Below is a transcript of the Child’s Play session. It is loosely edited.
Sabina Frediani: Firstly, thank you to everybody for coming along today. I know there’s lots of different sessions going on, so thank you for choosing this one. My name’s Sabina Frediani and I’m the campaigns coordinator for the human rights and civil liberties organisation Liberty and I want to say firstly that when we were asked to chair a breakout session at this convention, there were obviously many, many, many areas we could have focused on, but for those of you who aren’t so familiar with Liberty’s work, as I’ve already said, we’re a human rights and civil liberties campaigning organisation and that basically means that we campaign on a wide, wide range of issues from counterterrorist, to asylum, to free speech and protest. And we choose what we campaign on depending on how we focus things throughout our year, what’s happening with reactive as well as proactive and we respond to government consultation and bills, we take legal cases, we campaign in the media, and there’s a wide range of issues we could have focused on, but what struck me particularly when we were looking at the program for today was that there didn’t seem to be a focus on children and young people and I think what’s crucial if we are to build a culture of rights and particularly our lead campaign at Liberty at the moment, common values which is all about building respect for human rights principles and The Human Rights Act and encountering some of the damaging myths that exist around it. What’s crucial is to engage younger people in our work and so that’s why we’re here today and running this session and why we’re helping out with the students session at lunch and it’s a very, very important part of our work to not only defend the rights of young people but to engage them in our work. In recent years, certainly at Liberty and throughout, what we’ve seen a steady decline in respect for an equal treatment of young people, so curfews for under 16s, mosquito devices, using technology that, technology that’s originally designed to scare away vermin, used to tear young people from particular areas, the rollout of Contact Point, the children’s database, ASBOs and the naming and shaming of children, are just a few examples.
So, we wanted to make sure there was room for this discussion today and we’re chairing this session today, rather than participating in it because we’re certainly not the only people campaigning in this area. The entire purpose of today’s conference is to bring together different voices, different views on a range of different issues.
Sam Dimmock: Hi, I’m going to talk to you today about a range of things, but it’s all in the context of last year’s examination of the UK government on its implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. So, in October last year the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child examined the UK government, and although the committee noted areas where the government has made progress in protecting children’s rights, its concluding observations contained over 150 recommendations about where more needs to be done. These range from concerns about child poverty, health inequality, the discriminatory treatment of traveller children, of young asylum seekers, the participation of young disabled people in society and in their education and to the best interest and rehabilitation of young offenders, but emerging throughout all of this was a significant focus on children’s civil rights and specifically in relation to their status in society and the human rights implications of current measures to address so called Antisocial Behaviour.
Unusually, for the first time in a Western country, the UN has commented on the inappropriate characterisation of children in the UK and it’s asked the government to take urgent measures to address this. The committee explicitly referred to the role the media plays in creating, perpetuating and indeed in condemning such inappropriate characterisation and this is just going to be my subject for the next few minutes. Intelligent news stories about human rights and children do exist. Many journalists pride themselves in accurate sensitive reporting. It can be done, it can be cost-effective and it can still be newsworthy copy. Some journalists even give children the opportunity to contribute their own perspectives to a story. An awards ceremony is held each year by children and young people now to celebrate those that promote positive images of children. An organisation such as Headliners support children to create their own news, but this isn’t the norm. Negative stories about children dominate and negative images abound. There’s a worrying intolerance of children in British media. Space is rarely given to the presentation of their world, in the way in which they perceive it. There are few quotes from children in articles about them, despite the fact they’re ever present in stories on a wide range of issues.
The International human rights body has actually taken the step to comment on the media’s impact on the lives of children as a significant step forward and its important recognition of the problem we’re facing today. Yet the unbalanced representation of children is not a new complaint by any means. Codes of conduct have been written to safeguard children’s best interests. Commentators expound on the demonisation of children. We see evidence of this every day and complaints about children hanging around on the streets, in the assumption that they’re all yobs in waiting, and in public blogs on newspaper websites which would roundly condemn any article that refers to the rights of the young. In the media’s overwhelming focus on the child, either as law breaker or victim, as good or bad, achiever or non-achiever, results in a distorted and simplistic view of the role and experience of children in our society.
Now, CRAE and others believe that the media has a significant impact on the rights and status of children: It can play the role of champion exposing abuses of children’s rights, yet its coverage can also provoke policymakers into taking action resulting in ill judged policy and legislation that does little to help children. Ministers are rightly becoming critical of media coverage of children, yet they run away of the impact of their own actions on it. Widely reported was Jack Straw’s assertion last year that 16 and 17 year olds in custody are not children, but large, unpleasant thugs frightening the public. The removal of automatic reporting restrictions has allowed children as young as 10 years old to appear on the front page of national newspapers. The media’s description of children, subject to I suppose, frequently presents them as less than human. A 2007 article in the Daily Mail likened a 12-year-old boy to the demonic toy Chucky from the Child’s Play movies branding him a thug.
