AS A 22-year-old university student in my final year, I lived in
a shared house that overlooked a primary school. On the days when I
was not in college, but in my room, "studying", I would sometimes
spend playtime (theirs, not mine) at my window, watching the
children enjoy what my mother would have called their "mad
It was endlessly fascinating, and as instructive about human
behaviour as Sir David Attenborough has found the observation of
meerkats or gorillas to be about the animal realm.
A decade and a half later, I would often enjoy a similarly
innocent experience while supervising my own son in the local
playground. Until, that is, two police officers approached me on
the perimeter one day, and asked why I was there. In that moment,
suspicion supplanted innocence, and a law-abiding parent was
transformed into a police suspect.
It was a sign of things to come. Mandatory CRB checks, for
example, have forced everyone - from cathedral flower-arrangers to
authors visiting schools - to prove their innocence in anticipation
of any crime. As Ian Huntley proved in Soham, however, real
criminals (aided and abetted by police oversight) have ways of
Nor is this an isolated instance of the principle of unintended
consequences. Government proposals to have all children visiting
A&E departments registered on a child-protection database make
potential criminals of every responsible parent, while
simultaneously encouraging actual abusers to stay clear of
hospitals, where rescue could be at hand.
And, come the Queen's Speech in June, there is arguably worse
ahead. A so-called "Cinderella Law" is to be included, which is
designed to protect children from "emotional" abuse by threatening
parents with prison (and the removal of their children into care)
if they are judged guilty of harming a child's "intellectual,
emotional, social, or behavioural development".
With what qualification - or, indeed, justification - a modern
Solomon is expected to arbitrate on so complex and nuanced a thing
as child-rearing is not clear. Nor is it clear at what point
prosecutions will begin or end.
There will be no shortage of people arguing, for instance, that
clear "emotional, social, and behavioural" damage is done by
sending a child to boarding school at the age of eight. They might
further argue that a single working mother is guilty of a similar
dereliction of love and affection when she hands over her children
to a child-minder, instead of staying at home with them all
The articulate middle classes will doubtless find the
wherewithal to argue their way out of these "charges" - a
proportion of which, statistically, will be brought by nosy
neighbours or malicious former partners. But the less fortunate,
those in real need whose family life is rough round the edges, but
no less loving at the centre, could well find themselves the object
of unwelcome visits by an army of paid professionals who once
visited homes to help rather than to pry and to judge.
In all but the most extreme cases, separating a child from his
or her mother is arguably itself a form of cruelty. It risks
punishing a woman for sometimes simply not being able to cope, and
offers mere care to a child who craves love - the absence of which
will make inadequate parenting more likely in the future, not
If the state has to become the interfering nanny who knows best,
it is arguably better that it intervene as a helper and educator
rather than a latter-day witchfinder general, sniffing out crimes
where they may not exist. Paid witchfinders have to justify their
post by finding witches in the first place, and, in the jargon of
the day, meeting their quotas.
Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC
Religion and Ethics broadcasts.