The implication must be that Baby P died for the same reason that
street crime rises, educational performance stagnates, and mortgage
debts go haywire. When the human element in any frontline service gives
way to quantifiable process, something crucial is lost. The belief has
long been bred in the bone of the children's minister, Ed Balls, that
any computer can solve the world's ills at the click of a mouse. It is
a dangerous lie.
There is much one could say about the horrific neglect and murder of Baby P in Haringey, North London last year; a case that has only now come under the media spotlight because of the legal requirement to await the outcome of the trial for murder of the child's mother and two other men.
What irritates me most, however, is the way politicians and pundits alike talk about how shocking it all is. When I hear those words I know immediately that nothing will be done to address the underlying causes of the happily very rare instances of extreme child neglect and abuse.
Then there's the blame game. Someone must always be responsible and held to account. For David Cameron, it is the government. For the lamentable Jeremy Paxman (whom Minister for Children, Beverley Hughes, dealt with admirably on Newsnight, I thought) it is politicians in general. No one, of course, lays any part of the blame at the state of a society in which people like the parents who murdered this child can aspire to parenthood without having first learned the fundamentals of humanity.
The reason, I suspect, that people are so shocked by these dreadful events, is that they have a the false impression that the world is, bye and large, a good, safe, warm and comfortable place. For the majority of citizens globally, and for sizeable minorities even in the rich countries, this is palpably not the case. If 30,000 children under five die each day from preventable causes, then we've got some considerable way to go before we can be proud of the world we have created.
It is probably impossible, ever, under any conditions, to keep all
infants safe from the actions of psychopathic parents. It is however
possible to create social and economic conditions in which more young
people grow into adults and undertake parenthood with the a level of
emotional and psychological maturity that would minimise the
possibility of abuse or neglect.
It would also be possible, if we chose not to fix society, to properly fund, invest in and motivate social services departments and people who work in them, to sort out the mess that inevitable follows without on occasion, failing to act in time.
If we really want to protect every single child from parental abuse we have either to change society beyond all recognition, or massively increase social services funding.
We could settle, on the other hand, for being thankful that such events are so rare, and remind ourselves, as Professor Colin Pritchard noted yesterday,
that children in England and
Wales are less at risk than in most developed countries. The baby
murder rate is highest in the US and only Greece, Italy, Spain and
Sweden have lower rates than England and Wales.
But please, let's be a bit more grown up about the warts-and-all reality of human existence. Dreadful thinks happen, thankfully not that often; and unless we are really prepared to address the underlying causes, at huge cost, we really should stop pretending to be shocked.
David Aaronovitch has this reasonably balanced piece on the arguments for and against a national DNA database in today's Times.
My gut instinct is to oppose such a database; I suspect the disbenefits would outweigh the advantages, and I'm not sure government, the police or any other public body are up to managing it effectively or cost-effectively. At the same time, I struggle to fully identify with what Aaronovitch terms the 'intelligencia default position' that we are 'sleepwalking into a surveillance society'.
As I wrote last year, my biggest concern about such initiatives is that by using technology to address the symptoms of deep social problems, rather than tackling the roots causes, the incentive to build a better society is steadily diminished.
There's currently a rather scary vision of what society might look like a few years hence on BBC1 each Sunday evening, in the thriller The Last Enemy, in which the government is trying to introduce a system called TIA (Total Information Awareness) which would enable the powers to be to track our every move.
It's going to be a while before the technology makes this possible, and even when it does, I'm not sure how the state would fund the necessary investment. Although if things continue as they are, and society and the economy continue to morph into a mechanism principally geared to the consolidation of minority wealth and privilege, then the state would presumably have no problem finding private backers for such an Orwellian scheme.
There are worrying problems of crime and insecurity facing society today, but would we not be better advised to examine and address the roots causes, rather than using technology to mitigate the symptoms. The current BBC drama does not make for comfortable Sunday evening viewing.
If you want to understand why cross-party calls for extending stop and search powers are wrong-headed, and why the policy won't reduce crime, you should read this excellent short piece by Deborah Orr over at the Independent's new Open House blog.