Problem kids ‘must be dealt with at birth’

The government has a duty to tackle anti-social behaviour among children by intervening in their families’ lives even before they are born, Tony Blair has argued.

The prime minister said it was possible to identify households where children were likely to become a “menace to society”, and take the steps – whether giving them guidance or involving social services – to stop their toddlers becoming thugs.

“You can predict reasonably accurately the kids and the families who are going to be difficult,” he told the BBC, in his first interview since returning from his holiday.

He added: “If we are not prepared to predict and intervene far more early then there are children who are growing up, in families which we know are dysfunctional, then the kids a few years down the line are going to be a menace to society.”

The prime minister said the government had made “great progress” in tackling social exclusion, citing Sure Start, child and pensioner tax credits and the New Deal.

But he admitted that with some families, “we tend to identify too late and intervene too late, when the problem has grown too great”.

Mr Blair said children could not simply be left to grow up in households where one or more of the parents took drugs or had alcohol problems, or where a teenage mum was not in a stable relationship and did not know how to bring up her child.

The state could offer targeted support, he explained – however, if families refused this, it might be necessary to impose “some sense of discipline and responsibility”, which could see families losing benefits or even having their children taken away.

The prime minister rejected the suggestion his proposals represented a step too far, saying there could be no “pussy-footing” around such an important issue.

“You either steer clear and say it’s not for government to get into or you actually do intervene, and intervene at a very early stage,” Mr Blair said.

“You have to do that otherwise you’re in a situation where the problem then grows and at some point in society has to deal with that.”

Mr Blair has yet to offer any details on how this intervention would work in practice, but Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin was quick to condemn his comments.

“The answer is not more state intervention. It is to encourage the social enterprise, the voluntary sector, community groups, to help people without trying to run their lives for them,” he said.

Mr Blair will be making a major speech on social exclusion next week, as part of a nationwide tour to see how different groups and local authorities are tackling the problem. A government-wide strategy on the issue is expected soon after.

The strategy will be formed in part on the advice from experts received during a seminar at the prime minister’s country residence at Chequers on Tuesday, which included new social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong.