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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle