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Family affairs

On State interference with arrangements for children

Many things are best left to families to organise without interference from the state, unless in the case of particular families their conduct has already called into question the safety of their children. At the same time knee-jerk reactions to deplorable individual tragedies should not be permitted.

More or less every dramatic happening leads to some sort of review or investigation to ensure that lessons are learned and that this never happens again. Of course the problem underlying this approach is that it is inherently impossible to prevent evil people doing evil things. Nor is the next monster likely to do things the next time in exactly the same way. The need to be seen to be doing something can lead to steps of doubtful practical utility. At the same time the so-called preventative steps can be expensive, stifling and lead to far more time being taken in form filling than in properly considering the specifics of each case.

For example the Dunblane massacre occurs and so there are massive incursions against the ability of people to have pistols whilst belonging to gun clubs. Has gun crime ceased in this country? Of course not. Illegally obtained firearms are easier to get hold of than ever. Would another such incident be prevented by the ban? Plainly not.

The most absurd extensions have come in connection with the threats posed by paedophiles. Paedophiles of course do exist, their activities are utterly repellent and are doubly damaging because not only can they destroy the lives of the children whom they attack, but they can destroy the lives of future generations by proxy because those who are abused can become abusers in their turn. My views on sentencing for paedophiles would probably be regarded as extreme, but that is because I not only regard such offences as top end of the scale offences, but regard there as being very little prospect of such people changing their ways and ceasing to be a threat. That does not mean that we should turn society upside down expecting a paedophile hiding behind every doorway

After the deplorable murders by Ian Huntley checks on those working with children and requirements registration have increased. However the situation overall is now getting completely out of hand.

If we adopted the same approach to motorcars as we do to paedophiles after any pile up there would be a series of recommendations as to how people should be allowed to drive, and we would probably end up with a situation where the only people allowed to drive would be teetotallers between the age of 30 and 50 who had passed advanced driving tests and had speed limiters fitted to their cars preventing them from travelling at more than 25 mph (on any road). In any situation one has to consider the scale and the likelihood of the threat and the consequence of the response.

The extension of the registration scheme to volunteers is likely to cause enormous problems. The idea that parent volunteers who share in rotas of lifts for school teams will need to register and hence pay an annual fee and be subject to full checks is completely nonsensical. Exactly how many paedophiles do they expect this rigmarole to uncover? How many sports teams will find it difficult to continue competing? Has no one assessed the very real downside of these plans and undertook a cost benefit analysis?

This however seems positively mild when compared to the recent intervention of Ofsted in connection with the childcare arrangements of two policewomen. Readers will I am sure be aware of the basic facts. Having become pregnant at about the same time, the two detectives based in Aylesbury applied for a job share. That meant that when one was working the other did the childminding for both children. It sounds eminently sensible, and no doubt worked for the officers and the children. However all of that was apparently irrelevant to Ofsted.

Everything went swimmingly until a lady from Ofsted lady attended at the home of one of the detectives (apparently as a result of a report from someone in the locality: one wonders what sort of narrow minded and mean spirited individual was responsible for that) and suggested that this amounted to illegal childminding. This is based on the startling proposition that because each was helping out the other this amounted to a commercial enterprise for reward. I can think of a word to describe this type of perverted logic, but not one that can properly be used in an article. In consequence of this, Ofsted suggested that both mothers had to be registered, be subject to inspections and needed when caring for the two children to comply with the early years curriculum and all its targets. (Of which there are many, not designed for domestic circumstances but for commercial operations) Needless to say the children had to be placed in nurseries which the parents can ill afford and which will no doubt be nothing like as pleasant for them as the prior arrangement.

There are no doubt sound reasons for regulating commercial childminding and nurseries. I am also relatively relaxed about the idea of targets, although as in the George Orwell novels, the more strident the targets the less real achievement there actually seems to be. However domestic arrangements between friends should not be touched at all. I have no doubt that should the constables choose to take this further by way of legal action that there are all sorts of implications for their rights to private and family life under the Human Rights Act and the Convention etc. However the reality is that they probably have neither the time nor the money to take on the bureaucratic machine.

True domestic arrangements and volunteers should be left untouched by the heavy hand of the state. Involving parents with one another in support groups is the best way to ensure that children both have the experiences that can lead to them being properly fulfilled, and also have the support networks that can keep them safe. This type of petty bureaucratic interference is damaging to children and will so far from keeping them safe, risks reducing the experiences that will help them properly develop.

Michael J. Booth QC