Dominic Lawson: Sacking social workers will not stem this tide of depravity

What no one seems willing to discuss is the real horror of the Baby P case
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The Independent Online

Seldom can so many inquests have been held over a single, tiny, corpse. Last night BBC1's Panorama carried out yet another, under the title, "Baby P – the whole truth?" The question mark conveniently allows for a further such investigation, whenever the public mood demands it.

Panorama's latest scoop came courtesy of the police, who remain anxious to make it clear that the failure to prevent the murder of Baby P – now identified as Peter – was not as a result of any investigative failure on their part. They have told the BBC that Peter's mother had informed a social worker that she had acquired a violent new boyfriend, four months before the little boy was tortured to death. This information was not passed to the police, who had already pressed for the mother to be prosecuted for child abuse.

The imminence of this broadcast might help to account for the fact that last week two of the suspended Haringey social workers involved were suddenly dismissed. Beleaguered Haringey must have wanted to make some sort of pre-emptive response to the programme; more significantly, they were also anticipating the conviction, a day later, of P's killer on a separate charge of raping a two-year-old girl.

This set in motion the other media ritual in such circumstances – an interview on Today with Lord Laming, author of two reports following the deaths of children on Haringey Social Services' at-risk register. Laming produced his now familiar litany of suggestions for social working "best practice", accompanied by the chilling observation that "the state should become a responsible and effective parent to more children".

All of this is doubtless well-meaning – but it is so much displacement activity, both on the part of ex-bureaucrats such as Laming, and the investigative media. I'm quite prepared to take their word for the fact that the social workers involved were negligent – although the fact that the social services had paid over 50 visits to Baby P's home hardly suggests a lack of concern; but incompetence is neither unusual nor wicked. What no one seems willing to discuss is the real horror: the fact that a mother was prepared to hide from the social workers (with smeared chocolate) the appalling injuries inflicted on her own son by a sadistic brute she had only recently allowed into her home; and the fact that this is just an isolated incident of a much wider phenomenon.

Last December the head of Ofsted, smarting from the criticism her organisation had received over its invigilation of Haringey Social Services, pointed out that over the previous 16 months 210 children had died in this country as a result of abuse, and of the 21 babies who had died, only two were known to the social services. The point is that no imaginable social services, even if staffed by vastly experienced people of limitless wisdom and energy, could begin to do more than stick a plaster on the gaping wound of Britain's dysfunctional so-called "families".

While it is true that there are cases in which a child is killed by his or her natural father, this is, in statistical terms, unusual. Baby P is a more typical case, in being murdered by someone in the home, but with whom there is no proper parental tie. It is simply a fact that the growth in "broken homes" has led to a vast increase in the number of children deemed to be "at risk" – no fewer than 1.5m now fall into this category.

Our own Government has consistently refused to examine this connection, but such work has been carried out in Canada; academics there have investigated what they term "differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers". They discovered that "the youngest children (0-2) incurred about 100 times greater risk at the hands of step- parents than genetic parents." The authors, Professors Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, also discovered that this vast discrepancy was true regardless of income brackets.

I can imagine some of you, who might be devoted step-parents, recoiling at this correlation; but the word "step-parent" covers a very wide range of circumstances. On the one hand there are extended families in which the mother will have had perhaps two marriages, each lasting about 20 years; these can be regarded as stable homes. On the other hand, there are the homes in which the mother has a succession of itinerant boyfriends, none of whom has any interest in the welfare of such children as might be under their feet: indeed the children would be actively resented, as a distraction from the only purpose for which he finds his girlfriend useful.

We are now well into the second generation of such British "homes", and so we have incontrovertible evidence that the most lethal of these men (and the most unmaternal of these women) tend most typically to be the products of similar ménages.

In this context, it is truly astounding that the Government sees nothing untoward in a benefits system which actively rewards what we might still be able to describe as "non-traditional families". I don't think that the answer to the breakdown of the nuclear family is to tilt the tax system sharply in favour of marriage – these are essentially moral rather than financial matters – but it is definitely perverse to do the opposite.

Perhaps the clearest example of this perversity was the Government's decision to warn Catholic adoption agencies that they faced prosecution under discrimination laws unless they dropped their insistence that children in care should be assigned to married couples. An independent report two years ago noted that the Catholic agencies, while frequently taking on the most difficult cases, have a much more successful record than the average in avoiding "failed" placements. This demonstrates with peculiar clarity that for all its talk about "putting children first", the Government is much more interested in pursuing its "anti-discrimination" agenda.

I am not, as it happens, a Christian; but it is simply a fact that the great 19th-century campaigns against drunkenness and depravity on the streets of Britain would have been unimaginable without the involvement of the churches, notably those of an evangelical disposition. There is need of a similar re-moralisation today, although I doubt very much that it could come from our established church.

The Chaplain-General to the Prison Service, the Venerable William Noblett, recently agreed to the refusal of accreditation to an American Christian outreach group which had achieved extraordinary results in preventing recidivism; he followed the advice of the British Prison Service's "Area Psychologist" who criticised the program, called InnerChange, because its belief that "the root of offending is in individual sin" did not have a "basis in specific scientific research".

Barack Obama has frequently attested to the vital role of independent churches in rescuing countless African Americans from lives of rootless dependency; yet in Britain it continues to be believed by those in power that only the state can rescue our underclass from its repetitive cycle of squalor. So it's always going to be addressed by more and "better" rules for social workers, and an even more dedicated bureaucratic drive towards "best practice" as prescribed by Lord Laming and the Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

When the next "Baby P" case happens – and there will be a next one – we will go through yet another spasm of sacking social workers while the politicians and police duck for cover.

I'd like to say that this can not go on; but of course it can and will, until the state and all its lawmakers admit defeat and allow a moral crisis to be addressed by moral means.