Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Like a lot of people, I found it hard to read about Lucy Letby’s murders. The death of a baby, a newborn small enough to sleep snugly on your palm and wrist, is too horrible to contemplate.
The instinct to protect young children is locked hard into our genome. In one of the most famous dialogues in Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov uses the suffering of infants as his knockdown argument against God.
Even to hear in passing of a child’s death is distressing. To dwell upon the deliberate murder of babies, while looking at the pleasant, smiling features of the nurse charged with their care, is almost impossible. Try it: your thoughts will keep swerving aside.
In the face of such horror, it is natural to feel that something huge must have gone wrong. If only there had been better safeguards in place! If only there had been more alert people on the spot! If only they had had better protocols, or better training!
But the grim truth is that some tragedies are unforeseeable and thus, to all intents and purposes, unpreventable. Why, ask columnists, did no one spot the danger signs? Why were the authorities so slow to act on warnings?
Well, I don’t want to pre-empt the findings of the inquiry, but I suspect the answer is that Letby looked like a well-adjusted young woman and had no possible motive. It is not surprising that the people who knew her took a bit of convincing before accepting that she had carried out some of the most abominable crimes of the century.
This is never a popular thing to say. It is far easier, after a sickening crime, to point the finger – often while claiming that the atrocity proves whatever you were saying all along. Listen, for example, to the left-wing activist Shola Mos-Shogbaminu:
“Lucy Letby exemplifies how ideology of Whiteness keeps Britain in a chokehold. They believed her tears/denials even though evidence said otherwise for no other reason than she’s White. A Black or Brown nurse would’ve been reported to the police immediately and sacked for suspicion.”
I suspect they “believed her tears/denials”, not because of her melanin levels, but because the accusation seemed so unthinkable, because it is hard to imagine any sane human being deliberately killing babies, and because Letby did not show any signs of mental instability.
That is not to say that the managers involved are blameless. Again, I don’t want to pre-empt the inquiry, but it may be that local health officials should have acted more swiftly when the first alarms were raised. Perhaps they were too ready to behave like a trade union, too quick to back their member right or wrong. Certainly, the fact that Letby’s accusers were initially forced to apologise will take some explaining.
But even if local failures are exposed, that would not prove a wider systemic fault. Just as a terrorist will always be able to hit soft targets – shopping centres, nightclubs, crowded streets – so a nurse with nothing in her record to set lights flashing will always be able, alas, to hit the softest targets of all.
This point is worth stressing because, in the aftermath of such a trauma, there is a tendency to think that the policy response must be proportionate to the vastness of the crime rather than to the need to prevent another such breakdown.
Think of past enormities involving the deaths of children. The Dunblane murders in 1996, for example, led to the banning of all handguns.
Nobody argued that the official recommendation (to keep handguns locked up at registered clubs) was inadequate. But then, nobody really tried. Rather, there was a sense that the legal changes had to be momentous, because a lesser reform would somehow dishonour the murdered children.
Similarly, after the hideous killing of two ten-year-old girls in Soham in 2002, changes were brought in which led to the current system of vetting every Sunday school and sports club volunteer.
Again, it was far from clear that such checks would have prevented the murders. Although there had been previous allegations against the killer, Ian Huntley, there were no convictions; in any case, as a school janitor he was not directly working with children.
But, since that tragedy, we have had a mountain of bureaucracy around children’s activities, with no evidence that it makes the slightest difference.
The purpose of an inquiry is to carry out a cool-headed examination. If genuine failings are identified, they should be acted on. If, for example, it becomes clear that managers ought to be made accountable in the way that doctors are, fine – do it.
But, please, make any response proportionate to the requirements of prevention, not to the sense of public outrage. Bad laws are never a fitting memorial.