The Briefing Column from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
In 1968 there was a White Paper and in 1969 there was an Act, and the Act was supposed to help children who were in trouble with the law. It was called the Children and Young Persons Act and it made a number of provisions which excited the sort of people who always get enthusiastic about proposals for some trifling reform of one of capitalism’s nastier features.
Basic to the Act was the replacement of the concept of punishment by that of care. This “care” was to encompass a comprehensive investigation into the problem child’s family background and a hoped-for improvement of it under the benevolent guidance of a local authority social worker.
This was a part of the social workers’ Golden Age. Fertilised by the reorganisation resulting from the Seebohm Report (1968), each local authority was empowered to set up a big-spending department with the stated aim of caring for all the specially disadvantaged from the moment of their birth until they died.
Well it has not turned out quite like that; the Golden Age was short-lived and now social service departments are being forced, under the programme of government cuts, to fight for many of their cherished schemes. Homes for old people and for handicapped kids; funds for equipment needed by the physically disabled such apparently desirable things are among those which are under the axe.
Even worse, the social workers’ strike last year in some areas did nothing to strengthen their case; it merely provoked a searching debate on whether they were doing a useful job for their wages. About a year ago, social work was almost a swear word among Members of Parliament.
In the case of the young offender, much of the Children and Young Persons Act is likely to wither away like a disused limb. The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 has not been, and is not likely to be, implemented. The powers to abolish Detention Centres and incorporate them into Community Homes have never been taken up. Now the Tories are planning to brutalise the Detention Centres rather than get rid of them.
The failure of the Act to arrange for young delinquents to be “treated” in their own communities is starkly illustrated by the numbers in Borstal and Detention Centres. In 1969 there were 3,046; by 1977 it had risen to 7,692.
Social work was once hailed as an effective ameliorative to many of capitalism’s problems, as a way of reconciling workers under stress to the irreconcilable. Like so many similar schemes, cruel reality has exposed it.