Why we should support this writers’ revolt

Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club hails Philip Pullman and other children’s authors who are refusing to submit to criminal records checks.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The children’s author Philip Pullman has said that he will give up talks in schools rather than submit to ‘insulting’ criminal records vetting under the UK’s new Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). The Manifesto Club fully supports Pullman and other children’s authors’ refusal to be on the government’s vetting database, which will cover over 11million adults from October 2010.

Since the Manifesto Club launched its Campaign Against Vetting in October 2006, we have been inundated with emails from people expressing horror at the proposals. Many other adults have already given up volunteer or work positions, in protest against the requirement that every adult who works with or comes into regular contact with children must first submit to a background check by the Criminal Records Bureau.

Johnny Ball, the children’s TV presenter who gives frequent talks in schools, has said that he would refuse to be vetted. Other volunteers who work with children have said that they would go to prison rather than be vetted. Many Petition Against Vetting signatories have resigned volunteer positions, including: model flying coaches, canoeing instructors, church representatives and parents who help out in schools. Others say that they would resign when this database comes into force, meaning that there could well be a mass rebellion.

For these adult volunteers, as for Pullman and fellow children’s authors – including Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo – the demand that they be police-checked to have contact with children is intrusive and insulting. The vetting database is an instrument of bad faith: it assumes that everybody is tainted as a paedophile, unless proven otherwise. Only by being on a state database are we deemed purified; that is, authorised as ‘safe adults’.

The main result of mass vetting is to turn good people away from helping children: it breeds suspicion and erodes the informal relationships that are so key to children’s happiness (and indeed, their protection). As Pullman says, mass vetting ‘corrupts a child’s view of the world’, making children think that ‘the basic mode is not of trust but suspicion… It assumes that the default position of one human being to another is predatory rather than kindness.’ What kind of adults will these children become?

UK Home Office and education officials simply cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be vetted. When I challenged the Home Office official in charge of the scheme about a potential rebellion against vetting, he said that if somebody didn’t want to be vetted ‘there must be suspicious reasons for that’. He described the vetting database as like a ‘club’, which all decent adults should want to be part of. What a corrupted view of decency: being on a state database and submitting ourselves to constant surveillance.

Yet officials are themselves unclear about who will have to be on their vetting database, which means that the whole scheme will also breed mass confusion. In theory, an adult has to be checked if they work or volunteer with children ‘frequently’, defined as ‘once a month’ or ‘three days at a time’. So not, by implication, if they work with children once every five weeks, or for two-and-a-half days. Yet a Home Office spokesperson said yesterday that all adults who had a ‘tiny amount of contact’ with children would have to be vetted.

There is already substantial public confusion about the vetting database. Many volunteer organisations – including those working with children’s authors – have emailed us asking if their members are covered by the law, because they had been unable to get a straight answer from the Home Office. I attended briefing sessions where Home Office officials were unable to answer simple questions about whether, for example, lifeguards would be covered.

This confusion is testimony to the false nature of what is effectively a mass ‘safe adult’ database. It is a fool’s errand for the state to attempt to check out every adult who has a ‘tiny amount of contact with children’: civil society simply cannot function on this basis. Unless the state is going to seize all babies at birth, all of us – as parents, uncles, aunts, neighbours, volunteers and citizens – have ‘contact with children’. If an adult has no ‘contact with children’ then there is surely something wrong.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority has already cost £16.6million in public money, and will cost much more – added to which is the £64 cost for each check borne by adults and children’s organisations. Tragically, the ISA will do absolutely nothing to protect children from abuse. The vetting database would not have prevented Ian Huntley (who murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman) or Thomas Hamilton (of Dunblane) from committing their terrible crimes, since they did not work at the schools of the children they killed.

We need to stand up, as have these children’s authors, for good faith and for adults taking responsibility for children’s welfare – and against this wasteful database, which, like an evil wizard in a children’s book, just turns good things into bad.

Josie Appleton is head of the Manifesto Club’s Campaign Against Vetting, which has been campaigning against the vetting database since October 2006, and has published numerous reports documenting the growth and damaging effects of vetting. Email her at {encode=”” title=””}

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton felt that acts of kindness have been criminalised by vetting procedures. Elsewhere she argued against policing ‘touch’ in schools and outlined the Manifesto Club’s case against vetting. Dan Travis explained how treating volunteers like criminals will kill community sport. Tessa Mayes explained how a Hampshire photographer has taken a stand against the new suspicion and restrictions photographers face due to the ‘paedophile panic’. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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