At one point during a debate on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve MP exclaimed: “You cannot ask probation officers to turn themselves into
surrogate police officers.”
The topic was the revelation that four of the young men who tortured, raped and murdered 16-year-old Mary-Ann Leneghan in Reading were supposed to have been under the supervision of probation officers. Two of them were care leavers and were in contact with social services.
Grieve was being interviewed with Martin Wargent, chief executive of the Probation Boards Association. The tone of both men was one of frustration and even despair at the sheer scale of the problem. Wargent appeared to have some sympathy with Grieve’s point about probation officers. Many people clearly assume that being “on probation” is the equivalent of imposing stringent police checks on offenders.
Wargent put the problems into context by pointing out that the Probation Service is supervising 200,000 offenders, just over a quarter of them under 21. “It is fairly obvious that some people are going to reoffend.” He could have mentioned that the prison population in England and Wales is nudging upwards to 80,000 – about 15,000 more than in 1997 – and is already the highest in Western Europe.
Grieve did not explicitly propound the “lock ’em up” strategy that has been associated with the Conservative Party in the past. His key point was that the whole system of dealing with young men
with obvious problems from an early age is deeply flawed. He called for early intervention with delinquent children, properly structured sentencing for adolescents and proper supervision by probation officers.
Building more prisons may illustrate that society is “tough on crime”, but there appears to be a political consensus that prison building does little to be “tough on the causes of crime” – the second part of Tony Blair’s famous mantra.
Conservative leader David Cameron has stated that the polarised debate between the “string ’em up brigade” and the “limpwristed Guardian readers” had moved on.
He has called for more focus on drug addiction and chaotic home environments. This lies behind one of the key questions that all parties are grappling with: how far does the state intervene in people’s homes and how should it act when problems are discovered.
This is a major challenge for most Conservatives whose instinct is to trust people and distrust the ability of the state to solve personal or family problems. Yet at my local authority (Camden) in the most troubled areas it seems to be common knowledge which youngsters are causing the most problem. And there is no shortage of initiatives on offer to intervene early.
But the reality is that most of them seem to do little to deter the most disaffected or tackle the causes. For example, antisocial behaviour orders, once seen as an easy panacea, are regarded as a badge of honour by many young people.
The police often appear powerless, as in a recent local incident when pupils had to be locked inside a school while armed gangs fought on the street, or in another case when groups of youngsters threw cats to their dogs for them to tear apart.
But what is scary is what happens to these youngsters even if they are identified – which is rare. How many will remain amid the dark fringes of society or bounce around various institutions of
dubious merit with an ever-growing string of convictions? Dominic Grieve was right to ignore the Today programme’s challenge to focus his attack solely on the Probation Service. Whatever the mistakes made in specific cases, reforms of the probation, police or prison services cannot be expected to deliver that promise of “tough on the causes of crime”.
Sheila Gunn is a political consultant and journalist. She is also a Conservative councillor for Camden