It is better to be sometimes cheated, said Samuel Johnson, than never to have trusted. He is right. Trust is the glue which holds society together. Without it we could not even get up in the morning. We trust that the radio will tell us the right time, that the toothpaste will not be poisonous, that other drivers on the road will try to steer safely. We trust that teachers are working to educate our children and that our GP is not out to kill us. Life is simply too short to question the motives of everyone around us. Trust is the default mechanism of a civilised society.
And yet the culture of suspicion that has arisen in modern times constantly undermines this. That is why a group of respected British children's writers have been so vehement in their refusal to sign up to the Government's Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) which, from October, will require 11 million people in the UK who come, even tangentially, into contact with children to register on a child-protection database.
Some have been bewildered by their response. If dinner ladies have to sign up, why shouldn't authors? After all, the scheme is a response to the Soham murders, when two girls were killed by their school caretaker. In part, the answer to that objection is that it offends common sense, for visiting writers are not left alone with children but are supervised by teachers who know that their pupils are far more likely to misbehave than is the visitor. In part, it is because the Government's requirement seems disproportionate, and charging volunteers £64 each to be vetted seems impertinent. And in part, it is because a measure like this will not truly increase the safety of children so much as allow those in authority to cover their backs, transferring responsibility, in a box-ticking way, to outsource any resulting blame to others.
But the real objection is more profound. More and more rules do not increase trust. They do just the opposite. An MP visiting schools in his constituency should not need VBS vetting because he ought to be trustworthy in not just this but in every way. That MPs are nowadays not trusted is because, as the expenses scandal showed, they have not behaved honourably but stuck to the rules in a way which has filled the public with disgust.
More rules are not the answer, but greater integrity. Yet contemporary society is persistently moving in the wrong direction on this. We have ever more health and safety rules where we should have common sense. We have targets, which become perverse ends in themselves. We talk about ID cards, as if something physical could ever replace something abstract, like trust.
The philosopher Onora O'Neill suggests that in practice we all trust as much as before but we say we don't. We don't trust the food industry, but we continue to shop in supermarkets. We don't trust the police, but we call them when there is trouble. We don't trust journalists, but repeat much of what we read in newspapers. The problem, says Baroness O'Neill, is that we have misdiagnosed what ails British society, and so we are taking the wrong medicine. We are imposing ever more stringent forms of control and accountability. Yet ironically these often serve only to reinforce the fears they set out to allay. And those whom we refuse to trust become less trustworthy.
We already have an effective system of Criminal Records Bureau checks on those who work intensively with children. That is enough. If we are overzealous here we risk undermining the very thing that will keep children safe.Reuse content