The madness of Keir Starmer
Throughout the outgoing DPP's tenure, he was obsessed with sexual-abuse prosecutions.
Keir Starmer stepped down as director of public prosecutions (DPP) last week. His directorship was characterised by ill-thought-out ‘announcements’ about sexual-abuse cases. Such announcements would often be contrary to common sense and surplus to requirements. But this didn’t matter. The only reason such announcements were made was to try to convince the country that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) could deal with sexual-abuse cases.
Whether it was instructing his lawyers not to take notice when a complainant was drunk or had delayed making their complaint, or announcing, following the death of Lib Dem MP Cyril Smith, that the CPS would have prosecuted Smith for sexual abuse had the complaints been made today, Starmer spent his directorship in a constant self-flagellation on behalf of the CPS. All of this, of course, was an attempt to rebuild some public faith in the CPS’s ability to deal with abuse cases.
Now, having stepped down, it seems his penchant for crazy ideas has been liberated from the shackles of professional judgement. This week, he announced – out of nowhere, of course – that for members of certain professions it should be a criminal offence not to report child abuse.
Of course, reports of child abuse are on the rise. There is no evidence that professionals are failing to report child abuse. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite: so many cases are now being reported that social services are missing the extremely serious cases, like that of Daniel Pelka earlier this year. The problem is not a lack of reporting, but an excess, to the extent that serious cases do not receive the attention they deserve.
So what, then, about the practical reality of making the failure to report abuse into a criminal offence? Would it apply to every professional who failed to report any instance of abuse? Starmer was unclear as to whom the law should apply, but he did go so far as to say that it would ‘certainly’ apply to teachers.
Starmer would argue that there is a precedent for criminalising omissions in the law of professional negligence, but a teacher’s job is not to monitor a child for signs of abuse. This is an adjunct to the full-time job of educating. Of course, the vast majority of teachers are vigilant about the physical and mental welfare of their pupils, but a failure to pick up on signs of abuse cannot properly be called ‘negligent’ teaching.
Perhaps you could only apply the law to care professionals and others whose job it is to spot abuse. But in instances of serious failure, these professionals already stand to lose their jobs. They inhabit some of the most heavily regulated professions around. Starmer’s idea that adding the threat of prosecution to an already heavily regulated professional sector will somehow drive up standards is completely divorced from the evidence and common sense.
Starmer tried to use his directorship to atone publicly on behalf of the CPS for perceived failings in dealing with sexual-abuse cases. This latest announcement is an apposite farewell. Luckily, no one outside of advocacy groups has taken his latest outburst seriously and he now retreats back into the quiet life of practice as a leading barrister. He will still have space to make his ‘announcements’ in court, but thankfully away from the world of public policy.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.