The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 18th, 2005

Children with a murderous destiny

Last week three shocking trials came to an end. At the Old Bailey in London on Wednesday, a gang of four young delinquents, one of them a girl of 14, was found guilty of beating a man to death on the South Bank and recording the start of the attack on a mobile phone to watch later.

Also at the Old Bailey, on Thursday, a young man was found guilty of the brutal murder of the banker John Monckton and of a ferocious attack on his wife. On the same day in Liverpool crown court an 18-year-old boy was convicted of battering a 10-year-old girl to death a few hours after playing cricket with her, without any apparent motive.

All these crimes are disturbing in themselves; in the case of the four young people who kicked and beat David Morley to death, purely for pleasure, it is also shocking that they were convicted not of murder but of manslaughter. To the woman on the Clapham bus this makes no sense. These four young people — two of them too young to be named in court — were members of a vicious gang and regularly went looking for people to attack for the hell of it. Morley was not their only victim. What is savagely kicking and stamping on a harmless stranger, who ends up dead, laughing all the while, if not murder?

The lord chancellor said last week, in connection with a different killing, that “there is a lack of clarity about the circumstances in which a case should be reduced from murder”. How true.

What shocked me much more about all these cases was the background of the killers. These children and young people were disasters waiting to happen. I do not mean to excuse what they did. I admit that plenty of children from harsh backgrounds avoid murder and mayhem and grow up to lead ordinary lives. All the same, there are plenty of children — and these were some of them — who give clear warning signals. Someone should have paid attention to those signals. Someone should have tried to intervene before those children went to the bad. If their families couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and if school didn’t, then the welfare state should have done so.

That surely is the one essential function of the welfare state — the one duty that justifies its intrusion, its huge size and its immense cost. If nothing else, the welfare state should be there to protect and guide the children of the underclass and prevent them coming to harm and harming the rest of us.

People use the word feral too freely, but in the case of the young people who smashed up Morley, it is the proper word for their wild street life. Their stories are almost Dickensian. They were dropouts in every way, roaming around looking for trouble in attacks they called “all-nighters”. People knew about them. Why was nothing effective done about them, or for them?

Reece Sargeant, the 21-year-old gang leader, was not academically bright or at least did not appear to be. He went to a special school and left without qualifications. He did not manage to hold down a job. These days someone with no qualifications at all is almost unemployable. To be a strong, aggressive young man and unemployable is in itself to be in harm’s way and someone should have been watching out for him: he was well known locally to be a menace. This is surely what armies of social services “outreach” and youth workers are supposed to do,

The aggressive young girl in his gang is the child of an alcoholic father and a drug addict mother who had abandoned her. She was in care, then fostered. Judging from her diary she is barely literate. Of an earlier attack she wrote: “Yesterday I done an allniter wiv BARRY Darren and reece. It was joke aswell we went (?) places. Them lot bang up some old homeless man which I fink his badmire (?) even doe I woz laughen after doe.”

This girl’s co-defendant, Darren Case, was also in need of care and attention. Seventeen at the time, he lived with wheelchair-bound grandparents, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had not been to school since he was 13; he was said to be constantly in trouble with the police.

Similarly in the case of the 18-year-old boy convicted in Liverpool of murdering the 10-year-old girl, he too had dropped out of school at the age of 13 because of his psychological difficulties with other children. The efforts of the local education authority to arrange teaching for him had petered out so by 16 he was antisocial, isolated and difficult. At the time of the crime his family was away on holiday.

Damien Hanson, who killed Monckton, was excluded from primary school at the age of 10; even his mother called him “the devil’s child” and by 16 he had four criminal convictions. Despite his youthful criminal record, prison sentences and finally a conviction for attempted murder, he was let out of prison on early release. This was done in defiance of an official assessment that he had a 91% likelihood of re-offending.

One could, I suppose, take the laisser-aller view that in any society there will always be damaged people and bad people and little can be done about them apart from locking them up or building gated communities and hiring private patrols.

That is not the view our society takes. New Labour came to power promising to be tough on the causes of crime as well as tough on crime itself and I believe that even people well to the right of the political spectrum have considerable sympathy with that approach. We know the jails are disproportionately full of young people who are illiterate or who have been in care, or both, and with people who are mentally ill or intellectually impaired — all of whom have been let down by public services as well as by their families.

It is astonishing that in a rich, supposedly civilised society such as ours there should be so many horribly neglected children in the midst of plenty who are let down by their broken families, let down by their failing schools, let down by incompetent social services and health services and constantly moved on and on, from one hardship to another, like Jo the crossing sweeper in Dickens’s Bleak House, until something terrible happens.

They could be identified, early in many cases, and helped; all too often they are not. By 10 it may well be too late. It is a sobering thought at Christmas.