Abusing Trust With Dodgy Child Abuse Statistics


First published in Huffington Post

Can everyone please calm down about child abuse?‘ pleaded Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, in one of the few sane and sober commentaries I’d read on the subject. If only those foolish enough to spread suspicion and rumour on the back of the perverse dynamics of the Savile hysteria had heeded these wise words.

Fox wrote the piece following an appearance on Newsnight that, she said, prompted a “minor Twitchunt”. Ironically enough sounding not disimilar to that which was to nearly sink said BBC flagship only days later as it embarked on its own rumour-mongering tarted up as investigative journalism.

In a misguided effort to undo the criticisms of what, in retrospect, might be regarded as an admirably cautious editorial decision not to run the Savile documentary; it took the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ approach instead. And in so doing it indulged in the kind of thing that supposedly respectable media organisations have, post-Leveson, been accusing the gutter press of.

As Fox had warned against they opted “to treat rumour as fact”. Not unlike those other investigations not worthy of the name: notorious social services departments pursued imagined and (as it turned out) imaginary episodes of child abuse in the 1980s. Children were taken from their families on the grounds of scarily-wacky social work theories about Satanic Abuse or, as Fox puts it, because of the ridiculous conviction that ‘all victims must be believed’.

Having written my own piece for The Huffington Post UK disputing the much-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 children are abused, this social work favourite was cited in response. We don’t believe your statistics I was told. They ‘minimise’ abuse. Children don’t lie, apparently. And if they do lie, according to the bizarre and twisted logic of abuse hysteria, its because they are hiding something. Probably abuse.

That these sorts of ideas ‘inform’ the decision making of a profession whose reputation rises and falls on the perceived wisdom of its interventions into children’s and families lives is scandalous. Or at least it would be if we weren’t so obsessed with (actually rare) child abuse. As I explained in my blog, only 0.4% of children are even deemed to be at risk of any kind of abuse – mostly neglect and emotional abuse, and a few cases of physical abuse.

This is in contrast with the exaggerated claims of rampant abuse being made in the context of a controversy about alleged incidences of sexual abuse. The inference at least is clear. As I stated at the time, the category of sexual abuse wasn’t even listed in my Department for Education statistical source such was its rarity. However, on reading a recent publication by the Parliamentary Education Committee, I am now able to put a figure on this latter category too.

There were 2,370 children thought to be at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. The mid-2010 estimate of the population of 0-17 year olds is 11,045,400. This means that the authorities suspected that 0.02% of children in England were at risk of sexual abuse last year. And this is post-Victoria Climbie when social workers are more suspicious than ever and under pressure to discover more cases of potential abuse than they were before. Another reason, incidentally, to be weary of a dynamic that creates anxieties in professionals too as the ‘something must be done’ brigade, also cited by Fox, gets louder and louder.

As she argues, organising society around a “heightened sense of child protection” is costly in every sense of the word; both for the already stretched social care system and in terms of societal trust. But this doesn’t seem to stop those with the lowest view of their fellow human beings insisting that whatever the figures say, we don’t know what’s going on ‘behind closed doors’. Indeed we don’t, but since when did that become an argument for suspecting the very worst? We have every reason to believe the opposite.

By massively overstating the problem of child abuse they are already undermining our relationships with each other and with the institutions in which we might once have invested our trust. The irony being that the likely consequence of the anxieties promoted by those fuelling the Savile affair is a less safe environment for all of our children. One in which adults (and children alike) are less likely to seek the help of strangers; and are far less minded to intervene if they see a child in distress or danger, for fear of being suspected of something untoward. Such is the legacy of child abuse hysteria.

In defence of hierarchical community


This is my contribution to Post-Riots, One Year On: Is there space for an individual response to community? at Union Chapel, Islington earlier this evening. The debate was inspired by Dixon Clark Court Symphony, a dual-site exhibition and collaborative project by Artist in Residence, Sarah Strang.

