any way that we can. But I know that people, particularly people who will know from this country, know people in that area, will feel for them very deeply at this time.

Now I would also like to say just before I begin my prepared speech, that I had a meeting just earlier today with parents who for a variety of reasons and in a variety of different ways, had taken up help with parenting, and I think the first thing to say, although the seam of this is about the Respect agenda, antisocial behaviour, crime, how we tackle it, is to say that the issue of parenting is something that affects, well it affects anybody who has ever been a parent, and I always say to people that the job of Prime Minister is difficult, and sometimes I think the job of Home Secretary is worse, which is why you are doing it Charles, but the job of being a parent is difficult, whoever you are and whatever your situation. And that is partly because the stresses and strains of modern life are greater, we have more pressure on us to try and balance work and family life, it is because our children tend, in ways sometimes that we don't want, to grow up a lot earlier than kids did when I was young, and although there are many benign influences in our society, there are a lot of malign ones as well - the dangers of alcohol abuse or drug taking, the difficulty when kids start associating with other kids who are leading them astray and so on. Being a parent is not easy, being a child is not easy in our society today, and when we talk about this issue we talk about it with that very much in mind.

And one other thing I wanted just to say at the outset as well is that we acknowledge a responsibility in government to deal with both parts of this agenda. Now there is a tough part to it and a law enforcement part, but it is also a part that is about support, it is about programmes like Sure Start, it is about developing proper childcare help for people, it is about the New Deal for communities, it is about investing in facilities for young people, trying to encourage young people to take up sport and so on, and making sure that there are things for them to do in their local communities.

Now the absence of all those things doesn't excuse people behaving badly, but I think if we are sensible about this we recognise that creating the right infrastructure of support and facilities and things and amenities that people can use in their community, is actually an important part of tackling this issue.

But we have called this agenda Respect, and it is something that has been very close to my heart for a long time, before I became leader of the Opposition, never mind Prime Minister, and what it is about is really this, it is about how we change not just the law, but the culture of our country to put the law abiding majority back in charge of their local communities. Antisocial behaviour, in particular violent crime, remains at the top of the public's concerns, and rightly so, from petty vandalism and binge drinking, through to serious drug and gun crime, there are aspects of life today in Britain that are completely unacceptable. We are not alone in these problems and the roots sometimes go very, very deep, but there is no cause or justification for defeatism, for saying there is nothing we can do about this.

Now we should first of all dispose of two myths in this area. One is that the news on crime is all bleak. It isn't, and there is fantastic work being done by the police, by community support officers, by local communities to tackle crime. Since 1997 indeed crime is down, car crime and burglary, by over 40%, and that is the first period of government since the war in which this has been the case.

A lot of the difficulties arise, as you will know, and you have probably read a lot of the statistics on crime, and it gets immensely confusing, one, because you have got the British Crime Survey, which is the measurement of the public's concern about crime and recorded crime, which is the crime the police actually record. Those are two different sets of statistics, they have become very confusing to people, and then just to confuse the position even more, the police for very sensible reasons have actually changed the basis of recording crime and so you have got often three sets of figures going at the same time. Now it is difficult therefore sometimes for people to make sense of this picture, and in addition it is very important to emphasise that if you are a victim of crime, it doesn't much matter what the statistics say, it is your own personal feelings and the affront to your own dignity and your own quality of life that matters to you, rather than whether you are subtracted or added to a set of statistics. But it is worth just pointing that out. The news is not all bleak. Crime has actually fallen, and recorded crime, in particular in relation to violent crime, again if you look at the statistics domestic violence and rape has increased. Actually the overwhelming probability is that because the police are encouraging now people to come forward on domestic violence cases, then they are recording more of it, but it doesn't mean to say that there is actually more of it happening, but they are recording more of it and that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

However, the point is not about statistics, it is about perception and too often an ugly reality that makes people fearful and angry about the small minority who make life hell for the decent majority.

