Baby P and the truth about 'broken Britain'

BAD-TASTE joke warning. If you're easily offended, perhaps you'd better skip the next paragraph.

Aidan Semmens

BAD-TASTE joke warning.

If you're easily offended, perhaps you'd better skip the next paragraph.

“What's the difference between a rottweiler and a social-worker? You can get your kid back off a rottweiler.”

OK, I told you it was in bad taste.

Worse, you've probably heard it before.

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But in the current climate of hysteria I think it's worth pausing to consider why anyone would find that “joke” funny.

The first point to make is that an awful lot of jokes - maybe most jokes - are offensive to somebody. They are a way of either indulging or challenging our prejudices in a supposedly “safe” way.

We can't do jokes about Irish, black, gay or disabled people any more.

Which isn't “political correctness”, it's progress.

So let's make jokes about social workers. They're fair game, aren't they? (Especially, I suppose, if they happen to be blonde.)

Actually, it's hard to be sure which the joke I quoted is more unfair towards, rottweilers or social workers.

Most of the rottweilers I've known have been nice dogs.

The one exception had been badly brought up by its owners, and that's a peril that can afflict any breed.

As for social workers, they must be among the most unfairly vilified workers in our society.

I don't really know what's been going on in Haringey. I only know of it what I read in the papers, and that is so full of hellfire it is impossible to see the truth through the flames.

I do know that elsewhere social workers do a very tough job in very difficult circumstances. They deal daily with situations I'd rather not have to face or think about and I'm sure most do it in a professional, caring way. Like all the rest of us they sometimes make mistakes.

The manufactured moral outrage over the tragic Baby P case does them no favours whatever. In fact, I can think of nobody it does any good.

It could do us all harm if it impairs the number or quality of those prepared to go in for social work - or to stick at it.

So back to that “joke” above.

It implies that social workers are forever taking children away from their parents. Wicked, wicked social workers.

Now, from a similar quarter, comes the howl that social workers should have taken Baby P away from his parents. But they didn't. Wicked, wicked social workers.

You can't have it both ways.

Of course every case is different and needs to be considered on its merits. And in the course of considering it, there are bound to be disagreements.

I haven't been in many meetings where everyone agreed about everything. It would be suspicious if they did. And that means there will always be someone to say “I told you so” if things go wrong later.

As they did, horrifyingly, in the Baby P case.

But one error, however ghastly, doesn't mean the whole system and everyone in it is rotten.

Let's consider a few facts and figures.

In the 1970s this country ranked fourth among western nations for the number of child murders per million children. Now only four countries have fewer.

In that time the number of children killed in England and Wales has fallen by half. In the same period in the USA, for example, the number has risen by 17 per cent.

So much for “broken Britain”.

In real Britain 68 children were killed last year, 15 of them by strangers. Which is 68 appalling tragedies but a very small proportion of those there might have been.

There are 29,000 children on the child protection register. Another 300,000 are officially considered to be in need. One can assume there are others in peril of one kind or another that the authorities don't know about.

Those figures suggest two things about social workers (and let's add teachers, doctors and police to this).

One is that they do a pretty good job of protecting vulnerable children. The other is that on the very rare occasions they get it disastrously wrong, it is perhaps understandable that they should.

The risks, after all, are remarkably small.

I mean the actual risks, not the I-told-you-so risks of 20-20 hindsight.

Word of the week:-

Feral. Dictionary definitions: Wild, untamed, uncultivated, animal; brutal, savage, like a wild beast.

Except in the sense that every human being is an animal, how is this an appropriate term to describe our children?

It certainly isn't appropriate for any of the children I know or ever come into contact with.

If it fairly describes any children, they are a tiny minority.

A minority no larger now than when I was a kid - or my parents or their parents.

If half of all adults really think today's young people are “feral”, then it's the adults who have gone barking, not the children.