‘We’re afraid of our kids, and we’re afraid for them’

Anthony Horowitz, author of the bestselling teenage spy novels, talks to Jennie Bristow about vetting and the poisoning of adult-child relations.

Jennie Bristow

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‘A child should be able to make up his or her own mind about an adult they are meeting without that adult having to wave a government-stamped piece of paper. The idea that the government can come in to the most fundamental of relationships – between an adult and a child – and somehow manipulate it or try to keep it safe is abhorrent, it’s an outrage.’

Anthony Horowitz, the celebrated children’s author and creator of the hugely successful ‘Alex Rider’ teenage spy novels, is a passionate critic of the UK’s mass vetting scheme. Alongside Anne Fine and Philip Pullman (the ‘wise elder of children’s literature’), Horowitz has been lambasting the New Labour government for demanding that children’s authors obtain a licence, in the form of a check by the Criminal Records Bureau, before they go into schools to talk to children about their books. And, shortly before Christmas, in a widely reported government ‘U-turn’, the authors won the battle – didn’t they?

‘It is not a U-turn! What they have done is that they have reacted to the most vociferous people – for example children’s authors who won’t visit schools – and said, “all right, fine”. But all the attempts to fix this have only made it worse, because they’ve muddied the waters. Now it’s unclear, for example, if a parent has to be vetted before giving another child a lift home from school. I’m not sure about the answer to that one – are you? Do you know?’

I admit that I don’t – even though I probably should. In 2008, I co-authored, with Frank Furedi, a pamphlet titled Licensed to Hug, which examined the destructive impact of the mass vetting scheme on relations between adults and children, particularly in the context of community volunteering. (‘It’s a wonderful book’, says Horowitz – so there’s a recommendation for you.) Licensed to Hug discusses the way that adults have been tacitly discouraged from volunteering to help raise the younger generation, by the assumption that anybody who wants to spend time with kids should be assumed to be a paedophile until the police check ‘proves’ otherwise.

Furedi and I also found how complicated and confusing the vetting system was for those well-meaning souls who wanted to help out – one young woman complained that she needed five different CRB checks in order to help out with Girl Guides, a rape crisis centre, a music centre and part-time nannying work. But that was before the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) with its ‘vetting database’, and the convolutions and contortions introduced by policymakers in recent months about how much time somebody needs to spend with a child under what circumstances in order for vetting to be mandatory. The Manifesto Club does a good job of unravelling all this in its briefing document, here.

People are really confused. And rather than leading to a relaxation of the laws now governing adult-child contact, reported ‘U-turns’ have fostered a situation in which it seems that people are increasingly acting pre-emptively – getting themselves and fellow volunteers police-checked just in case they need to be. It’s like London bus lanes, says Horowitz: ‘nobody ever travels in bus lanes because they’re too unsure of when the lane is active and when it isn’t – it’s that sort of thinking.’ The situation may be better for children’s authors – but ‘the children’s authors who spoke out against this were not doing it because they were more important or special than a dinner lady or a plumber or whatever – we were genuinely upset by all the stuff that went around this.’ And that’s really where things get interesting.

‘It just seemed so insulting’

Horowitz admits that the first impulse that provoked him to speak out against the vetting scheme was ‘a sense of personal outrage – it just seemed so insulting’. Particularly, he explains, as he had spent 15 years visiting schools as part of the attempt to promote literacy. ‘I was even an ambassador for the government on its National Year of Reading [in 2008]. How do you follow that by saying to your ambassador, “actually we need to have second thoughts about you, and check on your criminal background, to make sure that the work you were doing last year wasn’t for other motives”?’

The demand that authors be CRB-checked ‘also struck me as blindingly stupid because, when I spoke in a school to 1,000 children with 10 or 20 teachers around on a stage, the chances of anything untoward happening were nil’. Vetting, he points out, would not have prevented the Soham murders – when in 2002 Ian Huntley killed the 10-year-old girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – and it did not prevent the recent case of the (vetted) nursery worker in Plymouth jailed for abusing the children in her care. And Horowitz was livid that Anthony Browne, the Children’s Laureate, ‘on his first public appearance should take the side of the government against children’s authors’, by supporting the case for vetting. Horowitz knows and admires Browne: nonetheless, ‘I thought that was actually disgusting’.

