Even by his own standards, a somewhat repugnant column from Littlejohn today, which reaches its nadir about here:
“Where an earlier generation of public servant would have issued a heartfelt, grovelling apology before reaching for a bottle of single malt and a loaded service revolver, Mrs Shoesmith took the modern way out. She denied everything and reached for her lawyers.”
Although I can understand people disliking media hate figures, there’s something about wishing them dead which I find quite unsettling. It’s not just the implicit premise that justice requires blood, or the black and white claims of total guilt and total innocence which the desire implies, but the utter atavism of it. Leaving aside any questions about whether Littlejohn is right in apportioning blame solely and uniquely, and allowing a weak version of his claim that justice requires retribution, this is another human being he’s talking about. But for a slightly different conception of public service, it could have been him.
Hold that thought, because Richard doesn’t, quite, believe that Sharon Shoesmith is totally guilty:
“While the last breaths were being bludgeoned out of the defenceless Baby P, Shoesmith’s sentinels were busying themselves sitting in case meetings, ticking boxes, sipping fair trade coffee and scouring the jobs adverts in The Guardian.”
At least part of Richard’s claim is that the systems in place were inadequate and that by following them the social workers were inevitably failing to protect vulnerable children. Or, as he puts it later: “Theirs is a world where they are never to blame, provided proper ‘procedures’ have been followed, and even when their incompetence is exposed”. The thing about procedures is that they’re put in place to cover situations, to make sure that things aren’t overlooked. Without procedures, you have no way of guaranteeing that people are acting correctly, and no way of guiding them in unfamiliar situations. It’s harder than he thinks to blame someone for following a procedure that isn’t obviously wrong, one that covers most of the situation but still overlooks some things. It’s harder than he thinks to design a procedure that takes account of active deception on the part of the parent. But for a slightly different conception of public service, it could have been him.
Were it him, he would twice have gotten as far seeking legal advice on whether the baby could have been taken into care, and twice been told the legal threshold hadn’t been met. He would have repeatedly visited the home and found no trace of the two men who were living there who would eventually commit murder. He would have dealt with what seemed to all intents and purposes a co-operative mother, with a child who did not show the signs of violence that were so obviously present on its beaten corpse. He would have found himself trapped between a Daily Mail which believes in less State intrusion, and one that vilifies poor parents. He would not have found the evidence unearthed in a police investigation or the patterns which seem so obvious when you’re looking for them. It is very easy to fault procedures once they’ve gone wrong, and to sit in judgement from outside after the fact. It is harder on the ground, where all you have to guide you is a procedure which has, so far, brought you results. But for a slightly different conception of public service, it could have been him.
Were it him, his reaction would almost certainly one of extreme guilt and remorse:
“I don’t know how anyone could live with themselves knowing they could have prevented a vulnerable child meeting a ghastly death, but had failed to do so.”
We can be fairly sure of this, because of the reaction of Sharon Shoesmith, who it actually was:
“”You do consider how to stop it all, you know. You can just walk off the end of the tube platform and stop it all and I certainly did think about that on occasion, and there was certainly another occasion in the middle of the night when I gathered up all the paracetamol that existed in the house and there was nothing like enough.”” (“‘When a dead child is known to us, that’s the biggest horror. We knew the size of that’“, Friday, 6 February 2009, The Guardian)
But for a slightly different conception of public service, it could have been him.
The point here is not that Shoesmith is blameless or that Haringey Social Services are blameless. It’s more that Sharon Shoesmith is a human being, and that Haringey Social Services is staffed by human beings, and that sometimes human beings make mistakes, sometimes they construct mistaken systems, and sometimes the consequences of those mistakes are grave. That doesn’t negate their humanity, it doesn’t make them any less like Richard. Richard is clearly capable of imagining what it must be like to know that a child died on your watch, just as, in different circumstances, he would be capable of imagining how he would respond to a trial by media and summary breach of contract. Somehow, though, he doesn’t make the leap to imagining how he might reach that point. He just assumes that, because he has the knowledge after the fact, he would have had it before, that Sharon Shoesmith was uniquely fallible in a way he wouldn’t be. That is one hell of an assumption to balance a life on.