We were asked to say something about the ‘meaning of community today and how it can be meaningfully engaged with’. There is no end of projects tasked with engaging communities, but whether this is meaningful or not is a moot point. And what is meant by ‘community’ is something else again. I’ve spent the last couple of years or so running this sort of project myself. And at the risk of doing myself and lot of other people out of a job, on balance communities would probably be better off without us. If we stopped trying to engage communities, and instead disengaged, they might have a chance to breathe. There may be some good engagement projects out there. Like my own of course! But on the whole, whatever their good intentions, their impact on communities are likely to be a negative one.

To get an idea of what I mean, try Googling community engagement and see what you get. My top results included NICE guidance about ‘involving communities in decisions on health improvement that affect them’. This, for the lay person, means fostering anxiety about the alleged health impacts of decisions people make about how they live their lives, to ensure they are the ‘right’ ones as far as we think is healthy for them. Then there was the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Community Engagement and Community Cohesion which recommends not just community engagement but ‘community engagement support’. This is to manage the supposed hostility that the white working class inevitably visits on vulnerable ‘new arrivals’. It’s hard to know what to object to more, the portrayal of the natives as Neanderthals or of immigrant communities as inherently vulnerable and helpless.

There is even a Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex. Their ‘Citizenship Research’ focused on how ‘adult learning might play a part in developing the skills and attitudes people need to engage as citizens’. This isn’t just community engagement either. This is community engagers wanting to engage with ‘adult learners’ about how best to engage as citizens, in much the same way that children are taught citizenship at school. Which rather reminds me of Matthew Taylor of the RSAs desire to create more ‘active’ citizens. This, he thinks, is the job of the state via a bit of nudging and behaviour change.

Either way, whether we’re to be ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ citizens, you kind of get the sense that what is really meant is pliable. They want to build – while involving us in the decisions of course – communities of compliant citizens. The sort that don’t ask awkward questions, but do put the rubbish in the right bin, eat the right sorts of food, get enough exercise, turn out to vote regardless of what’s on offer, and hold the right sort of views about immigration. They want to create healthy communities of healthy citizens, cohesive communities of citizens that are always nice to each other, and sustainable communities of citizens living sustainably. But, as we all know, thankfully, real citizens and real communities just aren’t like this. We tend to have minds, and ideas, of our own.

The panel were also asked while the ‘idea of community is widely discussed in policy terms’, what of the ‘subjective experience of community’ which is ‘more nuanced and ambiguous’? ‘Is there space for an individual response to community?’ It seems to me, as I’ve already indicated, that a meaningful response to community is being crowded-out by a hyperactive and actually rather damaging state-led communities agenda. Consequently the individual experience of community is one that remains hidden or else processed in terms that fit with this official version of ‘community’. The instinct to intervene, both on the part of the state and the state-sponsored voluntary sector, is so great that it has co-opted even the initially permissive rhetoric of the Big Society. Such is the contempt in which ordinary people are held that our self-appointed defenders insist that we need their ‘support’ to even take part. Whatever the problems that communities face they are never truly regarded as capable of solving those problems themselves. The ‘enabling’ state is built on the notion that people are not capable of solving their own problems. Why else would we need enabling? And why else would we need the state?

This was perhaps most striking following the riots. An unprecedented and unexpected episode of violence directed mostly by young people against their own communities was first met with an impotent and panicked response by the authorities; and then – along with belated tough talk by politicians and over-the-top sentencing in the courts – by a reverting to the old familiar and wrongheaded social policy agenda that arguably played a part in creating the conditions for the riots in the first place. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred after all. The problem, we were told in all seriousness, was ‘problem families’ – apparently there are exactly 120,000 of them. They were ultimately to blame for the riots and could be expecting a multi-agency visit from the authorities.

