Farcical and reactionary

Even by the standards of ‘paedo panic’ hysteria, writes James Turley, plans to vet 11 million adults who come into regular contact with children are absurd

On September 14, New Labour architect and business secretary Peter Mandelson gave a speech at the London School of Economics on the future course of public spending. Labour, he said, should have “the mindset of insurgents who are restless with the status quo, not incumbents”.1

Nobody, however, could ever accuse Mandelson of having a spine to speak of - and if you want a reminder of the basically craven and reactive character of the New Labour project, there is the formation next month of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, whose job it will be to vet all adults who come into contact on a regular basis with children, homeless and the elderly. An estimated 11.3 million people will have to jump through this bureaucratic hoop - at a personal cost of £64 each if they are in paid employment.

Predictably, this has all been promoted on the basis of emotional appeals about horrific marquee-name sex crimes past - in this case, the Soham murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley in 2002. Perhaps surprisingly, however, this time round the reactionary press is not on board. The Daily Mail insists on referring to the ISA’s “Big Brother database”, and even quotes Michael Bichard, who produced the Soham report that led to its predecessor, to the effect that the government is “going too far”.2

In a moment of somewhat breathtaking hypocrisy, the paper even ran an op-ed piece by AN Wilson headlined: “What kind of country has this become when we are all treated as potential paedophiles?” Perhaps he should direct this question to the editors of the Mail, undoubtedly the paedo-panic mothership.3

The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, worries that vague hearsay can be admitted as evidence by the ISA. Interestingly, its main citation for this is one Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club, one of the many tentacles of the organism formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party4. The ex-RCP has seized on the database scandal quicker than most - Appleton contributed an article to its flagship website Spiked hailing the refusal of leading children’s author Philip Pullman to submit to vetting months ago. Pullman calls the database “insulting”, and would sooner give up talks in schools altogether than pay his £64.5 “Children are abused in the home,” Pullman told Radio 4’s Today programme, “not in classes of 30 or groups of 200 in the assembly hall with teachers looking on.”6

In a rare display of cosmic justice, then, a shamelessly demagogic attempt to turn moralistic panic into easy political capital has backfired spectacularly, alienating almost everybody. Ed Balls became the first minister to defend the new measures since the issue exploded before the weekend. He argued, according to The Guardian, that the new regulations will not result in any of the absurd excesses cited by the ISA’s opponents - people being barred from the register for being “lonely”, people having to cough up £64 simply for ferrying kids to football practice - and urged the ISA to “get the balance right”. Significantly, he backtracked far enough to announce some kind of formal review of the plans - by the new head of the ISA itself.7

If all this sounds drearily familiar, it is because it is the same reasoning trotted out every time some new authoritarian law is imposed on us. In the last couple of weeks, to give one example, we have heard the same insubstantial reassurances from the General Teaching Council to claim that its painfully vague code of conduct would not intrude into teachers’ private lives.8

If anyone takes this kind of assurance seriously, they should remember the anti-social behaviour order, introduced amid a storm of controversy in 2003. An Asbo can bar any individual deemed by a local authority to be ‘anti-social’ from doing … almost anything, in fact, legal or illegal. Breaching the Asbo, however, is most definitely illegal. New Labour tops (and the self-satisfied chav-baiters of the rightwing press) assured opponents of the scheme that they were dogmatic liberals and doom-mongers, that the Asbo would be used proportionately. Now, six years later, we have the experience of the boy banned from going within 50 yards of any school in Newham, another banned from saying the word ‘grass’, another banned from leaving his front door …

That this all had to be implemented by local authorities, of course, ensured that the Asbo was another ‘postcode lottery’, with some councils far more zealous in purging their patch of unruly youths than others. The most Asbo-happy councils simply rendered the orders unenforceable, with police unable to regulate the movements of so many people banned from so many places (the thought of a world in which all these Asbos were enforceable has more than a little of the dystopian to it).

Notwithstanding the inevitable series of technical hitches and bureaucratic failures, the ISA system is likely to ‘work’ on its own terms - that is, it will probably succeed in cajoling all but a few high-profile children’s celebrities (such as Pullman and his comrade in indignation, Michael Morpurgo) into signing up for the database. Another bureaucracy will be created and reproduce itself in perpetuity, with no other purpose than to make people’s lives a little less tolerable (and charge them £64 for the privilege). It will also provide bosses with another grab-bag of vague charges when they want to get rid of troublesome employees, of course - another example of the pivotal importance of freedom to the workers’ movement.

What it will not do is stop much, if any, child abuse (let alone murder), most of which is conducted by close family members. The myth of the predatory paedophile sex monster is for the most part just that - a myth. If Balls, Brown and the rest were truly serious about vetting people who come into contact with children, they would start with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.

Yet the whole scheme is set within the ideological framework of the family - a close-knit unit ostensibly for ‘protecting’ offspring from a dangerous and degenerate outside world, which serves to physically reproduce capitalist society. Precisely how wedded the family is to class society is up for debate - but under conditions of generalised exploitation and oppression, it is scarcely surprising that families should turn inward, and dominate the social relations of their members to a greater degree. Incestuous abuse is simply a necessary excrescence of this scenario. Far from being some sick force opposed to the family, child sexual abuse is a product of it.

This makes it all the more necessary for the family’s ideological champions - the church, the rightwing press, official politics - to indulge in the frankly farcical parades of public disgust at sexual deviants. Precisely why nobody has ‘bitten’ this time is harder to discern. Certainly, the political conjuncture has something to do with it. The Tory press is presented with a Labour government in very serious trouble, showing all the signs of imminent demise. It smells blood. Labour no longer enjoys even the half-hearted support of important former backers such as the Murdoch press. The impulse is to attack Labour with whatever ammunition is to hand.

On top of that, the clearest political battle between the Tories and Labour (such statements are, of course, relative) is over public spending - the Tories now openly proclaim that they will ‘wield the axe’, slashing pensions, jobs and the rest to cut the national debt. Labourites, such as Mandelson in his aforementioned LSE speech, are more guarded, and talk of ‘efficiency’ cuts which will not really drive at balancing the budget at all.

In this situation, it is perfectly useful for Tory ideologues to bemoan the ‘nanny state’, and the growth of lumbering and unaccountable bureaucracies. And what better excuse than something like the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which is as nakedly oppressive as they come? It has already cost the public purse over £16 million, and people have responded with predictable disdain to an initiative that effectively brands them perverted until proven otherwise.

Resistance to the new database is certainly not pointless. A well organised boycott, for example, would mean strict enforcement of the ISA lists, amounting to the government inviting massive industrial action in schools and community initiatives aimed at children (to say nothing of care homes for the elderly, homeless hostels, children’s wards in hospitals and so on). It would be a battle it is utterly ill-equipped to fight; far more likely would be the quiet shelving of the whole scheme.

This is certainly the aspiration of the ex-RCP Manifesto Club, which has set up a petition against vetting. Yet a petition will not do much at the bottom levels to organise active resistance. To refuse vetting is a risky step for an individual who relies on income from an affected job. It is, to repeat, in effect a call for industrial action - so this is really the job of the workers’ movement, which can unite people in solidarity to defeat attacks on democratic rights and working conditions alike. The vetting system, oppressive and bureaucratic, is an attack on both, and we should respond to it as such.