A few days ago, I was feeling complacent. Although I wrote that there were moments when we all felt that the country was going to the dogs, I was in too mellow a mood to mean it. A few hours later, no more complacency, and forget about moments. It was as if the United Kingdom had been renamed the United Kennels.
Five fire engines and 25 firemen arrive at a pond to rescue a seagull. Why does it take 25 men to rescue one bird? I refer my honourable readers to the renaming of the UK, as mentioned above. There used to be some not especially funny jokes about how many Jewish American princesses it took to switch on a light-bulb. But there is a difference. In those jokes, the light bulb was turned on. In this true joke from the fire service of the United Kennels, 25 firemen stood there. For an hour. And did nothing. They decided that health and health and safety would not like it. Water can be wet.
Not as wet as those firemen. You could not make it up – and if you had, there would have been no point. No commissioning editor would have considered it, for any TV channel. "Look," the answer would have gone: "I don't mind satirising political correctness, but it's got to be plausible. 25 firemen hanging around, to fail to rescue one bird: come on, no-one's going to believe that."
Over the years, I am sure that there have been press reports about firemen risking their lives to rescue a dog or a kitten from a blazing building. A rational foreigner would have shaken his head in disbelief. Why place human life in hazard for an animal? There could only have been one answer to that: "Because that is how the British behave". No longer. It is to be hoped that all the foreign correspondents based in London were out of town for Easter. As long as they managed to persuade their editors that it was a true story, not a belated April Fool, imagine what fun they could have had at our expense.
There was more fun to come. At Chelmsford railway station, there had been a dispute between two taxi drivers, One of them was Scottish, so he must have been blameless. The Scots are a notoriously peace-loving race who never ever get into arguments. Anyway, the other taxi-driver called the Jock a Scots something or other ( I somehow suspect that it was a rude word). A couple of weeks later, at midnight, three policemen arrive at the offending Sassenach's house, to arrest him for a racially-aggravated public order offence. But when they took him to the cop-shop, there was an outbreak of common sense. The custody sergeant was not prepared to go along with this nonsense and let the prisoner go. There is a useful Ulsterism, which is more and more needed throughout the UK (still old meaning, just). "Catch yourself on". It is used to urge calm on anyone doing or saying something stupid. Perhaps the custody sergeant employed an Essex equivalent.
It would be helpful if these and other cases led to lawsuits against the police authority concerned. A few Chief Constables given a good doing in the witness-box: a few bright young inspectors finding that their career prospects are suddenly not what they were, because they had allowed their men to perpetrate some daftness; heavy damages at the end. There could be salutary consequences. For the interim, those guilty should at least be sentenced to unrelenting mockery.
Then we come to another story, where the mockery has to end. In the last few days, there has been a lot of debate about the question of secret trials for terrorist suspects, to protect intelligence sources. As usual, the argument comes down to the two contending Latin tags. Fiat justitia, ruat coeli and salus populi, suprema lex. "Let justuce be done, even if the heavens fall" and "the safety of the people is the supreme law". In the course of that recent dispute, we have overlooked the fact that secret trials are already taking place in Britain: over 200 of them every week, in our so-called "family courts". As a result of the trials, parents can be sentenced to lose their children: innocent children can be parted from their parents.
The defendants are denied many of the normal safeguards which they would enjoy if they were merely charged with armed robbery or murder. Hearsay evidence is admissible, which it would not be in a criminal trial. The prosecution – social services departments – can spend large sums on expert witnesses. Not only are the parents unable to counter this; there is the suggestion that in many cases, these experts have never actually seen the children concerned, and are simply relying on social workers' reports. Expert witnesses are well paid.
It is easy to understand why this has happened. Those heart-rending photographs of Baby P, in the days when he could still stretch out his arms in the expectation of a cuddle, rather than to ward off a beating; none of us wants to think about the tortures which that little boy endured. All of us want to ensure that there will never be another Baby P. But safeguarding the innocent must not mean punishing the innocent. In order to prevent a repetition, social workers are seeking twice as many care orders as in 2008. Is this to protect children, or to protect themselves?
We must always remember that social workers paid 60 visits to Baby P's home, without realising that it had become a torture chamber and a death cell. Are people like that to be trusted to break up other homes?
We must defend vulnerable children. I have argued that we need a new breed of social worker, who would teach hapless young mothers how to bring up their children. If children are believed to be in danger, why not CCTV in the flat, reinforced by unannounced visits? But we do not protect children by taking them into care, which is often an Orwellian misnomer – just like family court. Fifty per cent of all British prostitutes were in care, as were half of those in Young Offenders' Institutions. Imagine the pain of a child who is taken away from its mother. The loss, the destruction of security, the life-long inability to believe in love: we are sentencing those children to unending pain.
For the past few years, two able, persistent and conscientious journalists have been investigating all this. Neither Christopher Booker nor Camilla Cavendish started out as parti pris. Neither would minimise the problem of children at risk. But both believe that innocent parents are suffering, while their children are condemned to be in risk's way, because of social workers' excesses and because the family courts do not offer parents the basic protection of due process: of "innocent until proven guilty".
These abuses are only possible because of secrecy. Any journalist who wrote about the details of a care case would risk imprisonment. Even stricken parents have been threatened with prosecution, should they so much as discuss their case with outsiders. Again, one can see the case for secrecy. The last thing that troubled families need is to be jeered at in the street by neighbours who have read all about it. But secrecy can also act as the cloak for injustice and oppression.
Even one error of judgment would be one too many. Let us be realistic, and suppose that ten percent of the 10,000 care orders granted every year were unnecessary. One thousand children forcibly and wrongly removed from their parents: that would be a hideous injustice. It would call into question our right to be regarded as a civilised society. The Government ought to commission an urgent investigation into the whole system. If this does not happen, then devil take the consequences. There may have to be a campaign to confront the evils of secrecy in the family courts.