writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Good riddance to the society of suspects

The Independent, February 14th 2011

You don’t build a Big Society on the back of mutinous, resentful volunteers

“All men are rapists” was the pernicious slogan of radical feminists in the 1970s. “All adults are paedophiles” has been the governing rule of authority in the past decade. The two assertions are as false as each other and just as damaging, for they fill people with anger, fear and corrosive suspicion.

Society can’t function without trust. Nor can individuals. As the sociologist Niklas Luhmann reminded us: “A complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning.” We generally assume that the commuter standing next to us on the platform won’t push us in front of the train, or that the shopkeeper on the corner will give us the right change. A few paranoiacs have acute suspicion as their default, but most of us are more prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to others than we realise.

We might be scared, in the abstract, of a paedophile taking advantage of our child, but do we really think that the nice mother of our son’s playmate is going to put her hand down his pants during a school trip? Of course not. So why should it ever have been necessary for her to undergo an expensive and intrusive Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check before she was allowed to give up her free time to help supervise the class on the bus?

It is deeply insulting to treat people as potential paedophiles when, out of sheer goodness, they want to help others. At the moment, anyone who has contact with children, even just helping out with football club or arranging the flowers in a cathedral, has to go through the CRB procedure. It was one of the most ill-thought-out and socially damaging laws that the last government brought in. Now, thankfully, the Coalition’s Protection of Freedoms Bill will lift the requirement for all but those with “close or regular” contact, taking more than four million volunteers out of the net.

At the crudest level, it has hurt the very people it was supposed to protect. Adults have been deterred from volunteering, not because they have convictions for kiddy-fiddling but because they don’t. The last thing most adults want to do with kiddies is fiddle with them. The assumption that they might even consider it makes them understandably livid. Why should they volunteer if they are going to be treated like dirt?

As a result, activities for children have been closing down all over the country for lack of volunteers. Who suffers? The budding football players and the children struggling with their reading. Real paedophiles can find other ways to ensnare their victims.

Even those volunteers who have obediently undergone their checks are left with a sense of grievance. A government which was asking us all to do more for others (yes, the last one was keen on it too) was at the same time impugning our motives as soon as we answered the call. You don’t build a Big Society on the back of mutinous, resentful volunteers.

Nor do you build it in a climate in which we are all encouraged to treat each other with suspicion. The message the CRB checks have been sending is that we can never be too careful. That public-spirited dad who gives up his Saturday mornings for soccer coaching could be another Ian Huntley. But how many men – let alone women – really have sexual designs on children? Very, very few.

The reason child murders and sexual attacks get so much news coverage when they happen is precisely because they are so rare. To treat the innocent 99 per cent of us as potential Ian Huntleys is as grossly disproportionate as putting handcuffs on everyone who enters a bank in case they plan to rob it.

In fact, it’s even worse. For this unjustified paranoia is infecting our children. They are growing up to believe that most adults are dangerous and that the world is unsafe for them. Of course they should be warned not to accept sweeties from strangers or to get into a car with someone they don’t know, but beyond that, why should we poison their childhood with unnecessary fear? Only a vanishingly small minority of adults want to hurt them; all the rest of us are benign.

The trouble is that many of their parents have become infected too. That makes blameless adults scared of showing kindness to other people’s children. Rush to help a child who has grazed his knee near you in the park and the mother is likely to advance on you, scowling. Smile at a cute little toddler and her father may misinterpret your motives. As a result, the paranoia becomes self-reinforcing: children encounter fewer acts of compassion from adults who aren’t in their family, so they are even more inclined to view strangers as dangers.

Then, as they grow up, they suddenly become independent and find themselves exposed to far greater perils. A 16-year-old girl is much more likely to be sexually assaulted than a six-year-old one, simply because most men fancy post-pubescent, not pre-pubescent, females. And she is also much more vulnerable: six-year-olds don’t walk back from the bus stop on their own or get inadvisedly drunk at a party. These are the risks we should be warning our girls against.

Instead, we are obsessed with paedophilia. Do we really want to live in a society where a teacher can’t sit a five-year-old on her knee and give him a cuddle when he’s crying? Do we really want to live in a Crucible-like climate in which fingers of suspicion are pointed at wholly innocent people – and by government, this time, not even teenage girls? We were shocked by the anti-Communist hysteria which swept 1950s America, yet we failed to prevent the anti-paedophile hysteria taking root in our own country.

This climate is really bad for adults and children alike. All the international studies show that countries with high levels of social trust tend to have lower crime and happier, more engaged citizens. And the more people engage, the more they come to understand that most strangers are as benevolent as they are. Yet the proportion of Britons agreeing that “most people can be trusted” has halved since the 1950s, and young people are the most mistrustful of all.

It’s not a good idea to be completely credulous, but a default position of trust tempered by common sense is all we need to rub along together well. That was how my generation saw adults when we were children. Most of them meant well; a few were sadistic and a few were lecherous. We knew who the sadists and the pervs were, and we kept clear of them. You need to learn to discern; it’s a useful skill for adulthood. It’s a lot better than relying on a piece of paper, which might anyway clear a paedo who has never been caught by the police.

Thank goodness ministers have at last seen sense. Not much the Government does these days is popular. It can’t spend any more and most of its cuts cause pain. But here is one initiative which saves money, reduces bureaucracy and – most importantly – could make a real difference to our lives. It deserves an unqualified cheer.

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