Imagine the scene: a group of three year olds sit cross-legged on the carpet, clapping their hands and singing along merrily to ‘the little red robin’. That morning they have all painted a picture for their parents and played hopscotch in the yard outside.
Suddenly, a government official marches through the door and seizes a handful of these innocent pre-schoolers to take directly to the Youth Justice Board for questioning, before they are put on a ‘monitoring’ programme for the rest of their lives. Their crime? Well, we don’t know yet. But they might have been a little disruptive during assembly, or perhaps they come from a single parent family, or have an uncle who breeds pit bull terriers. Far fetched? I think not.
This week the Government has come up with its most preposterous proposal yet: screening children for pre-crimes.
The statistics, they say, speak for themselves. Children from lone parent families, those with parents in prison, living in deprived areas or from families with a history of drug abuse are more likely to break the law when they get older. The Government has neglected to tell us how this crazy scheme would be enforced in practice, but it seems it would work on a ‘points’ system whereby children fitting into enough of these categories would be monitored by our already under-staffed and over-worked social workers and Youth Justice Board.
And although these measures are only (for now) being considered for 11 year olds, Education Secretary Beverley Hughes has claimed that you can ‘spot’ those toddlers who are heading for a life of crime.
My daughter is three and we live alone, with no male role model (score two points). She is often difficult to control, being a very bright and wilful child (score two points). Her father didn’t see her for the first two years of her life (score two points). Should I lock up the kitchen knives and just give up on her now?
And what about her classmates? There is not one child in her preschool group who does not have the potential for a happy, successful life. Of course, if I’m honest, I do look at some of the parents as I’m waiting to pick her up and I fear that their children haven’t got long to go until they lose their innocence and become just another victim of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy or binge-drinking yobbish behaviour.
But although I can see, living in the real world, where Ms Hughes is coming from, it is outrageous to suggest that labelling children at three would be a positive step. They would not be ostracised because they have done anything bad, but simply because their parents don’t seem to be bringing them up properly.
So the sins of the father are visited upon his sons. Is that really the right way to go about the enormous problem of violence amongst our youngsters? Surely labelling them as no-good criminals at such an age would only serve as an incentive to become just that? Blair needs to read up on Durkheim’s self-fulfilling prophecy. The ASBO tagging under the New Labour nanny state has been proven to act as a ‘badge of honour’ amongst troubled teenagers, and I know that if I had received an ASBO at 13 I’d have been very proud of myself and my status within our ‘gang’ would have earned me a lot of respect.
However, I, like thousands of others, eventually grew out of the culture I’d become part of, getting my A levels, a first class degree in journalism, and carving a career for myself despite the stigma and poverty that comes with being a single parent. Would screening me for pre-crime at 11 have helped me on this path? No. I would have stuck two fingers up at a society which had abandoned me, and I would never have had the confidence or motivation to pursue my dreams for a successful life.
1984 was, of course, written by a socialist as a stark warning, yet Blair seems to view it as a valid blueprint for his police state. We are living in an Orwellian nightmare, with 14 CCTV cameras for every person in the country. Not a week goes by without the newspapers feeding us more stories of how British children are drug-taking, promiscuous, unhappy, violent and anti-social. The moral panic this creates filters into our everyday lives; we cross the street to avoid groups of youngsters (hoodie-wearing or not), we protest at proposals to build secondary schools on our doorsteps, we demonise anyone under the age of 18, particularly if they happen to be stood on a street corner swigging a bottle of cheap cider.
But are these children really any different from previous generations? The mods and rockers fighting on Brighton beach, the post-war generation who terrified their parents by listening to Elvis? Ever since the word ‘teenager’ was coined, children have rebelled against their parents. And whilst I concur that the recent spate of stabbings and shootings amongst Britain’s youngsters is far worse than sneaking out of the house to attend a jive at the local dance hall, Government snooping and the rise of the thought police is not the way to go about setting our teenagers on a righteous path.
The measures today’s politicians insist on endorsing are terrifying, absurd and naïve. Financial rewards for couples who stay married (does this extend to women being subject to domestic violence?), putting children in prison if they leave school at 16, tagging them and screening them before they are even out of nursery- is it any wonder that Britain (if you believe the media) is becoming over-run by Clockwork Orange-esque feral youths wielding knives and lacking any moral compass or responsibility for their actions?
In my opinion, a crucial factor as to why the crime rate amongst disillusioned youngsters in this country is so high is because we do not respect children. We segregate them from the rest of society by having restaurants and ‘child-friendly’ restaurants. We encourage breakfast and after-school clubs so that children are shut away in the classroom 12 hours a day while their parents are encouraged to do their bit for the economy. And above all, we deal with the problems of obesity, poverty, and crime with quick-fix approaches that do absolutely nothing to combat deprivation or help parents struggling to bring up their children alone.
Published in the Big Issue in the North, April 2007