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4b. Thou shalt not hug

Frank Furedi, The New Statesman (UK), 26 June 2008

About
Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, Licensed to Hug, 26 June 2008
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. Jennie Bristow is a journalist and the mother of two pre-school girls

British society no longer trusts grown-ups to interact with children. In 
a controversial new report, Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow argue that 
the culture of "vetting" adults is damaging relationships between the 
generations

British society no longer trusts adults to interact with children. Since 
2002, growing numbers of people have found themselves required to 
undergo a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check simply because their work 
or voluntary activities bring them into contact with children. 

This includes football coaches, cricket umpires, Guiders and Scoutmasters, 
volunteers in churches, charities and community centres, parents who 
volunteer for school trips or after-school clubs, and members of 
parent-teacher associations - as well as a host of others whose work is 
not to do with children, but might just involve having contact with 
them, such as bus drivers, or plumbers who fix school radiators. 

This month the BBC calculated that one in four adults will have to register 
with the new Independent Safeguarding Authority next year. The ISA 
boasts that something like 11.3 million people will be affected by the 
new scheme for vetting adults.

In the report Licensed to Hug, published on 26 June, my co-author Jennie 
Bristow and I explore the implication of the steady expansion of 
criminal-record checks on intergenerational relations and community 
life. What we found is that the system of vetting adults has taken on a 
bizarre life of its own. 

Already the question "Have you been CRB-checked?" has become part of everyday discussion at the school gates. We have talked to parents who were told that they could not attend their children's disco because they were not CRB-checked. 

Suspicion of grown-up behaviour towards children has fostered a climate 
in which it has become normal for some parents to trust only adults who 
possess official clearance. As one manager of a children's football team 
stated, "I only allow CRB'd parents to drive team members to training."

The research for Licensed to Hug indicates that most of our respondents 
in the voluntary sector accepted that a system of national vetting was 
now a fact of life. Many prefaced their statement with the word 
"unfortunately". Some were sceptical about its efficacy; others felt 
that it was burdensome and confusing. There were complaints about the 
enormous costs of maintaining the system and the amount of time it takes 
to process the paperwork. A significant minority of volunteers have been 
put off from working with children. One volunteer manager of an 
under-13s cricket team told us of his frustration at losing his 
"inspiring" coach who simply got "fed up with the hassle and paperwork".

Supporters of the new culture of vetting grown-ups argue that, whatever 
the critics say, the system protects children from adult predators. 
However, our experience of vetting as a society raises a question mark 
over the idea that the system "works", either in terms of protecting 
children from abuse, or in terms of increasing public confidence in 
those working or volunteering with children. 

As the recent history of the Criminal Records Bureau has shown, the first consequence of more stringent vetting procedures has been a demand for even more stringent security procedures. This indicates that the effect of CRB checks is less to increase trust in those organisations and institutions that 
insist upon vetting than it is to fuel mistrust in those that do not.

Experience indicates that the institutionalisation of the vetting of 
adults has unleashed a logic towards increasing the number of people who 
are deemed to be in need of formal clearance. So, in February 2008, the 
government announced trials of a new scheme that would enable parents to 
check with police whether a '"named individual" - a family member, a 
neighbour who looks after children, a new sexual partner - has child sex 
convictions. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, stressed that the 
initiative would not be a "community-wide disclosure", with information 
given out to anyone who asks. The more this process goes on, however, 
the more arbitrary it becomes to say where vetting should stop and trust 
begin.

The alleged protective effects of a system of vetting are largely 
illusory. Aside from the fallibility of record-keeping and technical 
systems, vetting takes into account only what somebody has done in the 
past. The most sophisticated system in the world cannot anticipate how 
individuals with a clean record might behave. 

Thus, the CRB provides little guidance about people's behaviour in the future. It provides the impression of security, but not the substance. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the national vetting scheme represents an exercise 
in impression management rather than offering effective protection. 
Vetting measures also fuel suspicion about adults. In that sense, they 
are not just harmless rituals, but negatively influence the conduct of 
adult-child relationships.

Although proponents of the scheme contend that it is designed to prevent 
"worst-case scenarios", the very institutionalisation of the scheme 
encourages worst-case-scenario assumptions to become the norm. 

One consequence of this process is that adults feel increasingly nervous 
around children, unwilling and unable to exercise their authority and 
play a positive role in children's lives. Such intergenerational unease 
has not made children safer than in the past: if anything, it is 
creating the conditions for greater harm, as adults lose the nerve and 
will to look out for any child who is not their own. 

