The finger of blame

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am


Few stories have penetrated the public psyche in Britain as deeply as the Baby P tragedy. For weeks, seething headlines have documented the calamitous series of events which led to the toddler's death.

As the public learned of the short and brutalised life of the 17-month-old at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and a lodger, it flinched at revelations of myriad botched hospital and social worker visits in the lead up to his death, including by the doctor who examined him and failed to spot that he had a broken back and fractured ribs.

The case has not only lifted the curtain on the inadequacies of child protection in Britain, it has seared the public conscience to the core. Bit by bit, the last days of Baby P's life have fuelled debate on some of the most uncomfortable topics in modern British life.

Baby P's mother was unmarried, cohabiting with a partner and living off state benefits in one of the poorer parts of London.

Links to a so-called 'underclass' have been swift to follow: criticism of welfare dependency in Britain has been reignited and fingers have been pointed at Britain's eroding family structure.

A national thirst for answers beyond the psychology of child abuse has been palpable. Yet, as debate and outrage over the factors contributing to the toddler's death continue, a tidy elucidation looks achingly remote.

As the more right-wing editorials have sought to lay blame with Britain's underclass, academics have been quick to label the term outdated, irrelevant and out of step with modern society.

The notion of an underclass took hold in the 1980s, making its way from the United States to Britain as a convenient tag for a growing number of individuals mired in unemployment and dysfunctional family structures.

A rise in single parents who were dependent on welfare was allegedly fostering a culture where work was devalued, crime more attractive and defeatist attitudes prevalent.

Its relevance today is hotly debated. Today, terms such as 'social exclusion' are being adopted by more politically correct politicians.

'Underclass is a very handy label,' said Ruth Lister, professor of social policy at Loughborough University and author of a number of books on poverty and welfare reform in Britain.

'Clearly there are families with very severe problems, but the kind of implication that there is an underclass of them is misleading,' she said.

She stressed, moreover, that the kind of abuse Baby P suffered was not just born of deprivation. 'I don't think deprivation means you torture your child. The idea that an underclass would treat their babies like that is unthinkable.'

Professor Lister, also a former director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said that there was a danger of conveniently blaming such horrific incidents on deprived backgrounds.

'When something like this happens, people do search for these kinds of theories,' she noted.

She admitted, however, that being from a disadvantaged background was likely to make it more difficult to bring up children the way you would like to.

Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith last week released a timely report through the Centre for Social Justice on the family in Britain to fit in with this theory, citing the 'chaotic nature' of family life in some parts of the country.

The report cited a figure of 25 per cent of children in Britain living in single-parent families, with these children three to six times more likely to experience abuse.

'A recent US study found that children living with a non-biological adult are 50 times more likely to die from afflicted injuries than those living with their biological parents,' he said.

Dubbing marriage a 'stabiliser', he opposes a shift in the law to recognise greater cohabitation rights, instead suggesting that policymakers should refocus on stemming relationship breakdowns.

There has been a sharp rise in births outside marriage in Britain, according to the report, rising by 25 per cent in 1988 to 44 per cent today. Around one in four couples now lives together outside marriage, compared with one in 10 in 1988.

The Baby P case seemed to fit perfectly into this genre. The mother was living with her boyfriend, while the lodger living in the council house with the couple was sharing a room with a 15-year-old girl.

Samantha Callan, who chairs the Family Breakdown Working Group at the Centre for Social Justice, stressed that, for the majority of people from underprivileged backgrounds, marriage was out of reach despite aspirations otherwise.

'Two-thirds of Britons will say it doesn't matter if you have a baby and don't get married,' she said. 'But when asked what they want for themselves, close to 90 per cent want marriage.'

Marriage for people on low incomes is 'the prize at the end of the race' which for many is simply financially out of reach.

Dr Callan added that, at the current rate, by 2016 lone parent families would rise by 23 per cent, with married couples declining by 4 per cent. 'None of this is doom and gloom,' she said. 'I believe with the right rhetoric on this, we need to make it possible for people to do what they want to do.'

At the same time, the British government has come under fire for considering an extension of legal rights to couples outside of marriage.

A proposal has been mooted by the Law Commission to give cohabiting couples a right to financial settlements on separation. A similar safeguard has been adopted in Scotland, and the government has said it will monitor its progress before deciding on similar laws in England and Wales.

Perhaps more emotive in Britain, given the current economic climate, is the issue of welfare dependency which many families - and single-parent families, in particular - have fallen into.

In March this year it was revealed that 70,000 households were taking home more than GBP25,000 (HK$288,000) annually in benefits, with a further 20,000 claiming more than GBP30,000.

The figures, released as a written answer to a parliamentary question, fuelled criticism of the welfare system which, over the past decade, is seen to have focused more on dependency than providing a safety net. A report last year showed that one in three households was dependent on state benefits for at least half of its income.

The figure in the 1960s was a mere 6 per cent, the report by the Cavitas think-tank revealed. The 2007 figures were based on statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions.

They also revealed a growing gulf between households with one or two parents.

According to the figures, 61 per cent of single-parent homes were reliant on state support compared to 9 per cent of two-parent households.

This year, 1.1 million single parents are taking home more state benefits than actual earnings, putting the spotlight on the government's much-criticised tax-credits system.

Under this system, the government will supplement low incomes, mostly applicable to part-time workers. Their wages are made up to match the earnings of people who have put in full hours. The concern is that it discourages people from working full time.

'The welfare system is moving away from being a safety net to something that becomes a vehicle for supporting long-term unemployment,' said Mark Wallace, campaign manager of the action group Taxpayers Alliance. 'In some cases, people have made a lifestyle choice to be on benefits.'

To many, the tax credit system has been seen as something put in place with the best of intentions - reducing child poverty - but which has spiralled out of control.

'The more you earn, the lower the benefit,' Mr Wallace said. At the same time, there has been scant research by the government showing the effectiveness of the programme in getting people back into full-time work.

There is also a worrying social situation where second- or even third-generation children are becoming long-term unemployed. 'There is not sufficient aspiration,' Mr Wallace said. 'It is something which is increasingly corrosive.' One suggestion he moots is raising the benchmark level at which people pay income tax, which is currently just over GBP6,000.

Looking ahead, he said the issue would become more acute for a government facing an economic slump.

'We face a financial situation where unemployment is rising - and the benefits level is going to rise,' Mr Wallace said.

As policymakers continue to fend off criticism on the topic, there is little sign that the circumstances surrounding the death of Baby P will abate any time soon.

Already a press ban on naming the individuals involved has been circumvented by multimedia such as text messages and social websites. The case is also taking on a vigilante element as indignant individuals call for retribution towards the culprits once they are imprisoned.

As the three accused await the jail term to be handed out by a judge, there is no sign that the public appetite for a tidy resolution to the incident has been in any way met.

With snippets of the child's short life continuing to focus on the family and economic situations of his killers, in the media lexicon at least, the notion of an underclass may yet prevail.