The brothers, aged ten and twelve years old, were fed cannabis by their mother to get them to sleep. Their father, in the words of one neighbour, led a life of “drink, drink, drink. Go out, come back, kick off, beat the kids, drink, drink, drink”. The children, who never had a meal cooked for them, scavenged for food and wore clothing they found in skips.
When the two boys at the heart of the Edlington case dominating the headlines lived with their mother, home was a former council estate near Doncaster. A month before they were arrested for the attempted murder of two other boys aged ten and eleven, the boys had been taken by children’s services and moved to an inadequate foster placement in Edlington, near where their father lived.
The deprivation and squalor these children grew up in, the chaos, the neglect, the casual abuse, all of this comes as no surprise to the Howard League for Penal Reform. Our legal team represents children and young adults in custody, and countless case files tell similar stories.
It is worth quoting coverage in The Times, and the story not of the boys but of Edlington itself, the place:
Edlington’s reason to exist was the Yorkshire Main colliery, which began producing coal in 1911. Most of the village was built to serve the pit. When it closed in 1985, the village lost its soul.
Dilapidated shops, boarded-up, vandalised houses, litter-strewn streets and crumbling back alleys serving row upon row of 1920s terraces are the backdrop to a community of 8,000 people.
Residents’ prime concern, according to a consultation exercise carried out a few years ago, was rising levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. They spoke of their “very low self-esteem” and sense of demoralisation.
There is charged recent history in these paragraphs. Partisan political points could be easily made about the closure of the pits and the mining communities in the 1980s. But equally partisan points could be made about how Edlington continued to suffer in the years since 1997.
The Labour government’s response to one aspect of social decline and entrenched inequality came from their own forms of ‘consultation exercise’. The leadership and strategists had focus groups; individual members of parliament had their constituency surgeries. Both routinely came up with similar results to the exercise held in Edlington. The public, particularly the public in Labour’s traditional heartlands, were increasingly concerned about crime.
The government duly introduced a punitive criminal justice approach, based on the triangulation strategy that used crime as a political prop and which was first pioneered by Bill Clinton in the United States. Since 1997 the government has created over 3,000 new criminal offences, introduced over 50 bills and enacted 23 criminal justice acts. We spend more on law and order as a proportion of gross domestic product than any other country in the OECD. The result is that the prison population broke the 84,000 mark for the first time this August, more than doubling since 1992. Struggling to manage the ballooning prison population, Jack Straw has been forced to preside over a deeply unpopular early release scheme and is committing billions to new super-sized prisons.
What could those billions be otherwise spent on? What could be done for communities such as Edlington and the people who live in it if some of that money was spent directly on them? What if we stopped spending money on simply managing crime as a symptom and diverted more money into directly tackling the social causes? At a time of straitening public finances, what would be the better investment?
These questions are key to penal reformers, and the Labour Party has a proud tradition of penal reform within its ranks. This is not surprising, given the influence that income inequality has on a society’s punitive attitudes and its use of imprisonment.
In The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett look at the effect of income inequality across many social factors and across many countries. From rates of mental illness to murder rates, from clinical obesity to children’s experience of conflict, the more unequal the society the higher these problems score. Every characteristic that we would identify with a failing society walks hand in hand with increasing income inequality. So striking is the relationship between income inequality and the rising use of imprisonment that the authors devote an entire chapter to the issue.
If Labour loses the next election, it may well rue the ingratitude of a public that got what it want, as successive Home and Justice Secretaries ran the treadmill of ever tougher, headline-grabbing crime initiatives. There will be calls within the party to mount the treadmill again, that only by running it harder and faster can the public be won back.
Then again, perhaps it is time for Labour to make smarter choices. Principles and values may need to be rediscovered. Because it is not at all clear how the years of headline-chasing initiatives and overstuffed prisons did anything to make the children of Edlington safer.