You know, I can’t help feeling that some of the reaction to the Shannon Matthews case has been a little over the top. Don’t get me wrong, Karen Matthews is clearly a very bad woman who deserves what’s coming to her, but from the papers you would think she was Dennis Nilsen or something. Then again, maybe the public would have been more satisfied if there really had been a murderous psychopath on the loose. That’s what we’re conditioned to expect when a child goes missing. A simple kidnapping scam by an abusive parent feels a bit of a let-down.
There are of course other motivations here. The most obvious is that Karen Matthews, who is good enough to walk straight into an acting career when she’s served her time, played everyone for suckers. The police were conned into staging an enormous – and enormously costly – manhunt. The media relayed Karen’s pleas for her little angel to come home, and in the case of the Sun, were opportunistic enough to offer a £50,000 reward. No wonder these guys are spitting blood.
And now the axe-grinding comes in, and the attempt to shoehorn all sorts of agendas into the big news story. For David Cameron and the Daily Mail it’s another example of “Broken Britain”, although it’s hard to imagine a news story that the Mail couldn’t cite as an example of “Broken Britain”. And for New Labour it’s another opportunity to have a go at the “benefits culture”, as if being on benefits automatically destroys your moral fibre. This was the big theme of the Newsnight discussion, which illustrated not only Kirsty’s heroic ability to miss the point, but that she and her interlocutors seemed to think that Shameless was an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of working-class life.
And, following on from the backwash of the Baby P case, there is the demand that institutional heads must roll. Actually, I thought the best contributions on the news were from a couple of working-class women, friends of Karen Matthews, who insisted that it was Karen to blame – not the police, the social services or the council. And rightly so.
It’s very easy to pick on the social services, but worth remembering the constraints they work under. These are not only in a lack of funding and training, or stifling bureaucracy, but most importantly legal constraints. And those legal constraints are there for a very good reason. They’re there because the public demanded them twenty-odd years ago after a whole series of scandals, perhaps most notably the Orkney scandal. These typically involved over-enthusiastic social workers who were removing children from their families on scanty evidence, and dumping them in care homes where they also ran a serious risk of abuse.
The result is, as any social worker can tell you, that just about the only thing they can do on their own recognisance is to pay home visits – and even they have to be arranged ahead of time with the parents. If you want to do anything beyond that, you’re entering a legal minefield. Whether you act too soon or too late, you’re damned either way. It may be that the legal restraints should be re-examined, but they definitely shouldn’t be scrapped precipitately in response to screeching headlines.
In the end, while it’s easy to talk about the state failing vulnerable children, we can surely see the limits to what the state can do. I thought the most sensible contribution from a politician on the Baby P case was from Nicola Sturgeon, who said that government could provide the best possible safety net, but government could not stop bad people doing bad things.
We could also see the Matthews case as an example of how robust many working-class communities are, in spite of everything. The people of Dewsbury joined in the search and it was a tip from neighbours that found Shannon. Quite simply, in many cases like this, families and neighbours and communities can do things that the state can’t. So much for the sneering of Carole Malone or Melanie Phillips or Bea Campbell, who seem to think it’s the job of the state to forcibly civilise the great unwashed. Maybe they aren’t in all that much need of civilising?