8 March 2009

"Defend the children of the poor & punish the wrongdoer..."

So reads the inscription above the main entrance to London's Old Bailey.

It is not my intention to address the Brandon Muir case particularly - or any other individual set of appalling facts or circumstances. Any comment I could make on such matters would, of necessity, be rather ill informed. Nevertheless, I noticed that Iain Gray MSP used his conference speech to raise the issue:
"And a child born today will not live and grow as they should unless they live and grow in safety. Brandon Muir died in Dundee. But this was not only Dundee’s tragedy. We must all take responsibility. And we shall."
He continued:
"We will press the Scottish government to legislate, as we had planned to do, to require the sharing of information between agencies for child protection purposes. No child’s life should slip through the bureaucratic net. We will demand that action is taken to identify the 40,000 – 60,000 children living with drug addicted parents, and the 80 – 100,000 children who live with alcohol addicted parents. And if the SNP government do not respond then we will consider how we can introduce the necessary legislation ourselves from opposition. And Conference I think the time has come to re-examine when and how we remove a child from their home to keep them safe."
I would want to highlight one crucial dimension to all of this which is too readily neglected: the ugly class dynamic underwriting some of the analysis. Manufactured outrage about social workers aside - we must address these issues in the real world, and not abstract dream systems where information magically filters out. How is knowledge about the internal workings of households uncovered? How should it be? How should it not be done?

Don't lets pretend any of these things is self evident. For all of the cameras, churning out gurning footage of many of us, tramping the public quarters of our towns and cities - Big Brother isn't watching. But nor, I think, would we want that aforementioned bureaucratic net to become a universal noose - the parental head perpetually wagging in its grip. Nonsense, it might be argued, scare tactics and worse, followed by an conscientious invocation of how nothing can be risked when a child's life is at issue or under threat. In a sense, respondents who took this line would be quite correct - that netting of public oversight wouldn't effect everyone - for the middle classes it could prove a light - even non existent gauze. What Gray is referring to - and the ugly sub-current eddying beneath media discussions about these issues - is the tacitly class-based analysis.

Those in sickly poverty should present themselves at the counter for perpetual examination - their bodies and souls being uniquely accessible in a way which an appalling abusive lush who maintains a veneer (or creosote coat) of respectability from Newton Mearns or Morningside - would not suffer. At every point the media conspire to demean and cheapen the lives of those in poverty. While the middle classes have partners, girlfriends, boyfriends - the poor have lovers - rendering even the most ordinary and tender parts of people's lives lurid and squalid if they do not fit the dreams of an idling and self indulgent bourgeoisie.

These issues are intimately involved in public discourses around child abuse and child cruelty, however little we may choose to address them. Although some might see the questions paling beside the dreadful sight of a small coffin being consigned to the earth - we cannot let horror blind us - and cannot let the bad acts of one bad man or woman provide the principled basis for a complex edifice of social judgement. To adapt a legal phrase somewhat, "hard cases make bad law" - horrid cases can equally prompt horrid, intrusive and patronising social agendas.

I am interested in what anyone else thinks about some of these issues.

1 comment :

  1. LPW,

    I agree totally about your last point and hard cases making bad law.

    As you note it's a very difficult issue, and there is at least some aspect of class attached to it.

    The point you make about 'poor people' having 'lovers' is, I think, only half correct; this is actually a phrase used when the media wants to criticise the person they're writing about and so in that respect transcends class boundaries.

    However what is perhaps true is that so-called working class people are more likely to face this critical journalism. Although you only have to look at when Sunday tabloids break stories about reverends and teachers (for instance) in a small community to see it's used in both scenarios.

    I also think the Brandon Muir case raises the issue of what we mean by working class; by traditional standards working class surely means people who actually work, something not really evident in the case of Brandon's family (at least not in a legal sense).

    If we really get into talking about class from a theoretical perspective you can argue that this difference is one recognised by Karl Marx, when he spoke about the 'lumpenproletariat' (or the class below working class).

    Ultimately child abuse of the sort Brandon endured can happen in any class, but we can surely agree that it’s generally more likely in a home with drug and alcohol abuse and other related problems. And that’s why there is then a demand for government action.

    The main issue has to be what we’ll actually do about it. If we just have a blanket policy to remove children from drug-addict homes then it has to be accepted that this will sometimes be the wrong move and also that it has to apply to middle-class parents too.

    But if we do this – or even if we have a slightly more nuanced policy – this really boils down to money; we already have a lack of childcare and foster spaces in this country; a massive expansion of this will need money.

    And of course actually trying to prevent this sort of situation ever arising e.g. massively transforming many communities is even harder, will take longer and cost even more money.

    In other words whatever we decide to do if it’s going to be in any way meaningful it’s going to cost money. In this climate that has to be mean cuts elsewhere and I don’t see anyone proposing that.

    So we can sadly just look forward to another Brandon Muir in future. Just like Baby P. Just like Victoria Climbie. Just like Caleb Ness. And on, and on…

    p.s. Sorry for long post.