England wasn’t built on babysitting bans

28 September 2009, guardian.co.uk

What would Orwell make of a nation in which mothers are investigated for looking after each other's children?

When did it happen? When did the English, described by George Orwell in his famous essays, as a byword for tolerance, eternally suspicious of "power worship" and the overweening authoritarian state, turn into people who report their neighbours to the authorities for babysitting each other's children without permission?

The case of two female police officers who have been subjected to accusations of running an illegal childminding business seems to exemplify the new England.

Someone – apparently a neighbour – anonymously reported that detective constable Leanne Shepherd, who has a two-year-old daughter Edie, had a reciprocal childcare arrangement with her job share partner and friend DC Lucy Jarrett, who also has a toddler, Amy, aged three.

After an unannounced visit from Ofsted established this was indeed the case, the two families were ordered to stop the arrangement forthwith as neither was registered as a childcare provider with the appropriate authorities.

Surely this is painful, monstrous nonsense? “It was devastating, I was crying all day. Every day Edie says ‘going to see Amy?’, but it’s just not possible,” said Shepherd, who has had to place her daughter in an expensive private nursery so she can continue working.

But what price a child’s tears, a broken relationship she was developing that was “like sisters”, the comfort of being picked up ready for bed in her pyjamas from the intimate setting of her “auntie’s”? Against the need to comply with the regulations, these appear to count for nothing.

Part of the monstrous conceit of this endless extensions of the apparatus of control is that what it does is make children safer and their lives better. But is there any evidence of that? Is there any evidence that children cared for in loving and intimate relationships arranged by their parents fare worse than those in state-registered nurseries, some of which tick the boxes but feel like little more than child-containment facilities? Is there any evidence that all child abusers’ names are held on a central register, simply waiting to be checked?

We have all been horrified by the detailed accounts of abuse of some children. But, like hysterical children threatened with the bogeyman, we have become so terrified that we all but lose our wits when a stair creaks in the night or an owl hoots in the bushes. To keep us calm we put our faith in essentially futile rules, like a child who has to do up their pyjama buttons in exactly the same order every night for fear of being swallowed up

Life for children – or anyone else – cannot be made completely safe. There is no perfect solution when it comes to childcare. Choices have to be made and many of them rest on fine judgements. Parents can do some things for their children that the state can’t do – such as love them. They are the people who must make these decisions.

Creating this raft of insane rules is simply creating more anxiety and fear. Mothers have been blogging in the wake of this story wondering if regular babysitting, or having friends to play, or accepting boxes of chocs as thank yous now amounts to breaking the law. Unsurprisingly, given the debate this case has generated, the children’s minister has now ordered a review of the “babysitting ban”.

Orwell, who loved English ordinariness and individuality, and praised what he called “the privateness” of English life, would have been appalled.