It’s easy to forget that laws are supposed to do something useful. Legislation is increasingly press-release law, which makes everyone feel good but causes havoc when applied to the real world.
Take the mad, bad idea about to go out for consultation: ‘mandatory reporting’ will make it a crime for child and health professionals to fail to report signs of child abuse to the local authority. This would allow David Cameron to be seen to make a stand against child abuse, and which politician doesn’t want that? But what a mess it will make.
Failure to report signs of abuse could be punishable by up to five years in prison. This raises the possibility that someone could be criminalised for their failure to report ‘abuse’ that was not in fact abuse. One proposal inserted the proviso that a person failing to report abuse should not get a heavier sentence than the one due to an actual abuser. This raises the prospect that they could receive the same sentence, which is clearly absurd.
Mandatory reporting in countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia has resulted in thousands of ill-founded or-unverifiable reports that overwhelm child protection institutions. In 2010, those in the US received 3.3 million reports of possible child abuse, while in New South Wales, Australia, 10 per cent of all children had been referred by age five. A Queensland inquiry complained of an ‘unsustainable increase in reports’, the vast majority unsubstantiated: in 2011-12 only 4,359 of 114,503 were substantiated on investigation, and fewer than a quarter of these met the notification threshold (‘reasonable suspicion of child in need of protection’).
The danger, of course, is that real child abuse gets lost among all the dross reports of kids who fell off the climbing frame or fell out with their friends. Another cost is the harm done to families and-professionals by thousands of unfounded accusations. An accusation of child abuse is not a ‘better safe than sorry’ measure. It’s a serious matter, and ill-founded reporting does untold damage to families and communities, not to mention reputations and livelihoods.
The irony is that the government knows all this. Mandatory reporting has been pushed for several years from the Labour benches after lobbying from Mandate Now (a co-alition of-abuse-victim charities). Ministers have repeatedly blocked the idea. Michael Gove rejected it when he was education secretary and Home Secretary Theresa May was unenthusiastic, telling the Commons in 2014 that mandatory reporting could ‘diminish the ability to deal with the serious reports and to actually protect children’. Yet backbench Tories now support the measure, and the Prime Minister seems keen. ‘It may well be time to take that step forward,’ he says.
Behind the mandatory reporting campaign lies a myth: that Britain is suffering an epidemic of hidden abuse; that behind every closed door of an apparently happy home or apparently caring institution are dark truths waiting to be unveiled. The tens of thousands of reports that would come rolling in would only confirm campaigners’ views: ‘Yes, of course, all this hidden abuse is coming to light!’
More reports equal more awareness of the sordid underside of private life, which preoccupies the imaginations of politicians and campaigners, and makes them talk in strange metaphors. ‘You cannot fail to turn over a stone because you are afraid of the slime that you might find underneath,’ is how the Lib Dem peer Baroness Walmsley put it.
Times have changed. The tight, closed institutions that carried out the abuse-cover-ups of the past just don’t exist any more. If anything, the opposite is the case:-institutions now have weak internal cultures and loyalties. Professionals are minding their own briefs and watching their backs.
In the Rochdale child-sex scandal, this self-guarding professional culture proved calamitous for child welfare. Social workers didn’t fail the 1,200 children raped or assaulted because they were protecting each other or an institutional code. It’s more likely that they were protecting their own backs, fearful that submitting reports about the Asian community might lead to accusations of racism. They were driven not by their professional judgments but by a fear of what a third party might think, so they acted irresponsibly.
Mandatory reporting breeds more-irresponsibility. The US Institute of Medicine found that professionals spend more time training on how to protect themselves from lawsuits for failure to report than on how to detect, protect and treat children at risk.
If it happens here it will make a few-headlines, but it’s the last thing that our child protection services, and our vulnerable-children, need.
Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the overregulation of daily life.