In light of the Ashya King situation, many of us have asked ourselves, what would I do if I were in their shoes?
Well, if the government gets it’s way many more of us are going to find out.
During Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, when the topic of the Ashya King fiasco came up, MP Alasdair McDonnell proposed amending the Modern Slavery Bill to allow for new state assigned ‘child guardians’ to be given the power to reflect the best interests of the child to all the relevant authorities and services. David Cameron agreed the government would look closely at the idea.
So why does this make me nervous?
The concern is that this would endanger parental authority which is the right of every parent – a right extending back to the dawn of mankind – but this core right is again at threat. Indeed, the argument can be made that it was erosion of parental authority that lead to this problem with the Kings in the first place, and the state introducing child guardians would simply make the matter worse.
The argument for it, and in which circumstances it might be justified
It is quite reasonable and correct, that the government take steps to protect vulnerable children: where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a child is at risk of abuse, such as sexual exploitation (the Rotherham scandal comes quickly to mind) or child-trafficking. (This is why some people believe child guardianship laws should be part of the Modern Slavery Bill).
The problem is how far such laws regarding child guardians (also sometimes referred to as ‘specialist independent advocates’) might go, and in which circumstances they will be used.
There are many cases of officials making false accusations of neglect or abuse against parents, often relating to sick vulnerable children. Tymes Trust, a charity which supports parents of children suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), has seen 125 such cases to date, none of which have be shown to have foundation.
What happens if the child guardian’s view on a situation differs from that of the parent, particularly in circumstances where a parent is wrongly under suspicion. One can see how in such circumstances, a state assigned child guardian might have significant influence on outcomes which infringe upon the autonomous rights and responsibilities of the innocent parent. And this may well be to the detriment of the child, not to its benefit.
Why the State should only be a parent of last resort
There is no better guardian for a child than it’s natural parent, and the government should not interfere unless a child does not have a parent, or has parents that have been proven to be neglectful or abusive.
In such cases a child guardian would be coming into a picture where a child’s situation is without doubt, lacking, and as such there is a place for the state to provide some benefit to that child. But this should only occur in such certain cases because the government, by its very nature, can only do a bad job as a substitute parent. The reality is that the state cannot provide the thing that children need most: love.
From love springs everything else a child needs because it motivates a parent to act in the child’s interests in every area of a child’s life. A government can only ever be an artificial parent – it can provide some practical needs, but it fails immediately when it comes to love. It is akin to an artificial heart: better than none at all, but far worse than the real thing.
There are even questions over whether the government is able to deliver on the practical needs alone, as it often fails basics like protection; the Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal demonstrates serious shortcomings on a mind-boggling scale. If the government was a real parent it would have been locked up long ago for it’s many abuses.
A further important principle, is that children ought to grow up separate from direct government influence. Children brought up by parents are taught the viewpoint of the parent as a citizen; the most important aspect of all being that the government works for the citizen, not the other way round. The minute the government starts holding guardianship of children, that all changes.
I think the government’s choice of term, ‘specialist independent advocates’ is quite telling – they want us to believe they are independent, that it’s nothing to worry about. But that simply is not the case; it’s not the government’s fault, but there is no possibility of them being truly independent. The fact they exist at all will be as a direct result of the government making it so. And who will pay these ‘independent’ advocates? I’m sure the prime minister would chose to frame the answer as “the taxpayer,” but although it will indeed be us fitting the bill, it’ll be the state creating these new roles, not us.
Scotland’s controversial ‘named person’ scheme
Alex Salmond’s administration wish to assign a state guardian, labelled as ‘named persons’ to each of the million plus children across Scotland, seemingly in breach of the legal rights of parents and children.
The stated intent is that these child guardians would safeguard against the occurrence of child abuse and these named persons would be health professionals from the NHS and council staff such as teachers and social workers. The key thing here is that every child would be assigned such a named person. We aren’t talking about those who have been proven to be at risk of neglect or abuse, or even suspected of it. You can be a model parent, and still the government will interfere in the upbringing of your child. And all it will take is one overzealous agents of the state to turn you and your child’s life upside-down.
State intrusion into family life aside, I can think of plenty of examples of specialists in these professions whom I wouldn’t want anywhere near my children. In all professions there are good apples and there are bad. But how do we protect children from the bad apples? A parent would say, “let me check that apple for you, make sure it’s not rotten,” and parents do this vetting whenever anyone has potential access to our children. Are we going to trust the government to make such calls for us? The kind of government, who’s doctors and nurses, social workers and teachers, decided Jimmy Savile was a good person to let around vulnerable children?
The Scottish bill was passed earlier this year, with the scheme due to be rolled out in August 2016. But the scheme is already being piloted in some areas, and parents in these areas have seen confidential medical records shared with children’s teachers, and instances of state officials holding secret meetings with sick children to determine treatment, without consent of parents.
Joining parents, a number of organizations (including the TYMES trust) are opposed to it, and have raised more than £30,000 so far, to make a legal challenge in court. The case is spearheaded by the say No to Named Persons (NO2NP) campaign group.
Sadly, I’m not sure a ‘Yes’ vote for Scottish independence would be enough to stop England from following Scotland’s bad example. Either way, I’m right behind the NO2NP campaign because I think state guardianship of children, wherever they are, is not in their best interests.
European and UN human rights
The basis under which this is being challenged is that child guardians would breach the rights of the parent and the rights of the child.
Article 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC), says, “States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.”
Article 16 of the UN-CRC says, “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family…” and that, “the child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
And Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), states that a person has a, “right to respect for private and family life.”
It seems quite clear that parents and children are protected by these laws, and their legal rights may be violated by the government introducing child guardians. But this wont stop the government trying, and we must push back and say no because rights are like muscles, they only stick around if you exercise them.