With the publication of the government’s Respect Action Plan in early 2006, the then prime minister Tony Blair reaffirmed that his government was to “bear down uncompromisingly on anti-social behaviour”.
The “problem family” appeared central to this plan – the launch document contained half a dozen references to “problem families” in just three pages.
Dealing with the “problem family” now appears to be an important part of the mixture of policies and programmes that are focused on the “modernisation” of services for children and families. Furthermore, this damaging label is seeping, once again, into professional exchanges centred on children and families. What are we to make of this development?
The social historian John Macnicol has traced the various categories constructed to identify and classify an “undeserving” segment of the population in the late 19th and 20th centuries. “Industrial residuum”, “problem families”, “underclass”, even the “new rabble” have all been used.
Each shifting conceptualisation referred to essentially the same behaviour traits (fecklessness, lack of foresight) alleged to belong to the group identified. Importantly, each classification was connected to biological metaphors of breeding, and so related directly to the family.
The “problem family” invites particular attention because of its reactivation by New Labour. The Wood Committee, set up in 1926, referred to the “social problem group”. It was the publication of Our Towns by the Women’s Group on Public Welfare in 1943 that led to the “problem family” becoming a commonplace term.
The study was the result of a resolution from the National Federation of Women’s Institutions deploring the conditions of English town life revealed by wartime evacuation. Significant was the notion that a “submerged tenth” of the population had “problem families” among them. Families were “always on the edge of pauperism and crime, riddled with mental and physical defects, and in and out of the courts for child neglect, a menace to the community”.
These families were perceived as a breeding ground for “juvenile delinquency”. Frequently, it was the mother of the family who was identified as the chief obstacle to living a “normal life”, on account of her alleged failure to be appropriately domesticated.
Commentators and policy analysts also looked to Europe. Penelope Hall, in her popular guide to social services in England in the 1950s, referred to some experiments being conducted in the Netherlands.
In Rotterdam, she found that “socially weak” families were transferred to a group of dwellings called the Zuidplein Project that housed 570 families. Here they were “re-educated socially with a view to rehousing among normal families in another part of town”. Similar experiments had also been conducted in Utrecht and Amsterdam.
Reflecting in part the eugenicist thinking underpinning these schemes, Hall confided, “Families so separated from the normal community are regarded as ‘diseased biological units’…and it is considered proper that for the sake of society in general, such families should be removed to an environment where they are protected against their own inadequacies and there is a chance for the children to develop”.
What is striking about the Netherlands initiatives is how closely they resemble certain actions taken in Nazi Germany.
Under the Nazis, “asocials” were portrayed as the “dregs of society”, marked by “loose morals”, “disinterest in contemporary events”, “idleness” and “poverty of mind”. The term was applied in a flexible manner to refer to whole families.
“Performance” and “success in social life” were the yardsticks by which individuals and families were measured. Many “asocials”, however, failed to achieve an adequate level of “performance” and “success” in social life and were sterilised in accordance with the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring of 14 July 1933.
The historian Lisa Pine has performed valuable work in excavating the history of Hasude, an experimental “asocial colony” set up in Bremen to
re-educate “asocial” families. Hasude was set up in October 1936 on the initiative of SS member Hans Haltermann.
This was the most significant experiment on housing “asocials”. At Hasude, it was felt that “asocial families” could be “socially engineered through the imposition of strict control and surveillance, into ‘valuable’ members of the ‘national community’”.
It should, of course, be emphasised that it is not being suggested that New Labour – for all its talk of “problem families” and “sinbins” – is seeking to replicate the social policies of the Nazis. Nonetheless it is important to remember the not too distant history of the “problem family” and connected ideas in both Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Paul Michael Garrett is the author of Remaking Social Work with Children and Families (2003) and Social Work and Irish People in Britain (2004). He works at the National University of Ireland in Galway