But last week liberal lawyer Helena Kennedy aired a mea culpa for herself and her generation in a programme on Radio 4. She said she now felt attempts to deal with domestic violence in the 1970s had had the unintended consequence of enabling a gradual erosion of citizens’ rights and freedoms. They meant only to get justice for women who were too afraid to testify against their husbands in court, but what they achieved was a move away from the courtroom with its respect for the rights of the accused, its demand for a case to answer, its press bench.
The spin-off has been an increase in the use of pseudo-courts and civil courts. And, to take one example, children being jailed for breaking antisocial behaviour orders given for non-criminal offences such as making noise in the street. This erosion of rights continues with the state in England asserting its right to “vet and bar” all those who volunteer to work with children. I submitted to this process myself recently and was unprepared for the chill that beset me as I waited for a reply. This was, perhaps, just foolishness. After all, I am not a child molester and there is very little in my past to be ashamed of. However just the act of submission to checking by “the authorities” prompted a sense of unease. What if they muddled me up with someone else? Could that happen? What if the time I took a packet of Spangles from Woolworth’s as a child was logged on my file somewhere? How about the time I argued with a patronising doctor at the hospital and signed my child out against medical advice? By the way, I was lucky to get away with that. A friend who fell out with a doctor did the same thing and was woken at 2am by a van load of police officers who had been sent to return the child to hospital. (The child was fine by the way.)
Other situations confirm and increase this sense of unease. A friend calls, distraught. A trained professional at home with her own daughter, a calm woman who loves children, she started work as a child minder to supplement the family income. But one day she made a mistake. She left a small child in her living room alone for a moment while she went to wash her hands. The room had been risk-assessed and it was only for a short time. But the child’s anxious father arrived and, seeing his son through the window alone, he aggressively demanded an explanation. Having given her a faceful of abuse he went home and complained to the Care Commission.
They have asked her some questions and her case is being considered by the authorities. Now my friend, who has broken no laws and done nothing that any mother wouldn’t do, lies awake at night wondering just what the implications may be of being found guilty of neglecting a child by them. There is to be no hearing, she has been given no opportunity formally to defend herself.
This week, I was reporting on a case in Dundee where social workers on an unscheduled visit to a family in a deprived area removed two pre-school children into care because they were judged to be too fat. Apparently this same social work department had spent a year and £114,000 ‘monitoring’ thier diet after the family sought help for their oldest daughter. Like so many of these initiatives it appears only to have made the situation worse.
The constant undermining of parental rights in these times, justified by one or two horror stories, is felt in every aspect of life. Recently I took my children to the swimming pool. Despite the fact that swimming is free for children where I live, we were the only people in the pool: I soon discovered why. Within 10 minutes, the lifeguard had blown her whistle three times. At one point my eight-year-old walked to the deep end and dived in. The whistle sounded. Treading water nearby, I inquired as to what we had done wrong. Despite the fact he had recently completed a course of lessons designed to improve his confidence, he had apparently not convinced her that he was capable of swimming 25 metres. “What’s the danger?” I asked.
“The danger is that the pool is full of water,” she replied. It appeared that the lifeguards saw themselves as heroically foiling my constant attempts to murder my children in their leisure facility. In another case, a neighbour, an elderly widow crippled with arthritis who lives in a bought council flat where she has been for 50 years, takes her life in her hands every time she climbs the stone stairs to her flat. Her son wants to put in a stair lift, but the council says he can’t in case a child decides to play on it and hurt themselves.
The inanity of these rules is often blamed by Britons on the EU. But that does not appear to me to be the case. We have travelled frequently in other European countries and have not observed the same punitive obsession with rules and regulations and state control as here. We have even seen teenage boys allowed to horse around in swimming pools. The current plans to increase vetting and barring in England have disappointed me. I have great admiration for the English and I have always perceived them as having a little more of an anarchist streak, a little more cynicism about the state than Scots. North of the border, precious few people do question it. It seems ridiculous now to think that after the end of the second world war it was predicted that social work departments would wither away as, not faced with material want, people could be left to manage their own affairs.
That was before the “discovery” of child abuse. Now there are increasing calls for something called “early intervention”. Although it must be the case that many of the families who were offered it would, if left to themselves, rather than producing sociopaths, muddle through like the rest of us. No one seems to ask, let alone answer, the question as to why so many citizens nowadays are apparently unable to perform the basic tasks of parenting, to wash their children’s faces, feed them, love them, let them grow up.
Perhaps the answer is that somewhere along the way we as parents have become infantalised. We aren’t allowed to grow up. From the authorities’ point of view we pretty much all seem to be regarded as about as responsible as absent-minded 12-year-olds and we have had our chips. They were bad for us anyway.
NB This piece has been amended and an example removed.