The Prime Minister’s speech today featured a barrage of new policy announcements. 10000 new green job placements; free childcare for a quarter of a million two-year-olds; scrapping compulsory ID cards; legislation on international aid in the budget; speedy diagnosis for cancer patients; free personal care for elderly people with the highest need; measures to allow constituencies to recall their MP where there is proven financial corruption; and a referendum on Alternative Vote.
However, there is another policy that has caused widespread concern, as this analysis by Tweetminster shows – and that’s why I’ve spent the last hour blogging on my feet in the exhibition centre internet cafe to offer a response.
Brown announced that ‘From now on all 16- and 17-year-old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly.’
I do understand why many are already expressing concern about it, from Rowenna Davis‘ criticism of Brown’s language, to Anne Perkins‘ accusations of Daily Mailism, to outright allegations of fascism on (where else) Twitter.
The language was indeed ambiguous, and that was unfortunate (although let us be very clear that Gordon Brown did not criticise single mothers in the slightest; any suggestion that he did may reflect more about the prejudices of some of those listening). When the Prime Minister spoke of a mother teenage being ‘given the keys to a council flat and…left on her own’ I do not believe he was accusing young parents of getting pregnant as a means to housing. As Anne Perkins pointed out, research has shown that this motivation is a myth. Instead, some young people try to create families in the hope of providing the love and comfort they never found with their own; and thus they may have children without the help and support of the wider family networks upon which so many parents rely.
This is what the Prime Minister wishes to address. He is not unhappy that teenage mothers are given the keys to a council flat. He is unhappy that they are not given any help once they are in it.
So what help is he proposing? The policy outline in the speech was, I agree, frustratingly vague, and I feel this has led to much of the opposition to it. But we did get some clues: he mentioned Dundee, where family intervention was used to great effect in the Dundee Families Project.
As the Prime Minister touched upon, the Dundee project helped vulnerable families by housing them in shared blocks. While they were there, they could access ‘a range of services through individual and couple counselling, family support and group work…support 24-hours a day all year…after-school and young persons’ group activities…groups for adults have covered cookery, parenting skills, anger management and tenancy issues.’
It sounds all right, doesn’t it?
For too long the role of the state when it comes to the family has seemed either to be removing children from households, or doing nothing at all. Families across the country are crying out for a middle way – for the help that will allow them to stay together and that will enable parents to be the very best they can be.
If Labour is to fight back effectively we must be clear about our message; and every Labour supporter should be clear about what the Prime Minister announced today. It’s not the Tories’ marriage incentives. It’s not the ban on divorce proposed by a Tory PPC last night at a conference fringe. It’s not the mandatory knee-length skirts suggested by the fruitcakes of the BNP. It’s not paternalism, it’s not Victorian, it’s not the workhouse. It is real support to be offered to those who really need it. And I believe that as they did with the rest of his inspiring speech today, the Party, and the country, should be applauding it loudly.