For these children at best, the public is encouraged to show little understanding of their difficulties and at worse such reporting invites community hostility and vengeance. The UN recently asked the government to do more to respect children’s privacy rights in the media, specifically avoiding naming and shaming, but to date the government has failed to take any action on this. And while it’s true that children do have the same address as adults, with regards to making complaints about media coverage, no complaints have been received directly from a child by the press complaints commission in the last few years, and complaints procedures are not well known among children nor are they accessible to them.
Now, there’s a growing body of research on children in the media and although it’s often quoted, some of the statistics bear repeating and that’s what I’m going to do now. One study by Young People Now in 2006 reported that 71% of stories about young people in a week of national newspapers were negative. Research by the British Youth Council found that this overwhelmingly negative portrayal of children had, unsurprisingly an affect on them with 98% of children considering that media represent them as antisocial and a group to be feared. And CRAEs own research last year with over 1,700 children which was led by young people, found that 76% felt the media didn’t portray a balanced picture of children. The vast majority that we spoke to felt the negative assumptions about them were in fact perpetuated by the media and that if the media carried more positive stories about children it might help to increase respect for them on the one hand and address community and intergenerational attention on the other. One of the children we spoke to said to us, the papers only pick up on bad stories about children, people would definitely get the wrong impression, but most kids are nice, and we’ve heard this over and over again. Similar messages have been reflected by peer researchers from the young research network, who noted of their own research into images of children in the media. Some young people felt that these negative stereotypes were impacting on their daily lives, making them more conscious of how they dressed, how they presented themselves and where they could go with their friends. And in response to concerns from children about the depth and quality of reporting on children’s rights, the policy and public affairs team at CRAE has been analysing articles concerning children that appeared in 10 national newspapers between October 2007 and March 2008, so the first six months of the equality and human rights commission.
Our intention is to determine the prevalence, accuracy and tone of reporting on children’s rights and to make comments about the tenor of stories on children in general. We found 2,641 articles relating to children, but only 48 of those explicitly cover children’s rights and although 62% of those had a positive tone, less than a quarter of them were accurate about rights. Moreover, 90% of all the articles we found related to children did not contain a quote from a child. The difference in tone between articles focusing on children at large and so-called unpopular groups can be striking. The impact of broad assumptions about our most vulnerable children are far reaching and immensely damaging. The language and imagery used has a pervasive and powerful impact that can embed or challenge prejudice. Children recognize this and they have themselves linked sensationalist reporting of children to many of the negative attitudes they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.
Next week CRAE publishes its own guidelines for journalists which have been endorsed by the National Union of Journalists, these reflect the universality of human rights and equality issues in media reporting and highlight many of the concerns I’ve outlined about the representation of children in the media. We detail for journalists the contribution they can make to the protection and promotion of children’s human rights and the way in which they can effectively connect with children to better cover the real stories of their lives. Much more exciting and reflecting the concerns of their peers CRAE’s young activists are now embarking on a campaign to empower children to take action to address this issue of unbalanced reporting. Their Report Right campaign is going to work on a media charter for journalists, take action on naming and shaming based on children’s own experiences of it, and aim to secure the support of the media, the government, parliamentarians, NGOs and other children for their campaign. They’re quite ambitious, but it should be a very exciting piece of work.
So, coming back to today’s theme, is there a decline in respect for the young in the media, respect for rights is certainly a work in progress and international human rights treaty giving substantial rights to children is quite frankly terrifying for some people. Certainly a widespread misunderstanding about human rights has had an undeniable impact on the reaction of the public to children’s rights, but in response to such misunderstanding, lack of awareness and, at times, even open hostility, the UN has asked the government to ensure the convention is widely known and understood, including by the public and that training on it is systematic. And it’s not by chance that media professionals appear in the list of those requiring such knowledge. We must, along with the UN, recognise children as the consumers and producers of media that they are, it’s in the world of blogs and social networking, where most children and young people come into their own and seize the opportunity to express their views and assert their rights. So, it’s time for the media to take a long hard look at its portrayal of children and childhood and take significant action to engage with children, reflecting their realities and their experiences, and articles about them. All we in children and young people are asking for is balance.
