Isabel Oakeshott is writing a biography of David Cameron with Lord Ashcroft and is a former Political Editor of the Sunday Times
Somewhere in the sea between Cherbourg to Southampton, I was checking out a children’s crèche.
I was at a conference on a cruise ship and was curious about the facilities in case it might make a family holiday some day.
Cunard’s Queen Victoria is a magnificent vessel, offering every luxury to passengers who can afford the fares. For those to whom money is no object, there are round-the-world voyages stretching several months, experienced from the comfort of duplex apartments served by liveried butlers. Accommodation in steerage may be cramped, but it’s hard to put a price on the romance of a crossing on such a fabulous ship.
Relative to other facilities, the so-called “Kidzone” is a relatively modest affair, around the size of the average sitting room, with a small annex.
Standing at the front desk, where parents drop off children, I could just about see it all.
There was the usual array of toys, bricks and colouring books, and a soft play area with a decent enough climbing frame. Outside, one or two children were playing happily, well outnumbered by staff.
By walking two paces into the room, I could have viewed everything.
But rules are rules, and my request for a quick look prompted an extraordinary kerfuffle. There were forms to fill, a laminated visitor pass to be issued, and even talk of a wrist band.
Clearly designed with paedophiles and child snatchers in mind, the procedures were rigid. Up to a point, quite right too. The murder of Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by school caretaker Ian Huntley in 2002; and the shocking crimes of Vanessa George, a nursery worker who sexually abused children in her care in 2009, reinforced the case for intense scrutiny of anyone working with vulnerable people or young children. Highly unusually, women were involved in both these cases, demonstrating that being female – or a mother – is not a total disqualification from committing dreadful acts against children.
Of course childcare providers, in whom parents are place the utmost trust, must take all reasonable steps to protect those in their care from risk.
Yet such crimes are vanishingly rare, and the ability to calculate risk is a vital life skill. I do not know of any case, anywhere, in which any passenger on a luxury cruise liner has managed to cause any harm to anyone by standing for a few seconds in the middle of an empty creche.
As I waited for all the requisite paperwork to be completed, I tried to let the experience wash over me. I stood patiently while two staff rifled through fat lever arch files, trying to find the right forms. I knew there was no point in questioning it. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t set the rules.
But all I could think was: how did it come to this? How can we have arrived at a point where in any setting involving children, every stranger, no matter what the circumstances, is treated as a potential threat?
Allowing sensible staff to exercise some discretion in certain circumstances is a bit like passenger profiling at airports. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but certain types of people, who behave in certain ways, are statistically far more likely than others to attempt to blow up planes. It’s just a fact.
Companies and organisations responsible for the well being children – or air passengers – should obviously operate on certain principles designed to minimize the risk of harm But they should also allow staff to exercise common sense. Both MPs and the media have a role to play in creating a more sensible approach, by not pushing for legislation and regulation for every remote possibility.
Insisting on a one size fits all approach to risk – be it in airports or cruise ship crèches – is not only a waste of time and resources; it is an insult to the intelligence of staff in such settings. Worse, it infantilises us all.