But as the children’s authors’ campaign rolled ahead, Horowitz became increasingly disturbed by the wider context of the vetting scheme. ‘One of my main concerns is the poisoning of how we see ourselves as people, as human beings’, he says. Referring to Anthony Browne’s argument that ‘if a scheme such as this saves the life of one child, then it’s all right’, Horowitz says:

‘But it isn’t, that’s exactly the point. Of course one doesn’t want a child to be abused. But if you get into the way of thinking that it is possible to prevent anything bad ever happening to children you will end up in a society where nobody will ever leave their rooms, because that is the ultimate end of it, isn’t it? You wrap them in cotton wool, you sit them down in a chair, you inject them with vitamins to make sure they’re healthy, and that’s it. That’s the reductio ad absurdum of that particular argument. And that’s what I think Anthony couldn’t grasp – that a) it wouldn’t prevent harm and b) you cannot legislate against harm.’

In this, Horowitz hits on the central contradiction of the national mass vetting scheme. It is motivated by a desire to keep children safe – albeit with an obsessive, unrealisable goal of preventing all bad things from happening, ever. Yet at the same time, the very people who can protect children from harm, simply by behaving like adults, are treated with suspicion because they are adults and discouraged from exercising their generational responsibility. This is the trend that Frank Furedi and I discussed as responsibility aversion, where adults become de-skilled as a consequence of measures that undermine informal trust. Society ends up putting its faith in paper credentials and technical systems, rather than the time-honoured system of human judgement – and this is bound to fail.

‘We are such an incompetent generation’

‘The paper is more dangerous than anything else in the world because it immediately stops you making judgements for yourself’, says Horowitz. ‘All right, you’ve got a paper to prove it, but all the paper proves is that they’ve never been caught, it doesn’t prove that they haven’t got bad intentions in mind. It is better if these decisions are made by children, if they’re made by teachers and responsible headteachers.’ The vetting scheme, he says, is ‘on a par with so much kneejerk legislation, which is that something horrible happens, you try to fix it, but if you don’t think about what you’re doing you end up doing much more damage even than the original outrage’.

The central damage of the vetting legislation is what it has done to informal relations of trust and judgement between adults and children. But why has this happened? Couldn’t some policymaker somewhere have predicted that meddling with this ‘most fundamental of relationships’ between adult and child in such an officious way would be likely to cause great harm?

‘I have this theory that we are such an incompetent generation, and when it comes to looking after the next generation we are utterly lost’, muses Horowitz. ‘We fear for our children, so if they are going to fall over in a playground, that can’t happen; they can’t go on school expeditions for fear that they will fall into a river or off a mountain or whatever. And yet it seems we are also afraid of our children. That’s the other bizarre thing about the society we live in, that so many newspaper stories are centred on children with ASBOs, or this recent case in Edlington; children who are delinquent, who drink, children who are this, who are that – so we have this terror of the next generation. We are afraid of them, and we are afraid for them.’

This is an ‘odd, odd mix’, says Horowitz – but you could argue that being afraid of our children and afraid for them stems from the same impulse. As adults, we have become unsure of our authority and confused about our role. We see ourselves as posing a great threat to children – hence the national vetting scheme, and the recent introduction of a ‘Sarah’s Law’, named after the murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne, which will incite parents to check whether their friends and neighbours are convicted paedophiles. But at the same time we lack faith in our children, their ability to manage risks and deal with adversity; so we set ourselves up as their arch protectors in matters of everyday life, increasingly trying to control everything that children do and everybody they get to know.

For Horowitz, the crisis of adult authority manifested today is another consequence of the ‘incompetence’ of his generation. ‘Back in the Sixties we simply demolished all the pillars of society, one after the other, for our own self interest’, he explains. ‘So we got rid of the church, we got rid of respect for the government, we got rid of the family – all the things that the Conservatives bank on bringing about again but of course they can’t, because once they’ve gone they’ve gone, that’s the problem.’

‘We tore all these things down – and some of them were right to be torn down – after all, one doesn’t oppose gay marriage, we support that – but we didn’t put in their place anything to prop up society. So having got everything we wanted from society, we didn’t rebuild any fences to replace these things. As a result of that we’re now grappling with the problem of the effects of what we’ve done.’

In this outpouring of baby-boomer angst, Horowitz is classically conflicted about the relationship between the progressive trends of the Sixties and the instability that they caused. ‘There are some good things that we did – it is right that women should be able to choose to have an abortion, but it is not right that children should grow up unsupervised and unmonitored and lost’, he says. ‘So it’s difficult.’

Indeed it is difficult, and it is into this swamp of uncertainty that the attempt to control the minutiae of life, through policy and legislation, has taken off. What is refreshing is that, unlike many others of his generation, Horowitz has not responded with a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance of social control as a necessary evil. Instead, he wants to sort it out. He wants war.

