Issues - Protecting the Children from the state
UK invasion of parenting
Parenting has a high priority in the Government's agenda.
Policy development has drawn on precedent and thinking on
the role of state intervention in a very private sphere -
family life. Other policies - such as preventing crime, tackling
social exclusion, children's rights, and benefits - have also
had an influence, sometimes a conflicting one.
These concerns spread across six government departments: drawing
them together is difficult. There has been no policy review
of family services since Supporting families (1998) and there
is no overarching statement on government's expectations of
parents or the relative roles of parents and the state in
This study examined current parental rights and responsibilities
in relation to financial support and the physical and emotional
care and control of children. It draws out emerging themes
and ambiguities. The researcher also considers whether the
different legislation, discussion documents and other government
communications should be brought together in a strategic policy
statement, with an accompanying 'parents code' to clarify
parental rights and responsibilities.
Financial support permeates the Government's family policy.
It has shown a sustained determination to shrink child poverty,
for example through Child Benefit, the Children's Tax Credit,
the Working Families Tax Credit, Sure Start maternity grants,
Education Maintenance Allowances and a range of programmes
to support families in kind. Child poverty has been reduced
in real terms, but the rise in average incomes means that
fewer children have been lifted out of poverty than expected.
The question emerges as to how far the Government can reduce
A considerable part of the Government's child poverty reduction
programme is targeted at disadvantaged individuals and communities.
A targeted resource can be less readily viewed as a right
than can universal provision. Conditions of receipt also undermine
the view of benefits as a right.
The Government has emphasised parents' financial responsibility
for raising children. For example, the requirement that parents
pay university fees and the delay in minimum wage protection
until a young person reaches 22 extends children's dependency
on their parents. Reform of the Child Support Agency has also
sought to enforce parents' financial obligations if they separate.
The Government has used taxation and benefits reform and the
provision of childcare to support and encourage parents, both
partnered and single, into work. It has also conducted a campaign
to improve work-life balance. This means juggling contradictory
needs - providing children with personal security but also
reducing social exclusion.
The physical and emotional care and control of children lies
at the heart of the Government's policies. However, there
is a fundamental tension between the state's support of parents
and parents' preserving sufficient autonomy to willingly shoulder
caring responsibilities. A number of recent surveys have revealed
parents' anxieties over losing autonomy. Partnerships between
state and parent may mitigate these, but are unlikely to fully
address them. The Government clearly espouses information
as a source of empowerment for parents.
Since the war, health (including maternity and paediatric
services) and education for children have been universal entitlements
and can be classified as a 'right to support' for parents.
The Government has made significant additions to these entitlements.
For example, post-natal support, health visitors' support
of families and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services
are all being extended. Some degree of parental choice of
school continues, backed by performance information, offering
significant rights of choice and transparency. Parental rights
to information and partnership in directing children's education
have been enhanced by websites, booklets and parent representation
on LEA education committees. Other sources of information
include the National Family and Parenting Institute's public
information services, the Children's Information Service and
the helplines - NHS Direct and Parentline Plus.
At the same time, services provided directly to children have
increased, possibly undermining parental autonomy, for example,
expanded personal, social and health education in schools,
Connexions' personal development advice, and confidential
health and contraception facilities.
But, as with financial support, provision of caring support
has been targeted. Taking on board the thrust of the Children
Act 1989, the Government has sought to tighten assessment
and service delivery systems through the Quality Protects
programme and the Framework for the Assessment of Children
in Need (Department of Health, 2000). Tackling complex difficulties
in disadvantaged neighbourhoods has prompted government investment
in parenting programmes in urban regeneration areas and in
initiatives such as Sure Start, which promotes the development
of babies and young children in deprived areas.
However, as noted above, it is doubtful whether targeted provision
constitutes a 'right'. The notion of a 'safety net right'
is a possibility, but for that every family experiencing disadvantage
would have to qualify. Families with children in need supported
under the Children Act 1989 might fall within this qualifying
category. The targeted provision offered by programmes such
as Sure Start, however, is not directly proportionate to individual
families' levels of deprivation, but is determined by communities'
levels of disadvantage, making it harder to define these as
'safety net rights'.
The definition of 'parenting capacity' in the Framework for
the Assessment of Children in Need perhaps best summarises
the Government's expectations of parents' caring duties. It
includes the provision of basic care, safety, emotional warmth,
stimulation, guidance, boundaries and stability. There are
also limited statements about parenting responsibilities in
school-parent contracts covering education issues such as
homework and attendance.
