Since When Have Bureaucracy And Databases Been Synonyms For 'Solution'?
I was reminded of this piece of family history when I read The Telegraph's story that Family life faces State 'invasion' from a new database that will track all 12 million children in England and Wales from birth. The powers to create this database flow from the Children's Act of 2004 and changes that were introduced following Victoria Climbie's death from abuse. The database is characterised as "the biggest state intrusion in history into the role of parents". There is a lot of anger around the catalogue of incompetence and failure of government agencies to do their job properly that contributed to Victoria Climbie's death. But this solution, like its predecessors, doesn't bounce.
Bureaucracies that are already so over-stretched that they can not monitor the children who are known to be at risk are to be swamped with data on all children, and to be given additional monitoring and intervention powers. There is well-founded concern that electronic files will:
undermine family privacy and destroy the confidentiality of medical, social work and legal records.People who come into contact with children, such as doctors, schools and the police will have to report a wide range of "concerns". Two warning flags on a child's record could trigger an investigation.
The data that will be collected are so eclectic that they verge on the surreal.
[M]inisters are proposing substantially to enlarge the state's role in the upbringing of children, monitoring everything from how they are doing in class to whether they are eating enough fruit and veg.Fruit and veg consumption? Why not fish, or functional foods like eggs and milk with high levels of Omega 3? How will this be done? Will food diaries be kept by the children, or is there a more high-tech solution that monitors our shopping habits?
There will also be a system of targets and performance indicators for children's development. Children's services have been told to work together to make sure that targets are met.Would these be the same agencies that are taking on water in their current attempts to deal with children's mental health needs and educational issues?
Dr Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics is quoted as saying that:
if a child caused concern by failing to make progress towards state targets, detailed information would be gathered. That would include subjective judgments such as "Is the parent proving a positive role model?", as well as sensitive information such as a parent's mental health.I agree that Bureaucracy Can't Bring Up Children. The leader writer argues that:
...The country is moving from 'parents are free to bring children up as they think best as long as they are not abusive or neglectful' to a more coercive 'parents must bring children up to conform to the state's views of what is best'.
parents are generally better providers of health, education, welfare and social security than any government department. They should be allowed to get on with it.If we don't need to quantify that "generally", then, of course, this is true: similarly for the incontrovertible truth of parents being preferable to intervention by government departments. But this Vera Lynn statement (Dr. Crippen defines this as something so self-evidently right that is beyond criticism) smacks of truthiness.
[T]he quality by which a person purports to know something emotionally or instinctively, without regard to evidence or to what the person might conclude from intellectual examination.It is equally true that for many children, the current system isn't working. Jonathan Bamford of the Information Commissioner's Office sums up the scheme when he argues that keeping check on 11-12 million children when 3-4 million are in some way "at risk" is "not proportionate". What are the criteria for "at risk" here? Because at 3-4 million, the figures are even more alarming than those that were recently reported for mental health and educational problems. A recent evaluation of Sure Start reported that its performance is disappointing, possibly because the resources may be being directed to less socially deprived groups at the expense of the most socially deprived groups. Why would this database scheme and reporting system be any different? We already do not have the resources to provide interventions when it is known that there is probable need for them.
Ignoring the practicalities, ethics and usefulness of such a database, and the harm that it does to notions of self-reliance and autonomy, the scale of resources that would be needed to act upon it defies the imagination. The database invites unfortunate comparisons to the activities of the Stasi (security and intelligence forces). When Stasi archives were opened after reunification, German citizens learned about reporting not only by close friends but also by their spouses and children. Estimates of the number of informers range widely from 1 in 5 to 1 in 50.
There is a lot of understandable anger about children's health and welfare: if the statistics are credible, it is a public health scandal. But no matter how benign or plausible the intent, this solution doesn't bounce.