The second myth, if I can say this, is that the government or the police and the authorities have just been sitting on their hands for the past few years. Actually we have acted time and time again to try and give the police and others the powers that they need. It was the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act that introduced Antisocial Behaviour Orders. Now they have been up-dated again and again and streamlined as we need to make improvements, but it was parenting orders and acceptable behaviour contracts, again introduced in 1998, and then there was fresh legislation for fixed penalty notices and for other ways of ensuring that there was proper and immediate action on antisocial behaviour that were introduced in the 2003 legislation. For example there are almost 100,000 fixed penalty notices that have been issued over the past few years. We used to have problems for example with gangs of youths on street corners, and still do in many parts of the country, but again there were dispersal orders introduced in order to deal with this. So powers to close down houses used by drug dealers, powers to deal with things like graffiti, and vandalism, and fly posting and so on, all of this has been introduced, you have got extra numbers of police and extra numbers of community support officers, and there are real examples, and I have seen some myself, of success.

It is important to realise that again, it is not that the whole thing is hopeless, and some of the people I met earlier today are people that have turned their own lives and their community's life around as a result of the changes that have been made. But - and it has got to be a big but - the fact is there is a huge amount still to do, and we know that. And though it is true that new powers have been given to police and local communities, and police numbers are at a record high, and some things are improving, there are still far too many communities which continue to live in fear, and far too many examples, some well publicised, some unknown, of what I would call gross and random acts of violence that shock, not just by their consequences for the victim, but by what they say about the culture and psychology of the lawless minority in our community.

And when I said at the outset that we needed to change our culture as well as our law, let me explain what I mean by that. At the root of this is not just a set of individual acts of violence or antisocial behaviour, the reason why I call it a Respect agenda is this. It is not criminal acts that are bad in themselves, although of course they are, it is what they cumulatively indicate, which is a disrespect for other people, for their rights, for the community, when communities can only work by rules of civil conduct that everyone is prepared to accept, by give as well as take, and crucially by respect for other people. That is the only way that we make things work. And the importance of the family in this is that it is in the family that we first have to come to terms with the idea of give and take and respect for other people, and making sure that you take some account of the other person as well as yourself. And I know this may sound trivial, but I don't think it is, at its lowest level it is actually just about good manners to other people, and behaving properly towards other people and showing them some respect, and at its worst level of course it is complete indifference to anything other than yourself, when you have got drug dealers in the street, or people getting violent after taking too much drink and alcohol, or a total disregard for the effect your behaviour has on the lives of others. And in confronting and changing that culture, which again I stress is that of a minority, not a majority, new laws can't do it all, in the end they only deal with consequences, but they can signal a new approach and a new determination on the part of the majority that it is time to reassert ourselves.

In turn however I believe this only happens if the criminal justice system and its culture also changes. And here is where I want to say something, and I think people may find it difficult but I believe is fundamental to trying to tackle this, the criminal justice system that we have in this country still asks first and foremost, how do we protect the accused from potential transgressions of the state or the police? That is the attitude that the criminal justice system has at its heart, is really that. And I think the first question should be: how do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority? In other words, I put that question round the other way, and a criminal justice system that is not doing the latter, in other words protecting the majority and protecting their right to have respect from other people when they are showing that respect towards them is a criminal justice system that isn't in fact just, and that is the problem that we have.

Now what that means is sending a series of not just new laws, but signals, across the system that makes it clear that that is the way things are going to be. Now what the government is trying to do is to introduce a whole series of things that will go to help this.

One is for example with the new Serious and Organised Crime Agency that will come into being next year that will try and put a whole system, a new system in place to try and tackle organised crime, others are things to do for example with the seizure of drug dealers' assets and people who are dealing in drugs, makings sure that they can be evicted from the places that they are dealing from, that if they are in the street and they are with money on them, that the money can be confiscated from them - a whole series of powers there, there is the antisocial behaviour legislation that I described earlier; and then there is this issue of what do we do when sometimes this antisocial behaviour is the result of really quite young children behaving very badly in circumstances where they are never going to end up going through the full panoply of the criminal justice system, and how do we try and get the right sense amongst the parents of those kids that they do actually have a responsibility to make sure that their children behave properly and how do we help them do that.

