Monday, 12 May 2014

Observer Editorial

I got quoted and name-checked in the opening sentence of the Observer's leader yesterday. Very gratifying.

But even more gratifying was this passage
There are changes in the law that should have happened long ago. New legislation making emotional neglect of children an offence is expected in the Queen's speech in June, at last bringing Britain in line with the rest of the world. But just as gaping a hole in this country's child protection system is an extraordinary lack of a duty to report the abuse of a child.

Currently, if an adult is accused of an offence against a child within a school or any institution, there is no statutory obligation to report it to the police or an independent authority. In effect, this permits headteachers and other officials to act as judges: too often, campaigners say, cronyism or laziness allow a complaint to be sidelined without proper investigation.

In the children's homes of North Wales, in Rochdale and in the private schools of the rich, we have seen enough evidence of adults in authority acting in concert with each other to promote and cover up appalling crimes against children. This must stop; a mandatory duty to report allegations of abuse to an external authority should become law. In much of Europe and Northern Ireland, it already is. There is no need to wait for any inquiry into abuse to set out the necessity.
I don't think any British paper has come out in favour of mandatory reporting in quite such unequivocal terms as this. Such decisiveness makes a refreshing change from the NSPCC's attitude.

Tom Perry also had a Letter to the Editor published in the Observer yesterday. Here are two short excepts from it.
Whenever an abuse incident is exposed, we hear from all quarters that "everything is different now".  My response to this is very simple: Southbank International school, Hillside first school, Bishop Bell, Little Heath primary. The very recent failures in child protection at all these schools contradict any such assertions.  ... Your child has no statutory right to have his or her known rape reported to anyone. Private schools are presented with a further conflict of interest by the Department for Education's "statutory guidance", because no law is broken for failing to report the worst news any fee-receiving institution can inflict on its balance sheet.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

NSPCC on mandatory reporting - 2

After I published my last blog article, I finally got a reply from Peter Wanless.
Dear Jonathan

Via your blog I have now been alerted to the email you sent me on 16 April. I have been on leave (and/or ill) since 15 April.

Your blog reinforces for me the value of face to face discussion rather than written exchanges. You would think that I (rather than you) would be best placed to express with authority what the NSPCC's position is in relation to mandatory reporting in regulated settings. Time and again I have sought to demonstrate that the tweet you and others are fond of recirculating, does not explain how, for this narrower range of settings, we regard the position as unproven, rather than being implacably opposed.

The current position is set out on our website and I don't understand why you choose not to highlight this. Here it is again.

The second half of your blog offers your "impressions" about my motivations and they are just that - impressions. As noted above, quite a few of these flow from my lack of reply which was merely a consequence of my not yet having seen your message.

I remain happy to meet and find it ironic to be characterised as being unwilling to engage when you are the one who is questioning the value of a meeting on the back of one email exchange, not me! Plenty of other people with direct experience of failings for children in regulatory settings have come forward and are helping us build a stronger understanding of how best to keep children safe.

All I have suggested is that it is not a good use of time to spend ages seeking to evidence a position which isn't the NSPCC position at all (however often you assert that it is!) Of course we would want to cover in any discussion the potential risks and consequences of legal change and that demands an understanding of the balance of risk with and without MR in regulated settings. We would definitely need to cover that. Nor have I any desire to keep others at the NSPCC outside the conversation, so I have copied this exchange to David Tucker here.

As our statement says, it is good that debate is narrowing onto specifics in specific settings. Maybe you were always there. Others were not.

I am sorry that the consequence of your blog is another flurry of tweets expressing disappointment at the NSPCC's alleged unwillingness to engage on this matter because the opposite is true. You can put this reply on your blog if you want to but I would again encourage face to face discussion rather than exchanges of correspondence like this which seem to take on a wholly unnecessary sense of conflict when our shared, desired goal - protection of children from abuse - is unquestionable.
I didn't find that reply very clear or satisfactory, so I replied as follows.
Dear Peter,

I must admit that your email has confused me somewhat.

You start out by complaining that I haven't highlighted the NSPCC position in my blog, as described in the link you provided. The thing is, I have done so. I included a link to the actual PDF of your position in the first paragraph, I quoted the three bullet points of the summary immediately after, and I further quoted your concerns about ChildLine at the end. I don't think that you can justify any claim that I am usurping from you the right to describe what the NSPCC policy is.