Terri Dowty: Right, I have the unenviable task of trying to talk about children’s databases in 10 minutes. Now I know that when I actually lecture on it and go straight through the slides I’ve got on all the possible databases a child is on, it takes 25 minutes. So I’m actually going to say, you can find a lot of information about them on our website, and if you want the URL, come and ask for it afterwards or I’ll give you a leaflet. I actually want to talk at what is behind these databases and try and nail this myth that Contact Point and all its associated systems are something to do with child protection. It’s one of the most pervasive myths we’ve got at the moment, it is, the whole child database system has actually developed, out of people’s apathy towards children and to some extent, I guess a lot of you are here today at the whole convention, because you’re worried about the increasing surveillance of the State, by the state and the increasing range of databases. And forgive me if I say I want to go onto the main stage and shout, I told you so, because this all began, back in 1998, the whole transformational government system has already been piloted on children in the name of child protection or curbing delinquent children, but using children and young people as the crash test dummies. And it’s got something to do with how ARCH was founded, we started life as a sort of network of rather woolly minded teachers and academics and lawyers and families and we were concerned about issues of civil rights and education. And then one day, one of our number, who was a head teacher of a large comprehensive said that he was rather alarmed, that he had been asked to hand over a huge amount of personal information on each pupil to the government in what was the first of the pupil level school censuses. The power to do this had been forced through in the very end of a bill called the School Standards and Framework Bill, a very unremarkable and boring Bill, and somewhere tucked into the 28th schedule was a power to share individual information about every child who was in a state school in the country. My committee stage never got to look, in Parliament never got to look at that provision. It was nodded through and suddenly we had a situation where head teachers were being told, you must give us personal information on every pupil next January.
Well, that was the start of the National Pupil Database in 2000. It was the first of the big databases and it was an experiment in terms of having a large store of information, a large silo of information that served no purpose other than statistical, a statistical purpose and the school censuses gradually accelerated till it’s now done termly and 41 data items on each child in every state school and now in any state funded childcare, so babies from six months old who are in, who are with a childminder, anyone in a nursery, this information is sent up to the National Pupil Database. At the time it was built, the National Pupil Database was designed as a statistical tool and so access to it was quite tightly regulated. The government was clearly nervous about collecting this amount of information and the possible backlash they could get, so it was done very softly, a one step at a time until now the National Pupil Database forms the foundation, one of the foundation stones for the database probably everybody has heard about, Contact Point, the national identity register of all children in the country.
At the same time as they were developing the National Pupil Database, they started an experiment on tracking young people that was called Connections and this was focused on 13 to 19 year olds and the idea was to have, in each local authority, a central register of every 13 to 19 year old called the Connections Customer Information System and to actually track each young person to try and spot when they were developing problems, the idea being that any personal problem a child had, was a potential barrier to learning, so the idea, their words, not mine, so the idea was the child would be duly dealt with and returned to the learning environment in better shape, because the main aim under Connections was to reduce the number of people over 16 not in education, employment and training, what they call Neets, in the trade. And at that time, the Neet rate was running at, let me just check, because this is actually very important: 8.7% of 16 to 18 year olds were not in education, employment and training. So Connections, this new system was going to sort it all out and reduce that figure dramatically so that more young people were being educated or gainfully employed. And it was this system that relied on connecting information about children centrally, a personal adviser at the centre of the system collected information which could then be shared across youth justice, health, education, and social care agencies ostensibly with a young person’s consent, but that’s a really murky issue I’m not going to attempt to explain in 10 minutes. And it was this that formed the basis for the current Every Child Matters system. Around 2002 a Cabinet office report called Privacy And Information Sharing – The Way Forward For Public Services, identified children’s services as a place to make quick gains in transformational government or what was then called e-government and things like driver and vehicle licensing and so on were identified as places where services could get online very quickly, but at that stage, note, child protection was not mentioned in the Performance And Innovation Report nor was it mentioned when the Minister, John Denham, the Minister for Youth then, announced something called Identification Referral and Tracking, IRT which was the same sort of thing, keeping tabs on every child across the country to see who needed services.
