Fans of the West Wing will remember the interview President Bartlet has with his daughter’s security detail just as Zoe was leaving for university. Bartlett was fishing to find out if Gina Toscano would tell him what Zoe was doing during her time away. He is firmly rebuffed and Zoe was able to get on with her university life, living as carelessly as any other 19 year old without Toscano reporting back to her father.
Not long after, we learn just how important the trust relationship is in the protection of Zoe from a right-wing sniper.
Confidentiality is often breached
Confidentiality is not an absolute. There are many circumstances when agency professionals are required to pass on confidential information to another agency or person. For example in cases of:
- Child abuse or neglect
- Risk of a serious crime
- Serious risk to self or others
- A young person is being groomed by a terrorist organisation.
Additionally, an undocumented or inadequately documented immigrant, in need of a public service such as health care, may find their details being passed onto other agencies.
Many service users choose not to use a service in the knowledge or fear that information will be passed to others. Young people may not disclose to adults that they are being sexually abused for fear of criminal justice or child protection systems. Irregular immigrants may not seek health care, even when seriously ill for fear of being deported, and people with deteriorating mental health may not seek help for fear of being sectioned. There are enough cases for service users to know that there is always a chance that disclosure will lead to worsening their situation or detention.
A punitive government
The current government has a very punitive approach to social problems. It generally opts to make undesired behaviours illegal, to increase measures of surveillance and to institute harsh punishments for breach. The much vaunted ‘nudge unit’, introduced by David Cameron, which seeks to work with the grain of human behaviour and positive psychology, has had little impact on government policy in respect of wrong doing. The preference overall, has been for punitive and harsh measures.
In respect of covid, there were 800 fines alone in the week of the Downing Street party. Many of those who were unemployed or furloughed were fined £1,000 for breaching the regulations and mixing with others. Some police forces used helicopters to police the regulations and Priti Patel, the home secretary, said that she would report her neighbours should she see them breaking the rules.
Downing Street parties and security information
There is considerable public anger about the parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic and the lies that have been told across government to cover them up. Press reports across the political spectrum indicate that the public want the breaches investigated and believe that all the information that was available at the time should be passed onto any investigating body. In particular, there have been calls for the police to examine CCTV footage and visitor logs in order to identify if parties did take place and if so, who attended.
To examine CCTV footage and visitor logs would be an abuse of the police security role in Downing Street. The police presence is to ensure only those with prior authorisation can enter and that the building is safe for the occupants to work freely. It enables them to be as foolish or even criminal as any other person might in their workplace, or in the case of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, at home. It is not for those on duty to report on law breaking that is not related to security. If law or rule breaking is reported, the trust between those requiring and those providing security will be broken.
This does not mean that the illegal activities can be safely ignored or that investigations will not be fruitful. In a normal workplace if a member of staff or a visitor to the organisation were concerned about rule breaking they would take it up with more senior staff or write to the organisation or use whistleblowing procedures. If unsatisfied with the action taken it would then be reasonable to go to the press.
Alternatively, an unhappy observer of law breaking can report it to the police. They can collate information – and it would appear that a number of ‘insiders’ have done so given the steady drip of information that has been released. The police can examine this evidence without breaching confidentiality or the defined purpose of their security role. They can also encourage an informant to gather more evidence, or require other forms of information to be released. All of this can be done without breaching the working assumption of confidentiality and trust between government employees and their office security personnel.
The ends do not justify the means
If professionals cannot offer the confidentiality that is required for their role to be successful, the role itself is undermined. We know that child victims of abuse almost never report their abuse to a ‘child protection’ worker (including education and health professionals as well as police and social work) as they do not trust them. Instead they tell their friends, develop their own means of protection (including, for example carrying knives), or seek advice from anonymous and truly confidential services.
Measures to compel all professionals to report abuse has only served to restrict the number of people children will disclose their abuse to. Similarly, breaching confidentiality now in respect of the parties in Downing Street by handing over security information would undermine the security function for ever. Trust in the police to protect staff and visitors would be lost and the police presence would be seen as hostile.
It is difficult to have much sympathy with Downing Street staff or government ministers in their current predicament and the public clearly want some form of recognition and punishment. However, these ends do not justify all means of evidence gathering and security information should not constitute part of this investigation.