Yvonne Roberts argues that England needs a modern perspective on
children’s crime and punishment.
How have we managed, in the 21st century, to make children both
so feared and fearful? Victorians were unequivocal on the issue:
infants had to be weaned off their wicked ways by corporal
punishment once they arrived in the world. The present debate
around the release of Thompson and Venables who caused the death of
two-year-old Jamie Bulger, reveals how embedded in our culture is
that pessimistic view of childhood.
The tabloid press, in particular, has been determined to turn
the young men into life-long fugitives. The underlying message is
that they can never be punished enough – they are members of a
juvenile underclass; a growing band of allegedly “evil” youngsters
whom, seemingly without just cause, are at war with the adult
Reporters, respectful of the all-encompassing rights of parents,
pay frequent homage to this mythological land in which kids turn
rotten as if by magic. A mother will say, for instance, she has
other children, only “Jimmy” is a problem – as if her attitudes and
parenting skills have displayed absolutely no variation from child
to child. Such a fairy story, unchallenged in the press, is
invaluable since it absolves adults from all responsibility.
“Jimmy” must have been born bad.
It’s not much of a step to say that he was born irredeemably
bad. Only adults, it appears, are to be allowed the luxury of
redemption and a new beginning.
Last week, two reports were published to little media comment.
One told us that we lock up more young people than any other
country in the EU. The other said that while continental children
watch around two hours’ television a day, their UK counterparts sit
through as many as five. The reasons British parents gave for this
were the lack of alternative activities in their area and fear for
their child’s safety.
It would have been good to have heard a clear and informed voice
providing comment unequivocally from the perspective of children’s
rights on both the Bulger case and the reports. A voice that
pointed out, for instance, that five hours of television doesn’t
say much for the investment our children are receiving from parents
or the extended family. A voice that put parental paranoia about
alleged risks into perspective and suggested some viable
alternatives to lock-up fever.
Last summer more than 100 organisations, including children’s
charities spurred on by Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report on abuse in
children’s homes, hoped that, after a decade of campaigning, a
children’s commissioner would be appointed for England. He or she
would act as champion, watchdog and whistleblower. Instead, a new
children’s rights director, residing in the Department of Health,
is soon to be appointed who will be concerned only with the 200,000
young people living away from home – the other 11 million will
remain without an advocate.
The Welsh assembly successfully fought for a children’s
commissioner for Wales, arguing that it was essential in a modern
democracy, “To listen to all children and young people [and]….
have a genuine commitment to reflecting their views”. It seems
incomprehensible that Westminster alone continues to hold fast to
the the 19th-century notion that severity rules OK, and the best
child is one who is seen but not heard.