We were expecting a child protection green paper at the beginning of 2003 and it didn’t materialise and it kept being delayed and delayed and delayed and suddenly it appeared in November 2003 as a response to the Laming enquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. And it was presented to the world as a Child Protection Programme and as a straight response to Lord Laming although the strategy had actually been taking place over several years prior to that. But we still have this situation where Contact Point is being presented as some kind of child protection tool and it’s quite an extraordinary idea because what it’s really doing is keeping tabs on children to affect a risk management approach to childhood and youth, to try and spot problems early, there is a belief abroad that future criminals have certain tell-tale signs about them and that if you can wade in early with services, you can somehow head off criminal behaviour or unwanted teenage pregnancy, or drug abuse, or alcohol abuse and I wonder where we got the idea that risk management of children was ever a good thing, or more, that parents aren’t capable of bringing their children up, or that children are incapable of asking for services for themselves, because underlying it is a drastic shortage of child protection social workers, a drastic shortage of services. We are pumping money into IT, but actually the services, the thresholds for getting services are climbing higher and higher as council budgets get squeezed more and more quite often by the requirements to fork out for very expensive technology. We’re in a very, very silly system at the moment.
And it’s this whole system that’s been going on for 10 years that has allowed the transformational government’s agenda as a whole to develop this idea of having a central information identity point for each citizen with services joined up around them and that’s at the heart of transformational government and, as I say, it’s this separation of people into humans and children that has allowed the situation to develop. Only last week I was talking to somebody I met who said they were coming to the event today, and I said, oh I’m taking part in a workshop on children and she said, oh I’m not really very interested in children, and I thought, well that’s fine, if she had no children of her own, that’s quite alright, but it is that looking away and this willingness to be scared off by the shibboleth of child protection and the shroud of poor little Victoria Climbié that has created this situation that we are all in now. I quite like to say, serves you right. And I probably talked for almost long enough, haven’t I? I could say lots more, I could probably talk for the next two hours, but there is one thing that I’d like to offer to you today, we’ve just been conducting research into the legal capacity of children aged 12 to give consent to having their personal data shared, because part of this separating out children and parents has led to government guidance that says that a child from around 12 can normally be presumed competent to share their personal data between agencies without the involvement of their parents and so we were funded by the Nuffield last year to actually carry out a survey of all the leading lawyers and legal academics in the country who have specialist knowledge of consent issues. And this is the result of our research that’s actually being properly published on Monday, but if anyone would like a copy, do come and help yourself to one before you go. Thank you.
Jenni Russell: I think that children are not the same as others and the whole point about children in any society is that we are socialising them in order to grow up within our society and therefore they don’t have equal rights to adults because they aren’t yet fully capable of making decisions. And the point is that it’s our responsibility as a society to teach them and socialise them which has been the case for all societies at all times. And I think the key issue about children at the moment, we worry very much about how they get mistreated, whether they get demonised and whether they are treated with too heavy a hand by law enforcement authorities, is that basically we, in the guise of child protection, have become absolutely terrified with children, we’ve become terrified either that we will damage them or that they will accuse us of either assaulting them or sexually abusing them.
We’ve created the situation in this country where a normal adult interaction between adults and children is now becoming something which is very dangerous for adults to enter into and I think that is what’s leading to so many of the problems that we have with young people, because children are growing up very often in a kind of vacuum where adults mustn’t interact with them. They aren’t being socialised or brought up by us in all informal ways in which societies normally function. So, if I as an adult, for instance, a couple of years ago on our local street there were some teenagers kicking footballs on the rather wide pavement outside Sainsbury’s, a group of scared people including, as it happened, an old lady on a walking stick and a mother with a buggy were all standing around unable to cross the pavement because there are about four teenagers kicking a football, clearly enjoying the fact that they’re dominating the area and nobody can move, so I stepped forward and said, could you stop kicking the ball in that sort of, you know, class mother way and they paid no attention at all, so I, when the ball bounced I picked it up. At which point one of the teenagers runs towards me, tears the ball out of my arms, tears my clothes and then kicks the football very hard at my back. When I worked out which school these children are from and realised what the name of one of the teenagers is, I ring the school which has a resident police officer. The only question the police officer wanted to know is did I lay a hand on that child, I said, no, but he assaulted me, and she said, good, otherwise you’d be up on a court charge. They were not interested at all in the event or in the behaviour of these children out there, because it’s now pretty much illegitimate for adults to interact with children.
Now, I think what you end up with then, is a situation where children are growing up and they aren’t learning to react to, be helped by, respond to, or get on with adults around them and that means that these children are then growing up in a situation where we start seeing them as threats because we don’t know how to respond to them. I was sent a document last week from one of our country’s leading music schools and it’s a document that’s just been issued to its staff and it starts off explaining to the staff that they now must from now on be very, very careful in all their interactions with children, because any adolescent may at any moment be regarded as temporarily insane and could be a threat to their teachers. It said, adolescents go through hormonal changes which means they may not recognize reality, they may not recognize the consequences of their actions and therefore you must, at all times, take care to protect yourself from ever being alone with a child. When your lesson ends, it said, hustle the child out the door in a no-nonsense manner, do not in any account engage in conversation. Should you ever need to give a pupil a lift, you may not do so alone unless it is a medical emergency in which case you must place your child in the back seat of the car. You must immediately by mobile contact the parents and teachers to let them know what you’re doing and you must make a record of the time, date and reason for your being alone in a car with a child.
