Your children are my business

Most abuse occurs within the home by family members or parents' friends. This statistic is widely accepted and consistently ignored
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The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's commission into child abuse has, after two years of inquiry, produced its report. Its remit was wide-ranging and its recommendations no less so, but at its centre is a clear call for a radical change in cultural attitude - "a new perception of children not as possessions but as individuals with rights and developing responsibilities of their own".

The thinking behind this particular section of the report is straightforward: most children are not abused by mysterious strangers, escaped convicts or organised paedophile rings, but within their own home by members of their family and their parents' friends. This statistic is widely accepted and consistently ignored. It means, quite simply, that we cannot trust parents to protect their children - from sexual abuse or other kinds of cruelty and neglect.

Much abuse is preventable. In most cases of abuse that do come to light, it transpires that someone already knew, was uneasy, was "concerned" but did not see fit, or did not have the nerve, to do anything about it. We will take to the streets to prevent cruelty to veal calves, but not to our children.

The conclusion is clear to the commissioners: Lord Williams, who chaired the commission, said: "We will never be able to prevent abuse wholly. But much of it can be prevented. This depends on the effort of imagination and will on behalf of the whole country."

Or, more bluntly, people must stop minding their own business.

Even before the contents of the report can have been absorbed, people are fretting about "busy-bodies", worrying that such recommendations will become a "snoopers' charter". The thinking appears to be that parents should be left alone to get on with what is their business and responsibility. For example, the Government's first response to the report has been to repudiate a number of key areas and reassure parents (the group from which most abusers are drawn) that they will not change the law over "reasonable chastisement" (spanking), whatever the experts say. They are signalling hands-off and mind-your-own-business, even while they run a campaign to encourage neighbours to report benefit fraud. This is a strange scale of values.

Personally, I do not think the commission has gone far enough. The well- being of all children is my business; is everybody's business. The change in cultural attitude that we ought to be seeking is not that we should stop minding our own business, but that we should start doing so.

It is my financial business. The children now in primary school will be the workers who will pay for my pension, my health care, my community services when I am old. If they are not my business now, why should I be theirs then? If I do not make them my business now, will they be fit and able to make me theirs? At an even more basic level, care for the victims of abuse and cruelty is expensive: some practical "ounce of prevention" work could save me, as a taxpayer, money.

It is my social business. As Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, has put it: "If we are going to deal with the social disruption caused by young people, then we must first deal with the social disruption caused to young people." Why should the young skateboarder who careers towards me scarily fast give a toss about my feelings, if her truly fearsome experiences of, say, sexual abuse, are none of my business? One of the commission's modes of inquiry was a survey of a thousand children and young people. It discovered, not to my surprise, that most of its respondents believed that adults do not listen to what they say. Almost all parenting, psychological, educational and socio-biological research data agree that the young learn by example rather than by exhortation, reward or punishment. If we do not listen to what they say, they are not going to listen to what we say. If we ignore, or don't pay attention to, or are rude to children (and a failure to listen to someone speaking to you is at the very least bad-mannered) then they will ignore, at best, or be rude to adults. If they are not treated as citizens, why should we expect them to behave like citizens? If their education is not resourced properly, is not treated with respect, why should they respect teachers or other authorities? If I regard their bodies and minds (usually their only property) as none of my business, are they likely to treat my body or property any differently?

It is my civic business. All citizens have a duty to prevent crime. Fear is not regarded by the courts - as we saw this week - as a sufficient reason for not giving evidence. (The two women who had used this argument had their sentences reduced; they were not acquitted.) Cruelty to, and abuse of, children is a crime. We have an obligation not just to report such a crime when we believe it to be occurring, but to take reasonable action to prevent it. I am the mother of two children: there are a whole range of actions against them which I would intervene personally over, or would report to the police and expect them to act on: abuse, bullying, intimidation, threats, for example. That seems a reasonable standard to start with - if it was "my" child would I do anything? Would I want someone else to? When the answer is "yes", I should be prepared to do the same for other children.

It is also, dare I say it, my moral business. Children are not the possessions of their parents. They are not to be equated with cars or televisions. They are not private property. People cannot be private property - in any other context that would be called slavery. Children are people, and they have the same rights as any other human being; they are just especially and specifically vulnerable. A community that will not vigilantly defend the rights of its most vulnerable members is a community whose freedoms are at risk. This is an issue of democracy.

Children are my business; they are everyone's business. In not acting on their behalf we are failing to protect our own interests, long and short-term. There are fascinating questions about how we lost touch with this obvious fact, but whatever the answers we have lost touch with it. If we are serious about stopping the abuse of children, we need to re- learn it fast.