The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 9th, 2006

Up on a charge for being a typical child

There can be no point whatsoever in taking a little boy to court for calling another little boy names in the playground. It is insane. That ought to be glaringly obvious. Unfortunately it isn’t. Last week a 10-year-old boy found himself before a district court judge in Salford being prosecuted for allegedly calling an 11-year-old “Paki”, “Bin Laden” and “nigger”.

This was considered by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to be “a racially aggravated public order offence”. The boy denied the charge and claimed that the other boy had called him “white trash”. In any event, the boys are good friends now and play in each other’s houses, and the whole thing would have blown over long ago had not the forces of political correctness overcome common sense.

Fortunately there was one person in this astonishing story who did retain his common sense. Judge Jonathon Finestein angrily made the obvious point that this case was “political correctness gone mad”. He urged the CPS to reconsider its decision to prosecute and has adjourned the case until mid-April so that it can do so.

“This is how stupid the whole system is getting,” he remarked. “I was repeatedly called fat at school. Does this amount to a criminal offence? It’s crazy.”

In the past, he said, a head teacher would have dealt with this. “There are major crimes out there,” he continued, “and the police don’t bother to prosecute. If you get your car stolen it doesn’t matter, but you get two kids falling out over racist comments — this is nonsense.” This is so clearly true — given police failures to deal with much more serious crime — that you might have thought there was nothing more to say, other than bravo to Judge Finestein. But not so.

Almost immediately, teaching unions rose up to denounce him. Judith Elderkin, a member of the national executive of the National Union of Teachers, said she thought he was “a bit out of date on the way issues are handled in schools”. Schools have to report any racist abuse, she explained. “They don’t have any choice. It’s a legal requirement. The judge needs telling that it’s no longer within the control of the school to handle incidents of racial bullying. The CPS is abiding by guidelines.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, spoke even more alarmingly. She accused Finestein of feeding “the pernicious agenda of the far right, who are fielding candidates in many local elections”. Presumably, she meant his comments could help parties such as the BNP in next month’s council elections. She accused him of trivialising racist taunts and abuse.

We have become so used to public officials talking irresponsible nonsense that we are suffering from shock fatigue. But this is truly shocking. The judge did not trivialise racist insults; he went out of his way not to do so. He merely said they should be dealt with in school, in the case of young children, not in court. This onslaught must have been particularly irritating for him, as he is Jewish.

If this kind of sanctimonious silliness exists at the top of the teachers’ unions, what hope is there for education in this country? In this one case is demonstrated the institutionalised folly of most of Britain’s public bodies and the law on such matters. Greater Manchester police, for instance, have nothing more useful to say about this ridiculous case than that the force takes all crimes seriously and is totally opposed to any racism.

Of course racism is bad. Of course schoolchildren should be punished for insulting each other, racially or otherwise. In my youth, rather as in the judge’s, this kind of behaviour was severely dealt with at once in the school. When I was about nine, I had my mouth washed out with soap and water — a surprisingly nasty ordeal — by the headmistress for insulting another girl unforgivably, even though she had insulted me first, almost as nastily. Despite its injustice, it was a good lesson.

Today teachers and head teachers have no such authority; either they have let it go or it has been taken from them. “It’s no longer within the control of the school”, as Elderkin so chillingly said last week. That is one of the many things wrong with schools.

All this new Labour talk of localisation and empowerment for schools is simply hot air. Head teachers cannot usually rely on the law to protect them from children who do really very bad things, such as attacking others or taking or dealing in drugs. It’s almost impossible even to exclude them. Countless destructive children in every city get away, unprosecuted and unsupervised, despite committing many serious crimes — mugging younger children, “steaming” in shops, joyriding and vandalising.

Probation for convicted young criminals is in crisis. Yet when a young child makes a racist remark, the full weight of the criminal justice system descends upon him, defended by the teaching unions. This is a double standard of the worst kind.

The only good news in this sorry story is that the Muslim Council of Britain has taken a wise and adult line, sensitive though Muslims are to racism. It has supported the judge in his comments. “I would not criticise,” said Tahir Alam, chairman of the council’s education committee and a teacher himself. “We need to be sensible in relation to 10-year-old children. It does not seem eminently sensible, therefore, for this to go to court . . . The issue of racism is of course very serious but we should educate them, not take them to court.”

No doubt the CPS and the police, like the school, were abiding by anti-racism guidelines. What that means is that their discretion, their ability to judge individual cases with as much common sense as they can muster, has been taken away from them. What’s more, their common sense and adult discretion have been undermined by the regulations and culture of anti-racism.

Racism is, of course, a real evil but the current guilt-ridden obsession with it, so clearly expressed in this case, only serves to inflame it and actually to further the cause of racist politics — the reverse of what the politically correct protagonists intended. This entire episode has a faint whiff of the Soviet show trials or the Salem witch-hunts about it, a kind of public hysteria. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.