Denise Robertson: Who are we to believe on the state of Britain's prisons?

The Minister for Prisons says one thing, the Chief Inspector of Prisons says another, but who should the public believe?

A prison guard
A prison guard

Last week I heard Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, tell the Radio 4 audience he was afraid of the situation in Britain’s prisons.

He gave several reasons, but they all boiled down to lack of resources.

He didn’t mince words, saying there was a coming threat to inmates, staff and the public at large. Interviewed immediately after, Chris Grayling, Minister for Prisons, said there was no problem whatsoever and everything was hunky-dory. Indeed there were a thousand free spaces available.

The presenter questioned them closely, but neither budged an inch. I met Mr Hardwick when he was chief executive of Centrepoint.

He didn’t strike me as someone who would panic or make things up. Chris Grayling is a respected Government minister.

So who do we believe? The man in charge, or the man he employs to keep things running smoothly?

:: BBC Radio’s Tales From The Stave gave me half an hour of bliss recently.

The presenters had Leonard Bernstein’s diary for the period in which he was creating West Side Story, together with letters he wrote to his wife.

I was fascinated to hear that my favourite song, One Hand One Heart, which I took with me to my Desert Island, was actually composed for the fire-escape scene.

Oscar Hammerstein attended an early rehearsal and told Bernstein bluntly that no two lovers on a fire-escape at night would sing anything quite so restrained. As a result, Tonight, the song that now represents the show, was created.

The programme was full of snatches of the wonderful music and revealing facts about the production.

There was much angst, even tears, but towards the end Bernstein wrote to his wife “This show just might turn out to be worth the effort!” It was, Leonard, it was.

:: I hate writers who make statements likely to cause a furore and then, when the heat gets too intense, say they’ve been misunderstood.

Penelope Leach has back-tracked on much of what she said in Family Breakdown.

The book states that, after divorce, children under the age of four should remain with their primary caregiver – usually the mother – and never stay overnight with the absent parent, as to do so could interfere with brain and social development.

I think that’s dangerous advice. In the last few weeks we’ve read of two mothers killed in car accidents, leaving a young child.

If that child hasn’t a good relationship with its father, or father-substitute, it is going to be bereft indeed.

Of course the mother/baby bond is paramount, but to make it exclusive is, in my opinion, a mistake. Professor Charlie Lewis from Lancaster University agrees.

“The evidence, unfortunately, does not support Leach Metanalyses show that the more contact there is with the non-resident parent, the better the outcome for the child,” he says.

Of course children shouldn’t be passed from pillar to post, especially if there is not a good relationship with the father, but to suggest a child should never be apart from its mother at night is not only limiting for the child, it leaves no opportunity for the mother to relax.

Leach talks of children being ‘victims’ and says: “Divorce or separation will always be bad for children. It ranges from disruptive and sad to tragic. No matter how well-intentioned parents are, their divorce or separation always makes children unhappy. Always. No child is too young or too old to be affected by family break-up.”

She maintains children of divorce are likely to do badly at school, grow up to become risk-taking teenagers, even anti-social adults, and find it hard to form secure and trusting relationships later on.

What Ms Leach doesn’t tell us is the effect on children of growing up in a house where there is constant rowing or, worse still, icy silence.

I’ve found great happiness in marriage, but for 20 years I’ve been President of the National Council for Divorced and Separated.

I know that very few people divorce on a whim, indeed some have divorce forced upon them.

Whatever the circumstances, people caught up in that painful process need all the help they can get. They do not need telling that their children are doomed. If parents put children first when making post-divorce plans their future can be a good one.

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