Greece boils, the euro trembles, the world waits (most of us helplessly) to see what will emerge in the next few days. Our futures, our pensions, our securities depend on the decisions of the very people who led (or allowed to be led) the world into the economic mess it currently experiences. Protests aside, somehow life just carries on.

It still seems odd to me that the present government wants to measure the well-being of the people of Britain without reference to religious or other motivation for living or choosing. I wonder if such inconvenient ‘truths’ as the recent Barnardo’s findings will be taken into consideration in such research. When Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God you have to become like a little child he might have been stating a fundamental truth about human society and not just making a Christian attitudinal observation: that the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society or culture.

Back in 2000 Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) identified the commodification and sexualisation of children – with adults competing childishly with children instead of behaving like adults – in his book Lost Icons. He raised questions that went to the heart of our society’s obsessions, seeing behind the confident exterior some of the ugliness that was festering unhindered behind the curtains. He was largely ignored – not for the last time.

Back in 2009 The Children’s Society published the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry. Being the largest evidence-based research ever conducted into the experience of and consequences of childhood, it provoked some interesting and (often) self-justifying responses – particularly from observers who couldn’t question the evidence, but found the conclusions inconvenient or unconducive to personal lifestyle preferences. There were those who quickly tried to forget it.

Following publication of Barnardo’s latest poll results this week, the airwaves have been full of debate about why British children are the unhappiest in Europe. But this again is inconvenient because it questions our values, priorities and lifestyle preferences.

This comes close to home for me not because of the events going on in London and other major cities around the world, but because I have just spent the day in Bradford at a Clergy Study Day where serious collective attention was being paid to issues of power, poverty and provision in relation to the so-called ‘Big Society’. (This day was planned a year ago, well before I even knew I was coming here, and the theme was clearly on the church’s radar well before the Occupy movement was even conceived.) Clergy deal every day with these issues on the ground.

Politicians and bankers might well have serious charges to answer, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Why do we persist in ignoring inconvenient voices? Why do we ignore the evidence and continue to allow – or even foster – a culture that makes our children so miserable? Or do we just have to conclude that, actually, our children have just got it wrong?

We need to dig deeper and more honestly if we are to understand our cultural malaise. But, understanding won’t necessarily translate into action unless we genuinely have the will to change.

Apparently, there is a debate raging on some New Atheist blog about beards. I haven’t been able to find the blog in question (and how pathetic is that?), but I am sure someone will put a link on a comment here and send people through to see for themselves. (I found lots of stuff on Pharyngula about zombies, but not beards…)

I had a beard for ten years or more. Only a short, stubbly one. But, when I shaved it off my little daughter got the frights. I’ve sometimes thought of growing one again, but now the hair is falling out of my head, I don’t feel like compensating on my face.

But this did make me think about something important. The Ecumenical Patriarch has a big beard. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a notable beard. The Pope has no beard. Isn’t it time he grew one – after all, it isn’t just an ecumenical matter?

Anyway, the atheists are challenging each other to see how much they can raise for Barnardo’s. According to Simon Painter:

Basically, for just £2, you can vote on this page: www.justgiving.com/bearddebate and leave a comment for or against beards. When voting closes, if the “beards” have it, then I will grow a beard for three months, and if the “no beards” win ,then my friend David “Big Dave” Wood and PZ Myers will shave their beards for three months.

He adds:

PZ Myer’s rude tone may not be appreciated when it comes to religion, but at least his heart is in the right place willing to take part and help (to him a foreign charity) Barnardo’s.

Sounds like fun and a good cause, so I am happy to link up. And I want to see the evidence when the razors come out…

Or should that be, ‘Martin Narey, quite contrary’?

Martin NareyMartin Narey is Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and no stranger to controversy. He has been intelligent, brave and outspoken in a completely reasonable way about a range of social issues from prisons and penal reform through to children and their parents. Today he is reported as having called for more children of inadequate parents to be taken into care at birth in order to prevent them being damaged beyond repair in “families that can’t be fixed”. He is a brave man to suggest this because he knows his view will be seen as paternalistic and ‘judgmental’ (he called it ‘illiberal heresy’) and he will call down upon his own head the indignant wrath of social liberals who assume that such a policy would be upsetting. Here is what he said:

If you can take a baby very young and get them quickly into a permanent adoptive home, then we know that is where we have success. That’s a view that is seen as a heresy among social services, where the thinking is that if someone, a parent, has failed, they deserve another chance. My own view is that we just need to take more children into care if we really want to put the interests of the child first.

We can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken. It sounds terrible, but I think we try too hard with birth parents. I have seen children sent back to homes that I certainly wouldn’t have sent them back to. I have been extremely surprised at decisions taken. If we really cared about the interests of the child, we would take children away as babies and put them into permanent adoptive families, where we know they will have the best possible outcome.

Narey has touched a raw nerve here. One response, from Philippa Stroud of the Centre for Social Justice caught my attention for what it assumed about fathers:

We need far more early intervention to try to stop this disintegration of the family we are seeing, but we would like to see more working with these families. What we recommend is the model of the mother and baby going into care, filling that hole and giving the whole family a chance.

