Children: over-surveilled, under-protected

A recent conference in London highlighted the dangers of the government’s insidious monitoring of our children’s lives.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

How have we reached such a state of institutionalised suspicion that a respected vicar can be obliged to resign as a school governor for kissing a 10-year-old girl on the forehead in class? That’s what happened in Britain recently (see You must remember this…, by Josie Appleton). A recent London conference on child protection offered a rare chance to put such absurd events in some wider critical perspective.

‘Who is bringing children up? Are parents effectively nannies for the state’s children or are children born to families and the state just helps families when they ask for it?’ (1). The answer, as they say, is in the question. The quote came from Terri Dowty, director of the campaign group Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) (2), and appeared across the national media in the run-up to a conference critically examining new developments in the UK government’s policy on child protection (3). Titled ‘Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected’, the conference took place at the London School of Economics on 27 June, and focused specifically on the role of information-sharing in improving outcomes for children – or, to put it another way, whether putting lots of information about every child in the country on to giant databases that can be routinely accessed by schools, doctors, the police and so on, will do anything to prevent child abuse.

The conclusions reached by the conference were swift and certain. Not only will the government’s drive to collate and share more and more information about more and more children do nothing to prevent child abuse: this process will compromise the privacy of children and their families, and frighten and undermine parents. Why, then, is the government doing it? What is the point in an ever-increasing system of child (and parent) surveillance if it is not going to do any good at all?

The naive might argue that the government merely knows not what it does – that in its desire to prevent the abuse of some children by their parents and carers, it has set up a system of mass surveillance that is well-intentioned, if misguided. Indeed, the proposals for information sharing and centralised databases, in the form of the Common Assessment Framework and the Children’s Index, which are to store information on children from birth to be shared among all those agencies and officials involved in a child’s life (3), were developed by the government’s 2003 consultation paper Every Child Matters, which in turn came out of the official inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié.

Eight-year-old Victoria Climbié died while living with her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend in February 2000. She had been seen repeatedly by nurses, doctors, police and social workers, but all of them failed to act on the obvious signs of abuse. This horrific death shocked the nation, and prompted the government to Do Something so that such a tragedy would never happen again. But as Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics and co-organiser of the conference, argued in her rapid-fire presentation on ‘Will sharing information about all children protect future Victoria Climbiés?’, ‘If it’s about child protection, it is not the thing we should be worrying about at the moment.’

What the Victoria Climbié inquiry showed, Munro said, is that ‘we do not have the skilled workforce that we need’ – the social workers in this case did not lack information; they simply ‘did not have the wisdom’ to know what to do with it. Through its giant databases, ‘what the government is basically doing is creating an incredibly expensive and very complicated network on which we will be able to move garbage’ – such as the question of whether children are getting their five portions of fruit and veg a day, which only in the current climate could be seen as some kind of abuse factor.

Unlike the UK government, Munro is an expert in child protection, and the government has had plenty of opportunity to take advice from those who, like her, believe that monitoring every child’s fresh fruit intake is not the way to prevent the tiny number of cases in which a child is tortured to death. The fact that it has ploughed ahead regardless indicates that there is another agenda at stake here.

But if it’s naive to assume that the government’s child tracking systems are well-intentioned, it is equally wrong to explain these proposals as a sinister, Big Brother-style attempt to control everybody. For Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, surveillance of children in this way is just one more example of the government invading our privacy by picking off the rights of the most vulnerable: children, asylum seekers and terror suspects.

In an impassioned soapbox presentation, Chakrabarti claimed not to be surprised ‘at all’ by the amount of media coverage given to the LSE conference, because most people have children and they care about their children’s rights in a way that they don’t about those of asylum seekers and terror suspects. In this way, the problem of child tracking is also an ‘opportunity’ to challenge the expansion of state surveillance across the board.

Well, if only. Chakrabarti’s conspiracy theories are tempting, not least because they hark back to a time when everybody knew how to play the surveillance game. Governments knew who they were watching, and why; people knew that governments watching them were a problem, and why. What makes the official monitoring of family life so dangerous and insidious today is that it is largely pointless; and because it is pointless, few people know how or why to object to it.

The government does not want to take most children away from their parents, and it is aware that meddling with family life is a dangerous business. At the same time, however, it cannot bring itself just to let parents get on with things as they see fit. After all, this is a government that believes society is going to hell in a hand basket because teenage youths hang out on street corners and don’t respect politicians, and it is ever conscious of its own isolation from the society it purports to govern – not just the ASBO youths, but their parents, teachers, doctors, social workers, the police. The government then tries to overcome its lack of connection with, and trust for, society at large through an ever-more obsessive process of monitoring, logging, target-setting and double-checking, where everyone mucks in on everyone else’s role.

In the government’s view, families can’t be trusted to raise their kids alone; teachers can’t be trusted to spot behavioral problems alone; doctors can’t be trusted to diagnose unhealthy living environments alone; social workers can’t be trusted to spot signs of abuse alone; and police officers can’t be trusted to spot criminals-to-be before the crime is committed. So every professional’s minor concern about a child gets logged for others to look at, in order to work out just how much any family is allowed to be left alone, or how much ‘support’ (read: intervention) it needs.

The upshot is, as Eileen Munro put it, an endless exchange of ‘garbage’ that is of no use to anybody. But it is also the further development of a nasty, suspicious cultural climate, in which all parents and carers are routinely cast as potential abusers on the cusp of doing something wrong.

Of the many excellent presentations given at the ‘Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected’ conference, the most poignant was delivered by Brian Sheldon, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter and formerly director of the university’s Centre for Evidence-Based Social Services. Sheldon told how, a month or so previously, he was indulging his four-year-old grandson’s obsession with trains by walking with him along a low wall near the railway at the back of his house. Suddenly, a car sped towards them, skidded to a halt, and a couple of shaven-headed young men leapt out. Alarmed, he moved to protect his grandson – but then the men produced their ID. They were detectives, and demanded that Sheldon explain his relationship with this child. When the explanation was offered, they demanded to see some ID. Eventually they left.

Sheldon concluded his story by referring to the Hippocratic Oath: ‘First do no harm’. In this instance, he asked rhetorically, what harm has been done? ‘My grandson no longer likes to watch the trains.’

Sheldon did not have to add that, as well, his grandson would have been given the clear impression that Granddad was a potential paedophile; he did not have to ponder on the shocking waste of resources involved in such mindless, off-the-cuff interventions. It is enough that, with the flash of an ID card or the touch of a computer mouse, institutionalised suspicion can warp the most innocent of acts and trusting of relationships.

Stories such as this provide a chilling example of the surveillance problem we face today. It’s not about a police state, systematically out to get us, but something far more amorphous and insidious that casts a shadow over our relationships with children – whether these are our own children or not, and whatever might be recorded about them in a database. Conferences such as ‘Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected’ provide a brave and thoughtful start in challenging this climate. A bit more surveillance of the government’s child-and-parent surveillance schemes would be welcome; an indication that government consultations listen to critical viewpoints such as these would be a very nice surprise indeed.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, now raising her two young children in Kent. ‘Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected’ took place at the London School of Economics on 27 June 2006. The programme and recordings of the presentations can be accessed on the conference website.

(1) Concerns over new child database, BBC, 27 June 2006

(2) ARCH

(3) See also Family life faces State ‘invasion’, Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2006

(4) For a thorough summary of the various government databases, see Terri Dowty’s handout: AN OUTLINE OF INFORMATION-SHARING DATABASES

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Topics Politics


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