The paedophile panic: a metaphor for mistrust

Vetting is justified as an effort to keep perverts at arm's length. In truth, it encourages spying on everyday interactions between adults and kids.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Josie Appleton, convenor of the Manifesto Club, has spearheaded a campaign against Britain’s expansion of suspicious vetting of adults who work with children. Following a debate in central London last month, titled Checkmate: Has Vetting Gone Too Far?, here she outlines how the new culture of vetting in the UK is poisoning trust and openness between adults and children. Watch a clip from the London meeting below.

People often say that we need mass criminal records checks of adults working with children because ‘you wouldn’t want a child abuser teaching your child football, would you?’. They say that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act – a new British law which will put 10million adults who work with young people and other ‘vulnerable’ groups on a database, and subject them to continuous criminal records monitoring – is necessary. They argue that we must have a culture of vetting, so that dangerous adults are kept away from children.

Of course you wouldn’t want a paedophile teaching your kids football; and you wouldn’t want a lawyer who was a crook, or dangerous murderers roaming the streets. Paedophilia is both a psychological disorder and a crime, and as with every crime, there should be a set of social policies geared towards keeping dangerous individuals away from those they might harm.

But that is not what vetting in Britain is about. As a policy, vetting – as with all child protection policy these days – does not target problem individuals, or abnormal problem behaviour. Instead, vetting is about the regulation and monitoring of ordinary, everyday interactions between adults and kids.

A targeted approach to paedophilia would be based on things such as offender management – ensuring that known paedophiles do not work in particular jobs, for example, or improving diagnosis and treatment of paedophilia. Or it might involve improving the reporting of abnormal behaviour – for example, saying to children: ‘If somebody behaves in this way, tell an adult.’

But in the case of vetting, the thing that determines whether somebody is a potential risk to children, and whether they should be monitored and put on a database, is the simple fact that they have a relationship with children. The question asked is, do they have ‘access to children’? Here we can see how the very fact that an adult has a relationship with children triggers the government bureaucracy into action. It is the fact that children are in your care, repeatedly, that flags you up as somebody who needs to be monitored.

Your level of potential risk depends on the degree of your relationship. So the more often you meet with children, and the more they are in your care, the more you need to be on the database. You have to be on the database by law if you work or volunteer with children more regularly than once a month, or for more than three days in a row. In terms of paedophile management, these are arbitrary measures – there is no reason why a twisted individual could not attack kids he was seeing once every two months, for example. These measures only make sense as an index of a relationship: they identify a ‘relationship of trust’ with the potential to abuse.

The figure of the paedophile exists at the back of our minds today. And in terms of how the fear of paedophiles now drives policy, these are less real problem individuals, who need to be dealt with by social policy, and more largely figures of our imaginations. The paedophile that we talk about all the time is really a metaphor, which expresses the way in which our everyday actions and relationships have become contaminated. The figure of the paeodphile starts to exist at the back of everybody’s mind, as an expression of bad faith.

Consider the way that ordinary behaviour has become unacceptable: taking photos at a nativity play; looking at a children’s playground; touching a child’s shoulder. These are normal things for adults to do. It is normal for adults to like children, to find them endearing and to enjoy their company. Yet these normal acts of caring are now looked upon as suspicious. As a part of today’s child protection policies, we don’t take photos; we don’t touch children; we look away when we walk past a playground.

The self-justification for this behaviour is interesting. A violin teacher explained to me why he no longer touched a child’s arm to improve his or her bow-hold: it was, he said, because somebody else might take advantage of the opportunity of touching a child’s arm; his concern was that somebody else could act in the same way as him, but with ill intent. He could not see that this was not about the other person, whomever that person might be, but rather was about him: he was expressing an attitude towards his own actions, and how they might be potentially sordid and malevolent.

There is a sense that all adults are a bit contaminated, by something like original sin. And official monitoring is the form that absolution takes. Submitting to the constant watch of the child protection lobby has become a way in which we are absolved of potential bad faith, and declared ‘Safe’.

This explains the irrational degree of faith loaded on to Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. People ask: ‘Have you been checked?’ Workers and volunteers sometimes proudly say: ‘I have been checked.’ The simple and dull act of going through police files is invested with all kinds of profound meaning. If you are checked, you are declared a good and pure individual. When people say ‘I am checked’, they really mean: ‘I am clean.’

The UK government’s new vetting database of all adults who work with children and other groups of people is a step on from old CRB checks. A CRB check is only good on the day it is done. So you need repeat checks to reassure; some organisations declare a check invalid if it was done three weeks ago. Under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, you will stay on the database and will be checked all the time. This is akin to continual absolution, perhaps something like joining a church. Indeed, government ministers describe someone who is on the database as being ‘part of the scheme’. Apparently the only safe adult is one who has submitted to monitoring, and the only safe relationship is one mediated through the authorities and officialdom.

In this culture of vetting, people start to reach for official sanction as a way of declaring that they, and their relationships, are above board. You see examples of this everywhere. One photographer for a local newspaper told me that he always goes out now with a reflective vest and official card. Not that these items perform any useful function (he brought the reflective vest himself); but they do seem to indicate that he has permission to be on the streets, taking photographs. These days, the Safe Adult is the adult with permission from on high.

If you look at some of the recent CRB check ‘scandals’, you will notice that they are not normally about dodgy behaviour. Instead, they involve unmoderated, spontaneous social contact. The press makes a big fuss about ‘CRB loopholes’, reporting stories such as ‘50 teachers in Wales have been teaching for a year and they are not checked!’ Other stories feature undercover reporters walking through a school unchecked, and that is the extent of the scandal: that they are walking through a school and have not been checked. These reporters do not write stories saying: ‘I abducted a child, and nobody noticed.’ They write: ‘I walked through a school, and nobody checked me out. I had “access to children”, and nobody asked for my pass.’ That is a scandal these days.

The obsessive focus on vetting can go along with less attention being paid to the monitoring of problem individuals. There have been a number of cases where information about recently released paeodphiles has not been entered on to the correct database. Such a task would take someone just a few hours to carry out, yet such is the desire to vet everybody – 10million adults in total – that some information can get lost or not be inputted properly. When vetting is rolled out even more, it is quite possible that there will be less effective offender management of those who are actually a risk.

If a fraction of the money invested in mass vetting were put into targeted social policy, children would probably be safer. And, equally importantly, they would enjoy freer and richer relationships with the adults around them, who have so much to offer and teach the next generation.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network. Click on the screen below to watch an edited video extract of her speech at ‘Checkmate: Has Vetting Gone Too Far?’ in central London last month, or read transcripts of all the speeches here.

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Topics Politics


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