Every Child Matters
In the guise of a caring, child-centred administration, this Government is making a radical change in the balance of authority between parents, children and the state. It is nationalising the upbringing of children.
Because it refuses to identify the real-life causes of the worst outcomes for children, such as young lone motherhood and family disruption, the Government is incapable of helping the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is undermining the most reliable source of security and wellbeing for every child: the presence and commitment of both parents.
Jill Kirby (Kirby, 2006)
Lord Laming’s report into the murder of Victoria Climbié made no fewer than 58 recommendations which the Labour Government accepted indiscriminately. Its response to the tragedy and to the report was grossly disproportionate; ignoring the dictum that ‘hard cases are apt to introduce bad law’ (Winterbottom v Wright, 1842), an all-embracing series of measures was introduced, designed to ensure that such a case must never happen again. Anyone who queried the wisdom of such a strategy risked being condemned as indifferent to the suffering of children. The measures included the launch of the Every Child Matters agenda, the Children Act 2004, the creation of the post of Children’s Commissioner, and the setting up of the infamous and short-lived ContactPoint database.
The Every Child Matters: Changes for Children agenda was severely criticised for being fixated with its five simplistic government targets for children, regardless of background or circumstance, to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution, and to achieve economic well-being – five targets which were far beyond the wildest dreams of children such as Victoria Climbié. Labour’s focus was rather to prevent the failure to achieve these targets than to prevent further child abuse.
Every Child Matters provided a moral imperative for every government agency and service involved in any way with children to comply, but its hectoring, bullying demands disguised a hollowness at its core, a failure to address the real reasons children were so often betrayed by social and health services. Inevitably the attainment of these targets became simplified and converted into a series of boxes to be ticked. For instance the injunction to be healthy was condensed to ‘reducing infant mortality; obesity; conception and sexually transmitted infection amongst under 18s; and the use of Class A drugs’ (Hoyle, 2008). The attempt to circumvent incompetence by introducing rigid systems was understandable, but could not replace the committed, experienced, compassionate professional. There was much that was left out, and no consideration at all, for example, of a child’s spiritual health.
Every Child Matters brought together all services for families and children under one immense bureaucratic umbrella centred in the education system, using a network of Children’s Centres for children from birth to the age of five and Extended Schools for five to 14 year olds. Universal childcare would be available from ‘dawn to dusk’ as part of ‘an overarching strategy for all children and young people from conception to age 19’ (Department for Work and Pensions, 1998). It continued, ‘It will articulate the outcomes Government wishes to see for children and young people… The framework is intended to cover all aspects of children’s and young people’s lives’. By 2010 every local authority was required to provide ‘wraparound’ childcare from 8am to 6pm for every child up to the age of 14, during term-time and holidays. Of course, it never quite happened like that.
Labour claimed that this would protect vulnerable children from harm and ensure that all children achieved their potential, but because they obdurately refused to acknowledge the real causes of poor outcomes for children – such as family breakdown and lone motherhood – more children were being put at risk and the most vulnerable would inexorably be failed. The very title of the agenda shows the refusal to target scant resources at the most needy.
The vision set out in Every Child Matters encompasses education, skills, health, wealth, behaviour, sexual history and relationships. The Government justified this level of intrusion by claiming disgracefully that it was what the children themselves asked for. This policy, under 25 headings, is monitored by Ofsted, which has already been reconfigured as an agency dedicated to enforcing government policy, and which now has overall responsibility for all family and child services, and is measured against the ubiquitous but ineffective government tick-box targets. By 2011 Ofsted was floundering under its increased workload and a committee of MPs called for the ‘unwieldy and uncoordinated body’ to be split into two. It was Ofsted which had inspected Haringey children’s services and failed to find the defects which would lead to the death of Baby P; the MPs demanded a new inspectorate to focus entirely on children’s services and care.
