Friday, November 13, 2009

The Public Interest

Last week in a quiet police station in Bury St Edmunds, a phone rang. It was a man well known to the police, a section one offender (a sex offender to most of us) calling tosuggest that the newly bought and equipped children's home that Suffolk County Council were about to open next door to him might not be such a great idea, given his history of multiple rape, long-term imprisonment etc.

That this gentleman made the call should be applauded. That Suffolk County Council didn't do the usual reckie to make sure that the children in its care were being placed somewhere safe is, let's say, a rather large mistake. One in the eye for multi-agnency working (the police sort-of knew where he lived, apparently).

Those four children all currently live in my Division. I am their Councillor. My job at these times is to speak for their interests to those in control - their `corporate parent', Suffolk County Council.

So I write a fairly nice letter to the Cabinet Member for Children's Services. No reply. Another to the Director of Children's Service. Same. To the Leader of the Council. Zilch. I write to the local paper. No, they won't run this story. Half a million quid wasted (they can't sell the house now, of course). Kids made vulnerable. Massive management failure. Sorry, not interested. Spooky. Are they all Masons, I ask myself.

In despair, I contact the Chair of Children's Scrutiny Committee. Can I raise this at our next meeting? I ask. She's not sure if the rules allow this.

Local democracy in action. Had I been ranting and raving I might have understood people going to ground. But my letters were, if anything, understanding and placatory, suggesting system-failure not blame.

As those kids' Councillor I now feel, after pretty much a week of silence, angry and ignored. Parties with 55 of 75 seats don't need to listen to Opposition Members. Scrutiny is sidelined and chaired by their own side. Resultingly the Council becomes, more like a private members club than a representative body.

And when this kind of culture is modelled at the top, in which other views are ignored and the usual checks and balances are disregarded, it easily takes hold lower down.

From which arise the kind of royal fuck-ups that see us opening children homes next door to serial rapists - then acting like nothing happened.

Bad? It's disgusting.


Anonymous said...

Craig, I cheer your commitment to your constituents and your evident concern as a parent. However, is your irritation directed at a system, or at the fact that your own fears as a parent - despite your position - have yielded little traction?

I also applaud the self-maintenance of the gentleman you describe. However, was his real intention to have the school moved so HE could live in a peaceful, temptation free environment? Oh how blissful would that be?

And how medieval it would have been for the newspapers to rise to the challenge of either a) suggesting the planning was wrong on the basis of this persons choice of residence, or b) adopting an aggresive and almost colonial approach to relocating those that have commited an offence. Your angst is poorly directed at the issues here in my opinion. This man has clearly commited an offence previously and he had flagged up, by his own admission, the potential that temptation may well prompt a reoffence. That is a criminal justice and probation issue. Not a planning one. Or at least not enough of a planning problem to justify disadvantaging an entire community by a complete rething of the strategic location of a school.

However emotive crimes are we must plan our communities sensitively. Of course. And that is exactly what you are suggesting. But if every convicted shoplifter was to confess that the newly proposed mall was a bad idea then on the basis of your subtext we would have malls in out of town and non-residential areas or, we would have new colonies of released criminals confined to a parallel world of existence.

I am not dismissing the emotion here - which I fully support and I continue to admire you for your commitment to the people you serve. But don't blame a system which is build to serve the majority, target your concerns towards the systems designed to monitor and manage the minority for the greater majority good. Otherwise, its a bit like reacting to terrorism in a submissive fashion.

Children as victims of horrendous crime is a situation that should dominate every planning discussion. However, it needs to be moderated with a clear analysis of risk and an appropriate involvement of the necessary agents. Not a Daily Mailesque/medieval reactionary carnival. I am sure if you express your concerns to the relevant department you may get some reassuring responses. Also, do you really want to further demonise a man who clearly has a grip on his weaknesses?

This is not a planning issue - its a probation issue.

But well done again for caring so passionately.

Rob Fountain said...

The link between shoplifters / malls and sex offenders / children is not appropriate in this argument. Not because of the emotion involved in the crimes, but because the public responsibility to commerce is considerably removed from the responsibility of a local authority to its looked after children (nay all children).

For this reason, the frustration levelled at the system for not correctly conducting checks for risks in planning the location of the children's home is to my mind correct. Moreover, the subsequent failure to accept the errors - to learn from them - is a valid cause for anger and irritation.

I do agree that it is pleasing that the paper didn't run with it for the points would have been lost in the spinning. The story is not about sex offending or it's management, but it is about a local authority mismanaging it's services to children (assuming that the sex offender's location was known in advance); and then the failure of a public authority to acknowledge an elected members challenge to explore what went wrong and what happens now.

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Anonymous, you've understood some of what I am saying but I think misapprehended the greater part. I am angry not so much with the error (cardinal though that is) as the pitiful response to my legitimate enquires as the affected childrens' councillor. I totally respect the man involved but would, as a matter of due diligence, avoid the placement of young people near his home, as, I would in the case of my own children. The institution in question, btw, isn't a school, but a children's home and I would argue that there is a strong argument for ensuring these places are located away from the presence of known sexual offenders, given what we know about overall levels of rehabilitation in that group.