The new ARCH blog is here
For the past few years I’ve had emails at least twice a week inviting me to shell out £400+ for conferences with catchy titles like ‘Making it Happen For Everyone: The Valuing People Now Strategy One Year On’, or ‘Putting Families First: Delivering Effective Services Locally’. I wondered what would happen post-election to these companies that seemed to have found a nice little earner in the ‘Every Initiative Matters’ agenda.
All of a sudden, the conferences have austere titles such as ‘Road Asset Management’ and ‘Preventing Rent Arrears and Evictions’, with not a colon in sight. You have to admire this speedy adaptation to the zeitgeist.
Mark Easton has written a very good piece on the conviction of two young boys at the Old Bailey on Monday for the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl. See also Chris Mills’ excellent post on the subject
In any other European country this trial simply could not have happened because the age of criminal responsibility is set a great deal higher, and is usually in line with the age of consent. That seems pretty sensible. As we said repeatedly when the dreadful Sexual Offences Act 2003 was going through parliament, the current position in the UK is completely incoherent. We have an age of consent in order to protect children because we believe that they are not sufficiently mature to understand the nature of consent in sexual encounters. Simultaneously, we hold that somebody six years below that age of consent has sufficient understanding to be tried in an adult court and convicted of a sexual offence. How is that possible?
It is hard to believe that this show-trial has achieved anything positive for any of the children involved in it. The law requires lifetime registration for the two boys, and the little girl has almost certainly learned some pretty traumatic lessons from the entire experience.
I don’t go along with those who criticise the verdict on the basis that the girl kept changing her story – the fact that the judge did not throw the case out, and that the jury (people like the rest of us) found the boys guilty, implies that there was rather more to the evidence than her own word. It does, however, indicate that she was finding the proceedings difficult and stressful. This may or may not have been a situation where normal curiosity got out of hand, and only those who actually heard the whole trial are in any position to say.
What is obvious, though, is that none of these children should have been in a court in the first place. If the two boys involved are engaging in sexually harmful behaviour, then that needs to be addressed through welfare services in order to make sure they don’t grow up into the kind of people dangerous enough actually to belong on the Violent and Sexual Offenders’ Register.
You may have seen articles in the press about bloodspots taken from newborn babies being kept for years after the event.
Shortly after birth, the baby’s heel is pricked and the blood transferred to a ‘Guthrie card’ as a series of small spots. These are then used to test for diseases that need immediate action, such as Phenylketonuria and Cystic Fibrosis.
As we mentioned in our ‘Parents’ Privacy Guide’, after these tests are completed, the cards are kept at regional centres. A series of recent FOI requests by Genewatch has discovered that the length of time that they are stored is anything from 18-26+ years.
Mothers are asked for consent, but usually don’t realise that if they consent to the tests (and they would be unwise to refuse these) they are also consenting to long-term storage – and in any case, few women who have just given birth are compos mentis enough to think through the issues, so it’s hardly valid consent.
The position is worrying, not only because the police may get a warrant to search the stored bloodspots in order to match DNA – and, on occasion, have done so – but because there have been several noises from government in the past about sequencing a baby’s entire genome and linking it to their NHS record. The ethical and legal implications of doing this are too enormous to discuss here, and have yet to be debated.
In many European countries, the bloodspots are destroyed as soon as tests are complete. In Scotland, the cards are destroyed after one year, unless consent is sought at the end of that period for two years’ further use. We need far tighter regulation in the rest of the UK.
Our celebration at the news that children would no longer be incarcerated in asylum detention centres seems to have been premature.
Child detention ended at the notorious Dungavel centre yesterday. That’s the good news. Fantastic! But hold on, the bad news is that families from Dungavel now have to endure a 9-hour trip in a prison van to the Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire.
In March, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, said there were “troubling” concerns over the welfare of children at Yarl’s Wood, which holds about 300 people. It is also hundreds of miles away from the friends and lawyers of the families originally detained in Dungavel.
Here’s the experience of one mother and her 8-month-old baby who were transferred from Dungavel to Yarl’s Wood yesterday:
‘I told them please don’t send me and my baby in the van for nine hours, she is too young, I asked them to speak to my lawyer. But she just told me, “Look either you go in the van or we will take your baby in a separate van and you won’t see her until you get to Yarl’s Wood.”
