Richard Ingrams' Week: Never apologise, never explain

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The Independent Online

"There can be no greater nightmare," wrote the veteran child abuse pundit Esther Rantzen, "than the thought that a convicted sex offender could be teaching your child PE."

She is wrong. An obviously greater nightmare would be that the police and the social services could arrive at your house at dawn and take your children away.

One such story was told by the BBC last week for the first time - the story of how, in 1980, a number of children in Rochdale were taken into care as a result of social workers becoming convinced that satanic abuse was rife in their town.

Incredible as it may seem, there was never, ever the slightest evidence of satanic abuse. Yet one boy was kept apart from his family for 10 whole years until the courts finally accepted that it was all a fantasy on the part of the social workers.

Rochdale council's response to the BBC's film is regrettably typical. Mr Terry Piggott, responsible for the town's schools and families, said that nothing was gained by raking over the events of 15 years ago. Not a word of regret nor any hint even of an apology.

And programmes like this, he said, would just make it more difficult to recruit social workers at a time when they were needed in greater numbers than ever.

As it happens, Mr Piggott is quite wrong about recruitment. So far from being deterred, anyone thinking of becoming a social worker would be reassured by the film and, in particular, the fact that, so far from being held to account, the two women involved, Jill France and Susan Hammersley, are still working with children, and it was not until last week that even their names were publicly revealed.

Not many organisations would offer their errant employees such a comforting degree of protection and anonymity.

Age doesn't seem to apply to foreign politicians

As happened when Ken Clarke and Malcolm Rifkind threw their hats into the ring for the Tory leadership, there is muttering that, at 64, Sir Menzies Campbell may be too old to be a suitable leader for the Liberal Democrats.

What is odd is that this widely accepted view that any politician over 60 is past it has never extended to foreign politicians.

President Chirac is 72 but, although many people believe him to be thoroughly corrupt, I have never heard anyone say that he is too old for the job.

Even more remarkable has been the case of Ariel Sharon, now fighting for his life in a Jerusalem hospital.

At 77, Sharon was not only old, he was also seriously overweight. But while people accused him of all kinds of things - war crimes, for example - no one has ever suggested, as far as I know, that this "man of peace", as George Bush described him, should give way to a younger man.

The same kind of tolerance will not be extended to Sir Menzies, left, whose grey hairs will be contrasted unfavourably to the youthful looks of David Cameron.

But, age apart, there is one very good reason why we should all be in favour of Sir Menzies, namely that he is about the only senior politician who has courageously and consistently attacked Blair over his disastrous and illegal adventure in Iraq.

That was one good reason why I voted for the Lib Dems at the recent election and why, if Campbell is made leader, as I hope, I will continue to give them my support.

I was not surprised to see the picture in yesterday's Independent of a red kite perched on a tree in a Hackney garden. For some time, I have been warning people of the growing numbers of this unpleasant bird, but society, taking its lead from organisations like the RSPB, has continued to insist that we can't have enough of them.

It was my friend, the late philanthropist Sir Paul Getty, who I believe was responsible for the return of the kite to this country. Persuaded by bird lovers that the kite was a Good Thing, he allowed a few pairs to be introduced to his Buckinghamshire estate just off the M40 motorway.

Since then, they have spread very rapidly and are now a common sight in my own neck of the woods - more than 20 miles away.

Kite lovers, who tend to be a little fanatical on the subject, will tell you that the birds are beautiful and peaceful creatures who mean no harm to man or beast.

They may stress what a service kites perform by feeding solely on carrion, thus clearing away the unwanted road kill (dead rabbits, pheasants, etc) that litter the roads.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that kites are rather more ruthless than that. That great expert on birds, Thomas Bewick, writes that the kite "descends upon its prey with irresistible force: its attacks are confined to small quadrupeds and birds: it is particularly fond of young chickens".

But those people who lament the declining numbers of small birds in Britain will be the last to admit that big birds could well be responsible.