Our police state (1): Kenneth Roy
On Christmas Eve, probably the best day of the year for burying news, the Scottish government released its long-awaited ‘privacy principles’. The verdict in the Sheridan trial swamped everything else – and then the world closed down for a fortnight. Well, it will not surprise you to learn that the privacy principles received no attention.
But the world has re-opened and it is time to impart the good news.
An ‘expert group’ – whose members included one Jerry Fishenden of Microsoft UK as well as ‘prominent lawyers and academics’ – has recommended that ‘large, centralised databases of people’s personal information’ should be avoided and that, instead, data should be kept in ‘purpose-specific stores’ only to be drawn together ‘if there is a business need to do so’. What a business need is, or a purpose-specific store for that matter, I am unqualified to say.
And yet – having looked at the good news, the language employed, the assurances given such as they are – SR has come to the reluctant conclusion that the news isn’t good after all.
It all depends what you – or rather they – mean by a large centralised database. Readers who have been following our series of articles on Scotland’s surveillance culture will be aware that a series of linked databases is as intrusive, as damaging to civil liberties, as any centralised one.
Today we will show how part of this federation of databases operates and how it is destroying lives.
Girfec is not just about offences. Girfec is about ‘information’. This information can be passed on for many years and do immeasurable harm
to a person’s life. Yet much of it is based on pure hearsay.
‘Enhanced disclosure’ of offences, as well as of charges not proceeded with, suspicions and associations, means that anyone who has been through the children’s hearing system can be haunted by the experience in adult life. This is deeply ironical since the Scottish hearings, unlike the English juvenile courts, are supposed to be concerned with the welfare of the child, with care and support, rather than punishment. But in Scotland the punishment is longer-term. As long as a lifetime.
Current police rules are that information about children who have appeared before the hearings can be passed on to employers, training agencies and professional bodies until the person is 40 years old. Think about the implications of this draconian provision. It means that when the 12-year-old minor offender, having reached adulthood without further offending, applies for a job which involves association with children or vulnerable adults – as so many jobs do – a police record 10, 15 or 20 years old is produced, denying them the job. Even a job as a leisure attendant is outwith their reach. The same person is prohibited from helping out at a children’s football club, or serving on the PTA, or volunteering at an older people’s lunch club.
There is no right of appeal. There is no legal aid to challenge it.
The new Children’s Hearings Act, recognising this injustice, will reduce the need for enhanced disclosure. This is a welcome concession, but it does not go nearly far enough. Nor does it dispose of the somewhat greater threat presented by Girfec (‘Getting It Right for Every Child’), the comprehensive children’s database whose tentacles were exposed by SR last autumn.
Girfec is not just about offences. Girfec is about ‘information’. This information can be passed on for many years and do immeasurable harm to a person’s life. Yet much of it is based on pure hearsay.
Here are examples of the kind of information gathered in Girfec assessments:
‘Believed to have been inappropriately sexually active underage’.
‘Believed to be involved in the supply or use of illegal drugs’.
‘Reported by a neighbour to have behaved sexually inappropriately towards another child’.
One child law specialist told SR that she had personally heard social workers and teachers, in social settings, share privileged confidential information gained through their employment.
The unreliability of so much of this information – its essentially untested, unproven nature – is perhaps best illustrated by the example of the bullied child who has been told to ‘stick up for himself’ and confront his tormentor. If the Girfec assessment finds that the parents of the tormentor are ‘respectable’, the parents of the bullied child not so respectable, it is the bullied child who can end up being recorded as the aggressive party.
What right does the child have to see and dispute this ‘information’? None. What right do the parents have? None.
Yet the information-sharing protocols adopted in Scotland mean that many others do have access to the files. We have it on good authority that among those with access are the headteacher, the teacher, the classroom assistant, the school secretary, the school nurse, the social worker, the administrators in the social work department, the police, the GP, the health worker, the Social Work Inspectorate. To what extent is the alleged security of the information respected? The evidence here must necessarily be anecdotal. One child law specialist told SR that she had personally heard social workers and teachers, in social settings, share privileged confidential information gained through their employment.
A child is a work in progress, not the finished article: that was the humanitarian principle on which the children’s hearing system was based. Secret police records on the one hand, Girfec files on the other, make a mockery of this ethos. In too many cases the Scottish child is not a finished article, simply finished.
Tomorrow: Part II of Our police state
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.