In order to facilitate monitoring, New Labour announced a database, disarmingly named ContactPoint, which would allocate every child a reference number by which all the agencies responsible for the 25 areas would be able to cross-reference their records. Victoria Climbié had acquired 5 separate identification numbers in her short life, which meant that agencies did not realise they were working with the same child. A wide range of details pertaining to each child born in the UK was to have been stored from birth until age 24, by which time it would have been transferred to the adult database, as this clearly formed part of Labour’s vision to have everyone catalogued, tagged, monitored and compelled to carry an identity card.
ContactPoint, also referred to as the Children’s Index, aroused considerable controversy; perhaps its worst characteristic was that it would have established two classes of children, those whose parents were deemed ‘celebrities’, and all others. The addresses and telephone numbers of celebrities would not have been included on the database, in a move which was widely interpreted as an admission that the Index could not be secure. Labour denied this of course, despite the fact that nearly half a million civil servants would have had access. Clearly one lesson to be drawn from the Climbié enquiry – that not all professionals can be relied on to do their jobs – had not been learnt. Following the loss of two CDs containing the entire Child Benefit database, Labour’s Minister for Children confessed that ContactPoint would be delayed by 5 months, and after Nick Clegg announced on behalf of the Conservative/Liberal Coalition that it would be scrapped it was finally switched off on the 6th August 2010. The adult database was also abolished under the Identity Documents Bill 2010-11. By November 2012, however, the children’s database was back in the media, described as ‘ContactPoint by another name’, it already contained the details and photographs of children from 100 local authorities (Paton, 2012).
There is no aspect of a child’s life which is not open to state scrutiny and intrusion; no involvement by one state agency into a child’s life which will not trigger further involvement from another, all accessible to monitoring and assessment by an army of state employees. The most intimate details of a child’s behaviour are subjected to surveillance, monitored, recorded and shared. Children have lost their spaces where they may ‘explore feelings, experiences and worries away from the gaze of the state’ (Hoyle, 2008). The likely effect of this is that they will turn away from state agencies for help and support; the consequences for their welfare and health may be severe. The joint parliamentary committee on human rights has questioned whether the undeniable breach of Article 8 is proportional and justified to ensure the welfare of all children,
We are concerned that, if the justification for information-sharing about children is that it is always proportionate where the purpose is to identify children who need welfare services, there is no meaningful content left to a child’s Article 8 right to privacy and confidentiality in their personal information (Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2004).
Laming’s report was presented as something radically different from the more than 70 which had preceded it over the previous 30 years; the professionals had hitherto proved themselves incapable of learning anything or of changing their working practices for the better, but this time would somehow be different. Media and press coverage were full of this false optimism: Laming’s report would be the last. It is vital to stress that the systems and procedures which were heavily criticised by Laming were precisely those systems and procedures which were introduced following the Maria Colwell inquiry; they were not working. It was hubristic to imagine that Laming’s recommendations were in some way more likely to succeed. Laming provided a list of what had gone wrong, but didn’t consider why it had gone wrong. And yet understanding the reason for the failings is crucial if they are not to be replicated. Merely telling social services to do their job, as his recommendations effectively did, is not a solution. Laming’s failure to analyse why all the preceding reforms had so signally failed to prevent such comprehensive failures negated any credibility he might have had.
Laming’s wish-list wasn’t realistic; he didn’t cost it and there was no indication of where the inevitable additional costs were to come from, and yet it demanded more layers of bureaucracy, more agencies, more managers, boards, systems, structures, resources, training, reviews, reports, codes, guidance, procedures, assessments, tick-boxes, and box-tickers. While everyone wanted improvement, it is hard to see how Laming’s simple rules could have generated it without any understanding of the underlying reasons why presumably well-intentioned people so woefully neglected their responsibilities. A study into the Every Child Matters reforms was conducted by former Ofsted inspector Christine Hough (Hough, 2006). Her findings revealed the implementation of the policy was not working, and it was failing to identify children in need effectively, or to provide them with the necessary support. The way in which the agenda’s success was to be measured also came in for criticism, and she was dismissive of the ContactPoint database,
The current system is predicated on the collection of data, or ticks of the box. Judgements are made according to points scored.
