Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Campaigning against the ISA will not be easy

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the new ISA regulations that are due to come into force next year and that could mean millions more adults having to undergo checks to ensure they are deemed fit to run other people's children to and from clubs and sporting events.

There have been contributions to the debate from various bloggers including Caron, Costigan, James Graham and Iain Dale amongst others.

Charlotte Gore seems to have stayed up half of last night doing an excellent post which is a rallying cry for all who value liberty to boycott the new scheme - she is not kidding. She does is a fisk of the regulations and they are so far encompasing and vaguely worded as to be frankly terrifying. It looks to me like almost anyone could end up being rejected even through hearsay or rumour and thus end up at risk of being ostracised in their community.

I briefly laid out my initial views on this here on Friday. Also, yesterday I jumped into a debate that was going on about this on Twitter. The main person I debated with was a chap who goes by the handle of @GedRobinson and describes himself in his bio as "Democratic socialist, social activist, all round good egg." I have been following him for a while and am pretty sure I have had the odd tweet chat with him previously. However the tenor of the "debate" we had about this yesterday I think gave me a flavour of what those of us who are very worried about the further encroachment on our liberties that these latest measures represent can expect when we try to explain our position.

I have reproduced the entire tweet debate we had below. Apologies for length but I wanted to include the discussion from start to finish. I have highlighted points from Ged of particular note in red and ones from me in blue. Also please note that because we are restricted to 140 characters sometimes we either had to abbreviate points or split them across lines. I have made some further comments at the end.

My tweets are preceded by M: and are in italics, Ged's are proceeded by G: and are in bold:

M: Sorry to step in here. Ged, at what point does this all stop? You can never make kids 100% safe.
G: so you shouldnt bother trying? how very apathetic of you
M: But at what price to society do we put these measures in? There is literally no limit to how far you can go.
M: All adults are now assumed to be paedophiles until they can "prove" otherwise with a bit of paper. Why?
G: check into people's criminal past is not excessive, it's a shame you don't take safeguarding seriously
M: It's a shame you're trying to smear me rather than engage with me. The measures announced yesterday are basically unworkable.
M: Not to mention horribly illiberal and foster a deep feeling of mistrust within our society. Listening to 5 live yesterday...
M:... there are a lot of people who agree with me and are very angry. I am NOT apathetic, I am furious about this.
G: why should people prove that they are safe to be left with others children, is that a serious question?
M: YES! Why are you trying to make it sound so ridiculous. What happened to basic common sense and trust?
M: Why do you consider it so sensible to assume every stranger is a pot. child abuser? Most child abuse takes place in the home.
G: Why should strangers who people leave their kids with be checked?
M: How, many times? YES! For gens we did not feel the need to do this. Suddenly you can't move for checks. It's way over the top.
G: I'm sorry you find keeping children and young people safe excessive.
M: And this is the arg I hear all the time. Any opposition to your position is painted as somehow being in favour of child abuse.
M: Do you think having a quarter of the adult population having to be checked to give kids lifts is a proportionate response?
G: I can imagine @MarkReckons in the 17th C - why should we make child labour illegal, we've been doing it for generations
M: Don't try and paint your position as progressive. It's very very illiberal and the attitude it fosters is poisoning our society
G: show me the data that a quarter of the adult population will be checked just to give kids lifts.
M: It's early days yet. The measure was announced yesterday. Let's see. It will be a lot of people and you know it.
G: so your claim of a quarter of the adult pop was BS?
M: My internets keep going down and I keep having to reset my router. might have to continue this debate later.
M: It is the estimate I saw yesterday repeated in several places. I agree it is too early to be sure but the figure will be large.
G: i don't tend to think about made up statistics
M: If it is a quarter, do you think that is too large?
G: I think those that oppose protecting kids should be able to evidence their argument that's all
M: I am trying to find out where you would draw the line. At what point would you concede we had gone too far?
G: why do you think filling in a form is too high an inconvenience for protecting children?
M: So you won't debate the principle of what would be going too far until you know the exact figures?
G: i am not assuming everyone is a paeadophile but recognise those that are are unlikely to publicise the fact
G: how many child deaths would it take for you to support the scheme?
M: There you go again, the turn of phrase of the righteous! How far would be too far? An eighth? A quarter? A half? 100%?
M: Why do you think assuming every adult in the country is a paedophile by default is making society better?
M: So in order to try and catch a very, very tiny minority you make everyone a suspect and thus make children wary of all adults.
M: You really can't see how damaging this is to our society can you. I wouldn't go near a child who had fallen over now for fear..
M:.. of being accused of something. Your attitude is poisoning society. We are becoming atomised and untrusting of everyone.
M: How much increased child obesity and antisocial behaviour due to unintended consequences would it take for u not to support it?
G: i have to complete a CRB yet don't feel a suspect.
M: Good for you! Now try to put yourself in the position of someone who does and hence will no longer run kids to clubs.
G: how many child deaths would it take for you to support the scheme?
G: why would there be increased obesity, even the largest young persons vol movement has no problem with it
M: Well they must be right then! I am sure that less kids will end up at clubs because of this, hence more obesity.
G: I repeat how many child deaths would it take for you to support it?
M: You could use that argument to go on introducing measures ad infinitum until all kids are watched 24/7 and all freedom is gone.
G: why do you want peodophiles to remain undetected?
M: I don't! But this is not the right way to do it. Can't you debate this without posting tabloid headlines at me?
G: this scheme helps detect peadophiles, to oppose it is to oppose such detection...
M: By that token, any measure to try and detect paedophiles is fair enough and anyone opposing it does not want to catch them.
M: How about cameras in every home in the country monitoring everyone 24/7 to catch paedophiles. Are you in favour of that?
M: It would probably reduce child abuse a lot and if you say you are against it, you are against catching paedophiles.
G: what is your alternative to this scheme?
M: Why do I need to come up with an alternative?
G: so your alternative is to do nothing, to leave kids at risk?
G: however you did say....
G: RT : @gedrobinson I don't! But this is not the right way to do it.
M: Kids will be at risk. These measures won't stop that.
M: Yes, this is not the way to do it because of all the reasons I have given. This is a complex area and any attempt by me to
M: I am not going to try and come up with alternative workable proposals right now on Twitter. I stand by everything I have said.
G: typical libel dem, criticise but nothing to offer
M: Typical Labourite, resorting to ad hominem attacks and distorting their opponents position. See, I can do it too.
M: Of course I would like to see more paedophiles caught but the measures you support will exact a very high cost on society.
G: so you do think something does need to be done?
G: i am only saying what all can see, criticise this proposal but have no alternative
G: i cant see an alternative to checks for strangers who people leave their kids with
G: Maybe we should scrap all CRB checks they are highly illiberal after all....
G: would you agree with the scrapping of all CRB checks?
M: Right, I'm off to do some offline stuff now. Thanks for the debate. We clearly aren't going to agree!
M: This piece by @caronmlindsay sums up my view. I agree with every word of this:
G: do you think all CRB checks should be scrapped?
M: I do not think the current situation should be reversed but I do not want it to go further as I said.
M: That will be my last tweet on this for now though. I have other things I need to do. Read Caron's post - it is excellent.
G: so children are at risk from paid staff but not volunteers?
M: I am not getting further drawn into this now Ged. I knew that would be your next point. No further on CRB checks is my view.
G: ok i'll leave with your arguments in tatters, have a good day sir