Now, this is a kind of absolute insanity and its creeping into our society without anyone discussing it, without anyone legislating for it and this quite proper concern which began with children mustn’t be left to the mercy of paedophiles and the scandal of the 70s has now become, adults who ever want to talk and speak to children are probably a threat to them, but even if they aren’t a threat to them, the children are a threat to the adults. I was just talking last week to a man who became a father in his 40s and he said the greatest joy for him is children. He said as an adult male, he has all his life thought he’s got to avert his eyes from children and can never interact with them and suddenly as long as he’s got his child next to him, he can smile at them and he can engage with them. I think this is the root cause of what’s going on.
Last week, as it happened, I was in Spain skiing and what was so striking, I had just been there for a handful of days, is this absolutely different approach. You’re standing by the ski lift, a small child was slightly separated from its mother, aged about five falls over, flat on its face screaming, a man immediately steps forward, picks the child up, plonks it on its feet, hands it the skis, dusts it down, mother turns around and sees what’s happening, he’s beaming. The small children are plonked on the end of the adult lift when they’re with ski school groups and the assumption is that the adult sitting next to them will take care of them and there’s just an absolutely healthy response in which children then grow up to feel that they’re joining the world which they then want to be part of. And I think that what we are hearing today for instance, about how we’ve got to represent children differently in the media and so and I don’t think it’s a simple matter of saying to journalists, act differently, I think actually we’ve got to say, this is enough, we have got to stop being frightened of one another, because if children grow up in these circumstances, the one thing we can guarantee is, they are not going to turn into adults who are comfortable with and trust other people around them, and it’s a very sick society that we’re building and I think in that is a children’s right which we are really, really damaging and we ought to do something about it.
Alex Gask: Good afternoon, the subject of this session is inequality in young people and I’m just going to talk a little bit about unequal treatment and by that I mean unfair treatment to young people in the context of what is being called Antisocial Behaviour. I know they had Helena Kennedy in the plenary session this morning talking about the politicisation of criminal justice and I think children have been real victims of this over the last, certainly over the last decade or so. I’ll follow what Jenni was just saying about fear of children, of each other. In December of 2008, Barnardo’s and Newcomb published the results of a survey they conducted on more than 2,000 adults and they asked adults about their perceptions of children and there were some interesting results out of it, not that you can pick and choose one’s statistics but I do think it of interest that 54% of the adults surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that British children were beginning to act like animals and less than half of those surveyed considered that descriptions of children as feral in the media were inaccurate. And I think those are profoundly disturbing views. You’ve already heard about the media portrayal of children but from my perspective, I’ve worked as a public lawyer, so bringing the big challenge against public authorities, I think the government has certainly fit into these views and has then used this kind of fear as a way of justifying increasingly oppressive laws directed at young people.
The first of those I was going to touch upon is probably the most well known and that’s the ASBO, introduced in 1998 with the Crime and Disorder Act. Interesting, antisocial behaviour was a phrase as I understand it, a political discourse at least, coined by Tony Blair when he was the shadow Home Secretary and then once it got to government they just decided to kind of put it into action. The ASBO is a civil order, most people probably know this is an order given in courts and if you breach that order, whatever it tells you you’re not allowed to do, if you breach it, it’s a criminal offence. The ASBO can be given to adults and young people alike. There is a very popular image that I have seen on television news broadcasts, dozens and dozens of times, it always frustrates me, because up to quite to the finish there every single news programme wants to use it. It’s a couple of kids running over the top of cars that are parked, – it’s a grainy CCTV – and it nearly always gets played in the background of stories about Antisocial Behaviour and, you know, people. And I think that’s an idea of what ‘social behaviour’ always has been about, it’s about teenagers being unruly and statistically as directed disproportionately at the 40% concerning the bracket of 10-17 year olds.
Now the problems with Antisocial Behaviour Orders are many but to put it simply, first of all the term, effectively any behaviour considered likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress counts as such behaviour, and that’s a remarkably wide definition. Also because, I suppose, in our civil rights and criminal, they’re aren’t the same protections for the person against whom proceedings are taken, particularly there’s a lack of proper testing of evidence, there is an awful lot of hear/say evidence, effectively second-hand evidence that goes in and a lot of that evidence isn’t tested properly and you can even go in anonymously so that the person who the ASBO is sought against doesn’t even know who is making the complaint, so you don’t know whether there’re any hidden agendas etc.
