Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hard Cases Make Bad Law

Heated debate in the UK about the new anti-paedophile checks in the UK (Parent driver checks prompt row, BBC News 11 September 2009). On the one side, people suggesting that the new system is a disproportionate response to a single appalling case (Ian Huntley murdering two schoolgirls in Soham); on the other side, people adopting the "no check is excessive if it makes our children safe" line of argument.

It's a big if. Any vetting or screening system will produce false positives and false negatives. Nobody knows how many. There are people cleverer and more devious than Huntley, and they will know more than Huntley did about how the system works, so it is fairly certain that some of them will manage to get through the check undetected. In any case, the check only picks up people who already have a police record. If the check creates a sense of false security, then it potentially makes our children less safe.

Meanwhile, honest volunteers who have been the subject of false allegations in the past may prefer to avoid having these allegations raked over again; so there may be fewer people willing and able to run scout groups, youth clubs, and so on, leaving kids with little option but hanging around on street corners. Nobody knows how many. (Whatever happened to evidence-based policy? Whatever happened to joined-up thinking?)

Furthermore, as one of the detectives responsible for catching Huntley points out (This CRB-check paranoia won’t stop another Soham, The Times, 15 September 2009), the girls knew and trusted Huntley not because he happened to be a caretaker at a completely different school, but because they knew and trusted his girlfriend, Maxine Carr. The logical implication of this is that CRB checks should cover not only classroom assistants (such as Ms Carr) but also their boyfriends. Perhaps the designers of the CRB system already have a cunning plan to extend the scheme later, as soon as its inadequacy becomes apparent.

This seems to be one of those schemes (along with DNA testing and identity cards) where a partial scheme is pushed through as a compromise. The logic of the scheme suggests that it will only work properly if the entire population is covered, and covered far more thoroughly than the present scheme can, but the politicians rightly recognize that this would be politically unacceptable. So they grab what they can get, and wait for a later opportunity to make the scheme yet more totalitarian.

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