I guess there will be those who agree with me and those who agree with Ged. However I just wanted to highlight a few things to illustrate what those debating against this need to be ready for:

1) Several times Ged tries to paint me as being opposed to protecting kids. This measure is supposed to protect kids, I am not in favour of it, therefore I am not in favour of protecting kids according to him. I have seen this debating tactic used many times at the national level by Labour ministers on many issues.

2) He uses the phrase "your solution is to do nothing, to leave kids at risk". In several other places he demands to know what my measures are. The certain idea that "something must be done" is threaded throughout everything that he says. Exactly where the drive for this sudden blanket vetting of millions more adults comes from is really not clear to me. Ian Huntley would not have been caught by this scheme - he was not giving lifts to anyone. Has there been an epidemic of adults who give children lifts abusing them? Also, the way Ged phrases the above comment implies that his solution will result in kids not being left at risk at all (that is the corrolary of what he is saying). I am sure he didn't mean it like that but the impression is left from the phrasing.

3) He asks me why I want paedophiles to remain undetected. I must admit at this point I started getting quite angry with him. He was trying to align me with a category of the most reviled section of society. My response was to take his argument to its logical conclusion (highlighted in blue above) asking if we should put cameras in every home, after all that's where most of the abuse in our society takes place. It is the natural end point of where these measures are taking us.

4) His final tactic was to ask if I wanted the existing CRB checks scrapped. The truth is I am deeply unhappy about the way in which those measures have been brought in. I am not in favour of outright scrapping them but they are very illiberal and I think we have to be very, very careful. I fear that there are too many people at the moment who because of a minor infraction years ago that has nothing to do with child safety are being barred from working with children. I think it needs reform but I reluctantly accept that for people who work with children very, very regularly that some measures like the CRB are warranted. However to then use this as an argument for extending it to volunteers trying to do a favour for clubs and helping out with their local community is a big step too far for me. I could not easily express this at the time as I had other stuff to do. Of course Ged took this as an indication that I had lost the argument with his last comment.