Moreover, the tweet is not the sole basis on which I consider that the NSPCC position as publicly stated is one of "implacable opposition". As I stated before, I am also taking into account the NSPCC paper which recommends dismantling (as opposed to merely amending the scope of) the legal basis for mandatory reporting in Northern Ireland. The tweet is important in that it expresses an NSPCC position that the NSPCC is opposed to mandatory reporting in even the most narrow possible case of known (rather than merely suspected) abuse within the context of a regulated activity. In other words, that tweet indicates NSPCC opposition to the introduction of a legal obligation to report in cases such as Downside School which I mentioned previously, where abuse is known about but not reported in order to protect the reputation of the institution.

The questions asked on Twitter by @MandateNow and others asked for the evidence on which NSPCC based its position that mandatory reporting was a bad idea even in this narrow case. The only answer ever given was repeated references to your paper offering blanket opposition to mandatory reporting in general. In other words, you were asked for evidence and replied with a restatement of policy.

As I am sure you are aware, when Ofsted inspects a school the draft report written by the inspectors goes through a "moderation" process within the organisation, where the draft report is checked against the inspectors' original notes to ensure that the conclusions are justified and nothing has been missed. To respond to a request for evidence with a restatement of the policy is analagous to Ofsted carrying out its moderation by only looking at the inspectors' draft report and not at the notes.

However, after complaining that I have not accurately characterised the NSPCC position you go on to say that "that it is not a good use of time to spend ages seeking to evidence a position which isn't the NSPCC position at all". Well, is the current blanket opposition to mandatory reporting and the recommendation that mandatory reporting be dismantled in Northern Ireland the NSPCC position or not? If it is, then I think it is reasonable that the discussion include the evidence that informs that position. If it is not, then the documents stating that position should have been withdrawn from the NSPCC website and/or a press release issued to the effect that the NSPCC is formally reviewing its position on mandatory reporting. But if you feel that the NSPCC's position requires review, then it remains necessary to review the evidence on which your previous position was based in order to assess whether it is as strong as you had heretofore believed.

That you are offering a meeting of sorts I think can be taken as an acceptance on your part that the questions being put by @MandateNow and others concerning the NSPCC position on mandatory reporting are valid questions deserving of proper consideration. But as recently as a month ago, Matt Hopkinson was on Twitter accusing @MandateNow of bullying and harassing people on the subject. Those tweets have now been deleted, but I do of course have screenshots of them. Here is one example.

So your conversion to the idea that a review is needed is clearly recent and would not have happened without the public criticism the policy has received.

The NSPCC is a large organisation. I have dealt with large organisations (much larger than NSPCC) in the past and it is a characteristic of them that they have a considerable degree of policy inertia. Once a policy is established, it takes a lot of work to persuade the organisation to change. This is not of itself a bad thing, large organisations should not be chopping and changing major policies every week. Moreover, if an organisation considers itself to be the preeminent expert in its field, then it tends to regard outside criticism as coming by definition from people who are less expert in the subject than they are themselves, and the default position is that all such criticism should therefore be ignored. Again, this is often correct, but it makes it very difficult for outsiders to make themselves heard when they genuinely do have new insights which need to inform the organisation's position. This is not the first time I have attempted to discuss mandatory reporting with the NSPCC. When the Savile story broke in 2012, I and a number of others tried to arrange a meeting on mandatory reporting with Peter Watt. A meeting was promised but no arrangements were ever made. I can provide you with the correspondence from October 2012.

Even this current email exchange consisting of "talks about talks" I am sure would not have occurred had there not been considerable public debate about mandatory reporting on Twitter and elsewhere.

So, I remain willing to meet, but only if this is a 2-way exchange of views and evidence, including the evidence which informs the NSPCC position against mandatory reporting that is currently stated on your website. I am not prepared to meet if you insist that the evidence supporting the currently stated NSPCC position is excluded from the discussion.

I therefore need answers from you to two questions.

1. Does the NSPCC position on mandatory reporting remain blanket opposition as described on your website, including the recommendation that the legal basis for mandatory reporting be dismantled in Northern Ireland?

2. If and when we meet, are you prepared to describe the evidence which was used to inform the NSPCC position as publicly stated, whether or not you now consider this to be your "current" position?

Once you have provided answers to these questions, I will be able to tell whether a meeting will be worthwhile. I hope so, for the sake of children in regulated activities such as at Southbank International School.
I got as reply 3 days later saying this
Thanks Jonathan

There are many individuals and institutions who are rightly interested in strengthening the safeguarding of children and, in particular, the role of reporting within that. I am in direct touch with increasing numbers of them, which is good. I’ve offered a meeting to you and to many others.