‘We as citizens have become infantilised’

I ask Horowitz to what extent his reaction against the culture of fear surrounding children is informed by the books he writes. The Alex Rider series, published amidst the swell of interest in children’s fiction that followed Harry Potter, catapulted Horowitz to fame. The central character is an orphan who is recruited by MI6 – a 14-year-old teenage spy who single-handedly battles against a load of evil and / or useless adults. Alex Rider is a savvy risk-taker – is this how Horowitz views children, and why he is so loath to over-protect them?

He laughs. ‘When I do this sort of interview, I always have to remind myself that the most dangerous thing in the world is a children’s author on a soap box’, he says. ‘I’m a writer of kids’ stories, I’m not somebody clever. And the Alex Rider books aren’t deep or meaningful or significant or philosophical or political or anything else. They’re straightforward, fast-paced adventure stories that have clicked and caught on. They’re written just with the passion of wanting to tell a story and with no other aim in mind.’

If anything fits in with his views about vetting, it ‘is my belief in young people – kids – whatever you want to call them, it’s so difficult these days to find the right word’. He talks about his belief in ‘the wisdom of children and the fact that children will basically look out for themselves, that they have great resources. Children are our future, it’s as simple as that, and I think you can’t be a children’s writer unless you vaguely believe that.’ But when pushed slightly further, Horowitz confesses:

‘The Alex Rider books were very much inspired by – and it makes me want to groan to say it, but it’s true – the sense of betrayal from Blair and his government. Why is the head of MI6 in the books called Blunt? Blunt is the name of the biggest traitor in British history. Why are all the adults so duplicitous and untrustworthy? It is because we as citizens have become infantilised, we are the children who cannot make decisions for ourselves and therefore need to be vetted and put under the microscope and put on to databases and generally controlled in every way possible, and the adults have become the government who are nonetheless corrupt themselves in some respect, in their way of thinking, and are making terrible mistakes. And so there is that sense of betrayal and being an orphan and being manipulated, lied to, and all the rest of it, and having to look after yourself.’

‘There’s a chill wind around any debate’

This rather unexpected response adds an interesting texture to the conversation that we have been having about the problem with the national vetting scheme. It may also help to indicate why there has been a particular reaction against this piece of legislation, rather than the countless other government initiatives that seek to meddle with and control everyday life.

Twelve years on from the election of the New Labour government, amidst a cloud of disillusionment with Labour and cynicism about politics generally, there is a sense that things have gone too far when the government seeks to prescribe who can give a child a lift home from school or help out with a children’s sports club. Those, like Horowitz, who have a sense of pride in the role they have played in engaging with the younger generation, and who – crucially – are old enough to remember times when it wasn’t like this, have been incited to speak up and act out.

But, as I gently suggest, this ripple of reaction against legislative mania is still remarkably faint. Despite the extent of the damage already caused by the vetting scheme, most people have taken the arguments on board and offer themselves up to be included in the ISA database. When I ask why we don’t object more, he responds:

‘I would go further. Why is there not rioting? Why have people stood by and accepted this so passively? There hasn’t been a decent riot in this country since Dickens’ time – or before that, the last big riots when London was set on fire. I am puzzled not just about why people accept these things, but why there isn’t more civil disobedience. We have become far too acquiescent in our own undoing, in our own submission, in our own subservience, to people who obviously know nothing – or know very little more than we do. There is a sense of fear now in the land, among people, about what they say – you can’t have a conversation with a straight answer, there’s a chill wind around any debate. There is a sense of pulling up the bedcovers and hoping it will all be over soon.’

It seems to me that we’re a long way from riots – and that we probably don’t even need them. If a handful of children’s authors can put the government on the defensive by speaking out against the national vetting scheme, one wonders what would happen if adult volunteers simply refused to offer their personal details up for checking while insisting on continuing to play a role in children’s lives. Things have gone so far that such a deeply responsible act would count as ‘civil disobedience’ – and given the mess that is the national vetting scheme, it could well throw things into further disarray.

But however we do it, we need to strip back the bedcovers and engage in the fight for adult authority and children’s freedom. We may lose our government-sponsored licence to hug, but we will regain our sense of responsibility towards the next generation and the belief in our ability to act like grown-ups.

Anthony Horowitz is speaking on a panel with Frank Furedi on ‘Changing parenting culture: rescuing adult authority in the 21st century’, at the British Library on 16 February. Click here for more information.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.) Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow explained why parents should oppose vetting. Josie Appleton supported the writers’ revolt against criminal records checks. She felt that acts of kindness have been criminalised by vetting procedures and argued against policing ‘touch’ in schools. Or read more at spiked issue Vetting.

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

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