Sadistic Sonnex is the face of Labour’s greatest disgrace

When punishment comes – such is the arbitrary nature of things – it is often for the wrong offence. Gordon Brown and new Labour are being most terribly punished at the moment, but not for the crimes of omission and commission of which they are most guilty. Expenses fiddling and cabinet squabbling, low though it all is, seem to me rather trivial in comparison with Labour’s incompetence since 1997. Why, for instance, huff and puff about hog-swilling and backstabbing when this government’s incompetence led to the slaughter of the two French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez? Last week the government had to face the fury of the bereaved parents, who are understandably threatening to sue. The unspeakable deaths of these two young men could almost certainly have been avoided: they died in agony because the system that should have protected them has collapsed. That is why Brown and his colleagues deserve to be thrown out in disgrace. Dano Sonnex, one of the two murderers, was quite clearly an extremely dangerous and disturbed young man from a violent and criminal family. Again and again he came to the attention of people who knew that or ought to have known it or worked it out and done something about it, but who again and again failed in their responsibilities. Time after time Sonnex fell through – or was allowed to escape through – the holes in the net that is supposed to keep us safe from people like him. When he and Nigel Farmer stabbed the two Frenchmen to death, he should have been in jail. Instead he was on probation, under the low-level supervision of a lowly paid, newly qualified, inexperienced young case officer in a tough part of London, who had to deal with 126 other cases. Does this sound familiar? Before being put in her charge, this psychopathic young man had been passed from person to person, from agency to agency, in a way that seems almost random, even though it is in fact the way the system “works”. Does this remind you of anything or anyone? In 2004, while serving an eight-year sentence for a stabbing and for four knifepoint robberies, Sonnex told a prison doctor that he felt his anger meant he could kill, but this information, although filed, was never passed on to prison or probation officers. While in prison he got into official trouble 40 times for drugs, violence and setting fire to his cell – something that ought to have led someone to wonder about his state of mind and consult his file. Nonetheless, probation officers assessed Sonnex as a medium risk to the public, rather than a high risk, which meant he was placed on a “Level 1 multi-agency public protection arrangement” – the phrase multi-agency itself suggests some of the institutional problems – without even a proper assessment meeting taking place. Upon release this violent criminal was handed over to the unlucky young probation officer in Lewisham. She was able to see him only for about 20 minutes a week because her caseload was so huge. The vast increase in the probation services budget has been accompanied by a yet vaster increase in their duties. Even when Sonnex tied up a pregnant woman and her boyfriend and menaced them at knifepoint, only three days after his release, and even though the police knew a lot about the extreme violence and crime within his extended family, and even though he should have gone straight back to jail from probation, and even though he did go back briefly for something different, magistrates let him out on bail and he was able to torture and kill. This is not just one of those rare concatenations of accidental mistakes. It is all too familiar. It’s institutional, or perhaps one should say multi-institutional. It’s just like the story of Victoria Climbié. Like her, Sonnex was passed from one agency to another, dragged from one professional to another – one busy, one on an away day, one from an agency, one a temp, one blind to her injuries, another unable to get through to a social worker in an emergency, and no one in all this multi-agency nightmare able or willing to grasp responsibility, other than the unlucky person least qualified to do so, upon whom it was dumped. “Multi-agency” and “interface” and “joined-up government” – those watchwords – have come, despite Labour’s promises, to mean their own absence or opposite. It means promising everything, attempting too much and achieving all too little. The Brown and Blair governments have no excuse; they were warned of these systemic problems from the first, yet they succeeded only in making them worse. Jack Straw, who as justice secretary apologised so inadequately last week to the parents of the murdered Frenchmen, was the very man who as home secretary nearly 10 years ago called for an investigation into Victoria Climbié’s death. Precisely this same “multi-agency” failure was revealed in exhaustive detail back then, in Lord Laming’s magisterial report of 2001. Yet Laming’s warnings fell on stony ground. They did not prevent the horribly similar death of Baby P in 2007. Nor did the wider lessons prevent the all too similar murders of Bonomo and Ferez. It’s like seeing the same horror movie run over and over again. The name Sonnex will now stand with Baby P for the real disgrace of new Labour. There is a lot to be said about why all these different agencies failed. First, one should not hurry to blame the individual social worker or probation officer. Second, whatever the long-standing failings of such services, they have since 1997 been overwhelmed by new policies, new demands, new increased workloads and demoralising micromanagement brought on by Labour initiativitis. Admittedly the government is trying, with its new social work taskforce (brought together after Laming’s report on the death of Baby P), to think radically about such matters. But how late it is, how late. Actually it is too late. It is too late to talk, as politicians usually do on such occasions, of learning lessons. In 12 years of office Labour has failed to learn the most important lessons, even when they have been clearly spelt out. Brown should acknowledge that Labour governments have failed in a Labour government’s primary purpose – to protect the most vulnerable and to keep the public safe from the most avoidable harm – and resign primarily because of that.