Legacy of the demon master

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The Independent Online
THERE is a desultory irony in Virginia Bottomley's proposals for children's prisons run by private entrepreneurs. Her announcement last week coincided with the fall of Masud Hoghughi, head of the Aycliffe Children's Centre and guru of the coercive school of child control.

In the Nineties, children became the enemy within: they were the pariahs who patrolled political discourse, producing panic wherever they went sniffing or stealing or suffering. Mr Hoghughi was the audacious advocate of this demonology of impossible children - rather than the impossibility of childhood. It was he who predicted 'a new disorder in children which has no precedent: children who are increasingly murderous and persistently suicidal'.

In fact, they aren't more murderous, and this is confirmed by official statistics. But they are more suicidal. And Mr Hoghughi was not a man to wonder why. He seemed to share John Major's mantra: understand a little less, condemn a little more.

However, his reign is now over. He is in disgrace. The county council is taking over his centre. Aycliffe, and pin-down in Staffordshire, institutionalised ideologies of discipline and punishment that hurt and humiliated young people. They succeeded only as symbols. They were important not because they worked - they didn't - but because adults were getting their own back.

They were surrogate prisons which could keep children in solitary confinement. Let's not forget that many of these children had committed no crime, they were inside because no one else could cope with the consequences of their pain.

Aycliffe was the archetype of professional practice and political rhetoric that traded in children's aura as evil. Its status in social work derived from its association with the child murderer Mary Bell.

'Mary Bell had a unique impact on us,' recalls one childcare manager. 'There was no way of understanding her except as evil. So Aycliffe was seen as the place that could deal with demons.'

Gitta Sereny, who covered her trial and wrote The Case of Mary Bell, recalled that no psychotherapeutic work was done with her. 'The really major sin they committed against her was to place her, one girl, with 16 boys.'

That was not unusual. Here, the victims of rape cohabited with the perpetrators of rape.

Social workers, teachers and criminal justice officers recall package tours round Aycliffe, punctuated by spine-chilling stories about individuals and then the promise that only Aycliffe could master these monsters.

'It is in its interest to represent children as being very difficult and dangerous. Aycliffe's very existence helps to create a problem because it disempowers other places and reinforces a sense of failure,' says one professional.

'Aycliffe got its strong endorsement from the courts, probation and social services who didn't know what else to do,' said a senior probation officer. 'The place offered a package and it didn't seem to matter that it was criticised for not delivering.' The package was wrapped in ideological intimidation, with a warning that anything less than a six-month stint in a secure unit would yield 'a disturbed and dangerous adult'. Its failure always had an alibi - these children were so bad]

For Westminster it had the virtue of being a long way away. It could have been the Arctic Circle. In fact it nested in a suburban landscape near a small town in County Durham.

'The director saw it as a problem of containment - the irony is that the community bore the cost. The children have been coming into the community and heaping their revenge on the people of Newton Aycliffe,' objected the town's county councillor, Tony Moore, a radical independent who campaigned against the centre's macho regime.

Mr Moore was first alerted to the problems at the home by staff complaints 'about brutality, dictatorial management and victimisation of staff'. He was also affronted by Mr Hoghughi's treatment of the children 'as 'problem children', not as children with problems.'

It took a vigorous campaign by the councillor to get figures on children absconding - typically between 150 or 200 a month. 'We have to ask: what were they escaping from?'

His worries were vindicated by the Social Services Inspectorate in a formidable critique in 1989: Aycliffe offered a poor quality of life, failed to provide equal opportunities - most of the managers were men, most of the care workers were women - it was not a safe environment, used its relative autonomy from the county council to be unaccountable, and failed to operate its policy on child care and physical force.

This was the most 'negative' report on the centre ever, the county's social services committee was told. With its own board of managers, however, the centre was autonomous and immune.

In 1992 there was a staff mutiny. Despite this, and all the well-publicised difficulties at Aycliffe, Mr Hoghughi's personal reputation enjoyed a renaissance. Although obliged to rescind a policy of physical coercion to gain compliance, he declared publicly that physical restraint would be resumed. In November 1992 alone there were 236 incidents of physical force. Despite this, flight from Aycliffe reached a record. Force failed. This year Mr Moore tried in vain to tell the Home Secretary that the centre was out of control while Mr Hoghughi promoted - successfully - the right of institutions to restrain children.

With crime by children consistently in the news, he was feted by the pessimistic press the more he intoned 'television', 'video nasties' and 'fatherless families'. The doyenne of reactionary liberals, the Guardian columnist Melanie Phillips, designated him the 'distinguished child-care expert' and Aycliffe a 'renowned' centre.

A Northern Echo journalist, Martin Shipton, saw, by contrast, a 'succession of paradoxes', an excess of force and a failure of control, management and security. This year the Northern Echo's exposures have been followed up with dramatic effect on television. 'The people who should have taken account of this avoided it. It is a male gerontocracy at County Hall that is responsible,' says Shipton.

Perhaps that provides the clue to the curious coalition that supported Mr Hoghughi. The manager of a voluntary-sector children's centre reckoned: 'It is as if he announced: give me a dozen of your finest fathers, and then tried to replicate old- fashioned patriarchal family life, with the women wiping noses, bottoms and floors and men administering authority and discipline.' Power and traditional family values, these mattered more than the successful control of children.

Mr Hoghughi may be out of favour now, but his spirit could yet be reincarnated and his schema proliferate as a result of Mrs Bottomley's proposals for secure care in the private sector. Liberation from local authority control was, after all, the administrative condition that produced Aycliffe and the political scandals described by one child-protection specialist as 'sanctioned child abuse'. And it is this same autonomy that would be enjoyed by any private or voluntary sector homes operated under her proposals for profit.

(Photograph omitted)