But not only were parents told that the state knows best how to bring up their children – no doubt having done such a good job of looking after so-called looked after children. Those residents, who decided, in the absence of an effective police presence, to police their own streets, were also blamed. In fact it seemed that everybody and everything except the rioters were blamed for the riots. So while, we were told, it was nice to see them take to the streets with their brooms as part of the spontaneous riots clean-up, the allegedly-EDL supporting folk who took to the streets of Enfield were just vigilantes. While I have no sympathies with the EDL, indeed genuinely-EDL supporting saddoes took to my own streets of Walthamstow just a couple of weeks ago; in both cases they had every right to do so. And whatever their politics they were a more real expression of their community than anything imposed by community engagers from without.

The response of the authorities and illiberal commentators that we can’t allow people to just walk up and down their own streets like that, illustrates both the fearfulness of, and contempt for, real living communities and what people really think. The meaning of community is today so distorted by patronising assumptions about how both pathetic and potentially thug-like we all are, that it is hard for other takes on community to get a word in edgeways. Both an inability to project their own authority and an undermining of ours – both as parents, and as citizens concerned for the neighbourhoods we live in – is at the heart of both the difficulty with getting to grips with what community is all about, and with the reasons for and best ways of responding to what happened to those communities last year.

In my view this government’s and the previous government’s communities agenda tends to undermine communities rather than help them. The very language of community building and of supporting its ‘vulnerable’ members denies any space for more considered reflections and – I hesitate to use the word – engagement. This is because the obsession with community is a projection of the state’s own problems onto society.  The political class long for community because as a distant, cut-off elite they crave the sense of belonging they think it promises; making an unconscious analogy between their inability to connect with us, and the very real breakdown of some of our communities. They see the politics of community as a way of overcoming their own loneliness. After all, we can barely bring ourselves to vote for them, never mind join their parties or get worked up about their petty politics.

And I’m not just talking about the coalition. For all his ‘this government is out of touch’ rhetoric, Ed Miliband’s New Blue Labour is doubly cut-off both from the labour movement and from the working class communities in which it was, long ago, so firmly rooted. The liberal left – who I might add are neither liberal nor what I would regard as on the left in any historically meaningful sense – blame the 1980s (and Margaret Thatcher in particular) much as conservatives have long blamed the 1960s for the breakdown of community. They accuse those of us not willing to indulge the rioters’ excuses of being very right wing and blaming individuals instead of ‘the system’. The truth is that left liberals are forever individualising what are in fact social problems. Blaming greedy bankers and sleazy politicians for society’s problems may sound radical but makes no more sense than blaming The Pill or The Beatles.

Of course community, like the family, is not all good. Indeed, so anxious have we become in the absence or decline of the kinds of institutions that once helped us make sense of the world and each other, be it the Church or the TUC; and with no little encouragement from the supposedly ‘enabling’ state, we tend to think community’s problems are much worse than they really are. We refuse to believe that crime is falling and believe all to readily that ‘behind closed doors’ one of the neighbours is abusing their children while another is plotting a suicide attack.

We are so estranged from each other and so encouraged to think the worst, that the extension of the state’s remit and the erosion of our own is barely noticed. Which also makes communities increasingly unknowable not just for politicians, commentators and artists, but for those of us who loosely-speaking live in them. Our relationships with each other, no longer mediated by institutions in which we might invest our ever-diminishing trust – are increasingly reliant on weak and fleeting encounters, and prone to the kinds of individuated anxieties that weaken them further.

But while we should defend them as havens from officious intrusions; they shouldn’t be settled for, or regarded as in any way ideal. Not because they are hierarchical – which I’ll, finally, come to now – but because they can be parochial and inhibiting. We were asked ‘how hierarchical power structures within communities can provide and also fail to provide space in the public realm for individual and collective responses of both belonging and loneliness’. As I’ve tried to argue, it is not hierarchy but it’s erosion in our communities that we should be most worried about. The legitimate authority of parents in families, and by extension of adults in communities, is fundamental to their effective functioning. The undermining of these relationships, can only further the evacuation of authority from young people’s lives.

The riots and other social problems associated with communities today are in large part the consequence of too much engagement not too little. If community is to have any meaning worth engaging with, beyond that created for it by social policy wonks like me; then real living communities need to begin asserting their authority and rejecting the patronising assumptions that the communities agenda and the interventions it deems necessary are built on.

