ABOUT ten years ago, a bit bored with my attempts to change the world, I decided to write a dystopian science fiction novel.
The conceit of this never-to-be-written book was the complete collapse of privacy illustrated by the “supporters” that everyone was given when they had a child. In this futuristic hell, as soon as a woman gave birth, a support worker would come and live in her house, both to help the parents with the difficult child and to protect the child from the potentially abusive parents.
There was no longer an expectation, or even an understanding of privacy, intimacy, trust, or even a relationship with and between parent and child. Rather, relationships were mediated through your own personal support worker.
Unfortunately, this dystopian future has arrived a little faster than I imagined, as last week the Scottish Government’s plan to give every child a state guardian from birth was launched. This state-appointed overseer will be a specific, named individual, and every child will have one, from birth. The responsibility for creating this named guardian will fall on the heads of the health boards for the first five years of a child’s life, before being transferred to councils. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this development is that it clearly comes in large part as a mechanism to target and prevent child abuse.
Concerns about this new statutory initiative built into the Children and Young People Bill have been raised by some MSPs, but largely on technical grounds: Can the state afford to have a “supporter” for every child? How will the child get to know this person and how will they develop a trusting relationship with them?
Children’s minister Aileen Campbell has said the approach would be useful in that a specific individual will have the responsibility of overseeing the wellbeing of specific children. As she put it, this will “make sure there is someone having an overview of what is happening to that child, to make sure that early indicators of anything that would pose a threat or risk to that child are flagged up”.
Part of the plan is that professionals increasingly share information with one another so as to nip problems in the bud. Like the “every child matters” approach in England and Wales, “safeguarding” children is now the priority of anyone working with children, be that a teacher, a dentist, a youth worker, a swimming instructor and so on. And at one level this sounds OK – anything that stops child abuse…
On the other hand, it can be seen as having little to do with the problem of abused kids and more to do with our culture of suspicion. It is not the case that families are more abusive today. What has changed is that our faith in one another, and our belief in the importance of privacy, has diminished. We have also lost a coherent sense of public duty and subsequently “child safety” has become a new, off-the-shelf, framework that attempts to offer coherence to people running public services and professional bodies.
It is arguable to what extent “every child” can really be protected by our new guardians, or indeed that these named professionals will take seriously the need to keep an eye on “nice” families. However, as the meaning of abuse and harm expands to include things like being bullied, or even being shouted at, the potential for professional intervention into family life is growing.
Add to this the emphasis being placed on all child-related professionals to watch out for abuse, and the suspicious and indeed corrosive nature of this approach is all too clear. Essentially, the idea of a specific person looking after the interests of a child coming with the name of “father” or “mother” has been lost from Scottish society – or at least lost within the corridors of power.
Increasingly, decisions about our children’s wellbeing are being taken out of our hands. Not just education, but sex, health, lifestyle, even political life is taught to children by people outside the home. In Dundee, where I live, I hear of cases where children are instructed to tell their parents that the school doesn’t approve of the contents of the parent-provided lunchbox. Elsewhere, we hear of teachers reporting parents to social services for allowing their children to “risk” cycling to school. And just about everywhere we have children being encouraged to tell their own parents off for smoking or drinking at home.
The recognition of the importance of privacy, of the authority of parents and the protection of this privacy and authority by society is declining fast. In fact, researching the issue of the “autonomous family”, a hugely important building block for British society, it is noticeable that at the level of policy this idea has completely disappeared.
Today it is assumed parenting is simply too hard, children are simply too vulnerable and risks are simply too great to allow for this luxury called “privacy”. This is why nobody is attacking this new bill in defence of privacy and the autonomous family.
In my dystopian future, the hero Michael, who was an outsider to this (not so brave) New World, started off as a self-confident, well-adjusted, strong character. By the end of the story he had become a nervous, obsessively self-conscious, fragile, distrusting and yet conformist individual. Accepting the need to abandon privacy, engaged with the idea of risk – especially in relationships – Michael’s life soon became empty of true bonds or friendships. This loveless and bloodless existence led to… but that would spoil the end. But then, who needs a sci-fi novel when we have our very own “state guardians”.
Welcome to my world!
• Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee