Melanie McDonagh: If it's order and respect you want, stick to the uniform

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The Independent Online

Mr Brooks had been accustomed during a decade in adult prisons to his uniform of white shirt, black tie and epaulettes. But when he joined the Huntercombe Young Offenders' Institute he found that he wasn't expected just to supervise adolescents but to dress like them.

He did indeed try the soft kit - in blue - to meet the prison requirement that staff should "empathise" in dress with the inmates, only to find that he was treated with "less respect". So he went back to his epaulettes and refused to get back into the jogging bottoms for a control and restrain course, as a result of which he fouled up his chances of promotion. He left the service and now has permission to sue for unfair dismissal.

Does anyone else think that there is a discernible incongruity between a "control and restrain" course, and the T-shirt and jogging bottoms ethos? In other words, you can either dress like a chav, on the assumption that it makes young chav inmates feel at home, or you can engage in physically restraining them. What you can't do is empathise sartorially and then stop them having a go at each other.

You're either in charge, in which case you're psychologically in epaulettes and you might as well wear them, or you're not, in which case you've pretty well had it in getting inmates to do what you say.

The Prison Officers' Association spokesman attacked the assumption that "if you identify with the inmates it will help us to talk to them". I'd say it's a way of infantilising the young offenders, and, in this context, it's interesting that Martin Narey, head of the National Offender Management Service, has jumped ship to take charge of Barnardo's, the children's charity. Perhaps he got the two functions confused.

In paediatrics wards nowadays it's customary for doctors to give up their white coats in favour of civvies, as being less likely to frighten the little children. But teenage offenders know quite well why they're in an institution and who is in charge. For prison officers to dress in leisure kit is a pretence at equality which belies the reality of prison. Anyway, who's to say that young offenders like prison officers in T-shirts? Those who come from respectable homes and nice schools might feel radically alienated. For the rest, an officer in a nice, neat uniform might come as a refreshing change from the norm.

* * *

Among right-thinking people, Professor Sir Roy Meadow is a figure who, if he doesn't scare the children, at least scares the parents. He is the paediatrician whose evidence as an expert witness in the cases of Sally Clark (and three other mothers) helped to convict her, wrongfully, of child murder. His cause was unexpectedly taken up by The Lancet, the medical journal, which declared that he had been unfairly vilified, and this week he put his side of the story to the General Medical Council.

He had been taken to task in the Sally Clark case for his free-and-easy use of statistics to present his evidence, saying that there was a one in 73 million chance of two babies dying natural, unexplained deaths in an affluent family. He explained that he was basing his remarks on sound research showing that there was a one-in-8,543 chance that one child in an affluent family could die such a death, and simply squared that figure. It would have been so much less confusing, don't you think, if he'd just said that it was highly improbable that such a death could occur?

I don't know much about Sir Roy, but I do know a little about a fellow paediatrician attacked on similar grounds, Professor David Southall. My husband worked for his Kosovo children's charity.

Two things strike me.

One is our utter reluctance to acknowledge that parents are capable of harming their children. Professor Southall recorded parents physically abusing their children in hospital by using CCTV cameras, and there was an awful hoo-ha, not about the findings, but about his use of those cameras. The other is the consequences of rubbishing paediatricians who say in court that children's deaths are suspicious. In many parts of the country, it is becoming difficult to find any paediatrician who will appear in such cases - and can you blame them?

The moral of the Meadow case was summed up by the man himself. He said to the GMC that as an expert witness in cases like Sally Clark's, he told "the truth and nothing but the truth but there is a falsity of saying you are telling the whole truth as a paediatrician; yet this is what you have to do".

In other words, medical evidence is often a question of judgement, and a court case is a hostile environment for expressing equivocal, nuanced views. The adversarial system, which works so well in other respects, didn't do justice either to Sally Clark or to Sir Roy Meadow. In cases like these, we may need a different approach.

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