A huge database will increase the likelihood
of errors, which occur in any system. There is also the danger
of the unwarranted disclosure of information about families,
whether accidentally or corruptly. As the recent technical
issues report from the Children and Young Person's Unit has
acknowledged, these are all perfectly legitimate fears. Responsible
parents do not put their children's details on the internet
- but by establishing a national children's database the government
in effect proposes to do just that.
Why does the government believe that families need to be observed
in order to 'see what services they need'? Apparently it is
not possible simply to advertise services and assume that
the majority of families are capable of working out what might
benefit them. Not that services are well advertised at the
moment - I have lived in the same London borough for over
20 years, and only recently discovered that there are three
separate parenting courses operating locally. In other areas,
meanwhile, parents are begging for help, particularly those
parents whose children have special needs - and their requests
are often met with silence by official agencies.
I was recently carrying out research into the experiences
of families where children have learning difficulties or chronic
health problems, and was deluged with replies from families
who were not receiving even the most basic help that they
needed. Some had faced allegations that they were inadequate
- or, worse, the cause of their child's problems.
One mother wrote to me: 'my five-year-old son is classically
autistic. He smears poo, he bites, he has the speech of a
toddler. Our social worker said that he needs a suitable package
of help, but we have received nothing.' Most parents know
perfectly well what they and their children need in order
to cope, and are already in touch with services, but the services
and resources simply are not there. It isn't necessary to
share information without their consent and disempower them
even further - they already have quite enough to cope with.
What they need is money, resources and skilled help when they
ask for it. They also need to know what is being said about
them because they are extremely vulnerable to professionals'
inexperience or prejudice.
Those most in need of services are likely to be poor, and
don't have the money to buy solutions. By contrast, most of
those going to university and subsequently entering the professions
are middle class and articulate. It is hard to see how elevating
a new 'monitor' class in our society can possibly help those
who feel degraded and powerless, or how it can heal the already
deep social rifts.
The Children Bill is potentially divisive, and it turns our
public servants into public masters. It will not alter the
fact that our social services are short of staff and resources,
and it may have a disastrous effect upon child protection.
It is profoundly undemocratic, effectively seeking to bundle
families over roads they have not asked to cross.
Terri Dowty is policy director of Action on Rights for Children
(ARCH), and a consultant to several other organisations. She
has a longstanding involvement in children's rights and in
democratic forms of education, and has written several books
and articles on these subjects.