You know a few years ago probably the talk about sort of parenting orders and parenting classes and support for people as parents, it would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous, and indeed there are still people who see this, is this an aspect of the nanny state, or are we interfering with the rights of the individual. And I think the point is this, we need to give people that support, and we need to do that particularly in circumstances where if we don't give people that support, and also put pressure on them to face up to their responsibilities as a parent, they end up having an impact on the whole of their local community. So it is not something we can just say well that is just up to you as to whether you do this properly or don't do it properly, because unfortunately the way that you do it makes a difference to the lives of other people.

Now one thing that came across to me very strongly when I was talking to people earlier was that it is actually about giving people support and a chance as well, this is not just about coming down heavy on people. Now I think people need to understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to their local community, there is something that is going to happen, they can't just get away with that. On the other hand, it is also something where if we are going to solve this problem realistically we need to give some support and help. So that is the balance that we are trying to achieve.

And today I am announcing that later this year we will set out plans for a major extension of the use of parenting contracts and orders. Parenting orders offer a programme of activity to support parents, they define their rights and responsibilities. For example a parenting order can make clear to parents their responsibility to ensure that their child attends school, that the child takes part in literacy or numeracy clubs, or that they attend programmes dealing with problems as varied as anger management, or drug or alcohol mis-use. Parenting orders can also stop children visiting areas such as shopping centres, ensure a child is at home being supervised at night where that is necessary. Parents themselves can be forced by the order to accept support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their child's life. An order can for example ensure that parents face up to problems such as not attending school meetings where their kid has been misbehaving at school, or being unable to control their children in the home.

These requirements can be in place for a 12 month period which ensures that lessons are learnt and behaviour is changed for good. Parenting orders are also a court order and therefore they have to be taken seriously by those who are subject to them, and while most parents on these orders can resent them initially, I think often they grow to value the support they receive, and the vast majority indeed do comply with the order.

That is why we believe a wider range of authorities, such as housing officers and local antisocial behaviour teams, should be allowed for parenting orders, and schools may also be allowed to apply under proposals being considered by the group that is being set up on school discipline. The new powers are also going to apply to children at a much earlier stage, and here is something that is very important. Far too often we get heavy after the problem has got incredibly serious. It might be more sensible if we intervened somewhat earlier and tried to prevent the problem arising in such a serious way. So this will apply not just where there has been a criminal offence committed, or the child has been say excluded from school, as is currently the case, but if they are showing the propensity to get involved in antisocial behaviour, if they are beginning to go off the rails, making sure that we deal with them before they do so.

Not long ago frankly there was a sense of fatalism about antisocial behaviour, it was almost as if people accepted that it was inevitable and that nothing could be done. I believe that with the right mixture of sanctions and support we can prevent it. Family support schemes, parenting education initiatives that offer support, training and practical tips within a clear curriculum have been shown to be very successful. For example, as well as looking at some of the practice from Bristol, as we were examining this morning, we are looking closely at the Dundee Families Project which offers intensive support for families, but places them under strict conditions of cooperation, and failure to comply can mean conviction.

Experience in recent years shows the extent of this problem and it shows also the extent of the concern. But I have never believed that we should be defeatist about any of these issues. There are things that can be done to change the situation, but as Charles said right at the outset, it won't change unless we put in place the right system within the criminal justice system, the right laws, if we are putting in place the right measures of support and sanctions where necessary, and if it is something that the whole of the community gets involved in.

