|Why the police now have to ask teenage muggers: 'Do you eat chips?'
Daily Mail | May 17, 2008
Imagine a country where strangers have the right to ask intrusive questions and store the answers on a database.
Where everyone from police officers to leisure-centre staff can demand: "Tell me who you feel close to?"
They will also have been trained to ask questions about sexual behaviour, family life, religion, secret fears, weight and "sleeping arrangements" at home.
Incredibly, thousands of Government and council apparatchiks in Britain became entitled on April 1 to ask such questions of anyone under 19.
This horrifying invasion of privacy has begun, almost unnoticed, because the Government has cleverly presented it as being in the interests of "child protection".
The new questionnaire, known as the Common Assessment Framework (CAF), is part of a £20million programme called Every Child Matters (ECM), ostensibly set up to ensure youngsters are safe and leading positive lives.
Professionals - such as police officers, teachers and doctors - and volunteers are now under orders to subject children to a questionnaire if they consider them "at risk": a definition so broad that many decent parents could find themselves labelled as potential abusers.
The questions don't need a parent's consent since any child over 12 is deemed responsible enough to grant permission for an interview.
Any child not achieving the Government's five "outcomes" - being healthy, staying safe, enjoying life, "making a positive contribution", and achieving " economic well-being" - is now defined as having "additional needs".
How did this idiocy come about? Margaret Hodge announced the ECM agenda in 2003, just after Tony Blair ignored his friend's unsavoury history as leader of Islington Council during one of Britain's worst child-abuse scandals and, to widespread protest, made her Children's Minister.
Hodge claimed the ECM was justified by the case of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie who was abused and murdered by her guardians.
As the reporter who exposed paedophile rings in Islington's children's homes and, later, the blaming in neighbouring Haringey of an innocent social worker for Victoria's death, I was mystified.
I knew the problem was never lack of paperwork on children at risk, but too many stupid people reading it - and failing to act.
So, on April Fool's Day, the very effective Child Protection Register was abolished.
In its paternalistic zeal, however, New Labour replaced the register with the Integrated Children's System.
"The Integrated Children's System isn't fit for purpose and many authorities are dragging their feet about implementing it because it's worrying the hell out of them," said Terri Dowty, director of Action On Rights For Children.
"While all this fiddling around with shiny new technology goes on, too many children are getting hurt."
One police officer, who attended a CAF course, told me that many of his colleagues are so reluctant to interview teenage criminals about their emotional needs, sex life and diets that they avoid calls involving them.
"We're cops, not social workers," he said. "It's insane."
The 46-page Government guide, Using The CAF In Practice, suggests "practitioners" ask questions such as: "Do you feel you are the right weight for your height?"
My police source was told this could lead to a "valuable discussion" about why young people should not eat chips.
He and his colleagues have renamed the agenda Every Fat Kid Matters.
"I work in inner-city London," he said. "Nearly every kid's poor. But I'm meant to check whether they eat their greens and if they are 'enjoying and achieving their aims'. What if their aims are mugging and stabbing?
"When a call comes involving young people, we pretend we're busy.
"Just filling in one of these forms, with a foul-mouthed yob who's laughing at you, will take half a shift. Meanwhile, the public is unprotected."
In an effort to develop a more "common" approach, anyone from a sports coach to a playgroup worker is allowed to question a child, as long as they've been on a three-hour training course.
There is a risk that the interrogators could include people who may derive a perverse thrill from asking children personal questions about bathing, dressing and "changes to their body".
Allowing so many people to probe into children's personal lives is also a threat to this country's long-treasured right to privacy.
Children aged from 12 can consent to the storage and sharing of their information. This will be kept until they are 19, or for 75 years if they have been in care.
"The association of ECM with Victoria Climbie and the use of expressions such as 'safeguarding' and 'at risk' have stifled essential debate - after all, who could possibly be against protecting children?" said Dowty.
She believes we should refuse to comply. But how strong will families need to be, if by opposing the scheme, they risk being accused of negligence - or worse - towards their children?