“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is a well-known quotation, (though not a lot of people will know who said it*). It sounds good, and it is usually applied to people who have misused positions of great power, such as Hitler and Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin or Saddam Hussain.

If it is true, though, and not just a clever sound bite, it is worth considering the concept at lower levels of power. Is it universally true there? Is it true occasionally? Are there examples where it is patently untrue? If it is true at times and untrue at others, what makes power tend – or not to tend – to corrupt?

People in the care of the personal social services (in their broadest sense) are almost by definition vulnerable. They have needs which they cannot meet on their own, and they need help. Those helping them are therefore in positions of power over them.

The people with power include not only the senior managers who are in positions of great influence, but also to all their underlings. A nursery assistant is in a position of power over a toddler, as is a residential care worker working with young people with learning difficulties, or a foster carer or adoptive parent, or a teacher in a secure unit for disturbed young people. However strong the personality of the person receiving the service, the carer can use their role to deny rights and to make life unpleasant.

These roles may not be powerful in terms of status or earnings, but the post-holders can help the children and young people in their care to develop and fulfil themselves or can make their life hell. It may be a matter of sarcastic remarks intended to belittle the child, or it may be physical or sexual abuse. People in these roles are capable of all sorts of misconduct, as history has shown.

When one reads records of the cruelty shown by some staff towards the children they were supposed to protect, it is at times unbelievable. The misery caused by unpleasant punishment and harsh regimes is spelt out in the Pindown report and Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s inquiry into the homes in North Wales.

Yet equally, there are workers who have selflessly put themselves out to support and help disturbed and difficult children, sometimes coping with awful behaviour and persevering without the reward of appreciative comments from the children. Power does not always corrupt.

So why does it tend to corrupt at some times and not at others? It is too glib to say that abusive staff came into the work with the conscious intention of abusing children. It may be true for a very small minority, such as sexual predators who groom children in order to abuse them.

But for most such workers, a more complex explanation is needed. People may have been well intentioned on entering the work perhaps, but may have gradually become worn down by the work, ceasing to be creative and behaving institutionally. Or they may be people who like to be in control, solving problems, and they may have enjoyed resolving difficulties in children’s best interests, got a taste for influence, been corrupted by it and obtained satisfaction from being influential and powerful. rather than centred on resolving children’s needs. Or again, it may be the corrupting influence of a senior member of staff who encourages the rest of the team to misuse their power.

It is difficult to maintain one’s motivation and keep approaching each child’s needs individually over the course of a long career. If the ways in which staff attitudes become altered over time were better understood, the quality of care might well be improved.

Nor is it simply a question of workers in the social services. In this issue we consider bullying at school (in Bullying in York), the abuse of children’s rights (in the APPGC column) and child prostitution (in the Book Review). The misuse of power applies widely.

Parents and step-parents are in positions of power of their children and regrettably most child abuse occurs within the family. It is parents who make their children available for child porn pictures. It is sex tourists who have the paying power to abuse children. It is large business corporations who make their money from the internet where porn is peddled. It is countries which preserve their rich economies that create the circumstances where families in poor countries put their children up for prostitution.

Power can corrupt at all levels. It is the more powerful countries in history that have attempted to use their dominance – sometimes with the best of intentions – to force their views on other countries. Anyone in a position of power from parents to the Prime Minister, then, would do well to take a hard look at themselves and ask themselves whether Lord Acton’s dictum applies to them.

* Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg M.P., First Baron Acton, 1834 – 1902, a Liberal Catholic, who opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility.

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