The case against vetting

A new report reveals the damage done by the never-ending expansion of criminal records checks for anyone involved with children.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Checking that the people who work with our children will not endanger them seems like a sensible policy. Children are vulnerable and we don’t want to put them in harm’s way. A succession of high-profile tragedies, from the Dunblane massacre to the Soham murders has only heightened anxiety about safety. However, when everyday community activities – school discos, parent-teacher councils, local sports clubs – now require a higher level of security clearance than the selling of explosives or firearms, surely it is time to call a halt to the ever-expanding culture of vetting.

Criminal records vetting was once for people in unusual positions, such as spies and judges; now millions of fathers and mothers need the all-clear before they can go on school trips, become school governors, or volunteer with the local boys’ football team.

I have written a Manifesto Club report, The Case Against Vetting: How the Child Protection Industry is Poisoning Adult-Child Relations. I have also coordinated a letter to The Times (London) (1), with signatories including TV presenter Johnny Ball, author Fay Weldon, Jim Campbell (major of Oxford), Judith Gillespie (Scottish Parent Teacher Council), and Eileen Munro from the London School of Economics.

The report documents just how far vetting has gone, and draws on testimonies from childcare experts, sports teachers and community workers, to show how the massive expansion of these bureaucratic procedures is eroding relationships of trust.

There has been almost a 100 per cent rise in the annual number of criminal checks issued by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) since 2002, and the CRB recently announced its ten millionth disclosure. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, due to return to the House of Commons next week, will mean that 9.5million adults – one third of the adult working population – will be subject to ongoing criminal checks.

Vetting is already damaging community relations and activities. Sports clubs have been shut down, foreign exchange trips cancelled, and many would-be volunteers have been put-off from starting new initiatives. The requirement for state clearance means that events that do go ahead are akin to police operations, with official ‘safe adults’ checking other people’s passes at the door.

In the report, Jim Campbell, mayor of Oxford, argues that mass vetting erodes informal bonds: ‘The important informal ways in which people relate are going to disappear – everything will be done under contract. We are in danger of creating a generation of children who are encouraged to look at people who want to help them with suspicion.’

Johnny Ball, TV presenter and mathematician, says that that vetting means that everybody relies on bureaucratic proceedures, and that children grow up without ‘the ability to themselves assess character and motives in the people they meet’. It also undermines the good will on both sides: ‘This awful legislation does nothing to build confidence in young people or indeed in teachers.’

Vetting is a costly and burdensome procedure, which is a big drain on the time and resources of community groups and volunteers. It also doesn’t work. Unwieldy computer databases cast the net too wide; police officers spend all their time checking the records of mothers of three who want to teach piano, rather than focusing on the few individuals who might pose a danger to children.

Simon Wessely, psychiatrist from King’s College London, says: ‘People are blasé about vetting and regard it as a joke, and as a result they are much less likely to spot somebody who really is a danger. Vetting is all part of a general agenda of fear of things that are largely illusory, forgetting fears that are more real.’

Indeed, as Eileen Munro argues, vetting is often more about people covering their backs than protecting children. ‘This is blame avoidance rather than child protection. People prefer a mechanical process like a CRB check because there is no judgment involved and so no risk of making a mistake for which they might be blamed…. However, if you are trying to help children, you need to be sensitive to the unique situation of the child.’

What gets forgotten in all this is the quality of children’s experience. Everybody becomes more concerned about whether the football coach has the approval of the CRB, rather than whether he is a good coach. People who want to help and inspire children spend are tied up filling-in forms and going on child protection awareness courses. This is a regime that will attract the squeaky clean bureaucrats, rather than those adults who really have something to offer.

I hope that this report and letter will start some debate about the best ways to relate to and care for children, and encourage scrutiny of the new government legislation.

But this only the start. We have launched an online petition, and over subsequent months we plan a rolling campaign, taking the debate out to parent-teacher committees, councils, community groups, political organisations and think-tanks across the country. This is one issue that is definitely too important to be left to politicians.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

Read the full report:

The Case Against Vetting: How the Child Protection Industry is Damaging Social Relations.

Sign the online petition.

If you would like to be involved in the campaign, or would be interested in holding a debate about the subject, email Josie Appleton.

(1) Children’s cost in safety bill, The Times (London), 16 October 2006

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