Parenting orders, the clampdown on truancy, as well as school
contracts, indicate that the Government considers controlling
children's behaviour a primary parental duty. There is something
of a contradiction between the range of variables seen as
impinging on parenting in the Framework, and the more straightforward
blaming of parents for failing to control children's behaviour
suggested by the punishment of parents of truants and by parenting
However, the Government has not tightened the definition of
parental responsibility in relation to children's physical
safety. It has bucked the thrust of policy which supports
children's rights, and where necessary curtails parental autonomy,
by not removing the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' to
a charge of assault of a child by a parent. This is despite
a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights which found
that such a defence caused the Government to fail in its duty
to protect children.
Other aspects of physical safety are less controversial, but
here too parental responsibility is imprecisely defined. For
example, parents can be prosecuted for neglect for leaving
their children unattended in some circumstances. However,
there is no guidance as to the age at which a child might
appropriately be left alone.
While a number of measures, such as paternity leave, support
fathers, by and large bringing up children continues to be
the role of women. The trends within family services, the
criminal justice system and family law reflect this. Some
recognition of the gender bias of parenting legislation (such
as parenting orders, which are predominantly made in respect
of women) might be helpful.
The Government has indicated its belief that the traditional
two-parent family is the ideal for bringing up children. It
is not, however, prescriptive on this issue, for example,
producing a booklet on marriage and enhancing civil marriage
ceremonies, while also removing married couples' allowance
in favour of channelling support to families with children.
It allowed a free vote on enabling unmarried heterosexual
and homosexual couples to adopt, but did not introduce the
measure itself. Despite precedents in Europe it is hesitating
over introducing civil partnership protection for heterosexual
With the Government having to respond to the counter pulls
of shifting social mores and of tradition in this area, the
resulting law can appear defensive, responding to demands
and pressures rather than grounded in principle.
Financial responsibility attaches to the 'genetic' parent
whether or not he or she has sufficient bonds with the child
to have acquired responsibility as a 'social parent', i.e.
a parent with caring responsibilities. There is therefore
a lack of balance between parental financial duty and any
form of entitlement.
Presence in the child's home has major implications for child
protection responsibilities. In many cases a non-parent adult
present in the home, 'social parent' or not (for example,
a mother's non-resident boyfriend) will be more open to potential
accusations of neglect than a non-resident social parent.
The question of presence and absence in relation to who is
actually caring for the child requires greater recognition.
While parents have some rights to support from the state,
they have no rights in respect of the child. The provisions
of the Children Act 1989 to promote the best interests of
the child have eclipsed these. This may contradict the stipulation
in the Human Rights Act 1998 of the right to a family life;
this offers some recognition of non-resident parents' right
to see their children and their right to a say in whether
their children should be adopted.
Currently parents' rights and responsibilities are ill defined.
The researcher suggests two possible complementary approaches
to clarifying the position.
The Government's record shows a serious commitment to supporting
families, but this is a complex area, rich in tensions and
affected by a cornucopia of social and economic relations.
A regular, in-depth policy review could establish some broad
principles and reconcile some of the disparate strands of
A 'parents code' setting out rights and responsibilities has
the potential to enhance relations between government and
parents, and as such merits a national debate. (The full report
goes into the possible nature and structure of such a code
in more detail.)
• Clarity: there is a deficit in clear messages and
commonly recognised obligations and entitlements attributable
• Rights: a code could set out parental rights to support
from the state and the parameters of the parent/state partnership
in child-rearing. Open to scrutiny, a code would provide a
framework for as fair a balance as possible to be struck between
parents' obligations and entitlements.
• Transparency: parents have a human right to know the
sorts of issues that might prompt intervention with their
• Proactive approach: a code could offer positively
framed messages around expectations of parents.
• Public attitudes: a code could influence attitudes
to parenting, giving parents a more fully recognisable role.
• The code would need to avoid the pitfalls of over-generalisation
in order not to be meaningless on the one hand, and over-detailed
stipulations in order to avoid unnecessary statutory prescription
about personal relationships on the other.
• The limitations of agreed community values about child-rearing
would need to be recognised, with a focus on the commonly
endorsed essentials of a civilised upbringing.
• The code would require a definition of different types
of parenthood, linked to duties and entitlements.
• In establishing a set of responsibilities, equity
demands some balancing rights, but there is a reluctance amongst
policy makers to acknowledge this, particularly in relation
to children's rights.
This study is intended to act as a think-piece launching the
debate on whether a government statement on parenting is needed.
The study consisted of a literature review and discussion
with an advisory group of leading family policy specialists.
In drawing up the proposals for a code, the researcher examined
precedents in Scotland, Finland and Sweden. Other sources
included: Council of Europe directives; current legislation
and guidance; and the Human Rights Act 1998 and the United
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.
How to get further information
The full report, Government and parenting: Is there a case
for a policy review and a parents’ code by Clem Henricson,
is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (ISBN 1 85935
093 3, price £9.95).