Sunday, 27 September 2009

Collective madness

The Mail on Sunday today has further details on the two mothers who have been banned by Ofsted from looking after each other's children. One of them, Leanne Shepherd, describes the Kafka-shaped hole into which she and her lifelong friend Lucy Jarrett inadvertently fell when they decided to look after each others' children. The arrangement not only enabled them to carry on working without incurring onerous childcare costs but also seemed preferable to handing the children over to a complete stranger.

As Shepherd put it,

We were the same rank, worked in the same station, had daughters the same age and were close friends, so it made sense to job-share. We would split the 40-hour week, both working two ten-hour days, and the arrangement was working perfectly.

Unfortunately it was illegal. Under the Childcare Act of 2006, if someone who is not a close relative of the parents looks after a child for more than two hours in a single day "for reward", they must be registered as a childminder, a procedure which involves background checks, training in first aid, adherence to a voluminous code of practice, inspections of their property and payment of an annual £103 fee. The requirements include training in "core skills", ensuring that the government's 69 "learning goals" for pre-school children are promoted, the stipulation that no-one present in the house consume alcohol in the presence of children, a "written statement of procedures to be followed in case of complaints" and keeping a daily record to be available on demand to Ofsted inspectors.

In other words, under whatever circumstances the arrangement may be entered into, someone who wishes to look after a friend's child on a regular basis must become, to all intents and purposes, a professional childminder. The Mail suggests that there may be "thousands" of parents who are breaking the law, often unknowingly. Indeed: a law this crazy is almost designed to be broken. How many working mothers would be forced to give up work or pay professionals they (and their children) don't know and may not really trust if the rules were enforced to the letter?

It turns out that both are detective constables working for Thames Valley Police, a fact which gives this story added piquancy. In fact, as a tale of the deep, almost certainly inescapable pit of madness into which Britain has descended during New Labour's years in power, this story has a bit of everything.


- Ofsted only became involved because they received a formal complaint "from a neighbour" that the two women were operating an illicit childminding ring. Digging a little, I discovered the background. Apparently, the complaint came from a retired couple who had seen the child being dropped off. They had "an issue with the children being in the garden and making a noise". New Labour loves a snitch: even with the huge expansion in surveillance, the enforcement of many regulations is sporadic, dependent on spitefulness and jealousy to bring cases to the attention of the authorities. The consequence, deliberate or otherwise (I can't decide) is to erode trust in society, replacing it with a bilateral relationship between the state and the citizen.

- Once the complaint was received, it was investigated assiduously and at great expense. Even though no issues of child protection were raised by the longstanding arrangement, which was wholly reciprocal and private, Ofsted choose to interpret the rules in the most restrictive possible way so as to justify their involvement. Sticking to the letter, rather than the spirit, of regulations even when doing so serves no useful purpose is a point of pride to some bureaucrats and officials. Indeed, the more trivial the breach, the more essential it can seem to pursue it. It also provides easier box-ticking opportunities. As police officers, the two women involved will presumably be familiar with the culture of excessive enforcement in which they have been trapped - just as Patricia Scotland was familiar with the law she was fined heavily for breaching in what the Border Control Agency decided was a purely technical manner.

- New Labour's Sledgehammer principle applies. "DC Shepherd claims she has received a letter from Ofsted telling her she would be subjected to random surveillance to make sure she was not continuing to care for her friend’s daughter." Pause for a moment to consider the type of mind that considers it a necessary and proportionate use of resources to employ "random surveillance" to ensure that a mother isn't surreptitiously looking after her best friend's daughter as well as her own. And then consider that this vital surveillance work is to be carried out at public expense.

- The law of unintended consequences applies. The professed aim of the Childcare Act was to extend the provision of creches and childminding facilities, in order to meet the government aim to get parents back to work. Even the government seems to be worried about the implications of this story, and the minister Vernon Coaker was said to be having "discussions" with Ofsted about the regulations. Yet the law was passed by this government, and it was clearly intended to apply in cases like this. An exception was made for close relatives. It was open to the government to make a similar exception for reciprocal private arrangements between working mothers. They elected not to do so.

- It's claimed, as usual, that the purpose behind the rules is to protect children. A spokeswoman for the DSCF claimed that the rules were "proportionate" and "designed to ensure that care for children away from the family home meets requirements aimed at ensuring the safety and welfare of the child." The implication is that there can be no middle way between, on the one hand, natural care within the family and on the other a formal contractual arrangement between strangers. New Labour, which once made so much mischief denouncing Mrs Thatcher's misunderstood "there is no such thing as society" quote, has evidently taken the idea to heart. In Brown's Britain there are only individual men and women, and the State which supervises, licenses and controls all their interactions.

This story fits into a broader pattern, embracing everything from the closely related Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act (under which these women would presumably need to be registered) to new licensing requirements which have done huge damage to small-scale musical performances in pubs. In a perceptive article the other day (in the Guardian, of all unlikely places) Jenni Russell described the "new and uncertain world in which contact with children is increasingly regulated by officials and the state" as the product of "a collective madness" and "one of this government's most disastrous legacies".

The Mail has its critics, but it performs a valuable public service when it brings stories like this one to the widest possible notice. The BBC, by contrast, saw it as an opportunity helpfully to remind parents of their legal responsibilities.