According to Robina Qureshi, the Glasgow-based charity director who took the mother’s call, 25 year old Sehar Shebaz had been vomiting since the early hours and baby Wanya was distressed.
Qureshi says Sehar, from Pakistan, who has lived in the UK for three years, has never tried to abscond, and has reported fortnightly to Brand Street Reporting Centre, as required. Indeed, Sehar and Wanya were seized on Monday while reporting at Brand Street as usual, just days after the new government claimed: ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.’
Why were they ever locked up in the first place? She has not failed to report or given any sign that she is about to do a runner. The government has pledged to end the detention of children ‘within months’, claiming that the delay is because alternative arrangements need to be put in place for families. But why are these necessary for families who have been abiding by the conditions and reporting regularly?
If the UK Border Agency is going to carry on with business as usual, then continuing to hold families in detention for the next few ‘months’ is just not good enough. ‘Months’ is long enough for still more children to be traumatised.
If you go to the ‘End Child Detention’ site and look on the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see a model letter to send to your MP. Please, just do it.
Apologies for our silence over the last few days. We’ve been getting the hang of Twitter. If you would like to follow us there, you can find us at http://twitter.com/ARCH_rights
This sentence particularly caught my eye:
‘…arguments couched in child-protecting language have frequently been used as grounds for child rights violations.’
It’s called ‘Mornington Cresecent Syndrome’: someone shouts ‘child protection’ and all sensible debate must immediately cease. It’s not only freedom of expresssion that is affected by this. It’s that entire corner of the UN Convention that deals with children’s civil rights including, of course, the Article 16 right to privacy.
Yes, protecting children from harm is important, but Convention rights have to be read as a whole. The UNCRC isn’t a salad bowl from which governments -or NGOs – can simply select what they believe to be important. And when protection rights obliterate other sections of the Convention, something has gone very wrong with the balance of proportionality.
End Child Detention has been exchanging letters with Gordon Brown on the appalling and inhumane practice of placing asylum seeking families in detention centres – a practice that has drawn enormous criticism from the prisons inspectorate, the UN, judges, paediatricians, lawyers and NGOs. The correspondence doesn’t inspire optimism that anything will change when his facts aren’t even right. Take this exchange, for instance:
GB ‘in a limited number of cases, detention does prove necessary.’
ECD ‘We disagree that the 1,300 children held in detention centres during the 15 month period between July 2008 and September 2009 amount to ‘a limited number of cases’.’
GB ‘the majority of families with children spend just a few days in detention’
ECD: ‘The average length of stay in Yarl’s Wood IRC has actually doubled from 8–16 days, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and Home Office Minister Meg Hillier. HMCIP found that at least a third of child inmates are detained for more than a month.In a recently published briefing note based on a response to a Parliamentary Question, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association found in each of the years 2004 to 2007 that a number of children had been detained in excess of 100 days.’
The whole exchange can be seen here. Recommended reading.
Ministers spent tens of thousands of pounds on mugs and pens to promote a controversial new children’s database, it was revealed today.
Teachers’ leaders accused the government of squandering £61,000 on the materials for ContactPoint, a multimillion pound register holding personal details of millions of children across England.
Munro wants to wipe the slate clean. “We’re not talking about trimming back the current forms but re-examining why we record anything and ensuring that what we do record helps children. We have to go back to recording the narrative, not data.”
She puts a welcome emphasis on the need to include children and families in the process, rather than simply doing things to them:
Munro is keen that all documents are simple enough for families to read them and flexible enough to take children’s views into account. “That might mean a child’s drawing or a poem,” she says. “We need to be trying to understand children’s experience and not treat them as oddities who must be fitted into the assessment process.”
Update: Also on the child protection track, Sue White takes no prisoners in Society Guardian today:
The system keeps limping along – its feet bearing the self-inflicted gunshot wounds of trigger-happy policymakers…They promised us a safe 4×4 in which to navigate a primrose path, but we’ve ended up down a muddy track in a Reliant Robin. Let’s get out and walk.
