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Guardian angels .... or Big Brother?

AROUND 10 years ago, I decided to write a dystopian novel about a future where the idea of privacy had completely collapsed, where each child born was given a live-in "support worker" who helped the parent manage the difficult child while ensuring the child was safe from the parent's problematic behaviour.

The very idea of private intimacy and personal responsibility no longer existed in this futuristic dystopia, where safety had become the only principle and all relationships were now mediated through a state-paid professional.

Of course the book was never written and today, following the passing of the new Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, it has almost become obsolete because it is no longer a futuristic fantasy that every child will have their own "support worker" assigned at birth. It is to become a reality.

The new act will mean that, from birth, each child in Scotland will have a specific state-appointed professional to safeguard their interests and, more particularly, to oversee their safety. Initially, this named person is likely to be a health visitor or midwife, the role later being taken over by a schoolteacher who will have the "duty" and responsibility to act as the child's guardian. The regulation of data-sharing between professionals is to be loosened and the guardians will have legal authority to access information from the police, the local council, NHS files and even, potentially, from Young Scot cards. The Children's Minister, Aileen Campbell, has been dismissive of those people who have raised concerns about "state snoops" or who, like the various Christian groups opposed to the idea, have described the new law as an "attack on the family". For Campbell, the new powers and duties being given to state guardians are simply another service to help families in trouble and also further ensure that children are protected. Indeed, Campbell at times appears to be nonplussed by her critics, incapable of seeing why her caring approach is not simply celebrated. Ideas about "state snoops" undermining the family are, she argues, simply "misunderstandings" and "misrepresentations" of the new law.

But it is worth digging a little deeper, both into the law itself and the underlying trends that have led to it, to get an idea about what is actually going on here.

The law has clearly been encouraged by concerns about children's safety. More specifically, it has been inspired in part by grotesque acts such as the murder of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, who was starved and beaten to death by his mother and stepfather. Poor information-sharing between social workers, health visitors, police or other agencies is often cited in such cases, and the Scottish Government hopes that placing a duty of care for each child in a single Named Person could help address this problem.

As Campbell has argued: "The recent tragic case of Daniel Pelka highlights the importance of professionals putting the child's interests at the heart of what they do." Here, the most horrific and rare of acts - the brutal killing of a child - is used as a justification for why every single child in Scotland needs a state guardian. The logic, of course, as the Children's Minister explained, is that we need to get access to those children who fly "below the radar", in order to intervene earlier.

A major concern of those opposed to the new law is that families who have done nothing wrong will come under suspicion from the state guardians. Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, has noted that the categories used to trigger an investigation have completely changed. Previously, a child had to be defined and understood to be "at risk" for state action to be triggered. From now on, state guardians, indeed all professionals, will be expected to instigate an investigation into a child and their family based on mere "concerns" they may have. What can be classified as something worthy of "concern" is not clear. What is clear is that there is an expectation that state guardians will be more proactive and will be expected, indeed obliged, to react to more incidents than they currently do in their roles as teachers, health visitors and so on. The bar will be lowered on what is seen as problematic and, inevitably, more parents will come under scrutiny.

The accusation is that, given the number of cases with which state guardians will inevitably become involved, the chances are they will soon no longer be able to see the wood for the trees; they will be less likely to focus on the very few serious cases of child abuse because their growing list of "concerns" will mean that any future Daniel Pelka or Brandon Muir (the Dundee toddler killed by his mother's boyfriend) will simply become lost in the crowd.

It is also wrong to use extreme cases like that of Daniel or Brandon to justify state guardians for all children, and to talk about at-risk children going "under the radar". Because in almost all of the notorious cases in recent years, the problem has not been that professionals did not know that there was something wrong, it was that the professionals who did know did not do enough about it. In almost all of these cases, having state guardians would not have made the slightest difference to the safety of these children.

Others have rightly noted that the creation of a guardian for every child, based on the suspicion that every parent is a potential abuser, sends out a depressing and inaccurate message about the nature of parents. It also runs the risk of elevating the suspicion of professionals, such as teachers, who, rather than focusing on their role as educators, are transformed into security staff, constantly anxious about the safety of my and your children, constantly checking us out as we walk into the playground with our kids.

Concerns about this precise point have been raised by campaigners from the Isle of Man who claim there has been a 500% increase in referrals to social services following a similar initiative. Likewise, Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaign Big Brother Watch, has noted that in the Highlands a similar initiative, Child's Plan, led to masses of children facing "targeted interventions", compared with only 64 who had previously been on the Child Protection Register in the area.

