Beatrix Campbell: Why are we so scared of our children?

Ruth Kelly's problems are symptoms of a deeper failure, because, under New Labour children have become simply a nuisance to be socialised, trained, patrolled and managed, not nurtured and protected
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly has no excuse. As a devout Roman Catholic she adheres to a church whose institutionalised abuse of children has provoked a cultural revolution in Ireland. Fellow Catholics - the victims of cruel, cold charity - have engaged Ireland in a drama of self-discovery.

Uniquely, child abuse brought down a government in Ireland. Albert Reynolds was decent enough to resign as Taoiseach 11 years ago because he knew that his society would not tolerate his government's protection of a rampantly abusive priest.

Ireland is our nearest neighbour, and its national conversation about abuse ought to have touched the consciousness, if not the faith, of Ms Kelly, and her colleagues in New Labour's rather Christian cabinet. Had she learned her lesson she would not have been left, clever but clueless, mired in the mess that enveloped her department and government last week.

No one involved in the child protection debates roaring through children's services for two decades would countenance letting a man who has downloaded child pornography anywhere near a school. But the Government did. Its antipathy towards the child protection professions is historic and strategic, moving away from crimes against children to crime by children. New Labour morphed the figure of the child in politics from a protection to a punishment agenda. Children's services have been shunted without ceremony to the department that probably knew least and cared least about them - Education. The cerebral Catholic Ms Kelly is the person in charge of child protection.

The story of this current crisis starts with the radicalisation of Britain's child protection services in the 1980s following the dreadful lives and deaths of children killed by their carers. No sooner had the State taken the side of children than it took fright. Scalded by the tumult created by the evidence of abuse, and scared of the resources it commanded, the Government commissioned research, not into abuse, but into the response to it.

In the 1990s, the Government dived into procedures to properly police childhood, for the child in the New Labour firmament is an object not of empathy but of anxiety, a thing to be invested in, managed, patrolled. Professor Richard Barker, a specialist in childcare, says,"Children are represented as a nuisance, to be socialised, trained, not nurtured and made safe."

Last week, the Prime Minister launched a new campaign to impose yet more anti-social behaviour penalties. But while some 600 young people have been made the subject of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, only 1 per cent of them have attracted Intensive Support Programme orders to address their difficulties.

Despite its law-and-order orientation and the restless revision of sanctions against children, the Government has not, until now, put energy into the reform of sanctions against people who commit crimes against children. It was only serendipity that last week enabled Ms Kelly to promise legislation to ban people on the Sex Offender Register from schools. The decline and fall of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill left a legislative gap, into which she popped the belated reform of the vetting system proposed by Michael Bichard in June 2004 in his report on the killing in Soham of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

Professor Liz Kelly, author of the most recent Home Office research on sex offences, cautions against a knee-jerk reaction and makes a distinction between List 99, banning people from teaching, and the Sex Offender Register, designed to keep track of convicted of cautioned offenders. List 99 draws on enquiries by education and social services. It includes "soft" evidence. "You can't just have one list," she says. "There is nobody in the Government currently who understands the complexity of child abuse."

If the Government had been lazy about Bichard's proposals on perpetrators, it has been busy restructuring services for children. Their relocation into Education appeared to provide a joined-up, holistic portal, where wellbeing as well as education could be part of a package for all children. But the newly organised children's services are largely headed by professionals from Education rather than the denigrated Social Services. "This is a big threat to the protection of children," says a director of children's social services in Wales - which has rejected England's model. The Government has lost the history of child protection; it is ignorant about abuse."

The Government's contempt for the child protection and youth justice professions is notorious. It was evident in its determination to preserve politicians' right to be the ultimate arbiter of whether someone interested in sex with children should be allowed to teach them, despite pressure on the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, from organisations with expertise in child abuse.

The protracted withdrawal from the politics of child protection was explicit in Messages from Research, published in 1995, which controversially told child protection professionals to turn away from the investigation of abuse and invest instead in family support.

This synchronised with the argument promoted by a potent cohort of academics that family policy should focus on crime prevention strategies. Parenting style thus became the problem, the solution to anti-social behaviour and grist to the mental mill of a New Labour project that gave up on the poor, that regarded poverty as a problem not of economics but of morals and mothering and discipline.

Despite new turns in criminology that addressed gender and generation as key factors - most crime is, after all committed by boys and men - and the toxic alchemy of poverty and spectacular consumption in fin de siècle Britain, politicians set up "problem parents" as the target in child protection and crime prevention. Children became the focus of its fury.

When the toddler James Bulger was abducted and killed by two 10-year-old boys in 1993, Tony Blair seized the moment. As shadow Home Secretary he called upon communities to wake up and take responsibility, upon parents to teach the difference between right and wrong, and promised that a Labour government would be "tough on crime and the causes of crime". He never asked what happened to take two little boys on such a terrible journey. New Labour was born, selecting the child criminal - not the child victim of adult crime - for one of its six target pledges in the 1997 election.

According to Professor Nigel Parton, a prolific chronicler of child protection legislation, "policies for children lie at the heart of the New Labour project to refashion the Welfare State". The engine was not welfare and wellbeing, but law and order. The Treasury and the Home Office were the drivers.

The killing of Victoria Climbié prompted yet another inquiry and report recommending reform of procedures, but the Government did not draw the obvious inference: that the retreat from child protection put children in danger.

All of this contributed to the creation of the "preventive state," says Professor Parton. Its intense surveillance systems, however, would depend on the magic of information technologies that had contradictory purposes. It would rely on the energy of services already on their knees and on the wisdom of the very professions - child protection and youth justice - that had been derided and diminished by New Labour.

"Behind the rhetoric of integration there's a nightmare for the people on the ground," he says. That is why Ruth Kelly and New Labour is in this mess. The listening party wouldn't listen.