One of the more surprising voices to have been raised in recent days against the Kafkaesque stupidity that is the government's "Vetting and Barring" scheme was that of Wes Cuell, director of services for children and young people for the NSPCC. The NSPCC, after all, is usually at the very forefront of calls for more state intervention in family life, whether it's demanding bans on smacking, trying to banish children from most TV programmes or suggesting shop assistants should intervene against mothers who tell off their kids in public. Yet here is Cuell suggesting that with the Independent Safeguarding Authority things might just have gone a little too far.
Actually, it's one of those quotes that repay careful attention. Here, as recorded by the Sunday Telegraph - which seems to be the source of the story - is what he actually said:
The warning signs are now out there that this scheme will stop people doing things that are perfectly safe and normal, things that they shouldn't be prevented from doing.
When you get this degree of public outcry there is generally a good reason for it. I think we are getting a bit too close to crossing the line about what is acceptable in the court of public opinion. We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
He's not criticising the scheme per se, you notice, merely its potential to put people off volunteering. In principle, I suspect, he would have no problem with everyone in the country being positively vetted before they're entitled to walk past a child in the street - but, as he notes, there are limits as to what public opinion will accept. There that line is actually drawn is hard to say, and almost unknowable. It is the nature of New Labour's surveillance laws and its bureaucratisation of everyday life that they have proceded by degrees. Hence campaigners against Big Brother Britain have tended to adopt the language of gradualism, to speak of liberties being salami-sliced, state intrusiveness creeping, a ratchet effect, frogs sitting unawares in a pot that is coming slowly to the boil. But in recent months the erosion of civil liberties and the extension of state interference feels a lot less gradual.
Whether this is because long-planned (and in many cases previously legislated) schemes are coming simultaneously to fruition, or a discredited government pursuing a scorched earth policy in pre-emptive revenge on the voters who are shortly to dismiss it, or a mere quickening of perception, as the people finally wake up, is hard to say. But something has changed. Perhaps the hypnotic spell that lulled the country has begun to break its hold. It is five years since Richard Thomas, then the Information Commissioner, warned that Britain was "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". Today it is more of a headline rush, but at least people are starting to open their eyes and notice what is happening. The reaction against the ISA was oddly timed. As Philip Johnston notes, the legislation setting it up went through Parliament three years ago and it was apparent then that a monster was being created. And the time to prevent it may have passed:
It will be the devil's own job to dismantle it when so many vested interests are at stake. Child protection has become a vast, self-perpetuating industry whose very existence depends upon maintaining the fiction that all adults are potentially harmful to children.
On the other hand, the vetting system as currently planned looks set to create chaos, and the incoming Conservative government will have the perfect excuse - money - to scrap it. Ken Clarke set the ball rolling in typical style on Today this morning, pouring scorn on the concept of near-universal registration and suggesting it and similar quangos would be a good target for the Tory axe. There are huge potential savings to be made in this area. The need for cutbacks at a time of recession has coincided with what I sense is a growing disenchantment with Labour's costly and intrusive bureaucratic solutions and scepticism about such schemes' effectiveness. The government now finds itself, for the first time since it came to power, on the wrong side of a sea change in public attitudes. I hope so, anyway.
This makes Cuell's remarks especially fascinating. "We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater", he says, hinting that a compromise on this issue might be necessary to forestall a wider public revolt against the government's attempts - strongly supported, on the whole, by the NSPCC - to micromanage family life. It's a pragmatic position, not a principled opposition, but perhaps even more welcome for that if it is a response to a real change in mood.
But this morning, apparently, it's back to business as usual. The Telegraph reports that the ISA scheme has "received the support of the NSPCC". It quotes a spokesman who warns about "cunning and manipulative" paedophiles who "can target child-facing organisations to gain easier access to children". (C.f. the bank robber who explained his penchant for that type of institution by saying "that's where the money is".) The spokesman then says, that "the current system of criminal record checks is inadequate" because it "can only ever catch those who have already offended." That's right: a system that only catches people who have done something wrong is, according to the NSPCC, "inadequate". We need a system that catches people who might possibly do something wrong at some unspecified date in the future. If a thousand innocent people have their lives and reputations destroyed to weed out a single undetected paedophile, in the minds of that NSPCC spokesman that is no doubt a price worth paying "to safeguard our children". It is impossible to argue with such a mindset. It must simply be faced down.
Here's my suggestion to any Tory planners who might be reading this. Announce that the ISA is to be entirely scrapped - but at the same time, that some of the money saved will be ploughed back into child protection, to be spent on improving services for children who have already been identified as being at risk. Stress that this will prevent far more abuse than the ISA ever would - and at the same give a huge boost to the voluntary sector that David Cameron is pledged to encourage. It's the right policy in principle, and could even be a vote-winner.