Hemming's way

The Lib Dem MP John Hemming seems to be waging war against social workers and government adoption policy. Is his campaign misleading? 

Editor's note: We have now been informed by Ms Penny Mellor that she did not, in 2005, take up the position of family advocacy co-ordinator for the organisation Justice For Families set up by John Hemming MP. We are happy to clarify this point.

Spare a thought for Christine Hemming, wife of the Birmingham MP John Hemming and mother to four of his five children. Last Thursday, as Hemming continued his extraordinary one-man crusade against the nation's social workers (or, as he prefers to call them, "baby stealers"), she felt obliged to post a qualifying online footnote to a series of articles and comments provoked by her husband in Community Care.

Hemming, she noted, had said that he had "experienced 'lies from social workers in his private life'. I would like to make it clear," she said, "that this was in relation to child protection action relating to a local councillor and her child and not in any way to our family."

In an article published last month in the Mail on Sunday, Hemming had claimed that social workers were "literally snatching newborn babies and children from good, stable, loving homes" for no better reason than to rake in millions of pounds of money offered as an incentive for hitting government adoption targets.

This supposed outrage, he added, was caused by "a toxic combination of money, incompetence and secrecy", aided by the fact that large numbers of social workers, lawyers, doctors and judges working in child protection were "corrupt".

It's hard to convey fully in extract the extreme nature of this material. I recommend you read it in full here, on the website Mothers Against Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, to which Hemming is a regular contributor - scroll down to the item "Stolen children".

This article, pandering to the lowest prejudices about damned-if-they-dodamned-if-they-don't social workers, attracted a fierce response from frontline social workers, accustomed to such baseless abuse in the media but deeply shocked that it could come from an MP, so "catastrophically ill-informed" about adoption.

It also attracted the timely reminder from Mrs Hemming that her husband's propaganda war against children's social services, "appalling groups that cause more problems than they solve", is informed at least in part by a very personal, yet entirely public, experience.

In June 2005, a month after his election as the Lib Dem member for Birmingham Yardley, Hemming announced that he had been having a six-year affair with Emily Cox, a fellow Birmingham City councillor, and that she was pregnant with his child. The news had been kept quiet during the election campaign. Mrs Hemming said she felt "betrayed and hurt" and that the pregnancy sent out "a disgraceful moral message. So many problems in society," she added, "are caused by single parents and the breakdown of the family".

Hemming, on the other hand, evidently saw the funny side of the situation. In October, a few weeks before the child was born, the MP voted for himself in the News of the World's Love Rat of the Year competition.

Soon after the birth, Hemming was back in the headlines, this time telling the Mail on Sunday that "Gestapo" social workers had "harassed" Ms Cox as she went into labour, because she had told her doctor she had failed to register a stillbirth when she was a teenager.

Birmingham City council then found itself in the extraordinary position of being sued by one of its own councillors. In December, Hemming issued a writ alleging Ms Cox had been "defamed, tortured and assaulted" by social services, who had, he claimed, breached her human rights. He was seeking £300,000 compensation, part of which he wanted to be paid personally by the individual social workers concerned.

In a statement, the council said it was "confident of all the actions taken alongside police and health colleagues" and the writ came to nothing.

Hemming, however, had found a cause.

One month after accusing his own council's social workers of acting like the Gestapo, the MP joined the online community Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations, a group of accused parents and activists who for at least 10 years have been campaigning against paediatricians and other professionals involved with child protection.

The key MAMA activist is Penny Mellor, a mother of eight who in 2002 spent eight months in jail for conspiring to abduct a child to keep it out of the hands of social services. Mrs Mellor commented the judge at her trial, had "tiresome and eccentric" views on child welfare and was guilty of "orchestrating the abduction of a child for your own propaganda purposes".

Nevertheless, when on November 10, 2005, Hemming set up a campaigning organisation, Justice for Families, he appointed Mrs Mellor as its "Family Advocacy Coordinator". On November 16, in his first of more than 230 postings on the MAMA site to date, the MP wrote: "I was concerned about the behaviour of Social Services across the country before my own case started up. However, the Kafkaesque world was not as clear until I saw it myself."