Perversely, it inadvertently encourages grown-ups to avoid their responsibility for assuring the well-being of children in their community. One of the 
principal consequences of the vetting of grown-ups is the legitimisation 
of the idea that it is not the responsibility of the older generation to 
take a direct interest in the lives of children.

The most regrettable outcome of the new child protection policies 
associated with vetting is the distancing of intergenerational 
relationships. They foster a climate where adults feel uneasy about 
acting on their healthy intuition and feel forced to weigh up whether, 
and how, to interact with a child. 

Such calculated behaviour alters the quality of that interaction. It no longer represents an act founded on doing what a mentor feels is right - it is an act influenced by calculations about how it will be interpreted by others, and by 
anxieties that it should not be misinterpreted.

In sport, the difference between a coach automatically reaching out to 
correct a child's position and a coach asking himself, "Is this all 
right?" before doing so is that the former is a spontaneous action based 
on a desire to improve the child's game, and the latter is a timid 
gesture, reflecting an uncertainty about authority that the child must 
surely sense. 

In a community group, the difference between giving a distressed 
child a hug and asking that child, "Would you like a hug?" is 
that the former is given as an unprompted expression of human 
compassion, and the latter is a transaction that requires a child's 
formal consent.

Without doubt, children need to be protected from those who may prey 
upon them. However, the policing and formalisation of intergenerational 
relations does little to help this. The policy of attempting to prevent 
paedophiles from getting in contact with children through a mass system 
of vetting may well unintentionally make the situation more complicated. 

One regrettable outcome of such policies is the estrangement of children 
from all adults - the very people who are likely to protect them from 
paedophiles and other dangers that they may face. The adult qualities of 
spontaneous compassion and commitment are far more effective 
safeguarding methods than pieces of paper that promote the messages: 
"Keep out" and "Watch your back".

Adults feel at a loss

During the course of our discussions with people working in the 
voluntary sector, it became evident that applying formal procedures to 
the conduct of human relations also threatens to deskill adults. Many 
adults often feel at a loss about how they should relate to youngsters 
who are not their children. When formal rules replace compassion and 
initiative, adults become discouraged from developing the kind of skills 
that help them relate to and interact and socialise with children. 

This process of deskilling the exercise of adult authority may have the 
unfortunate consequence of diminishing the sense of responsibility that 
adults bear for the socialisation of the younger generation. Individuals 
who talked to us about the "hassle of paperwork" also hinted that they 
were not sure that working with kids was "worth the effort". And if 
adults are not trusted to be near children, is it any surprise that at 
least some of them draw the conclusion that they are really not expected 
to take responsibility for the well-being of children in their community?

Most policymakers, as well as thinking adults, do sense that there is 
something wrong with the conduct of intergenerational interaction. Of 
course, the crisis of intergenerational trust is a complex cultural 
problem, to which there are no quick fixes. It would be one-sided to 
argue that policy developments such as the national vetting and barring 
scheme have created this problem, and that removing them would solve 
things overnight. 

However, our research suggests that the creation of a probationary 
licence for adults through the national vetting scheme exacerbates the breakdown of trust within communities, and throws assumptions about 
adult authority and responsibility into question in a way that militates 
against people stepping in to help children out when things go wrong.

What is needed is both 

enlightened policy, 
which puts greater trust in the ability of professionals and volunteers to act on their instincts and less pressure upon them to cover their backs;
and less policy: 
putting a halt to the juggernaut of regulation and behaviour codes that 
makes voluntary organisations increasingly difficult to run, and 
volunteers resentful and unsure of themselves. 

As the government evaluates its national vetting scheme, we suggest that it pays at least as much attention to the consequences in terms of deterring "good" volunteers as it does to the scheme's effectiveness in keeping "bad" 
volunteers out.

However, the single most important problem that needs to be addressed is 
how society can affirm and support the exercise of adult authority 
through acts of solidarity and collaboration.

The growing distancing of encounters between the different generations 
in our society can only be fixed through providing adults with greater 
opportunity to interact with children. Adults need to be encouraged to 
exercise their responsibility towards the guiding and socialising of 
young people. 

That means that we need to question and challenge cultural 
assumptions that automatically throw suspicion on adults and the 
exercise of adult authority.

"Licensed to Hug" is published by Civitas (5)

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