A new term has forced itself into political debate as a new horror stalks the inner cities: the feral child. Feral children murdered Damilola Taylor; feral children make life a misery for the inhabitants of sink council estates; feral children make a mockery of our legal system.
So the Prime Minister has acted. Mr Blair, whose eye for an approaching political embarrassment is as sharp as ever, has announced a plan to threaten the mothers of feral children with the loss of child benefit if they fail to bring their brats under control. Mr Blair hopes that this proposal will spin feral children out of the headlines, which it might, until the next high-profile murder. As a method of dealing with the problem, however, it is laughably inadequate, for two reasons.
First, the withdrawal of benefits could only take place after due process, which would be a cumbersome, bureaucratic business; otherwise, the decision would be open to legal challenge. Left-wing legal activists would undoubtedly assist the mothers to hang on to their hand-outs. As a result, the already over-burdened courts, which are failing to cope with youth crime, would become even more ineffective. The juvenile penal system would lose even more teeth, and it has few enough left to spare.
Second, everything would be happening far too late. Those who brief Mr Blair appear to be talking about children of 10 or over. By then, the damage is done; the child's character has already been warped by years spent in a feral state. Equally – and although we need not waste much sympathy on those who have failed to honour life's most precious vocation – by then it will also be too late for the negligent mothers.
By the time these monster kids are 10 they will be beyond maternal control. The hapless mothers will be more likely to fall victim to their feral children than be able to discipline them. The Blair plan, a cynical and thoughtless exercise, is not worth the spin it is printed on.
This does not mean that the problem is insoluble: on the contrary, we are only dealing with a few thousand children in a few score inner-city areas. Yet this is a rich country of 55 million people. Dr Heinz Kiosk, the psychiatrist invented by Peter Simple, used to greet every social problem with the refrain: "We are all guilty." In this case, he would be right. If we cannot prevent a few thousand youngsters from running amok, we are all guilty and we are all wet.
A couple of days ago, one minister did make a useful point. David Blunkett said that it was often possible to identify future trouble makers as early as the age of three. He was right. That is the moment to use the social security system as leverage on potentially incompetent mothers.
Feral children are mostly the offspring of single mothers on state benefit. In future, therefore, such mothers should be required to sign a contract with the state, to come into force when the children are three. This contract would bind them to duties in exchange for their benefits. Under its terms, the kids would have to turn up to nursery school on time, washed, dressed and properly fed, not having sat up for half the night watching horror videos.
On the state's behalf, the contract would be monitored by a new cadre of social workers, managed by private-sector firms. They would be recruited principally from the forces, from the ranks of businessmen made redundant in their 40s and 50s, and from middle-class housewives who want a new challenge now that their own children are growing up. These recruits would have minimal training, lest they be demoralised by contact with the current, failing, social workers. The new invigilators' most important qualification would be common sense. They would be ready to intervene in the lives of under-class mothers, providing support, encouragement and practical assistance. Mothers and children who do well should be rewarded with extra cash and treats. But mothers who fail to meet their obligations should be harassed, blasted and threatened – in the last resort with court appearances and financial penalties. The mother who persistently neglects her toddler should be made to feel like a toad under the harrow.
So should the offending child, at a later stage. The age of criminal responsibility should be reduced to eight, but the sanctions against small children would be enforced through the school system. For the first offence, a caution; thereafter, law-breaking children should be required to have a report card signed by their teachers twice a day. A couple of times a week, they and their mothers would have to discuss this report at the police station. A bad report would lead to an hour in a cell. The child would remain on report until its behaviour had considerably improved.
The report system should be reinforced by sin-bin schools. The child who gets into trouble and who will not behave in class would be required to attend special schools. These would start half-an-hour earlier in the morning and would sit half-an-hour later in the evening, as well as on Saturday mornings. The child would earn its way back to a normal school.
There should be one further refinement. While mothers would, of course, be discouraged from beating their children half to death, those who occasionally reinforced their wrath with an old-fashioned clout or two should have nothing to fear from the law.
The overall intention of these measures is easy to summarise. They would aim to disrupt the hideous trajectory which blights the life of the criminal under-class, and its victims. It is far too easy for children to drift from neglect into crime, while society seems powerless to stop it. This is a lamentable failure of intelligence and will.
Feral children are not a new problem. Dickens's London was full of them, as are his books. But there is a crucial difference between then and now. No one could claim the Artful Dodger and Joe the crossing sweeper were an excessive charge on the public purse. They only encountered public expenditure in form of the Beadle's gruel and a hard bed in a workhouse dormitory. Later on, a beneficent state might have run to a treadmill, a cat o' nine tails, a one-way ticket to Australia – or even a gallows rope.
Compare and contrast with Damilola Taylor's murderers. By the time they reached their feral teenage years, tens of thousands of pounds of public money had been spent on their health, education and welfare.
My remedies might strike some readers as lacking in sentiment. If so, good. The time for sentimentality is over. It is fatuous for the rest of us to indulge our social conscience by spending money on failing programmes in the inner cities, which merely add to the sum of human misery – including the feral child's misery. It should never be forgotten that the criminal's principal victim is usually himself.
The present arrangements are failing. They should be replaced by tough love. If many of the recipients of the new benefits were to think that they are all toughness and no love, they would have only themselves to blame.