Deborah Orr: We feel sorry for abused children. But what about damaged adults?

Educational facilities for children like Sonnex have improved so little under Labour

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Last November, shortly after the details of the awful life and death of Baby Peter became public, the chief executive of Barnardo's, Martin Narey, gave a speech which provoked anger and disbelief. Narey suggested this: "The probability is that had Baby Peter survived, given his own deprivation, he might have been unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14. At which point he'd have become feral, a parasite, a yob, helping infest our streets. The response to his criminal behaviour would have been to lock him up."

The general opinion was that Narey had spoken disrespectfully about a toddler who had died in innocence. He had besmirched the child's memory by positing for him such a bleak and distasteful imaginary future.

Yet Narey was right to speak out. It is impossible to argue that humane and sensible state intervention would not have saved Baby Peter's life. Narey went further, and suggested that it might well have improved the quality of his life, his character and his own adult impact on wider society as well.

It is easy to feel pity for abused young children, especially when that abuse causes great suffering and tragedy. It is not so easy to summon sympathy for the abusive adults they so very often become. Few people can feel remotely sorry for Daniel Sonnex, the man who slaughtered the French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez with such cruelty and viciousness. But the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, has been brave enough to argue that there may, at some distant point in his past life and development, been some grounds for summoning up such feelings.

Crook first encountered Sonnex in 2004, when he was 18, and had been held for five consecutive months in solitary confinement in prison. The Howard League gave him legal representation, in what some would see as "do-gooding". Crook learned that he had come from a violent and criminal family, with a father who had often beaten him from an early age. Although the family was known to social services, Sonnex was never taken into care. On the contrary, when his cousins were removed from their own drug-addicted parents, they were placed under the tender ministrations of Sonnex's family instead.

Sonnex was excluded from primary school when he was 10, and was supposed to attend a tuition centre. He never did, and instead, predictably enough, became involved in crime and drug-taking from that age. Eventually, at 17, he was imprisoned for eight years for robbery, GBH and possession of a firearm. In prison, he continued to take drugs and involve himself in violence. He was stabbed five times by other inmates, and moved to different prisons many times in the half-decade he served, before being released as "medium-risk" under the supervision of an inexperienced young probation officer loaded down with more than 100 other cases, and went on to kill so wildly those two fine young men.

The blame for this horrific event has been nominally shouldered by the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, and actually absorbed by the London Probation Service, whose head, David Scott, resigned. He and others – including the former chief inspector of prisons, David Ramsbotham, have argued that the fault is with a lousy, punitive system, rather than with criminal individuals. Straw does not agree with that, and retorts that government investment in probation had increased by 70 per cent in real terms since 1997.

No one doubts that Labour has spent a great deal of money since it came to power. What puzzles observers is quite how it has been spent. The Conservatives were still in government when Sonnex was a small child, and social services were doing their utmost to keep his extended family unit together. Then, as now, this was not only a sentimental policy, but also a counsel of despair over the poor chances of children who entered the care system.

Labour has not been any more reluctant to place children in care than the Conservatives. On the contrary, the number of children in care has risen under Labour, from about 50,000 at any one time to about 60,000, despite attempts to make adoption and fostering quicker and easier, and huge investment in Sure Start. However, the Baby Peter case suggests that children are still being left to survive in households that no decent person would want a child to have to cope with.

Sonnex was 11 when Labour came to power, but still appears to have been left to sort out his own education. It seems a great shame that educational facilities for children like Sonnex have improved so little under Labour, which has overseen a rise in truancy figures despite introducing such extreme measures as jailing parents for their children's failure to attend school.

Some local authorities have defied the Government's "inclusion" policies, to set up special schools for troubled pupils. Sporadically, the idea of opening more state boarding schools has been floated – which would also offer a partial solution for children with chaotic home lives – but nothing has ever come of such expensive yet sensible plans.

If a more robust attempt had been made to keep Sonnex in education, there may never have been some Pygmalion-like conversion. But even if there was not, his frightening and negative "development" might at least have been better observed and better understood.

Instead, like so many children who "slip through the net" at a young age, Sonnex received no institutional care until he committed a crime serious enough to warrant a jail term. Critics of the Government have for many years watched aghast as the number of children being jailed in Britain has more than doubled. Three-quarters of children in young offenders' institutions have had no education beyond the age of 13. Yet even for younger children, let alone dangerous 17-year-olds such as Sonnex, educational opportunities in many institutions continue to be disappointingly inadequate.

Much has been made of the anger management course that Sonnex completed in prison. It's widely portrayed as a piece of molly-coddling nonsense, that the devious criminal can easily submit to in order to fool a liberal idiot of a prison official. But Crook's evidence instead suggests that a lack of rehabilitative support, rather than a surfeit of it, characterised Sonnex's stay at her majesty's pleasure.

Crook herself admits that a more supportive environment might have made little difference. Sonnex, after all, may have been born psychopathic. Some people are. But in institutions so used to treating brutal people brutally, it is surely less easy to ascertain who the really dangerous people are, and act accordingly.

The most terrifying thing for British society generally is the perception that "progressive" policies have led to David Cameron's "broken society". Yet leaving a child to simmer in his own juice, punishing him when he cooks himself up into an unappetising stew, then releasing him onto a vulnerable public, is hardly progressive. Straw may really believe that Bonomo and Ferez died because of an inefficient probation service. But that can only be because Labour is now entirely unwilling and unable to see that, far from being a beacon of progressive hope, it has become a Janus-faced monster of confusion and hypocrisy.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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