There are other flaws in the process and what it really amounts to is that basically any appeal against an ASBO is just very, very rarely found. So effectively, I mean, the most recent statistics I have is that, I’m thinking in the first six years of the ASBO regimes, so I think that’s from about 2006 there were 5,557 applications for ASBOs made and 58 were refused. So it’s something, if one of these has been, if someone applying for an ASBO against you, it’s very unlikely you’re going to successfully knock it out. And in fact, I’ve taught about the law on Antisocial Behaviour and most of the lawyers I have dealt with who practise in the area don’t even try to actually say there shouldn’t be an ASBO against my client because it’s just not worth it, you’re never going to get anywhere. What they do, is they tend to just try and limit the particular restrictions on that, you know, young person. So, one of the problems is – they’re very easy to get. The other thing is once you’ve got an ASBO it can contain prohibitions in any of the things the court considers necessary. And that’s why you get these stories in the media about various crazy ASBOs. One that I actually know about being genuine, I’ve worked with some clients who had ASBOs that ban them from shouting in public anywhere in England and Wales. A criminal offence that has become for them, being in a group of four or more in public, that’s a criminal offence. And literally that provision, there is a defence for reasonable excuse, you don’t have to worry, I mean, if you get taken to court, you’re there in the middle of criminal proceedings, you can then put a submission in if you had a reasonable excuse for shouting in public. Obviously it would be better if we didn’t have to get to that stage.
I saw recently a decision in November of last year when the divisional court upheld ASBO as the ban of the wearing of hooded tops as being a real reasonable prohibition. So, they can have any kind of term that you’re not allowed to breach in the ASBO and the problem is, that hurdle is so low that breach becomes almost an inevitability, particularly when you’re not allowed to cross a certain road on a map and it happens to be, you know, your route to school. These things happen all the time. You have to go back to court to get it addressed, but inevitably these breaches happen an awful lot and if you do breach it, the penalties are potentially very severe. For an adult it’s actually up to five years in prison which is a similar prison sentence you can get for, I think, five years is the maximum for dealing in arms, dealing in guns. It sounds like a ridiculous comparison, but it’s true. And up to two years in prison for under 18s. While happily now imprisonment is not usually seen as the first option in a breach in criminal proceedings, for a breach in ASBO it is still a disturbingly high likelihood, that there is a custodial sentence that follow.
Having said all that I should say that actually things have improved to some degree since the change in leadership of the government. ASBOs have dropped from the peak of over 4,000 being made in 2005 to 2,700 or so in 2006. They are coming down slightly, the obsession seems to have relented. I think it has a lot to do with the sidelining of the Respect agenda. It’s still there, the Respect agenda still exists, their website and all that kind of stuff. But it doesn’t get shouted about quite so much and I think that might have something to do with the fact that there’s been a slight softening on the edges of the ASBOs perhaps. One thing that doesn’t appear to have improved as far as I’m aware is the approach to naming and shaming of young people and children with ASBOs. And this is something that has been actively encouraged in the past, I think this is a really sad indictment of our society.
I was involved in a legal challenge to the naming and shaming of young people when I was at Liberty. Now a situation where a group of boys, given ASBOs, one of them as young as 14 and then their names and faces and street addresses, not their actual homes, but their street addresses were put on leaflets that were distributed through 5,000 homes and it said, you know, keeping crime off the streets, these are young, these are yobs, you know, and the words thugs and Billie boys and various other terms were used. In that case we challenged this, this naming and shaming and the courts upheld it, effectively saying that it was reasonable and fair for the local authority to have done that and in the aftermath the government brought out a written policy on naming and shaming and basically said, publicity after an ASBO should be the norm, not an exception, it should be the normal position is that there should be publicity. It acknowledged to some extent that under 18 are different then in the same sentence said, “but just the fact that they’re young shouldn’t make you underestimate the impact of their antisocial behaviour on people around them”, so that was the entire warning about young people being named and shamed in that way.
Particularly galling was a specific change to the law that was made in Antisocial Behaviour breach hearings so that the presumption of anonymity which is usually given to under 18s in current proceedings was explicitly withdrawn for circumstances of breach of Antisocial Behaviour Orders which is a bit odd, so the child who commits a far more heinous crime has the rights to anonymity but in ASBO proceedings that is presumed to have gone., I did a brief search on the Internet and there are various places for you to find Antisocial Behaviour publicity, I mean every local authority has a website with pictures of people on it who have got ASBOs, a lot of them are quite young. The worst case I’ve come across was a 12-year-old boy who had his face on posters that were put up around the town. I really don’t think it’s the way that’s going to actually help those young people to change their ways if they are antisocial and are causing problems to put it mildly.
