Richard North, 05/04/2015  

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For all the hype over the leaders' debate, there was one thing of many that was not mentioned and nor will be. This is brought up by Booker who, over the coming weeks, hopes to explore some of the huge political issues that will scarcely be mentioned in this claustrophobically unreal election campaign.

This week, it is what he has often described in his column as one of the most disturbing scandals in Britain today: the catastrophic state of our highly secretive "child protection" system.

By any measure, this should be a political issue. Largely hidden from public view, it operates almost entirely under laws passed by Parliament. But we are given many horrific glimpses of just how badly it has broken down, in ways those laws never intended – not least in the horrific abuse of some 2,000 children in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere, many of whom were in the state "care" system.

In the past few years, record numbers of children have been taken into this system, currently almost 100,000 in the UK as a whole. Yet there is ever more evidence to show that far too many of them have not only been snatched from their families for wholly inadequate reasons (while the plight of others, such as Baby P, is ignored), but then suffer far more in "care" than they did before they were removed.

This system has become a major industry. With our 80,000 foster carers earning up to £500 a week or more for each child, the cost of "looked after children" alone has soared to nearly £4 billion a year, and within five years, according to the Local Government Association, "children's services" will account for a fifth of all the money raised in council tax.

Of late, thanks above all to the heroic efforts of Sir James Munby, the current head of our family courts, some senior judges have been questioning parts of this system more trenchantly than ever before. In one recent judgment, (2015) EWFC 11, Munby went out of his way to highlight some of the methods whereby local authorities and social workers routinely flout basic principles of the law by bringing cases for the removal of children that rely only on unsubstantiated allegations and hearsay, "sometimes at third and fourth hand".

He has emphasised before how removing a child from its parents is one of the most serious decisions the courts and the state can ever take. Yet what may seem to a local authority an "impressive" case, as in the one he was hearing, too often turns out to be only a "tottering edifice based on inadequate foundations".

One could cite a whole succession of recent judgments, by Munby and others, says Booker, those where local authorities, social workers and even other judges have been torn apart for their flagrant disregard of both the spirit and the letter of the law as laid down by Parliament.

But with one or two shining exceptions, notably John Hemming (who deserves, regardless of his party, to be soon returned as Lib Dem MP for Yardley, Birmingham), our politicians never seem to question what is going on in their name, or even to show the slightest interest in it.

The only responses of successive governments, both Labour and the Coalition, have been smugly to defend the system, claiming that if it goes wrong at all this is only in "a tiny minority" of cases, and to do all they can to drive up the mere five percent of children in "care" who now go on to be permanently adopted.

One disastrous consequence of this has been merely to encourage the social workers to take even more loved and undamaged children into "care" because it is much easier to find parents to adopt them.

The scale of the unnecessary suffering all this is inflicting on tens of thousands of children is unimaginable. Despite the heroic efforts of a handful of judges, the only people who can ultimately do something to remedy this colossal scandal are the politicians. But in this election, as on so much else, they will remain oblivious and silent.

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