In Scotland’s new world of electronic child surveillance, debased language conceals what is going on

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Kenneth Roy sums up the SR investigation

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers, and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language,1946

For confirmation that Orwell’s low opinion of political language still holds true 64 years later, you need look no further back than the windy rhetoric of the party political conferences in England, including the fatuous patriotism of yesterday’s speech by the prime minister.
     But there is a new class of political bad writing, unforeseen by Orwell, which is to be found in the reports of what are loosely known as the caring professions. The document on which the mass observation of children in Scotland has been based is the worst imaginable example of bad writing, yet it is the bible of our new electronic surveillance society. There may be some connection – it may be that most sinister ideas can only be communicated in debased language.


 The child is someone who is ‘on a journey’, who needs to be helped to ‘understand the past, and the here and now of the journey’.


    At the end of a week in which we have attempted to explain what is going on in the lives of Scottish children, unknown to most of their parents, it is worth taking a closer look at this document, ‘Getting it right for every child: Electronic Information Sharing Model and Process’ (August, 2008), published by the ‘Transformational Technologies Division, Standards Branch, Scottish Government’ which has been signed off by a named civil servant, presumably a fairly senior one. It is worth taking this closer look because the document offers a disturbing insight into the closed world of official thinking about children.
     It is a world of practice models, resilience matrixes, triads and triangles, a world of increasing interoperability and inter-agency involvements, of pathfinder developments and universal systems, a world in which the child becomes ‘the service user’ and the person reporting on the child becomes ‘the practitioner’. The child is someone who is ‘on a journey’, who needs to be helped to ‘understand the past, and the here and now of the journey’.
     In this pretentious, sub-mystical, almost impenetrable world, there is very little precision. Do the authors of such prose know what they are trying to say, but are prevented from doing so by sentences as choked as the gutters of a country cottage in autumn? Or is the vagueness, the absence of what Orwell called ‘outcrops of simplicity’, simply a convenient way of concealing what is happening? It is probably a bit of both.
     There is an almost evangelical certainty about the introduction:
     This document is not just about Systems change but brings the ‘Getting it right for every child’ triad of change mechanisms, Systems, Practice and Culture (in the context of information sharing and the eCare framework) together in one place. The three change mechanisms are interdependent on each other and therefore this document is just as much about practice and culture as it is about systems. Systems cannot live in a business vacuum and the models and processes described here reflect these shifts in a ‘Getting it right for every child’ world.
     That paragraph, for all its banality and ugliness, just about hangs together: with a bit of effort we can discern its meaning. But as the process of mass observation starts to be explained, the language more or less disintegrates. Orwell argued that the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. What foolish thoughts are these, shaping the lives of our children?
     Under the heading ‘Plan’, we read that ‘the circular process within the model ensures that help is specifically targeted on a child’s ever changing circumstances and becomes a dynamic interaction’.
     Helpfully, the document provides an illustration of ‘dynamic interaction’. It is the one concrete example, so we should treasure it:
     A child is about to place their [sic] hand in an open fireplace.
     Concern – Safety.
     Assessment Question – Will the child be at risk?
     Plan – Remove hand from fire.
     Action – Remove hand now.
     As the late Eric Morecambe used to say: there’s no answer to that.


Within weeks of the coalition government coming to power, Contact Point was scrapped on two grounds – its intrusion into private lives and its escalating cost.


     A Scottish Review reader has emailed to ask whether ‘this wretched project’ is being ‘rolled out’ in England and Wales or whether it is entirely a Scottish initiative ‘to make the population utterly dependent on the public services and then get public service employees to inform on the population’. The ‘wretched project’ in England and Wales was called Contact Point: its purposes and methods were broadly similar to GIRFEC in Scotland. Within weeks of the coalition government coming to power, Contact Point was scrapped on two grounds – its intrusion into private lives and its escalating cost.
     It remains to be seen whether the administration at Holyrood will follow this admirable precedent or whether the mass observation of children being piloted by five Scottish local authorities will be allowed to continue at a cost to the public purse, and the greater cause of civil liberties, which is yet to be counted.

If you would like to contribute to the SR discussion on this issue, please email islay@scottishreview.net

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.