‘Loopholes’ and liberties
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on freedom and the fallout from Soham.
As a father of two young girls, I do not much care what happens to the likes of Ian Huntley. Throw away the key, throw him down the stairs, whatever. But as one who wants his daughters to grow up in a free country, I do care about the conclusions being drawn from the Soham murders, about the need for even stricter vetting of anyone who has contact with children.
There is no army of Huntleys prowling our playgrounds and streets. There is, however, a danger of raising our children in a surveillance-obsessed society stalked by mistrust and suspicion, where they are taught to assume the worst of everybody; a society where rumours and allegations are treated as fact, and legal principles and liberties are swept aside at mention of the word paedophile.
Since Huntley’s conviction for murdering Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, public and government attention has focused on the ‘loopholes’ in the vetting system that allowed him to become a school caretaker in Soham when nine previous allegations of sex attacks had apparently been made against him. The police were clearly incompetent in their handling of Huntley’s file, both during the vetting procedure and the murder investigation. But the presumption that you are innocent until proven guilty, and the distinction between an unsubstantiated allegation and a criminal conviction, are not loopholes: they are the bedrock values of a civilised system of justice.
Some now suggest that, in the light of the horrific Soham murders, these considerations should be set aside, and every unproven allegation against individuals be made available to prospective employers and public bodies. As one newspaper puts it, sexual offences against children are ‘unique’, so ‘they need to be dealt with in a unique way’. On the contrary, it is in response to a hard case such as Soham that we need to be firmest in defending the principles of universal justice, or risk seeing them trampled under foot.
New Labour had already set up a veritable vetting industry. The result has been effectively to treat every school employee as a potential paedophile – while letting a real one slip through. Then shortly after Huntley and the former teaching assistant, Maxine Carr, were arrested in August 2002, the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, issued emergency orders for more rigorous vetting. The immediate consequence was chaos in the schools, with thousands of teachers still waiting for clearance after the start of the new term. The longer-term consequence was to intensify feelings of mistrust, especially towards teachers.
Yet the logical conclusion of the current outcry is that we should extend the preoccupation with paedophile-spotting to vet bus drivers, sweet shop staff, clowns, librarians and everybody else who ever gets within touching distance of a child. It has been claimed that a tighter system of vetting would have prevented Huntley’s crimes. But he does not seem to have had much trouble getting access to young girls long before he became a school caretaker. In any case, we should think long and hard before rewriting the law and revising liberties in response to one ‘unique’ case, however moving it might be.
In a grown-up society we have to accept that no legal measure can provide absolute guarantees against the handful of predatory paedophiles. Huntley deserves all that he gets. The dignified Wells and Chapman families deserve to be left in peace, and not cajoled into fronting other people’s illiberal campaigns. The rest of us and our children deserve to live in a society where it is not assumed that there’s a bit of Huntley in us all, and where we are not too fearful to let two 10-year old girls out on a summer evening.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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