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Children Bill: monitoring problems

While the state spies on families to 'see what services they need', parents who ask for help are ignored.

Terri Dowty

Topics Politics

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A former colleague of mine had been blind for the whole of her life, and was mobile, capable and independent. One thing that made her furious was that she could never afford to dawdle or look uncertain when she was in public.

If she paused on a street corner, she was liable to find herself propelled across the road. Once she narrowly avoided being bundled on to a train to Ipswich. Too many people thought they could work out what she wanted simply by watching her – they didn’t ask her whether she wanted help, or consider that their assistance might be perceived as patronising or disempowering.

Proposals in the UK government’s Children Bill for a children’s database are
in a similar spirit. Every child will have a file on the database, and teachers, doctors or other professionals will be expected to flag any ’cause for concern’ on that file. This will include, not just child protection concerns, but issues such as whether exam results are lower than expected, or whether the family lives in poor housing. If two flags of concern are recorded, professionals will pool the information they hold about the child and his family, and decide what intervention is necessary.

When we are being watched, we detach a little from ourselves in order to check what others might see. Placing families under surveillance alters the whole dynamic of family life, and may force parents into what one father called ‘defensive parenting’. It is likely that it will cause parents – and children – to think twice about asking for help from professionals, at the risk of opening their family life to scrutiny. If their toddler falls and bangs her head, perhaps parents will feel that ‘erring on the side of caution’ means not taking her to casualty. It is hard to see how scaring parents away from sources of advice can help their children.

This information-sharing database has been promoted under the banner of ‘child protection’. This has the effect of stifling criticism because, after all, only a monster could oppose child protection. Action on Rights for Children (ARCH), the network of families that I represent, cares passionately about the rights of children – but we are deeply opposed to these proposals. Of course, parents who assault and neglect their children should not be allowed to hide behind ‘family values’. Children should be protected, and we need to know that a thorough child protection system guarantees every child’s right to grow up free from fear and humiliation.

But just as the state should protect children whose parents abuse their power, it is parents’ duty to protect their children from an over-mighty state. Where parents are not abusive, however muddled, fallible or imperfect they may be, they are the people responsible for raising their children. The alternative is a state vision of child rearing, and history tells us how dangerous that is. The Children Bill has made far too many parents feel that they are being subjected to some kind of state takeover bid.

The government Green Paper ‘Every Child Matters’ that preceded the Children Bill was announced as a response to Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbie. In fact, the idea for a children’s database seems to have different origins. In 1999 the White Paper ‘Modernising Government’ talked about joining up services and ‘electronic service delivery’, or ‘e-government’, including the idea that everybody’s records are held centrally, with electronic gateways between them. The Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit examined the proposals, and in 2002 published the report ‘Privacy and Data-Sharing: The way forward for public services’, which contains detailed proposals for sharing children’s information across agencies to build up ‘a holistic view of children’s needs’ and ‘ensure children do not slip through the net’. This report was published in April 2002, a month before the Laming Inquiry opened, and a year before the Laming report.

It would seem that the database policy already existed within the Cabinet Office, and was merely waiting for the right vehicle, when along came a bus marked ‘child protection’. Those of us who cried when we read about Victoria Climbie are appalled that she should become the mandate for advancing a pre-existing e-government policy, and that ‘child protection’ should be invoked to silence legitimate concerns. Those who rely on public emotion rather than rationality to justify policies should be aware of how badly it can rebound on them.

What will be the effect on the child protection system of the information sharing proposals in the Bill? If the system is struggling at the moment, it is likely to collapse under the weight of the data that is to be collected. If staff shortages and lack of resources are already causing local authorities to struggle to allocate child protection referrals, how will they cope when every failed SATs test, unauthorised absence or attendance at casualty is reported as suspicious? It is a fair bet that professionals will want to report every tiny incident, rather than risk accusations of negligence.

A huge database will increase the likelihood of errors, which occur in any system. There is also the danger of the unwarranted disclosure of information about families, whether accidentally or corruptly. As the recent technical issues report from the Children and Young Person’s Unit has acknowledged, these are all perfectly legitimate fears. Responsible parents do not put their children’s details on the internet – but by establishing a national children’s database the government in effect proposes to do just that.

Why does the government believe that families need to be observed in order to ‘see what services they need’? Apparently it is not possible simply to advertise services and assume that the majority of families are capable of working out what might benefit them. Not that services are well advertised at the moment – I have lived in the same London borough for over 20 years, and only recently discovered that there are three separate parenting courses operating locally. In other areas, meanwhile, parents are begging for help, particularly those parents whose children have special needs – and their requests are often met with silence by official agencies.

I was recently carrying out research into the experiences of families where children have learning difficulties or chronic health problems, and was deluged with replies from families who were not receiving even the most basic help that they needed. Some had faced allegations that they were inadequate – or, worse, the cause of their child’s problems.

One mother wrote to me: ‘my five-year-old son is classically autistic. He smears poo, he bites, he has the speech of a toddler. Our social worker said that he needs a suitable package of help, but we have received nothing.’ Most parents know perfectly well what they and their children need in order to cope, and are already in touch with services, but the services and resources simply are not there. It isn’t necessary to share information without their consent and disempower them even further – they already have quite enough to cope with. What they need is money, resources and skilled help when they ask for it. They also need to know what is being said about them because they are extremely vulnerable to professionals’ inexperience or prejudice.

Those most in need of services are likely to be poor, and don’t have the money to buy solutions. By contrast, most of those going to university and subsequently entering the professions are middle class and articulate. It is hard to see how elevating a new ‘monitor’ class in our society can possibly help those who feel degraded and powerless, or how it can heal the already deep social rifts.

The Children Bill is potentially divisive, and it turns our public servants into public masters. It will not alter the fact that our social services are short of staff and resources, and it may have a disastrous effect upon child protection. It is profoundly undemocratic, effectively seeking to bundle families over roads they have not asked to cross.

Terri Dowty is policy director of Action on Rights for Children (ARCH), and a consultant to several other organisations. She has a longstanding involvement in children’s rights and in democratic forms of education, and has written several books and articles on these subjects.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

Tracking parents, by Eileen Munro

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Topics Politics

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