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The Nanny State Gets Nasty

Britain is experiencing the literal embodiment of the nanny state — the government telling you who can watch the kids.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

October 9, 2009 - 12:00 am

In Britain, parents face prosecution for looking after their friends’ children without government approval.

If you’re a parent who has to leave your child with someone while you go to work, you’d probably think that a friend with a child of the same age would be an ideal choice — and if that friend happened to be a police officer, it would certainly be no bad thing. More generally, you might take the view that you’re better qualified than government officials to take decisions about how to best raise your children. However, if you hold such views in Gordon Brown’s Britain, you’re likely to find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

Fellow police detectives and close friends Leanne Shepherd and Lucy Jarrett thought they had a pretty handy arrangement. For two-and-a-half years, they took it in turns to look after each other’s children whenever one of them was on duty. Now education watchdogs have ordered the pair to end the arrangement — and threatened them with prosecution — because neither is registered with the government as a qualified childminder. They’ve even been warned that their homes will be placed under surveillance to make sure that no illicit caring goes on.

It’s the literal embodiment of the nanny state — the government interjecting itself into private childcare arrangements between friends. And this is not an isolated case of some bureaucrat being a little overzealous in applying the rules; it’s par for the course under Labour’s coercive and inquisitorial regime, whose officials feel compelled to interfere in and regulate every aspect of citizens’ private lives.

The clampdown on Shepherd and Jarrett comes just a couple of weeks after the government announced that parents who ferry children to sporting activities and other after-school events must submit to official vetting, on pain of an $8,000 fine and a criminal record. The scheme will eventually cover more than 11 million people and will create the largest database of its kind in the world — which, given the government’s appalling record of losing and misusing the mass of personal information it collects, is in itself cause for concern.

Although inspired primarily by crude authoritarianism, such initiatives are also the products of Britain’s increasingly risk-averse culture. Officials prefer to pass draconian legislation in an attempt to remove even the slightest possibility that someone might come to harm or commit an offense, rather than dealing with problems as and when they occur or catching and prosecuting offenders. (There are, for example, proposals to curb drunken violence by raising the price of alcohol and closing pubs — thus punishing the innocent along with the guilty — rather than by arresting the culprits and imposing sentences on them).

The government has been assisted in its endeavors by a media which knows that lurid stories of kidnaps, murders, and children in danger sell newspapers and boost viewing figures. Together they’ve created an increasingly paranoid society, in which parents and children are encouraged to believe that danger lurks around every corner and that every adult is a would-be abuser just waiting for an opportunity to strike. Paralyzed with indecision and fear, parents turn to unqualified officials and unaccountable, state-appointed “experts” to tell them what to do.

There are, of course, plenty of dangers facing children which need to be tackled and about which parents need to be alerted. But all too often the same authorities that are drawing up plans to scrutinize every adult who’s likely to come within a hundred yards of a child have proved themselves incapable of preventing actual cases of terrible abuse.

Most child abusers are family members or close friends who would be exempt from background checks or having to register with the authorities. And time and again, social services staff have failed to prevent children from being abused and killed by parents who were allowed to look after them despite overwhelming evidence that they were unfit to do so. The case of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, who was beaten and tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend, is the most recent and horrific of many similar tragedies. Recently, a report branded the entire social services department of Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, “unfit for purpose” after eight children under the care of social workers died in the last four years.

Then there are those offenders who either manage to slip through the cracks in a system prone to bureaucratic incompetence and overload or who only start abusing children once they’re in positions of responsibility. Last week, nursery worker Vanessa George admitted abusing toddlers in her care and sharing photos of her victims taken on her cellphone with fellow pedophiles. George passed the required background checks, and the nursery at which she worked passed regular inspections during the period in which she was committing her crimes.

There’s a balance to be struck between protecting children and preserving healthy relationships between children and adults, and it’s clear that the government and its legions of functionaries need to spend more time and resources on identifying and tackling real risks and less on addressing hypothetical ones. Parents increasingly face having decisions taken out of their hands by bureaucrats who spend their days compiling databases, prying into people’s private lives (Shepherd and Jarrett were actually reported by an anonymous neighbor; the government is keen to encourage such freelance snooping to help it control recalcitrant citizens), and cooking up new ways of curbing individual freedoms — preferably in the form of initiatives which provide revenue for the state in the form of registration fees and fines for non-compliance.

There are no doubt many officials who genuinely have the best interests of children at heart, but all too often they’re forced to work within the constraints of a flawed system. Others genuinely think they know better than parents how children should be raised, or simply enjoy being in a position where they can tell other people what to do. And underpinning this state of affairs is the liberal assumption that everyone can have a better life, free from danger, if only they’ll consent to letting the all-knowing, all-seeing state take more control over their lives.

The result is that relationships between young and old are being undermined, with growing numbers of children  incapable of relating to adults outside their immediate family, many parents lacking the confidence to do what they think is right for their offspring, and adults in general becoming wary of attempting to interact with children.

Labour had to disown overtly statist policies in order to win power 12 years ago. Since then it has presided over the growth of a increasingly centralized, bureaucratic state, and this presents David Cameron’s Conservatives with a real opportunity to draw distinctions between themselves and Brown’s failed administration.

At a time when both parties are being forced to confront the reality of cuts in public spending, the Tories could start by pledging that under a Conservative government, the meddling, bullying officials who concern themselves with such things as the childcare arrangements of responsible parents will be the first to have their jobs abolished. They can then be retrained to do something useful instead — and leave parenting to parents and nannying to nannies.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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