Trust in an age of cynicism


Dave Clements examines two influential recent books on trust: Trust: self-interest and the common good, by Marek Kohen, and Trust: how we lost it and how to get it back, by Antony Seldon.

‘It is fundamentally important to a good society’ says Marek Kohn, author of Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good. It’s an ‘expectation about the acts of others’, an ‘intertwining of interests’ that ‘sustains interactions that would otherwise collapse, enhances the quality of coooperation, and threads the social fabric together.’

In his more conservative account, Trust: how we lost it and how to get it back, Antony Seldon echoes this sentiment: ‘at the very deepest level we recognise that we are all part of each other.’ But although trust implies familiarity and a sense of community, notes Kohn, we have become strangers to each other. We range further and engage more fleetingly. Again Seldon agrees that the ‘scale and pace’ of society makes trust harder to establish and negotiate. But Seldon goes a step further, and concludes we should stop engaging in ‘superficial encounters’ altogether. We should learn to ‘detach ourselves from the noise of modern life’.

Trust is not a relic

But trust is not a relic under threat from modernity. On the contrary, it’s a very modern thing. If we are to trust, we must be immersed in it rather than removed from it. As Kohn reminds us, historically, people had little need of trust because roles and relationships were fixed at birth. There was simply nothing to negotiate. Today, people ‘take their peers as they find them’. This should be cause for optimism not despair. It may require more work than it did when we lived in simpler communities, but in as far as we choose to trust each other at all our ‘intertwining’ is all the richer.

For all that, a lack of trust is actutely felt across society, and not least by the political elite. ‘Distrust is the modern political condition’ says Kohn, and attempts to mend it ‘a platitude of politicians taking office’. In a pre-election speech about the Big Society, David Cameron said his government would be intent on ‘bringing communities together’. It ‘might even restore people’s trust in the political process’ he speculated. Ed Miliband, a new Labour leader drawing a line between himself and his government – and with his counter-rhetoric about building the good society – acknowledged the day after his election that the nation had ‘lost trust in us’.

Seldon describes 2009 as the ‘year of mistrust’. Yet another inquiry into the war in Iraq, and scandals over bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses, combined to bring those running our society into an unprecedentedly generalised disrepute. But there is also continuity, he says. It was Tony Blair’s failure to live up to his promises that ‘fed a bitter sense of disappointment and distrust for his successor’ – and Miliband’s predecessor – ‘and for politics more broadly’. And it goes farther and wider still. Party membership for the Conservatives and Labour alike is a fraction of what it was in the 1950s and 60s, and voter turnout has also gone into a steady but profound decline since then. Yet, while politicians might be regarded with particular contempt in the UK, Seldon shows how almost without exception levels of trust in government fell between the 1970s and mid-90s throughout Europe; and that in America even ‘Obama won in part on the back of the disillusioned youth vote’.

How did we get here?

The difficulty with Seldon’s treatment of the problem of trust – or rather mistrust – is that while he understands the gravity of the situation that the political elite find themselves in, he doesn’t have a coherent explanation of how they got here. Consequently his recommendations for how they might get themselves back out of it are somewhat confused and off-beam. He is right to identify cynicism as a particularly corrosive aspect of our political culture, for instance, but blaming Mock the Week just won’t do. While he argues that our leaders today are little more than ‘followers of public opinion and focus groups’, within a page or so he is advocating a People’s Bill and the use of social media to ‘poll opinion on government policy’.

Seldon’s answer to the problem of trust in the political sphere is, predictably enough, to devolve. This also happens to be the self-serving answer that the politicians (whatever their party loyalties) have come up with. But devolving power to ‘the people’ is not – as Seldon, New Labour and now the Coalition, insist – going to result in the slightest improvement to the quality of that relationship. Quite the contrary. There is nothing more likely to further erode our trust in those running society than their own eagerness to get us to do it for them. Indeed the great irony is that official efforts to rebuild trust in society and in politics, are themselves rooted in an elite cynicism about the capacities and the propensities of ‘the people’. Of course the rhetoric would have us believe that we are being flattered with greater powers to make decisions and influence things. It might even be true in some instances, but not necessarily for the good.

