After the riots we need a new vision for the 21st century family, says David Lammy
When the UK riots broke out in 2011, they started in Tottenham, David Lammy's constituency. Lammy argued the unrest was fuelled by joblessness, poverty and poor housing. Now the Labour MP explains why the government should respond to the riots by supporting, not blaming, the families involved.
It’s convenient to treat stories about the sacrifices and sufferings of our parents as something to consign to the history books. But if anything, life is more difficult in Tottenham today than it was when I was growing up. I owe a great deal to my mother, but I wasn’t just brought up by her. I had aunts and uncles just down the road. I had a great priest, brilliant youth workers and inspiring teachers.
Today, those support networks have withered. The modern family is scattered across the globe rather than clustered around a neighbourhood. The church has far less reach into communities than it once did and youth and community workers are hamstrung by fears of “stranger danger” and bureaucratic CRB checks that discourage anything other than a fleeting interest in the wellbeing of their charges.
Parents are calling out for help but politicians are deaf to their concerns. Over the last few decades, Westminster has spent more time telling them what not to do as opposed to offering them practical support. The endless back and forth about smacking in the early 2000s exemplified this. Our political discourse needs to spend less time telling parents what they cannot do and more time supporting them to do things better.
Becoming a parent is one of the most significant experiences in life, but it is also the one we feel least prepared for. No one teaches us how to be a good parent. We pick up clues from our own parents and friends, or we read snippets of advice in newspapers, books and magazines. But fundamentally parenting is scary because there is no manual. Opportunities should be made available for parents to learn more about child psychology, nutrition and development. Further education colleges already provide courses on these topics for those who seek a professional qualification, but they are not open to enough of the people who matter most to children: parents.
The long-term goal must be to recast social services as family services: positive, universal and valued. In healthcare we each have a GP who acts as a gatekeeper to other specialists. The same ought to be true for the family. From the moment a prospective mother and father went in for their first scan, they would know where to go for information, advice and support when they needed it. Parents could be directed towards relationship counselling and peer support. Where relationships break down, separating couples could be helped to sort out how best to care for their children.
A holistic family service would be the first step in jettisoning the assumption that family policy is all about toddlers and not adolescents. Parental leave after birth should be matched by the option of a week’s leave, shared between parents, as children make the transition between primary and secondary schools. This is the time at which children find themselves faced with new academic demands, strange buildings, new rules, much older peers and the prospect of making an entirely new friendship group.
Politics has to understand that the bedrock to a successful life is a healthy, stable family. How healthy your relationships are with your parents and siblings will go a long way to determine the success of your relationships as you grow older, with partners, friends, colleagues and strangers. Get those first relationships right and you have the foundation for a successful life. Family life is being eroded on all sides – we are working longer, spending less time together and external influences are growing. This isn’t time for piecemeal changes but a new, bold vision for supporting the family in the 21st Century.
David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham, chair of the all party group on Fatherhood and the author of Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots.