It's criminal

If we are now saying that fingerprinting children is the best way of ensuring that they get their library books back to the school library – then the world has clearly gone mad! But this is what is happening both nationally and locally.

One of my local schools was catapulted into the media this week for having fingerprinted its children and retained the fingerprints on file – even though in this case the scheme had to be dropped because it didn’t work.

The technology being used on British children is similar to the identification systems used in US prisons and for the German military. This system is now being used in thousands of UK primary schools up and down the land – sometimes in conjunction with digitised photographs – to replace library cards and – so it is argued – to increase efficiency of library management. Each child is required to place a thumb onto an electronic scanner, and the identity of the print is then stored in a computer.

In my view, treating children like criminals is unlikely to be the best way to imbue the sort of values we should be instilling in the next generation. Fingerprinting and digitised photographs for protecting the Crown Jewels – fair enough – but fingerprinting and digitised photographs for a children’s book about them? That is a hideously disproportionate response to the issue – and a sense of balance and judgement is one of the many things we should actually be teaching children!

Remember also that the infant book-borrower is not a random passer-by – I don’t think even in the most extreme media world stuffed full of crime wave scares have we got into drive-by booknappings by joyriding offspring from neighbouring schools. So schools have things like name, address and contact details on record already – which means it is not as if some sophisticated identification and checking system is needed.

And yes – children do lose their library cards; but learning not to lose things is part of becoming a developed grown-up as is taking the responsibility for borrowing a library book and then dealing with the financial penalties if it is not returned.

That the Government is encouraging this is perhaps not surprising – given that this is the very same Government that wants to spend billions of pounds on mandatory ID cards – tagging the innocent rather than putting the resources into catching the guilty. Who knows – perhaps there is a view that they need to get kids used to being monitored and tagged at an early age so that when they come to voting age they will think nothing of a Big Brother surveillance state!

The Government is belatedly bringing out some guidelines for schools and encouraging schools to seek parental consent. It is all rather half-hearted so far, and the retention of this very sensitive and personal information on a computer database also raises the spectre of security (how many schools have the IT expertise to keep their systems really secure?) and future use and abuse.

So I have signed an Early Day Motion at Parliament (sort of a petition for MPs) against this growing practice. (If you aren’t one of my constituents, you can lobby your own MP too very easily via We need a proper debate – with teachers, parents and children involved – and then effective and comprehensive new guidance if such a system is to be used at all.

And we need it soon – because imagine the temptation to keep on expanding the use of fingerprints and access to them. Otherwise it won’t be long before security and safety are rolled out as reasons to give the security services and the police access to the fingerprint records. And then – remembering Labour’s public backing for so-called “early intervention”, which means identifying those children at risk of becoming criminals later in life – it could so easily be extended to monitoring children, however young, thought at risk of one day becoming a criminal. And then of course you wouldn’t want to leave out any child would you, because what if you assessed the risk wrong and the one you didn’t fingerprint went on to commit a crime? So it’d be full fingerprinting and monitoring across the board. Not so much Big Brother as little Kid Brother perhaps – but just as bad. And all because someone wanted to make sure they got their library book back.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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