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Baroness Neuberger: Children will grow up not trusting anyone in Britain's risk-averse society

Children are growing up not trusting anyone, an influential peer has warned, as Britain's society becomes increasingly suspicious and risk-averse.

Beckford, Martin; The Telegraph, UK, 23 Sep 2008

Baroness Neuberger, the Government's independent volunteering champion and one of the country's first female Rabbis, believes the widespread fear of sexual predators and the burden of red tape are putting people off working with young people.

As a result, she said, common kindness and the idea that we should look after each other are now "unfashionable", leaving people to focus only on their own desires.

This also means we tolerate a "high level of neglect and abuse" of elderly people, ignore members of our extended families, and turn our backs on those with mental health problems or living in care, she claims.

The Liberal Democrat peer concludes, in an essay for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of its series on modern "social evils", that Britons must learn to trust one another again, and stop the corrosive effects of blame, suspicion and neglect - or society will disintegrate.

Her comments come amid increasing concerns that Government policies are poisoning relationships between people.

Many people already say they are put off volunteering with children because of costly and time-consuming Criminal Records Bureau checks, and the problem is set to worsen from next year when 11.3 million adults who work with young people will have to undergo detailed background checks.

Recent figures show there are no men under 25 working in England's state-run nurseries, such is the fear of being branded a paedophile, while single mothers are being encouraged to ask police for evidence that people they know could pose a danger to their children.

Lady Neuberger said: 

"I have watched bemused as we seem to have become less and less caring for, or even aware of the suffering of, the most vulnerable in our society.

"The idea that we have an obligation to society beyond the demands we ourselves wish to make of it is becoming unfashionable.

"Meanwhile, the old sense of mutual obligation, somewhat fostered by wartime, has taken a battering. We are into understanding ourselves, into self-improvement, and our view of faith is also increasingly individualistic."

She said the changes began during the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher emphasised the importance of the individual over society and the consumer replaced the citizen.

The problem was highlighted after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales when, according to Lady Neuberger, public outpouring of grief was really about people feeling sorry "for themselves" and "looking inward".

She said mistrust and hostility to others deepened following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, and the Soham and Madeleine McCann cases, and the situation was made still worse by the Government's response of increasing surveillance and bureaucracy.

Lady Neuberger said: 

"We have become seriously risk-averse - fearful as a nation, scared of terrorists, child molesters and violence on the street - and as a result we make it harder and harder to help those who need our aid, and we become more and more withdrawn into ourselves."

She went on: 

"Such a level of protection as we have instituted will make children unable to trust anyone.

"It is as if we are trying to create a risk-free society, which we know in our heads and our hearts is impossible.

"The result is that we restrict and we regulate, hoping to make abuse impossible, while knowing we cannot. And, that way, we deter the willing and the kind."

Lady Neuberger concludes that we must "rebuild trust" by politicians becoming closer to voters, doctors talking more frankly about risks and the media putting less emphasis on blame.

"Unless we rethink our obligations and the trust we accord to those in charge, we will become even more cynical, even more atomistic, even more individualistic. And then there really will be no such thing as society."

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