The news last week has offered glimpses of a world that most of us in society's comfortable middle rarely see. It makes for horrible reading, finding out about the cursed lives that combined to end, first, Baby P's life so shockingly and, as emerged later in the week, the life of two young siblings in Manchester.
Karen Matthews, mother of Shannon, stands accused of allegedly thinking she really might get away with drugging and hiding her own child in a bid to get her hands on reward money. It's what seems to be an underclass, a level of British society that is not just struggling with poverty – this is way beyond being poor – but often getting by with subnormal intelligence levels, living in a world with no professional aspirations whatsoever, for generations, where criminality is normality, with people who seem to have not just fallen through the net of literacy or personal improvement, but missed out on education or social development altogether. We are told that more than 80 per cent of children killed or seriously hurt through neglect or abuse were not even on the child protection register. If I didn't know better about the huge leaps that have been made in child protection, I would wonder if there was even a net to fall through.
Ten years ago, people like me would laugh at Harry Enfield's Wayne and Waynetta Slob – who finally found their missing baby under the sofa where it had rolled into a takeaway pizza box, and first noticed the baby's bronchitis because "she went right off her fags". An absurdist satire, of course. Yet now would anyone dare laugh at something so ghoulishly plausible in 21st-century Britain? Jamie Oliver teaches people whose kids have never eaten non-takeaway food and don't know how to boil water. To many – to me, certainly – this is as unthinkable and remote as holidaying with a Russian oligarch.
I suspect things are getting worse. A friend of mine has worked in child protection for 20 years and says that yes, there is a definite underclass, and that it has grown. Drugs are usually involved, pornography is normalised, anything goes. The family who passed around a teenage daughter with Down's syndrome as a sexual plaything, with visiting uncles happily running their hands up her thigh in front of my visiting friend. The heroin-addict mother whose five kids were all addicts too. The parents who threw the baby at the wall to stop it crying. The father whose child needed adopting, but didn't want his mum to know what a mess he was in, so he faked his mother's death rather than let social workers give the child to grandma. (She surfaced two years later, back from the dead, in search of her grandchild.) Then there was the man who raped his grandmother, then tried to commit suicide. Most of us struggle to imagine a world in which these acts are possible. And yet, it's here, living if not next door, then a few streets away.
My child protection officer friend reckons it is only really the working-class social workers who are able to walk into a squalid, chaotic home and say to the family: "This won't do, sort it out." Her colleague, who grew up on the rough Falls Road in Belfast, was brilliant at it – telling a family whose baby was learning "shit" and "fuck" as its first words that this was entirely unacceptable, where the more middle-class social workers, who were more numerous in the profession, would avoid being "judgmental" at all costs.
And this awkwardness has only grown in recent years, thanks not only to masses of red tape but also fear of litigation, of having an official complaint launched against you by the client, of being accused of racism if there are different ethnicities involved. And of having the media pounce on you for being a child-snatcher, as has been going on since the Cleveland case in 1987. Our caring professionals walk around on eggshells.
A friend with a severely disabled son who spent his first year of life in hospital and has required 24-hour care at home ever since, has set up a support group. Families in circumstances such as hers must adapt not only to their children's illnesses but to their homes becoming workplaces, with nurses and healthcare professionals traipsing in and out on a daily basis – but my friend didn't set up the group to give parents the support they weren't getting from the professionals. She did it, surprisingly, to make sure the professionals were getting the support they needed from the parents.
What happens is that mum or dad gets stressed out and takes it out on the nurse in their home, who is not allowed to reprimand them. The aggressive parent is not told off the first time they are unco-operative and they're not told off the second, and so it goes on, until it's got so bad that the homecare package is removed and the child is taken back to live in the hospital. And the real tragedy is that the parents may never be any the wiser that it was their own behaviour that led to the change.
So what NHS protocol guides this? Is this our old friend "political correctness gone mad"? Middle-class lefties like me are responsible for the invention of political correctness, so we can't say that, even though there's clearly some truth in it. Yes, the idea of minding your language and your cultural sensitivity is motivated by love, so everybody in a multi-faceted society can feel respected as an individual. But it can also be a loving act to tell somebody that their way of life is unacceptable, and that it must stop. Wrong is wrong.
It is this same misguided notion of respect that leads Germaine Greer to write, in her book The Whole Woman, that outlawing female circumcision is "an attack on cultural identity" because "one man's beautification is another man's mutilation". This is the sort of cultural relativism that says everything others view as OK, especially the poor, must be tolerated by those more fortunate.
Really, it's woolly hand-wringing of the George and Wendy Weber kind, as immortalised in Posy Simmonds's cartoon, and it smacks of fear. In my journalism training class, when our teacher told us that he was so mind-boggled by women wearing burqas that he made a habit of approaching their husbands to ask why they expected their wives to dress that way, most students gasped with horror and said: "You can't approach them! Cultural minefield!" If this is the attitude of a classroom full of wannabe investigative journalists, then things are not looking good.
Look at Jamie Oliver tackling poor nutrition in Rotherham in his recent Ministry of Food series. He's not PC, but he tackled the mother who smuggled chips to her child at school, befriended her and in the end won her over. He's not giggling at her, he's barging in there, swearing, asking, explaining. He gets people off their unhappy backsides to nourish their kids and make them (I bet) so, so much happier. Would a social worker have been allowed to call that woman a fat scrubber, as he did? Of course not. So maybe we should worry less about the names we call people and more about what we aren't calling people, what is going unsaid.
So what can we do about it? Firstly, you can join a mentoring scheme to befriend a struggling child. Many local authorities run these and would love more volunteers. And how about mentoring adults? Could we create more real-life schemes, and not just TV shows, where people like Karen Matthews can get to know people from less troubled backgrounds? It's the entrenchment of the underclass that keeps people there.
Secondly, pay social workers salaries commensurate with their huge responsibilities, so that really bright, sparky graduates will start applying again. And thirdly, to touch on something that underlies all this, ban private schools. Unlikely perhaps, but it is the single best way to bring the bottom up and truly assuage the guilt of the privileged.
The well-off girl in Clapham featured on Channel 4's Rich Kid, Poor Kid last week, frightened of and snobbish about her neighbours on the council estate, would have to get to know them as equals in the local comprehensive. Her over-protective, anxious mother would make sure that standards were improved, because she insists on her kid doing well. All the kids would benefit from her "sharp elbows". Sure, they might still congregate in their different groups in the playgrounds, but some of them would become friends, supporters, lovers. Because when I look around communities, it's not the hoodie with the aerosol that bothers me, but the nice little prep school on the corner, the one with the patterned curtains and the phalanx of yummy mummies outside. That's what's really destroying your neighbourhood.