The agenda had raised awareness within welfare agencies, but the process of identifying vulnerable children was not working; inevitably she encountered the habitual lack of communication between agencies,
Merely exhorting agencies to work together will not bring about the changes required for truly effective joined up thinking and working. There are many cultural and professional complexities that surround working and sharing information across the boundaries of the education, health, social services and youth justice teams.
The same failure to ask the most basic questions about why the system wasn’t working were features of a study of the child protection system conducted on behalf of the Coalition Government by Professor Eileen Munro (Munro, 2011). Her findings revealed the influence of Laming’s report and the cumulative effect of previous reports which had created an over-bureaucratised and ‘very regulated and prescribed working environment’,
Reforms have been implemented through top-down direction and regulation, which has contributed to problems and led to an over-standardised response to the varied needs of children. Managerial attention has been excessively focused on the process rather than the practice of work.
Munro also observed that successive serious case reviews had recorded the poor ability of the system to learn from feedback; the system was unable to determine whether children were benefitting from its intervention. She echoed the Ofsted finding that children were not being heard by the system, and too many were entering care without having their views sought. She noted that social workers operate in an atmosphere of anxiety which leads them to take children from parents ‘at a lower level of risk’, i.e. before the threshold criteria are met. ‘Waves of anxiety travel through the system when there is a high profile death, leading to more referrals being made’. Social workers react defensively to media criticism. Munro recommended earlier intervention so that the situations which require the removal of children from their parents do not arise. She recommended stripping out some of the top-down bureaucracy and envisaged a system in which professionals would be able to utilise their own expertise. She recommended substantial reform of the administration of inspections and an end to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
Like similar reviews the Munro Review was a product of the system and inadequately represented the views of the system’s users: the parents and children. It didn’t address the commonality of serious case reviews which identify multiple failures in all the agencies tasked to protect a particular child, and it didn’t address why the system continues to fail.
The name of the Every Child Matters agenda has been unassailable and the scale of the intrusion into family privacy and the replacement of parents, initially fathers, by the state have been difficult to comprehend. Presented under the guise of compassion, this represents nothing less than the wholesale nationalisation of childhood. The agenda was advanced most keenly by Gordon Brown, but it reflected a philosophy which lay at the heart of the Labour ‘project’. Its origins go back to Trotsky who described how ‘the functions of the family’ were to be absorbed by the ‘institutions of the socialist society’ (Trotsky, 1936).
In 1998 Anthony Giddens, one of the engineers of the New Labour project, explained in The Third Way how the ‘democratisation’ of the family demanded that responsibility for childcare be shared not only between men and women but also between parents and non-parents (Giddens, 1998). Giddens proposed that in the ‘democratic family’, parents would have to ‘negotiate’ with the state for authority over their children. In 2007 Labour’s favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, suggested replacing baptism with sinister ‘birth ceremonies’, at which the state and parents would agree to ‘work in partnership’ to bring up children (Chapman, 2007a). Labour also considered compelling parents to attend state-run parenting classes, or to accept counselling from an army of state-employed psychologists and ‘super-nannies’ (McCartney, 2007). Among the more controversial initiatives was the proposal to target ‘problem children’ even before they were born,
If you’ve got someone who is a teenage mum, not married, not in a stable relationship, ‘Here is the support we are prepared to offer you, but we do need to keep a careful watch on you and how your situation is developing because all the indicators are that your type of situation can lead to problems in the future’ (Blair, 2006).
The irony was that such mothers represented Labour’s favourite constituency, and their policies had done much to swell numbers and create precisely the problem which now alarmed them. Labour’s vision wasn’t based on the best interests of children; this was instead a radical agenda to redefine the family, to make parents and their children increasingly dependent on the state, and in turn to give the state enhanced control over the raising of children and the administration of families. Parents became supplementary to the state.
