Politics

Cameron: a bad case of child exploitation

Why politicians love to pose as the grand protectors of children.

The run-up to a General Election invariably means an increase in political grandstanding and soundbites. So it was no surprise to hear UK prime minister David Cameron announce that professionals, such as teachers and social workers, could face up to five years in prison if they turn a blind eye to child abuse. According to Cameron: ‘Professionals who fail to protect children will be held properly accountable and council bosses who preside over such catastrophic failure will not see rewards for that failure.’

His announcement follows the publication of a damning report into child sexual exploitation in Oxford, the latest in a series of reports into scandals which found ‘systematic institutional failings and cultures of denial and blame’. If Cameron’s plans go ahead, the offence of ‘wilful neglect’, which was first introduced in the recent Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, will be extended. As it stands, the offence of wilful neglect only applies to professionals who work in adult social care and health workers providing care for adults and children. The extension means the offence would also cover those involved in children’s social care and education, and elected council members. In effect, it could mean that public-service workers would lose criminal immunity and potentially face up to five years in jail if they failed to report and/or act on clear evidence that a child was being abused.

According to Cameron, the new proposals are ‘about making sure that the professionals we charge with protecting our children – the council staff, police officers and social workers – do the jobs they are paid to do’. This is a laudable ambition, but many have warned that his proposed changes are unlikely to improve the situation and could even make it worse.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, argues that Cameron’s measures will undermine the welfare and safety of children as well as draw people needlessly into the child-protection arena. As Jones points out, in order to protect themselves, anyone with a concern about a child would have to define it as child abuse, otherwise they are potentially leaving themselves open to charges of wilful neglect. As a result, thresholds would tumble and children’s services would be overloaded and put at increased risk of collapsing under the weight of ever larger workloads.

Likewise, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leavers, argued that teachers would be scared into over-reporting, which would lead to a flood of referrals to already overworked social-services departments. The planned legislation ‘will ultimately make it more difficult to identify and deal with cases which urgently need attention’. In a similar vein, the British Association of Social Workers points out that threatening social workers with jail will affect the recruitment and retention of frontline workers and create a legal minefield, given the complexities involved in much child-protection work. Community Care magazine has used Cameron’s plans to relaunch its Stand Up for Social Work campaign. (When this campaign was initially launched, I argued for some caution, as a healthy suspicion of social workers is actually a good thing for both the individual and society.)

There are certainly many lessons to be learned from Oxford, Rotherham and Rochdale. But they are unlikely to be learned through moral panic and political grandstanding. In this respect, Cameron’s critics are correct when they accuse him of crass political opportunism. His proposals will do nothing to help those children who are in need of protection.

However, what is most striking about Cameron’s statement is his use of children to give himself moral authority. The actual proposals are secondary to the political capital to be made from posturing as a man who cares about children. We are likely to see a lot more of this in the run-up to the election from across the party-political spectrum. After all, in recent years, we have increasingly seen children used by anyone wanting to claim moral authority and lend credence to their political arguments.

Hence debates and campaigns over immigration and asylum, for instance, are frequently framed around the plight of children. The picture used to illustrate a recent Independent article on detention centres featured two tearful children, which is a way of turning a political issue into a moral one. Not so long ago, campaigns to close down such detention centres made the argument that they were unsuitable for children and adults. Today, contemporary campaigners focus on the plight of children to lend their claims moral authority. Similarly, if you are concerned about poverty, it is seemingly more effective to talk about ‘child poverty’.

Even when campaigns do focus on adults, they invariably do so by emphasising their vulnerability. But in doing so, by recasting even adults as childlike and in need of paternalistic care and protection, such campaigns are not dissimilar to those that explicitly have children as their primary focus. This represents the infantilisation of political campaigning. So, while I’m with Cameron’s critics here, I think we need to go further, and argue that there is an urgent need for a more adult-oriented political dialogue as we approach the General Election.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His most recent book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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