Safeguarding without safeguards

My friend is a remarkably fit and shrewd 85-year-old still able to make most valuable comments at the governing body of a secondary school.  A General Practitioner for more than 40 years he has ‘seen it all’ but is never judgemental yet always full of sound advice, particularly on general health issues such as obesity and mental health.

Making his point about the devastating impact of obesity caused by a too easy access to fat and over-sweet foods, he recalled how, in the summer of 1938 when he was 14, he had wanted to visit his grandparents in Huddersfield.  At the time he was living with his parents in southeast London.  Early one morning his mother packed up two-days’ worth of sandwiches and the young, one-day-to-be-a-doctor set off on his bike to cycle across London and started to make his way north.  He slept the night in a hayrick and later the following day reached Huddersfield.  After several days with his relatives his grandmother packed him up some more sandwiches and he set off south, slept in another hayrick and reached southeast London later the following day.  His slight figure and merry twinkle reflect a life in which he has always been attuned to his environment, and where most problems have a solution… if you look around enough.

I’m not such a cyclist, but at 16 I remember setting out with a friend to spend a week hitchhiking around Scotland.  It was slow going to start with, so we decided to separate and try our luck separately.  We hoped to meet at a certain farm just over the border at Carter Bar on the A68, but if we missed each other we would rendezvous the next day at the post office in the town of Callendar some 30 miles from Edinburgh, on the hour, until the other turned up.  Cliff never made it to the small wood by the farm, and for the first time in my life I camped alone.  Setting off the next morning I again started to ‘thumb’.  Reaching Callendar I was delighted to find Cliff already there – in fact, so successful had he been that he had actually got there the night before while I was camping 150 miles to the south.  Returning from Edinburgh the following week I reached Portsmouth, where I then lived, in 14 hours and coincidentally, in 14 lifts – one of which bought me a very good lunch in Grantham.

On that trip alone I must have trusted myself to the responsible behaviour of some 40 drivers, totally unknown to me (or to my parents) before that.  We are told that it is different now.  “You are a pervert and a danger to children,” wrote A N Wilson in The Daily Mail, “unless you can prove otherwise,” which totally contradicts the basic principle of English law that one is innocent until proven guilty.  To hold to that principle means running all kinds of risks, but to accept the alternative – as proposed in the Vetting and Barring Scheme – is to replace a respect for freedom with the fear of penalty.  To assume that children are surrounded by perverts is to deny them the priceless opportunity to grow up by discovering the diversity of the world around them.  The horror of so much child molestation is not that the police have failed, it is that neighbours have not noticed what is going on around them.

To provide a cycle track to Huddersfield would make it safer for a child today to cycle to see his grandparents, but to threaten an adult with a £5,000 fine for stopping to give a young person a lift without having first been vetted at a cost of £64 would have denied me the opportunity of learning how to deal with all kinds of people.  Hitchhiking was a most important part of my growing up, for however else could I have learnt how to hold conversations with a lorry driver, a priest, a housewife, an architect, and a Rear Admiral all in one day – and on a one-to-one basis.  I wish today’s youngsters had that opportunity, for it was what made me a person strong enough to deal with so many of life’s problems.

See Actions 1, 3 4 and 10 of the Briefing Paper