The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 13th, 2009

We are all child abusers now – until we can prove otherwise

We have an incoherent attitude to freedom in this country. We imagine that we value freedom above almost everything else and yet at the same time we are neurotically averse to risk. Every time something terrible happens, such as the murder of a child, the public clamours for something to be done to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Such unspeakable suffering must not have been in vain; inquiries must be held and systems must be put in place; all such risks to children must be eliminated. Yet the harsh truth is that risk is the heavy price of freedom. That includes risks to children. The greater the freedom, the greater the risk. And, equally, the more the attempts to curtail the risk, the lesser the freedom. Last week produced a perfect example of this contradiction. There was uproar about an authoritarian plan to protect children from the risk of paedophile abuse. It emerged that rules will come into force next month under a vetting and barring scheme run by a new quango called the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). All adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who work with children or vulnerable adults, either as an employee or as a volunteer, will from November 2010 have to apply to be vetted by this quango to prove there is no known reason they should not spend time with children. The minions of the ISA may withhold registration if they suspect an applicant might cause physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm to children or vulnerable adults. Failure to register and to get, in effect, a certification of innocence will be liable to criminal prosecution and a fine of £5,000. Of course it is reasonable to vet adults who work with children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, a great deal of vetting goes on under existing schemes affecting about 6m people. What’s new about this vetting and barring scheme is that it will affect many more people — about 11.3m adults — because volunteers are now to be included. That’s what so rightly causes outrage. Volunteers for these purposes are not just quasi-employees; they are all kinds of people, including you and me, in our attempts to do someone else a good turn. Informal arrangements between parents will not, supposedly, be covered but anyone else taking part in activities involving “frequent” or “intensive” contact with children or vulnerable adults — quangospeak for once a week, three times a month or overnight — must be registered with the ISA. It is no exaggeration to describe this astonishing development as treating all adults as potential criminals: we are no longer innocent until proved guilty but guilty until certified innocent by the state — and, worst of all, in our moments of trying to do good. Imagine what this will do to feelings of neighbourliness and trust. No one will know whether a communal garden committee or a regular visit to someone with learning disabilities will come under the rules. And what about that holy of all co-operative holies, the school run? From now on it will be awkward to ask for help and awkward to offer. Who will want to subject herself to the scrutiny of the vetting-and-barring workers and their arcane judgments and risk a rejection, since we don’t know quite what’s involved? What we do know, though, is that they can take police information and unproven allegations into consideration. Some of the unintended consequences of this new legislation became clear when Philip Pullman and other children’s writers discovered that soon they will be unable to give talks in schools and libraries without being registered with the ISA. Pullman will refuse to continue on that basis and he will not be alone in giving up something of huge value to others in protest at an intolerable, insulting intrusion; as he says, it is not only ludicrous but “dispiriting and sinister”. While we are assured that all this surveillance will not be directed at informal private arrangements, such as parents agreeing to give lifts to other people’s children, I for one don’t believe it. Delyth Morgan, the children’s minister, appeared on the Today programme to be quizzed on this very point by John Humphrys. He forced the Labour peer to admit that a well-meaning dad could easily fall under the ISA rules if he merely took a couple of local children a couple of times a month to matches at a nearby football club. The minister wriggled painfully on a pinhead of quango definition and insisted that if all the other parents concerned made private agreements with him, then he wouldn’t need to be registered. But she had to admit that if someone at the club happened to ask the dad if he would include someone else’s child on his regular run, then he would have to be investigated by the vetters and barrers. Anyone can see that there’s hardly any difference in practice. It is easy to see which way all this is drifting, especially as all concerned agree that the adults most likely to abuse children are people they already know well. So in an ideal world of total risk avoidance, by the logic of the vetters and barrers, it would make much more sense to investigate close family members as prime suspects. Why, the risk-averse might ask, are close family arrangements exempt when it’s there you’d expect the worst? I suspect they may well not remain exempt for long. How can the vetters and barrers be sure that grandma can be trusted with the neighbour’s toddlers? However, as the unlucky minister pointed out defensively, all this new surveillance is a response to public outrage following the Soham murders; it was recommended by the inquiry that followed and she is entirely right in thinking that if something like Soham happens again, the public will vent its outrage on the government for not preventing it. So the government is damned either way — both for exercising too little control and for exercising too much. Those who cannot accept great risk cannot clamour at the same time for great freedom, because the greater the freedom, the greater the risk. Sadly, this truism doesn’t work the other way round. It isn’t always true that the lesser the freedom, the lesser the risk. There was plenty of surveillance in place that could have kept tabs on Ian Huntley in Soham; it failed because of gross incompetence. The same is true of the deaths of Baby P and Victoria Climbié. Yet more surveillance and more intrusion by our over-mighty state will not control all of the guilty few: it will simply punish the innocent majority.