Brown’s inadequate parenting advice

Under Brown, New Labour’s obsession with acting in loco parentis for teens has expanded to older parents, too.

Jan Macvarish

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Topics Politics UK

Hearing Gordon Brown’s pronouncements on teenage parents from the podium at the Labour Party conference yesterday reminded me of the much ridiculed Peter Lilley, Tory minister for social security in 1992. Readers may remember that Lilley delivered, via an excruciating Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, a party conference speech promising to ‘root out… young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list’. The subtle differences between Brown’s and Lilley’s approaches tell us much about where the New Labour project has ended up.

While Lilley spoke scornfully of ‘young ladies’, yesterday Brown spoke emotively of ‘children having children’. While Lilley’s teenage mum exercises calculating rationality in order to get her hands on benefits and a council flat, Brown’s infantilised ‘girl of 16’, who is ‘given the keys to a council flat’, is tragically ‘left on her own’. Whereas Lilley clearly had a problem with teenage mums being entitled to housing and costing the taxpayer money, Brown gives no indication that any money will be saved by ‘placing… all 16- and 17-year-olds who get support from the taxpayer’ in a ‘network of supervised homes’.

Brown’s astonishing claim that teenage pregnancy is an ‘unspoken’ problem that he has heroically unearthed and fearlessly addressed indicates his estrangement from his own central position in government since 1997. For the past 12 years, since Tony Blair prioritised teenage pregnancy as both a cause and a consequence of ‘social exclusion’, the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has been in operation and local government, health authorities and schools have had to turn their attention to lowering teenage pregnancy rates.

Under New Labour, the problem of teenage pregnancy was not only prioritised, it was also massively expanded. This expansion happened not through any actual rise in the number of teenage pregnancies (in fact, numbers had fallen dramatically from the early 1970s peak and had stabilised between 1977 and 1997), but through a redefinition of the problem.

New Labour’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy did not just target under-16s (for whom sexual activity is illegal), but under-18s as well. Given that, unsurprisingly, pregnant over-16s are more numerous, this instantly inflates ‘the problem’. Figures published in early 2009 show that, in 2007, there were a total of 40,298 conceptions to under-18s in England. Out of these, only 7,715 were to under-16s.

Even more significantly, by including 17- to 18-year-olds, New Labour has also redefined the issue of teenage pregnancy. Older teenagers are more likely to take their pregnancies to term rather than to abort; the abortion rate for under-18s is just over 50 per cent, while for under-16s it is 60 per cent. So the expanded category was important in shifting the emphasis from the problem of girls experiencing unintended conceptions to the problem of young women raising children.

To avoid accusations of old-fashioned moralising and cruel stigmatisation, New Labour policy reinvented the language of social problems. Teenage mothers were spoken of as ‘vulnerable’ and suffering from ‘low self-esteem’, rather than as feckless or promiscuous. They were deemed to be in need of greater ‘support’ rather than social castigation or the denial of benefits.

Brown’s decision to speak not just of teenage mothers but of ‘teenage parents’ yesterday was significant. Teenage fathers have been increasingly targeted by the strategy. They are now talked of as being excluded from involvement in their babies’ lives and in need of support to help them realise their parental ambitions, rather than being brought, by the Child Support Agency, to honour their financial obligations to mother and child.

As authorities have failed to meet policy targets, this ‘therapeutic’ tendency has only strengthened; the inadequate emotional and communication skills of teen parents are increasingly held up as explanations for Britain’s teenage pregnancy rates. While politicians spoke of ‘the underclass’ in the 1980s, today we have an ever-expanding rump of ‘inadequate parents’.

Although those teenage mothers who are isolated and lack familial support undoubtedly require decent housing, humane support and good-quality childcare, they are not representative of young parents as a whole. Equally, not all young mothers want to leave the family home to move into their own flat. If they do leave, it often happens prematurely because of over-crowding or because refusing the offer of a flat will make them ineligible for social housing in the future.

It is government policy that creates the isolated and vulnerable teenage mother, and it is policy that infantilises teenagers who aspire to becoming parents. It is difficult to see how a teenage couple who have decided to deal with an unplanned pregnancy could possibly move into adulthood if the mother is forced to live in an institution, removed from her family and her partner and subjected to surveillance and intensive parent-training by those employed as experts in the raising of other people’s children. As a very young-looking mother, interviewed alongside her baby and her mother on the streets of Birmingham by a BBC Newsnight journalist, said, as a mother you have to develop your maternal instincts. If you are being trained by somebody else, you won’t have those instincts when the ‘expert’ is no longer there to help you. The sooner you learn to trust your instincts, she said, the better.

Brown’s speech displayed in explicit terms the intolerant, authoritarian tendency within the apparently touchy-feely social inclusion agenda. Blair and Brown, given the debacle of John Major’s ill-fated Back to Basics campaign, were wary of repeating the Tories’ mistakes of trying to moralise in traditional terms about sexual behaviour and family life. Yet we can see clearly now how the obsession with ‘inadequate parenting’ has come to capture all the moral anxieties appealed to by Lilley and his ilk – but with the even worse development of not even attempting to appeal to or invoke a moral or rational sensibility.

Teenage parents are now problematised entirely in terms of their presumed inability to parent rather than the sexual mores they have defied by conceiving. Unlike in Lilley’s day, when teenage pregnancy was regarded as a destabilising threat to marriage and as having negative economic consequences through increased welfare spending, today the problem is the feral children whom teenage parents are likely to raise, if left to their own devices.

And so Brown spoke of the need to provide these teenage parents with a ‘roof over their heads’ and also to teach them ‘responsibility and how to raise their children properly’. Under New Labour, young mothers have come to be regarded as inherently inadequate and in need of intensive state intervention to reconstruct them as competent parents. This has set important precedents in labelling as ‘inadequate’ a growing number of parents, not just teenage ones, and pathologising them as a threat to their own children and as a cause of broader social problems.

Jan Macvarish is a sociologist in the Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent. She has contributed to the forthcoming book, Teenage Pregnancy: What’s the Problem?, published by Tufnell Press, and to Standing Up To Supernanny, published by Societas (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Politics UK

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