The suspicion is that once state guardians are created across Scotland, a precautionary principle will kick in and almost any slight concern about a child will result in state action.

We all want children to be safe, but child safety is becoming an obsession in our society, and this scheme risks exacerbating the situation. Discussing the Bill at the Scottish Parliament a few months ago, I raised concern about what I see as one of today's most pressing cultural problems: how most adults, and virtually all men, are now afraid to touch, pick up from the ground, or even help a child in distress.

There are a number of reasons for this. We are arguably more disconnected from each other and our local communities and, consequently, are less sure about our role with other people's children. But the main reason is that the child-safety industry - the growing number of professionals involved in child-safety organisations and administering child-safety regulations, policies and practices - is collectively creating a world in which the most common suffix to the word "child" is fast becoming "safety"; where play has become "safe play"; and where every aspect of our relationships with children is now seen through the myopic and one-dimensional prism of safety.

Of course, no-one intended this to happen: none of these individuals or organisations wanted children to be left isolated from the adult world - but that is what has happened. And now - apparently - we need a state guardian to look after every child in the country, which will not only elevate the anxiety about child safety even higher, but could encourage adults to step back from aspects of looking after their children: after all, isn't that the job of the state guardian?

It is hoped that the state-named guardians will use their common sense when dealing with children but, unfortunately, common sense is being undermined within the childcare profession itself. For example, rather than child abuse being seen as unusual (which it is), and serious child abuse being seen as extremely rare (which, thankfully, it also is), the trend is for child-centred organisations to carry out research using categories and forms of measurement that can only produce one result: that child abuse is rife. Events, incidents and types of behaviour that would, until relatively recently, have been seen as unproblematic are increasingly being redefined as a problem. Smacking and even shouting by parents have been reclassified as abuse by some. Others, like the respected Lancet journal, have gone so far as to publish papers arguing that professionals such as teachers need to realise that "bad behaviour or arriving unwashed at school" may be the result of maltreatment.

Of course, all sorts of things may be the result of maltreatment, but as I think of the state of my daughter's hair as she left for school this morning, and worry about my son's bad behaviour in class, I can only wonder if the authors of this Lancet article would think that I should be under suspicion, and that's even before my children have been given their new guardian angels. With schools playing an increasingly interventionist role in educating children about their health and behaviour, some parents are already anxious about what they put in their children's lunch boxes, or about their children telling teachers that their parents smoke or drink, or if they themselves look a bit the worse for wear in the morning when they drop off their kids.

With the introduction of state guardians the potential for further state intrusion into parents' behaviour will increase, as will the anxiety some parents feel about their own behaviour being monitored. There will also clearly be a class dimension to this, with working-class parents (particularly those who are poor) coming under most scrutiny for their "incorrect" parenting practices.

More generally, and perhaps more importantly, one of the profoundly worrying things about the debate surrounding the Bill was the way in which concerns about privacy and parental rights were dismissed with casual abandon. Despite some concerns among Conservative politicians about the new law, even they could not bring themselves to vote against it. Indeed, not a single MSP voted against it.

It was largely left to Christian groups to stand up for the family. For some reason today it seems only people who believe in God are capable of defending the family. Indeed, their arguments sounded rather old-fashioned, as they talked about the importance of "the family" as an institution or as the "fundamental unit of society". Very few people talk about the family in this way any more and the idea of the family as a private unit appears to be in serious decline.

This Christian concern was in stark contrast with the almost dismissive attitude of the Children's Minister to the family as an institution. Somewhat comically, when quizzed about the state's overbearing intrusion into the home as represented by the new act, Minister Campbell replied, without a hint of irony, that "we recognise that parents also have a role" in looking after their children. Also?

This, I would suggest, was no throwaway line, but reflects accurately the changing nature of the state and the state's relationship with the family. The family in general and parenting in particular have become severely politicised over the last two decades. Increasingly, what parents do with their children, especially in the early years, is seen as crucial not only for the child's wellbeing, but also for the prevention of social problems in the future. The elevated importance of parenting in politics has also been accompanied by anxiety and suspicion that parents are not up to the job.

The family home has come to be seen as a problematic, secret place, a place where disturbing things go on behind closed doors. For these reasons, our less trusting society feels the need to get into the family at an ever earlier stage in order to "support" us as parents, and to "support" our children.

One final concern is worth raising. As the state takes on an increasing role as the prime carer of our children, how long will it be before tragedy befalls a child in Scotland and the parent sues the state for not safeguarding their child 24/7? After all, isn't that the job of the state guardian?

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