Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Newsnight Interview on Childhood

Emily Maitlis & the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Crypt Chapel

Monday 9th June 2008

The Archbishop shares his concerns about the treatment of children in the criminal justice system, the need to meet targets on reducing child poverty and the broader question of how society values children and families.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was interviewed by Emily Maitlis for BBC 2's Newsnight in connection with the publication of a report by the UK Children's Commissioners to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. A full transcript, as broadcast on 9 June, is below.

Archbishop, Britain leads much of the Western world in its punitive measures towards children: ASBOs, arrests, locking up. Is that a good position to be in?

I think compared to the rest of Europe we are obviously in a punitive frame of mind and sometimes the public rhetoric that you find about children and young people does suggest that we don't really like them very much; but in a more quantifiable kind of way if you look at the number of children who have custodial sentences in this country, it is an alarming statistic. You have got, I think, 25,000 children being given custodial sentences in a three year period. You have got 30 deaths of children in custody in an 18 year period; that has to be something to worry about.

Well, Gordon Brown has said recently that we should be locking up those found in possession of a knife.

I think knife crime is a very, very specific point. It is to do with an intent of violent harm so it seems and I'm not saying that children or young people who carry knives ought not be subjected to very severe punishment but I still question, question depending on context, whether a custodial sentence is the right thing for every single case.

What would very severe punishment mean then?

I think you would have to look at particular cases. You have to look at the age of the children involved for example. You have to look at the circumstances in which they were living, look at the expectations of their peer group. That's not to say that you let them down lightly, but the question remains, is a custodial sentence for a child the best thing?

What do you suggest then? Thirty children murdered with knives so far this year, do we have to get tougher?

There are lots of ways of getting tough that don't involve custodial sentences. There is the whole question of the business of restorative justice which the youth justice system has invested in a great deal in recent years. How do you actually bring young people face to face with the results of their crimes in ways that can make a difference? And that's the crucial thing – the ways that can make a difference.

Is there anything you would like to see the government bringing in at this point which you think could physically make a difference?

I've found it very difficult to be specific about this. The government has made a proposal. I would like to see that argued through. I'd like to see what it might mean to treat this crime or any crime as automatically carrying a custodial sentence. I'd like to see some evidence that this is effective in dealing with it. And then I would like to see some work from those who have actually worked at the coal face with young people involved in crime; to ask them, "What does make a difference?"

The government will miss its target of halving child poverty by 2010 by a good long way. This is a government who made the eradication of child poverty a priority. Your thoughts on that?

It is a major plus that the government has made it such a priority. It is now something that no political party can ignore; as something that the government ought to be engaging with very, very proactively.

And yet it has failed to do anything?

It has failed and if you ask why, certainly if you ask some people in government why, one of their replies might be,' Well we do need a clearer mandate from the public at large about this. If you have a situation where, as apparently is the case, barely 50% of the population really believe that child poverty is a major issue then perhaps it is not entirely surprising if the political establishment in all the parties is a bit reluctant to put their necks on the block in pushing...

Isn't the whole point of being in government, of being the prime minister, that you don't seek a mandate every time you believe in something, you get on with it if you know it is right?

You get on with it! I couldn't agree more.

Let's look at society then. Let's look at civic values and family values. Do you think what we are seeing now, be it knife crime, be it poverty, be it drinking on the streets and the rest of it, go back to a lack of family values?

I think it probably does in some measure but of course another factor that comes through quite strongly in the report we have seen is children feeling they are left adrift in circumstances of family breakdown. It's interesting that so many children that come from broken relationships or broken family say, Well we would have liked to have had more say about the contact we have with a parent, the other parent in a divorce, we would like to have more say about where we get to live and feeling that they are helpless - that they are drifting. Now that can't be very healthy and I think that one has to ask some questions about how blandly or easily we regard family breakdown.

Would you agree with your deputy, Dr Sentamu, who said that rights start becoming before responsibilities? Do you agree?

I think that where you do have a culture in which peoples' sense of rights is limited to a sense of their own entitlement, rather than being part of a culture where you give and receive, where you have obligations and relationships that shape you and form you. I think where you have a situation where rights become entitlements, you do have a danger. You do have a danger.

What about the way we live our lives now as a family; more mothers going out to work as I suggested, more couples being allowed to get married, single mothers on welfare support. Going back to some of those specifics, if you can, can you address them? Are they all good things, ought they to be encouraged?

We now have a very wide assortment of family patterns in this country. Now some of them are healthy and good, even when they are not particularly conventional. I guess that like many people, I have seen single mothers bringing up children in exemplary ways, sacrificial ways.

And you would say the same for gay couples?

I have seen gay couples with adoptive children who seem to be again, devoting sacrificial attention. Now whatever I think of the ethics of that, there is love and care going on there.

Now, you wouldn't rule any of these particular ways of bringing up children?

The law at the moment allows those.

What about the Church though?

The Church has its own rules about these things.

And where do you stand, with the law or with the Church?

I'm a member of the Church. I stand with the Church on these things. We do not encourage or sanction certain patterns of family life, the state does. We work with that the best we can.

You see, isn't the problem that there is a religion in this country that sets strict boundaries, that has a rigorous moral code, that is unswerving, that knows its mind; that religion is Islam. And the Church of England has kowtowed to the tolerances of the time or the trends of the time and in doing so, has lost its authority.

You could say that the Church of England is trying to deal with pastoral realism with a very, very complicated set of social circumstances. I think if you looked at how Islam, or Catholicism, or Hinduism, worked in slightly more complex situations, you would find that they were making pastoral accommodations as well.

And yet, when I have asked you for specific examples of how we should live our lives according to right and wrong, you have replied very diplomatically but with no authority of right and wrong.

What difference does it make if I say, "The root of all evil is single mothers. The root of all evil is irresponsible, individual teenagers. If we got them we would solve all the problems." What difference does that make? I don't think it does. What we can do is be as careful and as candid as we can in the analysis of the problem that asks, what will humanly make a difference to this? It is too easy to pontificate from a distance. I know what I believe about the nature of marriage and I am quite prepared to say so. I believe marriage is a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman whose purpose is partly the upbringing of children.

But do you not concede that we need from you a more muscular Christianity and all we are getting is one that has been replaced by the search for pluralism?

I think that is completely untrue. Do you think that people in this country faced with 'muscular Christianity', as you called it, are going to change their ways because I say so or anyone else says so? We have to have credibility in terms of what kind of healing or wholeness we can bring to peoples' lives by being alongside them. That involves more clarity, it involves moral perspective and orientation but nothing has changed by saying things are more loudly.

Listening to you today, you don't actually think that the government has done anything wrong? You don't think that the state of where we are today is down to how this country has been lead in the last decade?

I have said that it is very easy to scapegoat groups and the government is another scapegoat. We have all to look at ourselves in this respect and we all have to look at the sort of mandate we give government. That is why if we have a society in which fewer than 50% really believe that child poverty is a problem, then government has a problem with that and it is no good trying to shift the responsibilities sideways.

Archbishop, thank you very much indeed.

Back · Back to top