Legislation and literature make uneasy bedfellows as witness the Conservative party’s volte-face over Section 28 which became law in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Prompted by an outcry over the publication of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a picture book about a day in the life of a little girl who lives with her father and his male partner, the legislation banned the teaching of gay issues in schools and the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. It was finally repealed by the Labour government in 2003.
Tory leader David Cameron has now apologised for Section 28 conceding that the law had been ‘offensive to gay people’. Cynics have seen the move as an opportunistic bid for the pink vote in forthcoming elections. However, an apology is important as damage was, of course, done. During those punitive years teachers and librarians did not feel free to guide, discuss and debate sexual identity issues and homosexual young people continued to feel stigmatised.
Now new legislation is planned that will require professionals and voluntary staff working regularly with children to be registered on the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) database. This body was set up following the murder of the two Soham schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. This means that librarians, booksellers and writers who visit schools, including writers from abroad, will have to be registered.
Author Philip Pullman is indignant: ‘This is Labour’s Section 28 – the implication is that no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them. What will this say to children? It’ll say that every adult is a potential rapist or murderer, and that they should never trust anyone… I refuse to be complicit in any measure that assumes my guilt before I’ve done anything wrong. The proposal deserves nothing but contempt.’* Former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo has pointed out that writers are never alone with children on a school visit – they talk to classes or assemblies in the presence of their teachers. But opinion is divided – the current Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne has said: ‘I don't feel that we should be treated any differently from others who work with children. Of course, there's a completely different argument to be had over whether children are being over-protected generally in society – but if all those who work in a position of trust with children and vulnerable adults are checked, then I certainly don't feel “insulted” or “demeaned” by being included. I don't believe that the process will make any difference to how the children in schools feel about us, and nor will it create or reinforce a gulf between children and society.’**
While legislation to protect children is important in many instances, it is not a panacea for all ills. As we know, children are statistically most at danger of abuse from their own family. Children are members of society and live in the real world. Equipping them to deal with that real world by teaching them about its dangers and how to deal with them should they arise is perhaps one of the best ways to protect them from harm.
* The Bookseller,10.7.09
** The Guardian Books Blog, 16.7.09