The most obvious power under these orders is to take under 16s off the street, which is often referred to as the curfew power and the dispersal power that comes with it. How this is introduced is that police officers are allowed to say, “I consider this to be an area that’s at risk of Antisocial Behaviour” and designate the area, and then within that area police officers are allowed to disperse any group of two or more which is obviously quite a small group and who he considers, their behaviour or their presence is likely to cause others to feel harassed or distressed. This is really about the fact that the people don’t like seeing young people in public spaces on the street and if a police officer, in his discretion decides that he thinks that they’re likely to cause some harassment and distress, he’s allowed to disperse them. There’s no definition of what that means and whether they can walk in different directions if they’re 20 feet apart and that’s dispersal, and I’m not sure, but they have to disperse and if they don’t, it’s a criminal offence. That’s the dispersal power, and with that was a note on anyone who is under 16 and is out after 9 p.m. Police officers are allowed to take them home. So it’s effectively a curfew. There is no trigger in terms of power and in terms of behaviour for that power, so it doesn’t matter if the person’s behaving absolutely angelically, the police officer is entitled to remove them.
Again that was subject to a legal challenge and happily the courts did say that in relation to curfew, after the big challenge brought by Liberty when I was there, they did say that actually this curfew shouldn’t be allowed unless the police officer considered that the child is causing or is at risk from Antisocial Behaviour, but that is in the legislation now. Nevertheless I’ve seen police reports about these kind of zones and they still refer to it as being a ban on under 16s being out on the streets. So, then I think the police haven’t quite got the message, that this isn’t really in their power but surprisingly that’s what the legislation clearly intended. This power is still very, very widely used. There were six dispersal zones in Ealing alone I saw last summer. And just as an anecdote of a situation in which this power has been used inappropriately, I was talking to a youth worker who is rather diminutive and she said she was out in a park chatting to some young people who live in her area and that a police officer approached them and told her, she was about 30 and these three chatting with her had to disperse, because apparently someone who was in a house on the other side of the park, in their kitchen looking out the window had looked across the park, seen four figures, called a policeman and said they are causing me distress and the police officer then came over and dispersed them. And there was nothing he did wrong, because the power entitled him to do that. And it’s these kinds of massively broad discretions which are given by new legislation. It’s a very, very wide broad definition of what Antisocial Behaviour is. That’s what allows people to be swept up, who really this legislation shouldn’t be intended for. And that also means that any kind of cries about how this is actually about child protection again comes out after the event. I mean, the Antisocial Behaviour Act is not about protecting children, it was about blaming them for the trouble they’re causing. The government have, in their defence, always said, well actually this is about protecting young people; the fact is that the discretion means that innocent people get swept up.
So just to summarise, when you have these kind of broad powers and when these broad powers are available in an environment where a government actually encourages naming and shaming and condones the use of devices like the mosquito which I saw being very vigorously defended on Question Time by Karen Flint about six months ago. It’s inappropriate to give public authorities that kind of power and surely, young people need more support, they need more services, as I said, I think that’s crucial and they need more respect given to them so they can learn about giving respect back.
Lisa Blakemore Brown: I just want to go back to the beginning where this started for me. It was 1995 and I was asked as a psychologist to be involved with twins. We didn’t then know what was wrong, but they were very difficult, one in particular and effectively, they had autistic spectrum disorder and various other things, but the reason why we were being asked to see them was because their mother was being accused of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy and so this was very odd. I’d never heard of it and Professor David Southall was the expert alongside me and as you know, he’s well-known as well as Roy Meadow with regards to that issue. My big concern was that lots of things that were being said about the children were actually fundamentally wrong. For instance, one of the things that was said, was that the children were perfectly normal. Now they weren’t perfectly normal, they’d been born at 25 weeks gestation in 1984 and they were actually probably lucky to be alive weighing about a pound and something like that each. I don’t know if they were lucky really, because what happened, and we didn’t know at the time, and it took me years to find out, was that in fact when they were born they had been part of a vaccine programme to look at populations vaccine reactions and it took a few years before the mother started to complain about the behaviour of one of the children in particular. Bear in mind we’re looking at identical twins, very useful for experiments, one is the experimental one, the other is the control. I, of course, have assessed these children and I know exactly about their neurological problems and they were not perfectly normal, but yet this was said in the court and it was said to the social workers. And everybody was trained to look at this as Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy. And I was so utterly shocked by what I saw, because it wasn’t just about the perjury, it wasn’t just about this being a case where ultimately four children were taken and the mother then was followed to New Zealand where two more were, it wasn’t about everything that came out in the newspapers. It was about the fact that it was fascism and I could see it starting and a colleague of mine, Charles Pragnall who is now in Australia and who’s a social worker, discussed this with me at some length with enormous concern and he said to me, Lisa this is you and me. And we knew that the methods being used of suspecting people on limited information, with limited evidence, in some cases things that were twisted and distorted, processes of collective distortion of right in all of this and unfortunately that’s embedded into government policy now.