The answer to question 1 is no. The policy is under review. We are particularly interested in the pros and cons of MR in regulated settings and its significance alongside other weaknesses in the child protection system ( some of which you have referred to in recent tweets and links on the back of what has happened at Southbank.)

The answer to question 2 is that I believe the best use of our time would be spent moving towards a stronger mutual understanding of the risks and benefits of a range of options, to help determine what constitutes the optimal course of action, rather than spending time on a historical analysis of positions that the NSPCC might or might not have held or have been perceived to have held down the ages. Achieving this will of course require us to consider the ongoing strength and validity of arguments against mandatory reporting options as well as arguments for, as well as considering what else might be necessary to secure an effectively operating MR regime beyond legal change alone.
I felt this was still inadequately clear, so I replied 2 days later as follows.
Dear Peter,
I understand, on the basis of your answer to question 1, that essentially you do not have a position on mandatory reporting currently, and that a new position, specifically concerned with mandatory reporting in regulated activities, will be developed in the light of discussions you are currently holding. Please correct me if this understanding is mistaken.

Your position with regard to question 2 is still rather unclear. While you appear to have abandoned your existing policy, it is far less clear that you have abandoned the evidence that the policy was informed by. I don't want to be in a position where I hold a meeting with you, only to discover that the old evidence has risen like the undead and as a result your new position greatly resembles your old position, without that evidence having had a light shone on it by means of outside scrutiny.
So, I need to be clear about your position regarding this evidence. If we are to meet, I need either to have your assurance that the evidence you used to support your original position against mandatory reporting will form no part of your current review and not be used to inform your new position, or the evidence needs to be included in our discussion.
11 days passed with no reply, so yesterday I sent a followup
Dear Peter

I haven't had any reply to my last email. I'm resending it (see below) in case it got lost in transmission.
Today I got the following reply.
Hello Jonathan

I didn't reply because I have been getting on with meeting and listening to lots of people as we formulate a  position in the light of all the evidence. Meantime I have been reading your blogs and attachments to some of your tweets among many others and learning more from them than this exchange!

Para 1, the answer is yes, an MR position alongside other necessary strengthenings of the safeguarding regime for children.

Para 2 - evidence is evidence. If we consider it relevant and important it will form part of the basis on which our position is based. If it is no longer deemed relevant, it will not.  Anything relevant can of course be included in discussion. I have been seeking an open and engaged dialogue on this matter and struggle to understand why you want to portray me as being slippery or tricksy about it.
I've replied as follows.

The NSPCC's public position (which you haven't publicly retracted) is opposition to mandatory reporting in all its forms, and recommending that the legal basis for mandatory reporting in Northern Ireland be retracted.
Even though you privately say the NSPCC is reviewing all evidence, you continue to make it clear that you are prepared to discuss all evidence except the evidence which informs the NSPCC's publicly stated position.

And then you complain when the NSPCC position is perceived (using your own words) as "slippery or tricksy".
A position against mandatory reporting is a counterintuitive one for an organisation such as NSPCC to hold. The public finds it hard to understand why the NSPCC does so. Counterintuitive ideas nonetheless can be right and can even be generally accepted to be right, but only if supported by sound evidence which is publicly presented. This is what the NSPCC has failed to do despite repeated public requests. Requests for evidence have repeatedly been met with a simple restatement of the policy. As a result, the NSPCC position on this and related issues is going increasingly to be mistrusted, and the NSPCC will only have itself to blame.
I remain willing to have a meeting as soon as you are prepared to include the NSPCC's evidence as part of the discussion. Let me know when you are willing to do that.
And there we have it. I'm not prepared to meet the NSPCC and have my position (and its evidence) described to them so that they can better counter it when they have evidence and reasoning that they are not prepared to disclose. If Peter Wanless realises that the public perception of the NSPCC position is "slippery or tricksy" (to use his own words) then he has a serious PR problem which it is not my job to fix. Others can suggest to him what needs to be done.

I'll happily meet Peter Wanless, once he has agreed to discuss NSPCC's evidence as well as my own. It's time for NSPCC either to change its position and join the campaign for mandatory reporting, or to present in public the evidence which justifies maintaining its current public position. Any other course of action will make NSPCC look silly and irrelevant.