Just a few weeks ago, the prime minister revealed his plans to tackle the families of children “who grow up to be a menace to society”.
It was a perfect example of how the government resorts loudly to the language of the tabloid press when it wants to get a message across.
Earlier this year, Tony Blair did a podcast to Sun readers urging them to “shop a yob,” while his plans to tackle would-be “menaces” were first unveiled to the world in a BBC interview. His words were everywhere.
But on the flipside of the child who is a menace to society, a yob, the government is silent.
That flipside is a vulnerable child, perhaps with mental health problems and history of abuse, who find themselves in prison without the support they need.
This is not a wet liberal soft-on-crime issue, but a matter of hard fact.
Many vulnerable children in prison kill themselves. 29 have died since 1990 alone. All were between the ages of 14 and 17.
The government has never held a public inquiry into any of the cases.
These deaths have never had the attention of cases like Victoria Climbie, the child who died at the hands of her carers. The failings in social services very publicly exposed over her death led to an overhaul of child protection law.
Would Victoria have got such justice if she had been a child under the care of the prison service?
This week, in the middle of the so-called silly season when parliament is on holiday, the government quietly slipped out a report into the suicide of a young offender called Joseph Scholes.
The report on Joseph’s case was published on the Home Office website without any of the fanfare accompanying Blair’s outpourings on menaces and yobs.
You had to navigate around the website for quite a while to realise it was there.
No press release, no speech by any minister – let alone the PM. No interviews with the BBC or podcasts from The Sun this time round.
Joseph was just 16 when he hanged himself from the bars of his cell at Stoke Heath Young Offender Institution in 2002, nine days into a two-year sentence for being on the periphery of a street robbery.
He had barely brushed shoulders with the law before then.
Joseph, who had a history of self-harm and sexual abuse, was placed in prison despite the judge’s doubts at his sentencing about his ability to cope.
No alternative place was available, and Joseph was unlucky to be sentenced at a time of political rabble-rousing over street crime that led to harsher sentencing.
The coroner at Joseph’s inquest recommended a public inquiry into Joseph’s death.
The government refused, but in 2004 it asked David Lambert, a former assistant chief inspector of social services, to do a report on the “operational issues” arising from Joseph’s case.
The report cost just £10,000 – much cheaper than the cost of a public inquiry, which runs to millions.
Lambert’s report was published after a long silence.
It was completed in October last year, but you have to ask why it was only published now, buried deep in the Home Office website, four years after Joseph died.
Was the delay a damage limitation exercise, in anticipation of the devastating conclusions of the public inquiry into how 19-year-old young offender Zahid Mubarek was brutally murdered at the hands of his racist cellmate at Feltham YOI in 2000, published in June?
That’s not forgetting all those daily stories about how our prisons are in a mess because we lock too many people up. The prison population is at a record high – including nearly 3,000 youngsters.
Those with mental health problems are left to languish inside because of a lack of secure psychiatric beds.
Limited resources mean little is done to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce their chances of re-offending when they come out.
Both the public and prisoners are losers in the system.
Lambert’s report is certainly more bad news for the government.
It gives them even more to add to their “to do” list – 55 recommendations – along with the 88 recommendations of the Mubarek inquiry and countless damning prison inspection reports this year alone.
The government didn’t want to shout this one from the rooftops.
But someone else is shouting, because there is nothing else she can do.
Yvonne Scholes, Joseph’s mother, has now been fighting for the government to hold a public inquiry into her son’s death for four years.
She’s currently waiting to hear the result of her court appeal against the government’s refusal to hold the inquiry.
Yvonne thinks the Lambert report is as bad as silence, calling it “a meaningless whitewash”.
She is also angry that the government withheld the report from her until now, sending it to her solicitor by email just hours before it was published.
She says the report does not answer the question of why Joseph died while under the care of the state.
Why was he put in prison when he was known to be vulnerable? Why was he left to kill himself, despite staff knowing that he was at risk of self-harm?
Yvonne argues: “The report does not address the key issue, which is why Joseph was sentenced to what was in effect a death sentence.”
In a frustratingly quiet understatement, Lambert’s report says: “More needs to be done to ensure the safety of the often very vulnerable young people who are remanded or sentenced to custody.”
But this isn’t a report designed for a Sun podcast.
In sharp contrast to the colourful simplicity of Blair’s tabloid-speak, Lambert’s report is 151 pages of forbidding bureaucratic jargon.
Let me give you a flavour.
With the best unintentional irony in the world, in a passage on “quality assurance in the secure estate,” Lambert states: “An active programme of quality assurance within the secure estate is essential if improvements recommended above are to be realised. The Youth Justice Board’s establishment of the Effective Regimes monitoring framework is an encouraging development. It is important that this should not become over-bureaucratic.”
On the painful subject of kids who kill themselves in prison, he writes: “Serious incidents in the youth justice system, such as a death in custody, are the subject of investigation and review by various agencies. This operational review welcomes the Youth Justice Board’s decision to revise its Serious Incident Review process and align it with other review frameworks. There is scope for closer alignment of Serious Incident Review Practice with the procedure for ACPC Chapter 8 reviews.”
Now, would that really grab the eye of The Sun editor?
Lambert also comments on the use of “safer clothing” for children who might self-harm, like Joseph. This is an all-in-one garment with nothing allowed underneath and it was deemed “dehumanising” by Joseph’s inquest jury.
With all the clinical delicacy of a scientist writing about experiments on lab rats, Lambert writes: “The operational review recommends that the Youth Justice Board Performance Monitor should conduct regular sampling exercises to monitor the extent to which safer clothing is used.”
It’s hard to know what’s worse – the government’s resort to meaningless blather to cover up ugly truths, or its silence surrounding the deaths of children like Joseph Scholes.
Either way, they are turning a deaf ear.
As Joseph Scholes said, just before he died: “I tried telling them and they just don’t fucking listen.”
Scholes report: ‘Insufficient’ alternatives to custody for vulnerable young offenders