Thursday 16 July 2009

Well done, Pullman, Horovitz, Morpurgo and Fine

I must say, I cheered when I read about Philip Pullman and his friends, and their brave stand against the government’s latest child protection database horror.

I absolutely endorse what Pullman says. Like CRB checks for people working with children, this kind of database simply gives the illusion of safety, and by doing so makes people less vigilant. In fact, like so much New Labour regulation, it punishes, frustrates and molests people who comply, but makes it easier for those who don’t – the real fraudsters or paedophiles – to slip through the net.

It is also a brave stand they are taking. It isn’t easy to defy the combined weight of the Sun, the NSPCC and the government, and only people of Pullman’s stature can risk it.

This is the real point. Very slowly, we are constructing a new kind of tyranny here, of suspicion and anonymous informants, which presses most heavily on non-standard families – on anyone who lives their lives a little differently. Who opts out of the school system, for example, or who has unusual approaches to fidelity or marriage.

By doing so, and by transforming professions like social workers and health visitors into checklist gatherers – policing those who stand out – we are creating a gulf between the professionals and those they are supposed to help. No wonder my new local Children’s Centre is almost completely empty.

This is a recipe for child protection failure. It will make more Baby Peters considerably more likely. I also find it increasingly scary, a new tyranny that Liberals everywhere need to challenge – not just because it is tyrannical and intolerant, but because it is supremely ineffective. How can it successfully protect children if every parent, and every adult who works with children, comes under suspicion?

I’m a member of the party’s federal policy committee, and as such am sworn to secrecy about debates there. But this week, we did briefly have a discussion about child protection, and I took my courage in my hands and said what I’ve repeated here, though I was even less articulate than usual. People listened politely and that was that.

Within five minutes of the meeting finishing, no less than four other members of the committee had come up to me and said they agreed with me.

To be fair, they none of them said they agreed with everything I said. But I thought about it afterwards and wondered whether the subtle tyranny was sharper than I’d realised. I’m sure none of them were too intimidated to agree with me in public – we all know each other, after all – and yet none of them did.

That’s why Pullman and his friends are brave, but not brave enough to go it alone. They knew they had to announce their defiance as a group.