Monday, July 24, 2006


The RSPCA has been accused of harassing a police officer after he killed an injured cat with a spade. A prosecution estimated to have cost a total of 50,000 pounds lasted two years before failing in the High Court. The Police Federation says Pc Jonathon Bell had been "to hell and back" but the RSPCA says the case was in the public interest. The charity pursues around 1,000 cases a year and that is likely to increase under the new Animal Welfare Bill.

In April 2004, Pc Bell was called out to an estate in Stoke-on-Trent following reports of youths throwing stones at passing cars. While there local residents called his attention to a cat which had been run over. The 36-year-old officer sought advice from his control room and colleagues including a police handler. He was told that by law there was no statutory duty for the police to call out a vet and that the RSPCA could not be contacted at that time of night.

He borrowed a spade and with three to four blows killed the cat. His actions on that night unleashed what his supporters say has been a legal and personal nightmare for the officer who eventually was forced to take a month off because of stress. The RSPCA says it took legal action following complaints from witnesses to the killing.

The officer was acquitted at a two-day court hearing last September. District Judge Graham Richards said Pc Bell had been forced to make a decision in difficult circumstances. "You did what you honestly thought best," said Judge Richards, "You walk out of here without a stain on your character." But the animal charity made an appeal to the High Court which recently threw out the case. The final judgement came two years after the cat was killed.

"He thought he was doing his duty as a policeman in a difficult situation and he had to make a judgement call and he's been made to pay for it," Mark Judson, chairman of the Staffordshire Police Federation told Radio 5 Live. He said Pc Bell was too traumatised by the long-running case to comment but that he felt "harassed" by the RSPCA, especially after the charity took the case to the High Court. "They wouldn't let it go even when the decision had gone against them."

An independent expert witness called to give evidence in the trial said the officer had been in a no-win situation. "The cat had been squashed to within an inch thick at its lower half," said veterinary surgeon Colin Vogel. "He did the kindest thing which was to put it out of its misery whereas if he'd just walked away leaving it injured he could have just as easily faced a charge of animal cruelty."

The estimated 50,000 pound total cost of the case, which includes 12,000 spent by the RSPCA on its own legal costs, will lead to accusations that it has wasted large amounts of voluntary donations and public money.

The RSPCA has defended its role in the trial of Pc Bell as well as the 1,000 prosecutions it brings every year. "In the end, the High Court refused the society's application for a judicial review. However, the RSPCA is pleased that Staffordshire Constabulary have since reviewed their procedures with regard to injured animals."


Kiss goodbye to innocence

The insane, PC paranoia about "inappropriate" touching of children has gathered such momentum that last week a 58-year-old vicar called Alan Barrett resigned from the board of governors of William MacGregor primary school in Staffordshire because he'd given a 10-year-old girl a lone peck on the forehead during the course of publicly congratulating her for improving at maths. Barrett, who is married and has three grown-up children, was threatened with charges of common assault after the incident, following a complaint from the child's mother. He was also subjected to an informal investigation by his diocese.

The police and the social services eventually concluded that Barrett had no case to answer. The diocese found his behaviour had been "inappropriate in today's climate" but did not warrant any disciplinary action. Barrett nevertheless resigned as chairman of governors at the school, following advice from his archdeacon. "I have discussed the issues with my archdeacon and agreed that one cannot be too careful," said Barrett. "Giving a child a kiss of congratulations is inappropriate in this day and age."

The child's mother, meanwhile, declared herself "disappointed" with the decision that Barrett had no case to answer. "I'd like him to be removed from his position," she said.

I find this whole story incredible - or rather, I would if variants on it weren't so depressingly commonplace. A friend was watching her daughter's end-of-term play last week and was surprised to be told, by a contrite-seeming head, that parents weren't allowed to take photographs of the performance - not because children might be distracted by flashing lights, but because, though it wasn't spelt out as concisely as this, any paedophiles sitting in the audience might use said photographs for sinister purposes.

I know of schools where distressed young children have to be comforted verbally and at a distance, because giving them a hug might unleash a whole series of complaints and investigations. I know schools that won't apply sunblock on children whose parents may have forgotten to do so in the morning, because skin-to-skin contact is verboten. Some schools won't even apply a plaster to a grazed knee, for the same reasons. At nurseries and kindergartens, nappy-changing is a potential minefield, which is why many now insist that children are potty-trained before they can be admitted.

All touching, it appears, has become "inappropriate". Blanket rules apply, and there is no differentiation between a lovely hug and a grotesque grope. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to imagine that people who choose to teach young children do so because they like them, not because they want to have sex with them.

If you like children, being physically demonstrative is second nature - a pat on the head here, a hug there, taking a sad child onto one's lap to read him or her a story. Why ban it, or create a moral climate in schools and nurseries that is so morally unhealthy and fearful that teachers are stopped from offering comfort, and children are brought up in the kind of environment where innocent physical contact with adults is somehow seen as dubious from the start? What kind of warped lesson does that teach them?

What is especially unpleasant about all of this is that it is so foully dirty-minded. A sane society does not equate a noble profession such as teaching with paedophilia. We all understand adults have a moral responsibility towards children in their care, and we painstakingly educate our children to be wary of strangers.

I personally think that even this has got completely out of control, and that even very young children are taught to be paranoid about perfectly benign adults waving at them in the park. Because the point, surely, is that the vast majority of people are kind, not predatory. Why reward them for their kindness by making them feel like "inappropriate" freaks?

As a child, I was told never to accept sweeties or lifts from strange men in cars, and to get away from any adult that made me feel uncomfortable. I was told this, if I remember correctly, at least once but no more than three times during my childhood. It was plenty. Also, what with one thing and another, I went to a dozen or so schools. Some were nicer than others, but I can honestly say there was no question, ever, of any teacher behaving in an inappropriate way. Even at one school, where we had quite a tactile games mistress who liked supervising showers and (unbelievably) had the authority to perform "knicker checks", ie, to ask for physical proof that we were wearing our regulation school underwear. Today, she'd probably be disgraced and banned from teaching forever, and we'd all be offered counselling because we were victims of "abuse". At the time, she merely struck us as peculiar and mildly annoying. Which is all she was.

And if the moral climate had been as it is now during my upbringing, there wouldn't be a single boys' public school or Oxbridge college left standing. Can you imagine? Fagging? "Artistic" young masters encouraging people to read Oscar Wilde? Winsome dons with their little coteries of boys? But none of this did anybody any harm. It broadened the mind - at a time when, frankly, a lot of the minds in question needed broadening - and conveyed to us that there are all sorts of people in the world with whom coexistence is possible.

One last point: where children have been victims of abuse, the idea that nobody is allowed to touch them ever again seems to me very odd. Surely it would make more sense to teach such children there is such a thing as "good" and safe touching as well as "bad" touching - instead of banning touching altogether?

Are these poor children never to be given a comforting hug again? Do we really want them to believe that all adults are toxic and filled with evil intentions? Apparently so. Worse, we want all children to believe that adults are intrinsically harmful. Who'd be a teacher, in these dementedly puritanical and paranoid times?


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