Belmont Club

The buck passed here

The newspapers in the UK were recently full of stories about the death of a certain Baby P, a 17 month old baby boy who was progressively killed by his mother’s boyfriend while she watched, apparently amused at the proceedings. Over an extended period the little child had his fingers lopped off, bones broken, teeth punched in and spine snapped until finally he died. What made the story resonant with the British public was how it went on undetected despite at least 60 visits or interviews between the child and welfare professionals. It was like a play full of motion where everything stayed still. Child protection people, for example, would make inspections yet fail to cross the room to look closely at the child. At other times, the infant was presented at arms length smeared in chocolate by his monstrous guardians to obscure his injuries, all of which seemed to escape the notice of the social workers. When the child was taken to a government health care doctor for examination shortly before he died, the doctor didn’t examine the child because it seemed inconvenient to do at the time. “The doctor, who qualified in Pakistan and worked in Saudi Arabia before coming to Britain in 2004, spotted bruises to his body but decided not to carry out a full systemic examination because the boy was ;miserable and cranky’.”


Amidst the reams of journalistic soul-searching which followed, the most interesting analysis was provided by Theodore Dalrymple, who drew on his experience as a doctor in the British health care system. His basic thesis about why Baby P died undetected in plain view was that in bureaucratic Britain the concept of responsibility had changed from being predicated on results to one predicated on process. Nobody saw the actual, all they could see was the process.  Dalrymples’ remark reminded me of a comment I recently heard from someone in a major consulting  firm in connection of the recent economic meltdown: that they were so busy measuring compliance that there was no time to ask if the basic business made sense. Everyone was looking but what were they looking at?  Dalyrymple wrote of this bureaucratic universe:

The fundamental purpose of the British public service is to provide a meal-and-mortgage-ticket for those who work in it, especially at management level. The ostensible purpose of an organisation is rarely its real purpose. I know this from my experience in the Health Service. Thus, when a problem reveals itself, the response is a curious one, that is to say simultaneously one of work creation and work avoidance.

The work creation consists of instituting ever more “failsafe” and “best-practice” procedures, usually with all their associated paperwork, which are then bowed down to and worshipped like the Golden Calf. Of course, this creates the impression of terrific pressure of work, that can be relieved only by the employment of more and more staff with strange titles such as Compliance Manager and Best-Practice Co-ordinator. …

Documentation is its own justification; and a superstition now exists among the police, nurses, doctors, social workers, prison officers and no doubt others that nothing can go wrong if the forms are filled in correctly. Anyone who has been to a coroner’s court lately will know that this is a superstition shared by many coroners.


At the core of Dalrymple’s critique is the idea that in many modern bureaucracies, appearances have become the actual measure of performance.  They exist to fulfill their own procedures. And things may now have reached the point where people have actually forgotten what the point of the job is. And yet this startlingly ineffective, Potemkin bureaucracy has become the preferred vehicle for replacing personal responsibility in much of the developed world. In another article in the City Journal, Dalrymple described why the bureaucracy was expected to stand in lieu of the family: because that ancient institution was rapidly collapsing. The substitution of government for the perceived failure of the Old Ways has been a common theme in the culture wars.  And in Britain at least, there was no doubt that the Old Way of doing things was having it rough.

More than four out of ten British children are born out of wedlock; the unions of which they are the issue are notoriously unstable. Even marriage has lost much of its meaning. In a post-religious society, it is no longer a sacrament. The government has ensured that marriage brings no fiscal advantages and, indeed, for those at the lower end of the social scale, that it has only disadvantages. Easy divorce means that a quarter of all marriages break up within a decade.

The results of this social dysfunction are grim for children. Eighty percent of British children have televisions in their bedrooms, more than have their biological fathers at home. Fifty-eight percent of British children eat their evening meal in front of the television (a British child spends more than five hours per day watching a screen); 36 percent never eat any meals together with other family members; and 34 percent of households do not even own dining tables. In the prison where I once worked, I discovered that many inmates had never eaten at a table together with someone else. …

Violence against teachers is increasing: injuries suffered by teachers at the hands of pupils rose 20 percent between 2000 and 2006, and in one survey, which may or may not be representative, 53 percent of teachers had objects thrown at them, 26 percent had been attacked with furniture or equipment, 2 percent had been threatened with a knife, and 1 percent with a gun. Nearly 40 percent of teachers have taken time off to recover from violent incidents at students’ hands. About a quarter of British teachers have been assaulted by their students over the last year.


Given that crisis, the tendency had been to throw more social workers, supervisors, compliance experts etc to police up this shattered domestic landscape but not always to good effect.  Instead of a dysfunctional families, you had a lunatic bureaucracy pretending and pretending some more. Eavesdropping on the British bureaucratic debate following the death of Baby P, as through the video clip below, is like listening to people talk nonsense in what outwardly resembles English, yet in a language with completely different semantic rules.  It is a language which seems designed, for example, to express as little meaning as possible in the greatest number of words. Everyone is always talking about ‘regret’, ‘appropriateness’, ‘safety’ and ‘protection’ in such a disembodied tone that it is almost rote; and moreover where there is considerable doubt those words mean anything like their entries in a dictionary; and even some doubt about whether they mean anything at all, apart from what they imply in terms of procedure.

But what are we to make of speech deliberately emptied of significance? The first would be to recognize, as Orwell did, that the advantages to saying nothing at all in a bureaucratic world are very great. If you say nothing, no one can blame you for anything. It used to be the case that only macroeconomists were allowed to make deliberately ambiguous statements.  But today it is a general virtue to be like Sergeant Schultz. I know nothing, I see nothing. It is a strange world we live in when to express a dislike for murderers or spot the dying baby — is to invite complication and trouble. We live in a world full of noise and glitz and yet is afraid to speak. No wonder Baby P could not be saved by an army of social workers. Not a one of them could risk saying the obvious.  They just filled in the forms.


[youtube cUaZ0sL6VQI]

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