Disappointing to see the Scottish Children’s Commissioner applauding early intervention.
Speaking at crime reduction charity Nacro’s annual conference in Nottingham, Tam Baillie said indicators that a child will go on to offend can be present from a young age and it is important to “get in early”.
It’s yet more proof that if you keep repeating something often enough, even intelligent people (who should know better) start to believe it. The ‘risk prediction’ concept is now firmly entrenched but where is the evidence that this approach is actually effective? Sure, there are plenty of research reports that begin with phrases like “there is mounting evidence…” or “it is now widely recognised that…” but when you drill down, the actual evidence is scanty, anecdotal or non-existent.
It’s a shame that policy-makers and politicians – across all parties – haven’t paid closer attention to the report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, ‘Risky people or risky societies?’ which goes to the trouble of examining the evidence-base.
Policy interventions that seek to target individuals and their families on the basis of certain characteristics, with the intention of preventing future offending, have no obvious basis in current research. Risk factor research also operates with a number of assumptions that, on closer scrutiny, are problematic and, despite claims of scientific objectivity, are necessarily ideological. The nuances and qualifications have at times become lost in translation from the academy to Whitehall, but the focus on individual and micro-social risks has chimed with the priorities of policy makers.
That’s not to say that you can’t do something about factors within a local environment that tend to disadvantage children, but:
different population groups in different parts of the country experience markedly different levels of risk…The challenge is to rethink a policy framework that recognises the variable risks that different groups face in society, but without engaging in the dubious and ultimately futile exercise of identifying risky individuals.
By all means provide decent housing, good schools, decent leisure facilities. By all means intervene when a parent is neglecting or abusing their children, or when a child is clearly skidding off the rails. But for now we need rather more rigorous evidence that children’s life-trajectories can be predicted before anyone ‘intervenes’. And on the ‘do no harm’ principle, we also need a reasonable degree of certainty that ‘intervention’ (together with its co-respondent, sensitive-data-gathering) aren’t actively harmful to those who would otherwise have been fine.
The move to online services in education continues apace:
Becta has told English secondary schools to provide online reports for all pupils by September…Ultimately, the agency wants all schools to integrate the online reports into virtual learning environments so parents can see what their children are doing in the classroom.
Well, assuming their internet access hasn’t been suspended, that is. This is exactly the kind of thing we had in mind when we argued that the disastrous Digital Economy Act has some pretty serious implications for children’s education rights.
The effects of malware on systems that gather our sensitive data haven’t really entered public consciousness, but there are potentially serious problems here, especially when so many practitioners are logging in to systems remotely.
Last year, Tim Loughton asked a string of government departments about the incidence of malware during the previous year. Most of the replies fell into one of two categories. The Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Communities and Local Government played the Mornington Crescent card by insisting that national security would be threatened if they even looked at the question.
Others, including the Department for Health when asked about NHS hospitals, produced the standard brush-off: ‘The information requested is not held centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost’.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families dealt with it like this:
how many and what proportion of computers in (a) local authority children’s services departments, (b) Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service and (c) schools were found to be infected with malware in 2008.
Information on the number or proportion of computers infected with malware is not collected centrally from either local authority children’s services or from schools. However many schools do employ a managed service for their ICT support and those organisations will normally maintain this information and report to schools.
It simply won’t do. If a government department is mandating the collection of peoples’ sensitive data – particularly when this is without any opportunity to consent or opt out – it ought to be taking responsibility for the security of that data a great deal more seriously.
We have been vaguely promising for ages to produce a guide for parents about children’s privacy, and we’ve finally done it in conjunction with the ‘Erasing David’ team. It’s here (pdf)
And if you haven’t heard of ‘Erasing David’ yet: it’s a fascinating film that receives its cinema premiere on 29th April and makes its TV debut on More4 on May 4th. David Bond, the producer, decided to disappear for a month and challenged private detectives to track him down. On his travels, he discovered just how much information about us is ‘out there’.
Watch the film to see whether he succeeded in evading his pursuers… it’s a ripping yarn and even for those of us involved in it, the finished product still pushes the adrenaline levels up. More about it on the Erasing David website.
Quick update: there’s a nice article about ‘Erasing David’ in the Times today.