They ultimately ended up with the most extraordinary miscarriages of justice and these went on beyond this starting point for me where those four children were taken. Remember only two of them had the problems, but the social workers were trained to think that the two young ones would also get the same problems, so any kind of specific detail of the extraordinary neurological problems these kids had, because of their prematurity and a lot of illnesses they had when they were very, very small, and understandable, because of their prematurity and of course we didn’t know that they had also been involved in this experiment, was dismissed and it was regarded as something that, you know, was done by the mother and the only way to help the two little ones who didn’t show any symptoms of anything other than being just two little kids, aged three and five, would actually somehow start to affect them as well. So she had to lose all of them, she had to be followed to New Zealand and lose them all and so on. And this then, this is very, very, very disturbing, because when the children, of course, needed the help, the children had disabilities and they needed the help and the support and they didn’t need to be called perfectly normal, because they weren’t. Okay, if you don’t want to say, not normal, fine, but at least let’s address the difficulties and the disabilities and problems and actually go in there and help.
And all the sort of predictions from that time, really started horribly to begin to come true and I wrote a letter in September 97, published in the Psychologist which is a journal of my ex-professional body. I’ve resigned from them because I had to have been put through nine hearings over the years, accused of being paranoid and actually having a psychiatrist brought in to call me paranoid about all of this who never met me, and so that gives you an idea of the sort of things that have been going on. So this was 97 when this was first written and there are copies of it up there.
I was then contacted by the editor of the Therapist and I produced an article for the Therapist and that’s up there as well, False Illness or False Allegations. So gradually those of us in at the coal face in those years, were starting to see that things were being warped, they were being warped, it was called child protection, but in fact what we were seeing was children suffering. I see both sides, I can see them in the care homes as well as in their own homes and rather than put help in for a little bit of money, millions of pounds were getting spent to take cases to court, to actually then falsely accuse parents, and this, to me, was absolutely shocking. I developed cancer about eight months later and I often wondered if it was connected because I can’t tell you the shock, it made me sick to the pit of my stomach because this was against all human rights that everything was so wrong.
So anyway, we carry on, other people began to realise what was going on. The parents then, of course, were trying to start to get their own stories out and various people in the press began to start doing things. There were the cases of Sally Clark whose babies died straight after a vaccine, she was accused of Munchausen’s by proxy by Professor Meadow and I then began to think, this is going to be okay, everything is going to start working out, the children are not going to be wrongly put into care and not have the help for the disabilities. We had seen an epidemic of these conditions and some of what we’re talking about here is what happens when you’ve got an epidemic and you don’t recognize why and you don’t accept the causes and you then end up spraying them with tasers and mosquito sprays and calling them horrible, terrible names.
And so we got the Observer, basically, did an article which is here, front-page in 2004. They put something in, nothing changed. With every turn, nothing changed. A woman who started to put things on a website, her name is Jane Bryant, the police went and raided her home and said if she didn’t give them her computer, they would actually take her and they would then go to social services to take her child away. We’re looking at multiple thousands of desperate people. Just a girl here, Jody Marchand, just this week in the newspaper, you can go and find it still, but, and this is the last thing really I need to say here, when we started to see, for instance, Roy Meadow on adverse reactions to vaccinations meetings, in the JCVI of the government, that’s when you start to think, hang on a minute, hang on a minute, why is Roy Meadow involved in talking about adverse reactions to vaccinations. And what I now can tell you is that two things have happened which are going to be changed in stealthy legislation in the next few weeks and one of them is written by Matthew Bell and Jack Straw was at one moment saying that the courts are going to be opened to deal with family court cases. He has now said that they are going to be actually cancelling the Clayton vs. Clayton. And Matthew Bell from the Independent has written about that, so what that means then is that no child, even if they’re being maltreated in care, and no parent will suffer from having their children wrongly taken, will be able to go and complain. They will be criminalised if they do, and nobody has realised this except Matthew Bell who’s picked it up in the Independent.
Cut short by Chair.