To Labour childcare meant sending mothers out to work and leaving their children with state-approved child-minders or in state-run schools; Gordon Brown believed that paid work was the panacea to all social ills and an absolute moral good; he agreed with the feminists who believed mothers should not be given the opportunity not to work, while their children were raised by the collective. As Chancellor he was the champion of ‘childcare’, pouring more than £21 billion of taxpayers’ money into a poorly concealed Old Labour redistribution of wealth. This had the unintended consequence of pushing up prices; by 2004 a typical nursery place for a child cost nearly £7,000 a year and there was an acute shortage of places (Womack, 2004). Families were often financially better off if the mother stayed at home to look after the children. More than a quarter of families using supposedly free childcare facilities were having to pay a fee, and others were paying as much as £100 a term for hidden ‘extras’ (Daycare Trust/National Centre for Social Research, 2007). Nurseries claimed that Government money was insufficient. While take-up of the free entitlement was widespread, a tenth of the most needy children failed to get places.
Unfortunately for Brown this form of ‘childcare’ was not beneficial to any but the most deprived of children, and could lead to behavioural problems; in many ‘SureStart’ day-care centres there was insufficient contact between children and staff. The key aim was not to provide high quality childcare, but to get non-working mothers into work, and in that it substantially failed, not least because such mothers were better off remaining on benefits. It is hardly surprising that mothers resisted a policy which was of no advantage to them and harmful to their children. What Brown achieved by targeting lone mothers with additional support, by turning children’s centres into ‘parental outreach’ centres and bases for child-minders, and by taxing married couples to pay for it all, was to provide further financial incentives for lone motherhood, thus driving up child poverty and disadvantage. A six-year study showed Labour’s policy had done nothing to improve children’s skills; it concluded,
After controlling for deprivation, language, age and sex, the only significant change over time was a very slight decline in picture vocabulary (Merrell, Tymms, & Jones, 2007).
Brown’s response was to close his mind, redistribute another £4 billion and increase the existing 1,325 children’s centres to 2,500. When the Coalition came to power in 2010 they didn’t challenge or roll back this agenda, as expected, and, though cost-cutting forced the closure of 500 centres, it remained in place.
In 2007, the focus for governmental protection of children turned to Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks on all those wishing to work with (or anywhere near) children. Once again Labour assumed that the best protection for children came from an extension of state control and the implementation of universal data-bases, and it presided over a massive increase in the number of adults required to register. Criticism of the CRB had concentrated on its shambolic incompetence in clearing teachers and others for work since it started in 2002 (delays had increased to 3 months and thousands had falsely been branded drug-abusers, fraudsters and paedophiles) but not on its raison d’être. In fact it was set up to enable employers to run background checks on all would-be employees, but it never had the funding to accomplish this. Predictably Labour initiated a huge expansion of the system.
Local authorities operate in a culture of fear and cover-up within which managers’ primary concern is to cover up incompetence and hang on to their jobs. It is in this context that CRB checks come into their own: when the shit hits the fan the LA can protect itself by maintaining that everything was done to protect the children – the rules were followed and the boxes ticked. The LA and its managers remain beyond reproach, they have covered their arses. The fact that a child was abused or killed is incidental and can be blamed on the perpetrator and not on the failure of officials to protect. This creates an environment in which anyone who wants to work with children is immediately suspected of paedophilia, subjected to checks and placed under surveillance. Adults are denigrated and children are infantilised and turned into objects: their vulnerabilities are exaggerated and normal relations between them and adults are discouraged. Most of the adults who have been prevented from working with children had convictions unrelated to child sex offences, assuming they were correctly identified at all: at least 2,500 adults every year are falsely indicted with crimes they never committed.
This culture is self-defeating: inspirational teachers who want to teach children are discouraged from doing so; children are denied access to those who would enhance their education; and there is a dire shortage of volunteers with genuinely charitable motives to support children’s extra-curricular activities. There is a long waiting list of children wanting to join organisations like the Scouts and Guides because of a lack of adults prepared to subject themselves to excessively bureaucratic investigation and surveillance (Hope, 2008a); between them they spend £120,000 on compulsory CRB checks (Lipman, 2012). Meanwhile a persevering paedophile who hasn’t yet been caught can easily gain access to children.