I don't doubt that the people who are bringing this measure in and those who support it have good motivations. They want to help protect our children and I am sure Ged is as he says a "good egg". However I hope as this debate goes on that both sides do not descend into smears and distortions of the other side's position.

Those on the other side of the debate should at least concede that we also have the best of motives.

I strongly and sincerely believe that our liberty is very precious and we give it up at our peril.


Unknown said...

I'm going to have a think about this overnight but have you read Tom Harris' piece on this about how no future minister will be able to repeal this for fear of consequences?

I wonder what will happen when people start to be banned for no good reason - and that will inevitably come to pass.

I agree with you - our liberty is incredibly precious and I strongly believe that the state is not there to be our master, but to facilitate a free and fair society.

Tom said...

I shan't go into the substance of my views on this, suffice it to say that Ged's arguments seem riddled with textbook logical fallacies.

Mark Thompson said...

I fear Tom may be right for the reasons he states.

I also agree that people will be banned for no good reason. I cannot see how this will not lead to arbitrary decisions, and ones that could severely affect people's standing within their community.

What do you think also about Tom's comment about taking the views of parents much more seriously than those without?

Mark Thompson said...

Sorry Miller, my comment was directed at Caron there.

Thanks for your comment.

Jamie Potter said...

Whilst I'd like to hear from some social workers and other people involved in abuse cases before I entirely make my mind up, I really don't see how such a scheme is going to make any difference. I can understand and support CRB checks for people who work with children and vulnerable adults on a daily basis but when it comes to enforcing checks on people doing what are essentially brief favours, it borders on the ludicrous. It's entirely disproportionate. As many people have asked, where does this all end?

Even if you are a backer of the scheme in its principle, I don't see how anybody can justify the actual processes of the ISA. The CRB check is bad enough as it is, being able to bar people from working with children for offences completely unrelated to such work.

The ISA goes further by actually overturning a basic tenet of law; that of being innocent until proven guilty. Now, some faceless bureaucrat can destroy somebody's chosen career based on "stories that appear in the press" and other such fantasy. Seriously, how can anybody defend that?

"Those who are ready to sacrifice freedom for security ultimately will lose both."

patently said...

Well said, Mark, and well argued.

Ged is textbook New Labour; he paints every argument in black/white extremes. Either you support our plan, or you support terrorists/child abuse/the recession/whatever. There are no shades of grey, there are no other or better ways of doing things. There is no thought, no consideration of your comment, just the next line from the cribsheet.

Ged should be on Today as a spokesman.

Mark Thompson said...

Jamie - Agreed. Also, I should have used that Abe Lincoln quote you used at the end myself!

Patently - Thank you.

Stu said...

Would you like someone to fisk Ged's argument? There's a couple of proper doozies in there...

Here's a couple:

Ged: Why should strangers who people leave their kids with be checked?

Why should parents leave their kids with strangers they don't trust? Can parents not make sound judgements about where they take their children?

Ged: how many child deaths would it take for you to support the scheme?

How many child deaths will the scheme prevent (the fallacy is that this is an immesurable number - you can take a guess at how many may have been prevented but you can never be sure they would have happened had the scheme not been there)

Ged: I cant see an alternative to checks for strangers who people leave their kids with

Just because you can't see one, it doesn't mean one doesn't exist. Again, why can't parents get to know the people they're leaving their kids with? Why do they have to leave their kids with strangers - apparently against their own judgement?

Ged: so children are at risk from paid staff but not volunteers?

So children are at risk from volunteers but not their own parents? Either the logical conclusion is that Ged will be insisting on 'parent licences' in 10 years time to combat parental abuse, or the fallacy is the suggestion that only strangers can inflict harm upon children. Either way it's a logically inconsistent position to take.


Mark Thompson said...

Thanks Stu.

I did consider a fisking approach in the main body but thought that would make the Twitter-thread even harder to read.

dazmando said...

This law if it happens will be hear to stay unless the lib dems ever got power. Problem is say the Torys revoke the labour policy, then what happens when a young child is subject to abuse from another parent. Imagine the out cry, then the law is reinstated.

This who situation is very sad indeed.

Pete B said...

This is a really interesting post which raises several important issues.

