• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 12th March, 2009

Walking the line between intervention and intrusion

Parliamentarian Graham Allen, who with former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith is trying to persuade the UK Treasury to invest in a long-term, recession-savvy early intervention strategy, took the case for a national UK program evaluation center to a House of Commons Select Committee, this week.In the process, he was pursued to say just what he meant by “intervention,” just how early was “early” and how far any government should seek to shape social behavior.Allen is the prime mover of an integrated approach to prevention and early intervention strategies in the Midlands city of Nottingham where he has his parliamentary constituency. [See, for example: Nottingham to become UK's first early intervention city]Polite interrogation began with a question about how far and how well Nottingham’s own efforts were being evaluated by government.Whitehall departments had visited, he said, and local partners were making their own assessments, but he knew it wasn't enough, compared to the scrutiny and cost benefit analysis being carried out in the US – by specialists such as Steve Aos in Washington State.In the UK, benchmarks and a mechanism equivalent to Delbert Elliott's achievements in setting up Blueprints for Violence Prevention at the University of Colorado simply did not not exist."The people there were given 700 schemes by the US Department of Justice and told, 'Take those away. Tell us what the best dozen are,'” he said. “It took them for ever, but they have come back and they have what they call the dozen blueprints, which include, for example, Family Nurse partnerships. "If you want the best in terms of value for money, local applicability and comprehensiveness, you can go to those 12. You do not have to invent your own, as we all do here.“I would love us to be able in the UK to draw all those people who are already doing bits and pieces into one place and say, ‘The thing that Nottingham is doing is down at 550; don’t even think about it. The one that Glasgow is doing on anti-violence is in the top dozen.’”He used the parallel of the UK Public Accounts Committee. “Why not have that sort of academic clout working for this Select Committee? Then people would come to you and say, ‘What’s the best anti-drug program you have, because there are 30 out there?’, ‘What’s your best anti-violence program?’ or ‘What’s your best one for young mums with babies?’ You would be able to say with some authority, ‘Well, we’ve looked at everything and got the evidence base and we think x is the best. Please don’t bother with the one that's being sold very well by a glib salesman as if it were the best one.’”Committee Chairman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman, brought him back to earth: “So no-one is evaluating what you are doing?”“There are lots of people evaluating, but there is not a national institution. Government as a whole are not evaluating it, no."Graham Allen’s interest in the US examples and other experience outside the UK brought a hint of criticism. Why did he not look to Bristol University or to the Institute of Education in London? “There's an awful lot of cohort work and studies that have been done in the United Kingdom – very reputable universities, long-term pieces of research – and I wonder why there was not more use of those, Sheerman said. “You almost seem to want to look abroad, rather than at home."There was some fantastic work is going on in the UK, Allen conceded – at Nottingham University, in Birmingham and in Manchester, too. Next month there would be an international conference to bring together domestic and international sources. In the UK the problem was over-centralization It was easier to pick up and understand something that had been developed in the US. Cities like Leicester and Derby had not had the discretion or a local strategic partnership to enable them to deliver in the same full-blooded way.

Brush your teeth, eat three square meals, do not swear

Labour MP for the Merseyside constituency of Halton, Derek Twigg, wanted more clarity about early intervention and its place in the life cycle of families in difficulty.“Let’s just be clear about the evidence that you have found about when is the best time to intervene. What is the evidence? I mean in terms of school, when young women become pregnant, after they become pregnant? What about the father, and the child as well? I mean all those things." "I think the whole nought-to-18 circle is important,” Allen said, “but the earlier you intervene the more bangs per buck you'll get; so if you look at the evidence of things like the Nurse Family partnership – they will say, for example, not only will the baby do better and be less likely to get involved in crime and more likely to attain academically, but the mother will do better as well.“You are not suggesting you have to wait until they get pregnant to intervene?”“No.” “That is what I am trying to get at. At what point would you identify someone and start the intervention? How would you do that?” “That's why I haven’t got a straight line; I’ve got a circle, because in essence I am looking at the baby as the potential parent in 16 or 18 years time. So I think anything that makes a contribution to the baby becoming a better parent is where early intervention should be. That can be at lots of different points, but the later you leave it in the life cycle the more expensive it will be to correct the problem.”The MP for Halton was driving toward a question about government interference in the fabric of ordinary family life.“Should the Government say, ‘These are the national standards that we expect children to be brought up within’? For instance, you brush your teeth twice a day, for argument’s sake, you have three square meals, you do not swear, you are not allowed out on the streets after 8 o’clock at night. “It might be particularly strong in terms of sex education and so forth. How far should it go? In the old communities you would have a lot of peer pressure. People learned from each other. Communities now change by the minute, and people do not get to know each other in the same way. How far should a Government go in saying, ‘These are the standards we expect young people to be brought up with’?” “I do not think the Government should be involved in any of that,” Allen told him. “But it's absolutely irrefutable that if you are of a lower income, your life chances will be less. We have to intervene when people need it most – not when a mum is sat in a courtroom looking at her kid, who is being sent down to a secure unit at £250,000 a year, but when she needs help, because she's on her own in a single room with a naked light bulb and no family to support her.”[For more about Graham Allen and Ian Duncan Smith’s campaign, see for example: UK treasury sold prevention with a money-back guarantee and Is early intervention printing the dream ticket?]

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