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.