Daniel Pelka’s murder shames Britain

Guilt lies with those who could have prevented it.

I cannot stop thinking about the suffering of Daniel Pelka, the four year old boy from Coventry who was abused, tortured and then murdered by his mother and her lover.

There is CCTV footage of Daniel on the final day of his life. His mother has arrived to collect him from primary school yet she dismissively walks ahead of the boy, her back turned to him. Daniel trails after her, a frail, emaciated figure, lost and bewildered. He hurries to catch up; he is hurrying towards death.

The Times today has published some of the texts about her son that Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, sent to her monstrous lover, Mariusz Krezolek. They provide a narrative of abuse:

"One of his hands is livid blue [because it has been repeatedly beaten] and what am I supposed to do now [sic]."

"Well now he’s unconscious because I nearly drowned him. He’s already in bed covered with the duvet and asleep and I am having some quiet."

"We’ll deal with Rudy [Daniel] after school, he won’t see grub at all."

Daniel’s mother delighted in starving her son – and then feeding him salt. At school he was seen scavenging in bins for food because he was so hungry. He would try to eat whatever scraps he could find. And he kept on losing weight. "He was disappearing in front of people’s eyes," Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC said. 

And yet no one intervened.

Luczak was devious and manipulative. Her son a few weeks before his death weighed little more than 2st, the weight of a toddler - but, said detective Superintendent Tim Bacon: "We are dealing with someone who was so plausible that she managed to convince paediatricians at the hospital that Daniel had an eating disorder."

Were we meant to believe that the broken bones, the bruised hands and black eyes were the result of the same eating disorder? How did his mother account for these and why was she believed? We will know more when the serious case review is published in September.

Daniel came from a Polish-speaking family and his English was poor. This terrified, humiliated boy was in effect voiceless. He could not speak of what he suffered. Nor could he trust anyone. But his suffering was written all over his body. His teachers and the authorities should have been able to read the signs of his suffering, read what his body was telling them. He should not have been allowed to suffer and to die alone, starved for at least six months.

Cases such as Daniel’s are mercifully rare, and all the more shocking because of their extremity. But children are being abused and beaten all the time by those who should be protecting them. For some children the home is a kind of medieval prison – and the torturers are the parents.

Teachers, doctors and nursery and care workers are on the frontline but so are relatives, friends and acquaintances. What is it that they refuse to see? "Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy,” Nick Clegg said today. “I think his death should be on all of our consciences."

He’s right about that, up to a point. Those who should be feeling most guilt and regret are the friends of his mother, the teachers at the school he attended, the health workers who visited him at home in Coventry and the doctors who treated his injuries. His mother, after "nearly drowning" her son, spoke of how she could now get "some quiet".

Let us hope that, like Macbeth, she has murdered sleep and that she will never know peace or quiet again.

Jesus said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Pity Daniel, and pray for him – and curse those who were not there when he needed them or chose to look away or believe the wretched lies of his mother.

Daniel Pelka. Photograph: Press Association

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”