Policy-making without evidence

Disappointing to see the Scottish Children’s Commissioner applauding early intervention.

Speaking at crime reduction charity Nacro’s annual conference in Nottingham, Tam Baillie said indicators that a child will go on to offend can be present from a young age and it is important to “get in early”.

It’s yet more proof that if you keep repeating something often enough, even intelligent people (who should know better) start to believe it. The ‘risk prediction’ concept is now firmly entrenched but where is the evidence that this approach is actually effective? Sure, there are plenty of research reports that begin with phrases like “there is mounting evidence…” or “it is now widely recognised that…” but when you drill down, the actual evidence is scanty, anecdotal or non-existent.

It’s a shame that policy-makers and politicians – across all parties – haven’t paid closer attention to the report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, ‘Risky people or risky societies?’ which goes to the trouble of examining the evidence-base.

Policy interventions that seek to target individuals and their families on the basis of certain characteristics, with the intention of preventing future offending, have no obvious basis in current research. Risk factor research also operates with a number of assumptions that, on closer scrutiny, are problematic and, despite claims of scientific objectivity, are necessarily ideological. The nuances and qualifications have at times become lost in translation from the academy to Whitehall, but the focus on individual and micro-social risks has chimed with the priorities of policy makers.

That’s not to say that you can’t do something about factors within a local environment that tend to disadvantage children, but:

different population groups in different parts of the country experience markedly different levels of risk…The challenge is to rethink a policy framework that recognises the variable risks that different groups face in society, but without engaging in the dubious and ultimately futile exercise of identifying risky individuals.

By all means provide decent housing, good schools, decent leisure facilities. By all means intervene when a parent is neglecting or abusing their children, or when a child is clearly skidding off the rails. But for now we need rather more rigorous evidence that children’s life-trajectories can be predicted before anyone ‘intervenes’. And on the ‘do no harm’ principle, we also need a reasonable degree of certainty that ‘intervention’ (together with its co-respondent, sensitive-data-gathering) aren’t actively harmful to those who would otherwise have been fine.

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