Is it simply assumed now that such dysfunctional families no longer have a resident, involved male in the home or in the equation? I just ask the question, but I fear the answer.

childhoodAs Jenni Murray has observed in an article in today’s Observer, simple or simplistic approaches to rescuing damaged children (such as exclusion from school) won’t help either damaged children or the society they themselves go on to damage. In a culture dominated by claims to ‘rights’, we are not very good at working out how competing rights are to be prioritised or regulated. Does the parent’s right to have or raise a child outweigh society’s judgment that such a right has lower priority than that of the child deemed to be being damaged? It is a hard question and anyone who offers a simple answer should immediately be dismissed; easy answers usually come from people who have no experience of the reality of such dilemmas.

I am not sure that the care system is the best place for damaged (or potentially damaged) children; but leaving them to poor parents who cannot cope (possibly who themselves have been damaged by their own upbringing) is not an answer. Nor is parading them on tabloid front pages with headlines such as ‘Hell Boys’ or ‘Little Savages’.

This week sees the celebration in the Anglican calendar of the birth of the Virgin Mary. Actually we know nothing about this particular event and a lot of Anglicans will wonder why we are celebrating it in the first place. But it might make some of us reflect on the fact that she grew into a teenager who got pregnant in a suspicious society, nearly got dumped by her (probably older) fiance, gave birth to a son who grew up to be disobedient (look at what he did when he was 12) and neglect his responsibilities to his widowed mother when he went walkabout at the age of 30 – before getting executed for sedition by a society that knew all about ‘order’ and sorting out the ‘dysfunctionals’.

Mary herself sang a ‘heretical’ song on hearing that she would give birth to one who would turn the political and economic orthodoxies on their head. So, if Martin Narey is being quite contrary, then he is in good company.

Despite appearing to be quite different, two stories in today’s media raise important and connected questions.

First, the (reported) imminent release ‘on compassionate grounds’ of the jailed Lockerbie bomber who is now dying of prostate cancer. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is serving life for murdering 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in 1988. I remember it well because I was watching telly while babysitting my young children in Kendal when the screen went blank and appeals to emergency services started to come across the screen. The plane had flown over Kendal just a few minutes before it exploded. yet, despite the conviction and the loss of his subsequent appeals, there are widely acknowledged doubts about the justice of his conviction – most articulately from Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and for many years leader of the group campaigning for justice for the victims and their families.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Washington said “broadly” families in the UK were concerned about the conviction, whereas US relatives were convinced of his guilt.

The second related story is the report issued today by Barnardo’s in which it maintains that too many British young people are being locked up (rather than given community sentences) and that the sentencing of many of these young people (some as young as 12) does nothing other than increase the potential for further criminalisation. The BBC report says:

The law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender. But the Barnardo’s report found more than a third of 12 to 14-year-olds locked up did not meet the conditions. Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey: “I’ve been shocked at the number of very young children we lock up.”

Barnardo’s surveyed around half of all children who were put in young offender institutions in 2007. More than a fifth were locked up for breaching an Anti-social Behaviour Order or similar punishment, half were victims of abuse and more than a third were living with an adult criminal.

Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said that until 1998 it would have been illegal to imprison these young people unless they had committed one of the so-called “grave offences”. “Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14. “This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims, it is almost invariably ineffective.”

And there’s the rub – precisely where these two stories collide. What is the purpose of custodial sentences? If the penal system exists simply to punish offenders and make everybody else feel safer, then it is clearly not very effective. It might reassure those who see punishment as ‘justice done and seen to be done’. But the offenders will come out and, if criminalised by their experience, be a further or worse problem than they were before. ‘deterrence’ does not seem to work – especially when young people return to the communities and dysfunctional families/friendships that allowed or encouraged them to get into trouble in the first place.

In other words, justice is not served simply by inflicting deserved punishment; there must be some serious work at both rehabilitation and restitution if offenders are to change their ways and, therefore, come out of their criminal sentence better able to live without offending. That way society benefits and it is less expensive. The problem is that pouring resources into stuff that is hard to measure (slow/gradual attitude or behavioural change) is not attractive to the great avenging public.

So, what place does or should compassion have in a penal system? To what extent is justice served by keeping the Lockerbie bomber in prison while he dies – especially given the doubts about his conviction and the lack of prosecution of anybody else? Is justice served – or just vengeance? And isn’t the mark of a democratic, civilised society that it can go beyond justice to show compassion – rather than mimic the societies that thirst for blood-vengeance at the slightest provocation?

I guess I want to explore the value of a pragmatic approach to compassion that will not be welcomed by the Daily Mail brigade. Keeping people locked up might make some of us feel better, but it might be ineffective, expensive and self-defeating. Yes, of course, some people need to be locked up for a very long time, if not for the whole of their life. I have done prison chaplaincy and worked with offenders and am not naive. But, there must be room for an intelligent debate in this country about what we think ‘justice’ is, how it is to be achieved and how it should be mediated effectively.

I might want to see young offenders locked up and kept out of the way and suffering for their crimes. But if we do nothing to help them to change, then we are burying our heads in the sand of self-righteousness and simply sowing the seeds of further crime in the future. This is a problem for the whole of our society – not just for the criminal justice system. I can’t complain if a young offender comes out hardened and commits further crimes against me or my community if I have done nothing to understand them and help provide an alternative way of life in their future.

And I bet this will be called ‘wet liberalism’.