I'm not sure that the VBA is illiberal. I don't think it can be criticised for infringing on freedom of association as children are involved and they are generally assumed not to be able to exercise full freedom of choice. As such, unlike the rest of us, children and vulnerable adults do need special protection.

I'm also sceptical about whether the new rules undermine the rights of parents to make arrangements with each other. The rules apply to people employed by or volunteering for an organisation in roles in which they will have "frequent and intensive" contact with children or vulnerable adults. So rather than intervening in ad hoc arrangements between parents (such as sharing lifts to football practice), the rules apply to third parties who parents may not know.

Similarly, the idea that parents can get to know everyone their children come into contact with seems unfeasible. In a large secondary school there could be well over a hundred teachers and support staff who have "frequent and intensive" access to children. There is no way parents could know each of them well enough to judge whether they pose a threat to their children. This means that there needs to be some other system in place to make judgements as to the suitability of each of these people.

Having said this, I think the criteria used by the ISA are far too vague. This means that, for example, people could be prevented from working with children or vulnerable adults on the basis of prejudices such as racism, sexism or homophobia rather than reasons relevant to the issue.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

A couple of years ago, I became a school governor. Had to have a CRB check which was fair enough - even though governor meetings took place in the evenings when the children were safely tucked up in bed! I was later told that if I wanted to be a governor at another school, I would need another CRB check - even though my existing one is still valid.

You have to pay a fee for every CRB check. The government’s proposals have nothing to do with keeping kids safe. It’s all about raising money to create non jobs for Gordon Brown’s client state.

Unknown said...

Mark, you asked what I thought about Tom Harris giving the views of parents more weight. Well, I'm a parent, so is Stu, so is Sara, Costigan and all sorts of other people who see the huge flaws in this system. To be fair to him, he did link to me in that same piece.

I think it would be madness to formulate any sort of policy without consulting people who are going to be affected by it, but you have to make sure you consider those in conjunction with evidence based stuff and there is absolutely no evidence that such a draconian system is either necessary or effective - and in fact it's actively harmful in terms of liberty.

Tom in some ways is succumbing to the typical new Labour Focus group mentality.

Frankie Sikes said...

It's not just people who work with children who will be effected by the ISA, it's also everyone working with vulnerable adults. Be aware: We are all considered vulnerable adults in some circumstances. For example if you are a student. The substance misuse field is staffed at least 30% by former substance misusers, many of whom will have offenses mentioned in the barring lists. Also, consider the case of oprojects where former gang members are mentoring youths to help them resist street gang membership. These people could possibly be barred from doing the good work that they do. I include a letter I wrote to the ISA outlineing our concerns.

Hi Andy
My colleagues Bob Bharij and Linda Bush were at the meeting about the ISA yeaterday. I would have liked to have been there myself as I have been trying to get some clarity on the matter also. Thought you might be interested in the email below that I sent to:
Warm Regards

I work with the London Training Team at Addaction, the nation's biggest organisation supporting substance misusers. Our two main projects train people, (the majority of them ex offenders), to work in the substance misuse field. The new ISA vetting & barring system will have significant implications for our recruitment process as well as for recruitment in the field as a whole. I was directed by the ISA helpline to the document called Guidance Notes for "Barring and Decision Making Process". This document does not give the clarity we need. On page 12, 4.6.5 it lists relevant offences, (which most of our trainees will have a history of), particulary "involve acquisitive behaviour and fraud" "relate to addictive behaviour or persistent offending".

This raises the following questions:
1) Is it the case that anyone whose previous offences are described under 4.6.5 will be investigated?
2) If not, what criteria, (e.g. time lapsed since offence/s etc), would mitigate the chances of them being investigated?
3) If a person is investigated, what criteria would mitigate the chances of them being barred?

We recruit trainees who will become job ready in one to two years time so we need to know exactly who is likely to be barred or not in advance of recruitment.
This means we need to know, at the very least, the criteria the investigations are working to when they consider the above cases.
At 4.6.9 of the document it states: "It is again important to stress that each case is dealt with on its merits. It is therefore, not possible to specify which offences would lead to a bar (other than auto-bar offences) and which offences would not".

If it is not possible to specify what offences would lead to a bar, we at least, need to know what criteria would mitigate the chances of them being barred?

For us, this lack of clarity is unworkable. We are working with the, often, fragile aspirations of people who are turning their lives around and attempting to become productive members of society. We feel very strongly that it would be unfair to the individuals involved, detrimental to our finances and counter-productive to the aims of our organisation to recruit and begin training people without knowing whether they are later going to be barred from working in the field.
I would be very grateful if you could address the above questions and clarify the issues raised.