Green child spies: snooping on adults

Recruiting children to spy on eco-unfriendly behaviour will churn out a new generation of sanctimonious busybodies.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

They can’t vote until they’re 18. They can’t drive until they’re 17. They can’t even be held responsible for a crime until they’re 10. Yet when it comes to fly-tipping, graffiti and other ‘environmental crimes’, kids, it seems, know best.

That’s right, those loveable but incorrigibly dependent little buggers are being encouraged to spy on the behaviour of adults, and record any wrongdoing in their Junior Street Champion notepads.

This is part of a broader, adult volunteering scheme run by 17 local councils in the UK. So far 8,442 people have signed up to it. These ‘environment volunteers’ are, according to the Daily Mail, encouraged to report on anything from litter louts to people putting out the rubbish on the wrong day.

It’s not a completely one-way relationship, however. In return for volunteers’ time, the council teaches those sneakily inclined how to sneak well, from collecting evidence to noting down number plates. Islington borough council in north London has even given the scheme its own sinister moniker: Eyes for Islington. Their website reads: ‘Eyes members act as the eyes and ears of the borough and report issues such as dangerous footpaths, abandoned vehicles and crime hotspots. As soon as the council receives a report from an Eye, it responds to the problem as soon as possible.’

The council is understandably thankful for this network of spies: ‘It’s not possible for the council to see what’s going on in the borough at all times, so our Eyes for Islington are a great help…’ Unfortunately, for many, the idea of Eyes for Islington, and similar schemes across the country, sounds a little bit too much like a sneaks’ charter, a red rag to curtain-twitching bulls everywhere. A spokesperson for the Local Government Association was predictably defensive: ‘These community-spirited residents are not snoopers. They help councils cut crime and make places cleaner, greener and safer.’

The LGA is not alone in appealing to ‘community spirit’. In the Independent Terence Blacker defends the spying youths on the basis that ‘[t]hey are people who have woken up to the fact that becoming involved in small-scale community activity is a direct, unfussy way of countering the selfishness of a wider society’.

Yet in drawing the distinction between those ‘who’ve woken up’ and the ‘selfishness of wider society’, Blacker unwittingly reveals the nature of this much-trumpeted community spirit. For it belongs not so much to the community as a whole than to the righteous ire of the self-selecting few, cultivated and used by local authorities. They are not so much of the community as pitted against it.

That the scheme is so divisive is not surprising. This so-called community spirit is little more than a contrivance of local government, an attempt to manufacture community’s sense of its collective interests apart from, indeed in opposition to, wider society. The actual living, breathing members of a community are simply dismissed as selfish, and therefore in need of a council-backed do-gooding, do-snooping minority.

Seizing upon certain adults’ desire to right their neighbours’ fly-tipping, litter-bugging wrongs is bad enough – seeking to recruit kids, some as young as seven, to do the council’s sneaky work is even worse. Following on from campaigns to get dead-eyed children to turn their parents green (see Children, forward to the Glorious Green Future, by Lee Jones) or doe-eyed children to stop their parents from smoking, it now seems it is okay to get children to inform on adults in general.

Aside from the fact that investing such responsibility in children, when, for good reasons, we withhold responsibility from them in many other areas, is nonsensical, these kind of schemes also undermine adults in the process. Children here are being treated not just as an age category, but a moral category, a repository of the right, environmentally correct thinking of which many of today’s adults are deemed too sullied by self-interest to be capable. In effect, such schemes turn children against the adult world.

Blacker disagrees: ‘Encouraging children to be environmental observers is not to corrupt them. It is a long shot but, just possibly, handing out pencils, giving them badges and encouraging them to think of others may help them grow up to be happier, less selfish adults.’ More likely, however, is that using children as the little-armed wing of the state will turn them into the sanctimonious tyrants of tomorrow.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Lee Jones warned of the cultivation of children as climate cops. Tessa Mayes described the naming and shaming of eco-criminals. Dolan Cummings asked why we accept the surveillance society. Neil Davenport looked at how teachers are turned into snoopers. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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