The particular trigger for this piece of unwarranted government over-reaction was the murder in 2002 of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by their school caretaker Ian Huntley. The inquiry conducted by Sir Michael Bichard revealed that Cambridgeshire police had not followed vetting procedures and Humberside police had destroyed files recording Huntley’s earlier investigation (but not conviction) for burglary and sexual offences including 4 acts of under-age sex and 3 rapes. These were extraordinary oversights given that Huntley’s predecessor at Soham Village College had been dismissed for having an inappropriate relationship with a female pupil. The inquiry was severely critical of the police and also recommended setting up a registration scheme for those working with vulnerable people. Once again, the lesson Labour seemed to take from the episode was that if sufficient bureaucracy were put in place professional incompetence would be rendered irrelevant.
Bichard’s recommendations led to the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), the cornerstone of the Vetting and Barring Scheme. This new layer of bureaucracy covered anyone involved in the teaching, training, care, supervision, advice, treatment or transport of children. Applications and monitoring were run by the unreliable Criminal Records Bureau, and it was estimated that a quarter of the adult population would eventually have been required to register (Hope, 2008b). The Scheme enabled individuals to be barred from working with vulnerable groups not merely on the basis of convictions but also as the result of a decision by the ISA based on evidence including unproven allegations, stories in the press, etc., all of which was to be recorded and stored. The standard of proof employed was to be the ‘balance of probability’ rather than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard. The predictable outcome of this legislation was a further decline in the availability of adult volunteers for children’s activities.
It is manifestly absurd to treat all children as if they were at risk of the same degree of abuse to which Victoria Climbié was subject, and all adults as if they were Ian Huntley; it is an infringement of liberties and a perversion of our tradition of innocence until guilt is proven. The belief that no one is safe to work with children until they have been sanctified by a police check is psychotic. Despite the claims of alarmists like the NSPCC, the rate of child abuse is not increasing (and may even be falling (Sidebotham, Atkins, & Hutton, 2011)), and most children are entirely safe. It is also poor use of necessarily limited public funds; such a large net has a wide mesh, and those who present a real danger to children can slip through. It is a measure of the incompetence of the people entrusted with children’s protection that they cannot focus their resources where they are most needed. Be very afraid when such people knock on your door.
The Vetting and Barring Scheme came under attack from many quarters. Children’s author Philip Pullman called it ‘outrageous, demeaning and insulting’.
It seems to be fuelled by the same combination of prurience, sexual fear and cold political calculation. When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth – how on earth – how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It’s preposterous (Flood, 2009).
Former children’s laureate Anne Fine said, ‘I refuse – having spoken in schools without incident for 32 years, I refuse to undergo such a demeaning process. It’s all part of a very unhealthy situation that we’ve got ourselves into where all people who are close to children are seen as potential paedophiles’. Campaigners have pointed out that the Scheme would not have prevented the Soham murders because Ian Huntley knew his victims through his girlfriend, Maxine Carr, and not through his job. Pullman continued,
It damages in a much deeper way the trust and social cohesion we ought to be able to rely on. You ought to be able to trust people, so to say to a child that you’re having someone to talk to you but don’t worry, we’ve checked him out and he’s not a paedophile, implies that everybody who isn’t checked is.
To those in the child protection industry anyone who has not been checked is a paedophile. Of course the vetting and barring agenda doesn’t increase the safety of children, but it does pander to the needs of the gender-feminist child protection lobby. The relationship between children and adults has become transformed, with all adults perceived not as the protectors of children but as their abusers; for the gender-feminists this is a significant breakthrough. Their cheerleader, Beatrix Campbell, veteran of the satanic ritual abuse scandals, opined in the Guardian that writers who wish to talk to schoolchildren should be glad to submit to vetting as it ‘signal(s) to young people that their school thinks their bodily integrity matters; and that it matters more than a minor interruption of adults’ privacy’ (Campbell B. , 2009). Only a mind as twisted as Campbell’s could possibly imagine Pullman and Fine to be threats to a child’s ‘bodily integrity’.
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