None of this, of course, necessarily invalidates Hemming's allegations about social workers and adoption targets, although it is difficult to imagine that his views have not been shaped to some extent by his personal experiences.

Not that that has stopped the Mail ("Councils making millions in incentives after snatching record numbers of babies for adoption") or the Telegraph ("System taking hundreds of babies for adoption") lapping up what he has had to say on the subject, which has ranged from allegations of "social engineering on a grand a scale" to claims that "A thousand kids a year are being taken off their birth parents just to satisfy targets".

In May, Hemming submitted an application to the UN demanding an investigation into "systematic abuses of human rights in UK public family law". It makes for interesting reading. Among other things, he claimed the state: "treats certain mothers as slaves whereby they are imprisoned in hospital whilst the state takes legal action to remove their child and over a period of time transfer that child to other parents. In essence this is a form of slave trade where children are treated as commodities."

But can any of it possibly be true - or is it, as the Association of Directors of Children's Services commented on an early day motion tabled in the House by the MP on January 15, nothing more than an "odious slur on social workers"? Certainly, there are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there ready to believe such tosh. The only surprise is that an MP can be found among them.

Quite apart from anything else, for such things to be happening on such a scale would necessitate a gigantic national conspiracy requiring the connivance of every judge, lawyer, guardian, medical expert and social worker in the country - a cast of many thousands, all risking arrest and ruin, and for what?

The reality is that more children are being adopted because that's what the government decided was in the best interests of those for whom a return to the parental home has been ruled out, and who otherwise would spend years drifting from one "temporary" care solution to another.

In 2000, Tony Blair personally ordered a review of adoption services. It was, he said, "hard to overstate the importance of a stable and loving family life for children. That is why I want more children to benefit from adoption." This led to the white paper, Adoption, a New Approach, in which the government set a target to "increase by 40% the number of looked after children adopted".

Against this, it is difficult to see how the statistics that Hemming presents as "clear evidence" that "roughly between 15 and 20 children are wrongfully adopted every week" are anything of the sort.

The good news is that the government, if not the Mail, appears to have Hemming's number.

On July 27, in an entry on his blog labelled "Harrying the government in questions", the MP posted a question he had asked in the Commons the day before. This was the first day in the house for the new Department for Children, Schools and Families - the "Every Child Matters" department, as Kevin Brennan, the new parliamentary under-secretary of state for children, schools and families put it - and Hemming, the author of so many written parliamentary questions and early day motions on the subjects of care, fostering and adoption, was there to welcome it.

"I know of cases where children have run away from care to go back to their parents, only to be returned time and again," he told Brennan. "Will the Government start listening to the voices of children who want to return to their parents?"

Brennan was obviously familiar with Hemming's foray into tabloid journalism and his tart response came as close to "sod off" as a member of the government is ever likely to get on the floor of the house.

It was, said Brennan, legitimate to make criticisms and to look into the issues raised by children in care and adoption: "but what is not legitimate is - sometimes in pursuit of a headline in a popular newspaper - to accuse the Government, professionals in the social care sector, local authorities, and indeed the courts, of not trying to act in the best interests of children, which is what the system is designed to do."

Hemming is quick to apportion blame in complex care cases. On July 5, he posted the following on his blog, linked to a BBC story about a 12-year-old girl and a 23-year-old care worker killed in a car crash.

"This child," declared Hemming, "died because she was wrongly taken into care."

A reader of the blog was puzzled by the logic. "By that definition," he wrote, "if a child is taken into care and wins the Nobel prize for economics that was because they were taken into care."

But that, replied the MP, was not the same.

Like his strained logic, Hemming's group-libel of social workers - overworked, underpaid and, generally, not in it for the money - would be little more than laughable if the potential consequences of his own actions were not so grave.

A spokesman for the council responsible for the child who died in the car crash put it like this, in a statement on the case published in the Camden New Journal last Thursday:

"Sensationalising one side of complicated cases puts children at risk ... It's fundamentally important that children and parents are not deterred from seeking help and that our looked-after children have confidence in the care they are receiving.

We would all be failing children if worries kept just one person quiet when the welfare of a child is at stake."

And it doesn't require Hemming's flair for fanciful interpolation to work out who might be responsible for such a thing.

Source : https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/08/hemmingsway

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