One of the things that I have learnt over the past 8 years as Prime Minister - and you will be pleased to know I have learnt something - is that sometimes there is a danger in government of thinking you can always solve all the problems. I can't raise people's children for them, and I can't personally go out on the street and make sure that everything is fine within the local community. What I can do however is give the police and the local authorities and those that need them the powers they need, enable local communities to take back control of their own communities using these powers, and provide the right system of sanctions and support for families where they need them, and that is what we intend to do. And I think there is a big change that is really coming through the whole of our criminal justice system at the moment. It may seem as if it is only at the beginning, but I want to see it intensify and develop in the years to come, and that is this idea that that law abiding majority that wants to live in a society of mutual responsibility and respect, that recognises that for a community to operate in any sensible way, there has got to be that sense of respect for other people, and respect given to other people, that we are not going to achieve that unless we have a criminal justice system and a set of measures of support in place that allow us to deal with this issue of antisocial behaviour and disrespect in a fundamental way.

Now some of it means changing the way the law operates in a way that frankly a few years ago people would not have found acceptable. So for example the police are going to be given powers where they will be able to shut down pubs and clubs where there is fighting outside them every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, and trigger a review of that pub or club's licence. There will be fixed penalty notices used more widely, which is a summary fine where the person is usually taken down to the police station and given an on the spot fine, there will be the power to evict people who are causing a nuisance from their homes if what has happened is that they are continually making life difficult for everybody else, for drug dealers to be evicted from the houses they are using for drug dealing, and that these will be measures that will be put in place and taken through at speed, in other words not having to go through an elaborate strung out process, taking a long, long period of time for the thing to be done and put in place. Now I think that is the only way that we are going to be able to deal with this.

One of the reasons why we started the special legislation on antisocial behaviour was it arose out of conversations that I was having when I was going round different parts of the country where people literally felt their community had gone out of their control altogether. And when I used to talk to police officers about this and I used to say well if there is some graffiti or vandalism, what are you going to do about it? I mean you can prosecute them, and it is true, the police were in theory able to prosecute people, but once you had all the work that they needed to do, took it through the elaborate court process, ended up with months of police time, the fact is they weren't going to do it, it was just a completely disproportionate burden placed on them in order to get the situation resolved. And the whole purpose of the antisocial behaviour legislation is to change the terms of trade if you like, change the rules of the game, make sure that when we need to act quickly, we are able to act quickly.

And the final thing I wanted to say is this. You are all people who are involved in one way or another in this area. There is legislation on this issue, further legislation, that we have under consideration at the moment. What we need is your feedback as to the things that are working, the things that aren't working, the things that we should be doing better that we are not doing, anything that you regard as of fundamental importance to getting this job done we want to hear about, so that when we come to develop this next stage of legislation and measures, we are actually getting it right, not according to us sitting in government, in Whitehall, or in Downing Street, in Westminster, abstracted from the real world, but what is actually going to work on the street in local communities.

Now some of the people here are winners of the Taking a Stand Award and you are all people who have shown it can be done, and you are all people who have shown that actually the fatalism that grips a lot of the parts of the system, the defeatism isn't justified. But it is hard, it requires a lot of work in local communities, it requires an awful lot of enthusiasm, and drive, and energy and commitment from people. Our task as a government is to enable that to happen more easily, but we need your feedback in order for that to be got right.

So what I am really signalling today, as well as announcing these changes in the use of parenting orders and how we can give the right balance of sanctions and support in relation to people who have got problems as parents that are causing problems for the whole of the community, in addition to that I am signalling that we want to take this to a new level now over the next few months, but we need the feedback from the street, from the community, from the people actually engaged in doing the work to get it right.

And so the speech today is part of a process that will continue now over the months to come in which the more that you are giving us the information that we need, the more that we are able then to if you like road-test any of the proposals that we have against the real world, not the theoretical world, but the real world, the easier it is going to be to make a difference here.

But I don't believe that in this modern world we need to live in a country where there is this disrespect for other people, we don't need to do it. The fact is that if we are civilised countries like this who have tremendous material advances, who have managed to bring our economies to a high level and all the rest of it, who enjoy a quality of life that frankly our grandparents would have found absolutely extraordinary, if we can do all of this we surely can find the right way to bring that precious respect that many of us grew up with and value, back in the right way for the modern world, and that is what it is all about. It is not a very complicated notion, but it is a very desirable one and I hope together we can achieve it.

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