Friday, 17 February 2017

Society has changed and now it looks like we love Big Brother - my Catholic Universe column

This week two seemingly completely unrelated issues have caught my attention. Both of them are the type of news story which start conversations in the workplace, or the pub, or the back of church after mass and both seem to be the type that after a brief discussion we simply go on with our lives.

It seems to me however that both stories indicate perfectly the changing society we are living in. Let me explain.

A few days ago the BBC, along with most if not all daily newspapers, ran a story proclaiming that two unnamed schools working alongside the University of Portsmouth had been conducting a research experiment where class teachers had been issued with police style body cameras to see if they helped in controlling bad behaviour.

The story, in some quarters at least, was seen as a direct response to the past criticisms of outgoing OFSTED boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of the curse of low level classroom disruption and the average of one hour a day’s teaching time which pupils can lose as a direct result.

It struck me that such a story is likely to evoke from readers and listeners a black and white, binary response and I undertook to ask people their views on whether such an example of ‘big brother’ watching our children was something that they found palatable. The outcome of those conversations was something of an eyeopener.

I corresponded with a headteacher of a secondary school who told me “Awful idea my concern, teachers will lose professionalism. Reliance on monitoring over than building positive relationships…schools are meant to be strong communities. Not police states”

Another correspondent, a perfectly decent political activist, told me “It sounds thoroughly illiberal, that’s what it sounds…I think parents would be appalled.”

But here’s the funny thing. I undertook to ask a group of parents their views and their response was somewhat different. One mum told me “There is a huge problem now with parents refusing to believe their children are disruptive, blaming teachers and allowing this behaviour. Creating a culture of teachers who no longer teach but spend their days in conflict with children who have no parental barriers…show them the evidence and protect our teachers! No one should fear this unless their children are going to get busted!”

Another mum said “I feel it’s a great idea and an opportunity for parents and teachers to truly analyse behaviour watching it back and in doing so let’s hope they can work together to resolve issues and and importantly support the children demonstrating unwanted and inappropriate behaviours which impact on not just themselves but others too.”

Overall there was far more support for the initiative from, for the want of a better word, ‘ordinary parents’ than there was from political types or education professionals.

Another story has caught my eye over past week too.

Last Monday The Guardian ran an article outlining how under new guidelines NHS hospitals have now been instructed to charge overseas patients for non-urgent care up front.

In a complete about face from current practice from this April onwards hospitals will be asked to check patients entitlement to NHS care and, in the words of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does. So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.

As you would expect with the more politically radical parts of the medical profession a boycott seems to be on the cards. One prominent doctor wrote on Twitter – seemingly forgetting the guidance that the new rules apply only to non-urgent medicine “Well I won’t be asking for their passport before resuscitating them, thanks.”

Whilst another wrote “What the hell? This is absolutely disgusting, the NHS should not be actively working to kick migrants out.”

Now putting aside for one minute the cost to our NHS of the treatment of foreign patients, according to the National Audit Office around £150 million pounds a year goes unpaid with  the expense borne by you and me, there is a wider question as to whether we ‘ordinary’ Brits would be happy to hand over our details to prove that we are entitled to medical care.

There is of course relatively little evidence to determine one way or the other.

Research carried out by the BBC and Ipsos shows that 74% of us are happy with the idea of increasing NHS charges for those from outside the UK. It doesn’t unfortunately go on to say how we might respond when asked for our passports.

Once again I pointedly went out to ask what people I came into contact with thought.

And here is the shocker, time and time again I encountered one very similar answer: “We should have identification cards.” The people I spoke with at least thought it entirely reasonable that we should carry around a document which proves to those in authority who we are.

Now to those amongst us for who memory is no longer our strongest asset I would remind you that indeed Identity Cards very nearly came to pass in this country just over ten years ago.

The then Labour government, whirling in a cloud of anti-terror laws, argued that the benefits of such a scheme would be significant. Indeed back in 2003 61% of those who responded to the Government’s consultation on the introduction of ID cards were supportive.

Of course over the years public support slipped, and even though legislation was enacted by the time the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, the ‘thoroughly illiberal’ programme was cancelled.

But here is the important part ten years down the line less and less of us, it seems to me, are concerned about ‘big brother’ watching us..

If we bother to think about it we know we are caught on CCTV countless times each day, but we don’t think about, because we also know that such cameras play an important part in our lives whether it is helping to apprehend villains  right through to keeping us informed of whether traffic is moving.

To many of us the only time we time we come into contact with biometrics is when we return from holiday and marvel at how quickly we can get through customs these days.

Most of us might think about sinister foreign governments stealing our data but then we think ‘there are 60 million records in this country, why would Russia want my information?’

Most of us understand that there are potential drawbacks to any system but when the good outweighs the bad, as it seems to in our modern day surveillance culture we not only live with it but we accept it.

In the coming months and years we will see far more stories where greater surveillance is touted as a proposed solution. My guess is that society will unflinchingly accept it.

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