Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

Now you need a licence to interact with children
The UK government’s hysterical vetting of adults who work with kids is strangling social solidarity.

 
Licensed to Hug, a new pamphlet by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow published on 26 June, argues that child protection policies in Britain are poisoning the relationship between the generations and damaging the voluntary sector. In the introduction to the pamphlet, published below, Furedi argues that adults now effectively need a probationary licence to interact with kids.

Something strange is happening in Britain. From Girl Guiders to football coaches, from Christmas-time Santas to parents helping out in schools, volunteers – once regarded as pillars of the community – have been transformed in the regulatory and public imagination into potential child abusers, barred from any contact with children until the database gives them the green light. How has this development come about, and what is its effect on relationships of authority and trust in our communities?

When the first edition of my book Paranoid Parenting appeared back in 2001, some individuals in Britain and America had already mooted the idea that parents should be licensed, in order to weed out those who were abusive or otherwise unfit. Their proposals generated some discussion amongst academics, policymakers and parenting professionals, and it was not uncommon for journalists to ask, often rhetorically: ‘Isn’t it strange that you need a licence to own a dog, while anybody can be a parent?’

As I noted at the time, a trend was already underway to treat parenthood, not as a normal part of life, but as a professional endeavour that demanded increasing regulation and monitoring. The effect was not to create better parents; rather it was to decrease parents’ confidence in themselves, and weaken ties of solidarity between parents and other adults, to the detriment of both family life and wider community relations.

Seven years on, parents are not forced to carry licences (although with the launch of the UK government’s National Academy for Parenting Practitioners in November 2007, certificates in Adequate Parenting are surely only a few years away). But when it comes to other adults – non-parents, or parents of other people’s children – a national licensing scheme is well underway. The horrific abduction and murder of two schoolgirls in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham in 2002 fuelled a chain of policy proposals that now mean that anyone who works with children in any capacity, along with volunteers who help out at children’s clubs, are required by law to have undergone a centrally-administered vetting process through the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB).

While you do not yet need a licence to parent your own children, you certainly need a licence to interact with anybody else’s. Already, the question ‘have you been CRB-checked?’ extends beyond the formal requirements of voluntary organisations to become part of everyday discussion at the school gates. One mother of an eight-year-old recounts:

‘My daughter is allowed to play out in the street with kids from the neighbourhood. She said she was going to Semih’s house and I said okay. Ten minutes later Semih’s mum knocked at my door and said, “I must introduce myself as we haven’t met.” I thought she was going to tell me her name, have a chat, but she said she was CRB-checked and her husband was CRB-checked and then went away. I still don’t know her name!’

When parents feel in need of official reassurance that other parents have passed the ‘paedophile test’ before they even start on the pleasantries, this indicates that something has gone badly wrong in our communities. Over the course of their young lives, children will interact with a number of adults outside their immediate families – teachers, sports coaches, Scoutmasters, bus-drivers, passers-by who stop to give them directions or help them out when they are in trouble. As a society, we appreciate that children need these other adults to broaden their horizons, educate and challenge them, contain their behaviour, provide support and generally take responsibility for the next generation. Throughout our history, informal and unregulated collaboration between grown-ups has provided the foundation for the socialisation of young people. This form of collaboration, which has traditionally underpinned inter-generational relations, is now threatened by a regime that insists that adult-children encounters must be mediated through a security check.

Before they can be counted on to play a positive role in children’s lives, adults today have to be in possession of a piece of paper showing that they are not likely to be a malign and dangerous influence. In other words, they cannot be trusted to be in the proximity of a child unless they possess a probationary licence to be responsible adults.

Implicitly, the licensing of adulthood undermines its authority. It encourages the disassociation of adulthood from trust and respect. Adulthood no longer possesses authority over children - it requires the legitimation of a security check before its authority can be exercised. The institutionalisation of the vetting of grown-ups also communicates powerful signals about the role of adults. Adults are no longer trusted or expected to engage with children on their own initiative. Vetting encourages the cultural distancing of generations. As a result, inter-generational encounters have lost some of their informal and taken-for-granted dimensions, and many such encounters are rendered troublesome and awkward.

The cultural distancing of generations weakens the bonds of community life. Today, despite an official recognition that communities are increasingly atomised and individuated, government policy implicitly fuels this process of fragmentation through policies that encourage the erosion of the collaboration of the older generations in the joint enterprise of socialising youngsters.

Specifically, policies encourage parents to shy away from their instincts to trust each other and to put their faith only in those who can show their probationary licence on demand. The speed at which the acceptance of CRB-checking in formal settings has filtered through to the wider community of parents, who wonder ‘how they can know’ it is safe to let their child go home with the parent of a friend, illustrates the unforeseen and often destructive consequences of using interpersonal regulation as a Band Aid for a more complex cultural problem.

The evidence of history indicates that one of the ways that communities are forged has been through the joint commitment of adults for the socialisation of children. That is why in most communities, all grown-ups – and not just parents or those who have children – are expected to introduce children into the norms of the community, protect them against hazards and if necessary reprimand anti-social behaviour. But what happens when the exercise of such responsibilities become subject to formal vetting and regulatory procedures? The aim of the new report written by Jennie Bristow and I – Licensed to Hug – is to explore this development and in particular to examine its impact upon adults engaging voluntarily with children’s activities.

In raising certain problems caused by the growing formalisation of relationships that were previously marked by the qualities of being informal, spontaneous and taken for granted, we do not assume that the cause of these problems is one particular legislative development such as CRB-checking, or that the solution is as simple as merely overturning the legislation. In our view, the assimilation of vetting provides, above all, a potent symbol of the contemporary problem of adults, children, risk and trust, and the way that regulatory attempts to resolve this problem have an unfortunate tendency to exacerbate it. In the current climate, the routine police vetting of adults:

- Fuels suspicions among adults about each other;
- Transmits negative signals about adults to children;
- Undermines the ability of adults to take responsibility for children;
- Diminishes adult authority and damages community relations.

We believe that ultimately parents want, and need, to be able to make some very clear assumptions about adults in general:

- They can play an important part in enriching children’s lives;
- They will step in to help children who are in trouble;
- They can be relied upon as a source of solidarity and support..

Our research indicates that positively, many adults in today’s society continue to be willing and able to play this role. The problem is that it is not taken for granted that they will do so. None of the desired objectives raised by individuals in relation to children’s safety can be realised when the routine police vetting of adults becomes the norm.

Frank Furedi is co-author with Jennie Bristow of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector. The pamphlet is published today by Civitas. For more information, and to buy a copy, click here.

See the media coverage of Licensed to Hug here.

First published by spiked, 26 June 2008