It is not only the devolution of political power that Seldon advocates. ‘The more patients are involved, the more they will trust’ he declares in his contribution to the discussion on how to rebuild trust in the NHS. But it’s no more legitimate to devolve to patients responsibilities which they are not competent to exercise, than it is to offload the responsibilities of political office onto a society that thought it had delegated them. Competence – as Seldon himself says – is a fundamental of trust relations. Our trust in doctors is built on recognition of the expertise which they, the most trusted of professions, embody. It is their personal remove from us and their indifference to our lives that makes them trustworthy. It is not, as Seldon would have it, on account of their ‘emotional intelligence’.

His enthusiasm for devolution in politics and health care is matched by a fondness for codes of ethics. He wants them for government ministers and civil servants, journalists and schoolchildren, communities (‘codes of good manners’) and sportspeople (‘codes of sportsmanship’). While it is useful to draw attention to the absence of agreed moral codes in society, attempts to graft on new ones are bound to fail. By the very fact of their being proposed from without, such codes are sooner or later rejected by the body politic.

Oddly, elsewhere in his book Seldon seems to recognise this is a bad idea. For instance, he tells us that ‘external sanctions and motivations belittle human beings’ dignity, professional pride and imagination, and should be avoided’. Trust cannot be forced upon people or ‘overseen’ he says. Indeed, it is government interference in public services since the 1980s which has undermined people’s trust. Seldon is critical of the target culture and the regime of performance monitoring that promised greater accountability; but instead undermined the public service ethos, and eroded our trust in public servants and professionals to act in a ‘public-spirited fashion’.

Still, there is more to the undermining of trust than disengagement with politics, the assault on the professional, and the managerial capture of public services. As he rightly says, ‘we live in a climate of suspicion which predisposes us to think ill of other people’s intent’. Parents keep their children indoors for fear of the consequences of letting them out to play and only half of us would trust a stranger to be truthful. He understands that our fears can be fuelled by official over-reaction that actually fosters mistrust and promotes anxiety, rather than protecting those most at risk. And yet, he doesn’t seem to realise that despite the tendency of the authorities to exploit people’s sense of fragility and to confirm their worst fears, just how exaggerated is the loss of trust in society. What he misses, and what is most striking, is the tendency on the part of the political elite to project onto society problems that are very much their own and of their own making.

A sense of direction?

As Seldon puts it, ‘only when challenged or violated does trust become a visible issue.’ The difficulty is that it’s the political elite itself – with an endorsement from Seldon – that is doing the challenging and the violating. Like them he appreciates, all too keenly, that we need what we lack – a ‘sense of direction’ and an ‘agreed moral purpose’. But one is left asking what direction to take or what this purpose might be? Seldon doesn’t really have an answer. His search for an ‘overarching idea’ ends with trust itself. While, as Kohn argues, trust should be ‘sought for its own sake, and because it keeps good company’, it cannot be a substitute for a wider vision. In this sense, it can never be an object in itself. It does not constitute a political project or a big idea around which we might cohere. Trust should spring from our humanity and our natures as necessarily social beings.

The ‘public feel mistrusted by the government and in turn find government to be unworthy of their trust’, Seldon argues. But this is to get things back to front. It is the breakdown of our trust in the elite and their grappling with the implications of this, which has leaked out into society – not the other way around. Their belated interest in ‘engaging’ our trust – in what are truly ‘superficial encounters’ – is symptomatic of their failure to come up with something in which we might invest our trust in the first place. 

At the same time, in the very attempt to engage us in this way, there is a tendency to further undermine our sense of ourselves as political subjects. We become objects of an elite politics of trust, rather than entering into solidarity with each other ‘off our own backs’. It is only when we make such a shift that a greater trust in society can be established, and a politics of any substance will truly emerge.

http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2010/battles/5465/