Where were the vetting critics three years ago?

The politicians and children’s charities now questioning vetting regulations are the same people responsible for their creation.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Just as the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) was about to spring into action, vetting millions of UK adults who work or volunteer with children, the government has been forced to announce a review. Having been campaigning against this vetting database for the past three years, I am delighted. However, we need to review not just the letter of the policy – whether it needs to be tweaked a bit this way or that – but the whole vetting database itself.

Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, has asked the ISA to look at the definitions of ‘frequent’ and ‘intensive’ work with children, which determine whether somebody has to go on the database or not. Currently, ‘frequently’ is defined as at least once a month, and ‘intensive’ means at least three days at a time. Yet the trouble with these categories is not that they need to be tweaked, but that the whole exercise is a fool’s errand.

It is a fool’s errand for the state to say that adults must register if they come into contact with children X times per month, whatever the value of X. Such bureaucratic categories are fundamentally at odds with everyday life, where adults come ‘into contact’ with children every day. Adults should not need security clearance to meet children: civil society cannot function on this basis.

This vetting policy has been tweaked and fiddled with enough already: another review will do nothing, save buy ministers some more time. The vetting and barring scheme has been subject to countless reviews over the years. It was reviewed in 2006, before being passed in autumn that year. The government launched a further public consultation in November 2007 to fine-tune the database (1), and published a response document in May 2008 (2). The amount of civil servant time and energy expended on the definitions of ‘frequently’ and ‘intensively’ is already enormous; there is no sense in burning more.

Just about every announcement or deadline associated with this database has been delayed. Originally, the database was supposed to be fully up and running by autumn 2008, a deadline that is now set for autumn 2010. The Manifesto Club’s Campaign Against Vetting obtained a leaked copy of the government guidance – sent to government departments in May this year – showing that officials had finally settled on ‘frequently’ meaning once a month for three months (3). This 149-page guidance document, specifying in tortuous detail how the whole scheme would work, was due to be published in the summer – yet has still not appeared. The last time I called the ISA for an update I was told it was being held by the ‘Home Office communications team’.

The reason for these delays is that the scheme is fundamentally irrational. We need to face up to this, rather than put it off yet again.

Criticisms of the ISA now come from all quarters, including the police officer who ran the Soham investigation, the civil servant who recommended that it be set up, children’s organisations such as the NSPCC, and opposition politicians. The ISA is like a beached whale, a gargantuan bureaucracy entirely lacking public support. It is strangely marooned and nobody seems to support its existence. The last press release on its website is dated April 2009, cheerfully titled ‘ISA prepares for October’s strengthened Safeguarding role’.

How did this insane social policy get to such a stage? The law is long passed, the organisation is up and running; the building set up, the staff trained, the computer system built.

The answer is simple: because not one politician or children’s charity spoke out against it over the past three years. Most of these children’s charities and opposition politicians who have criticised the database in the past week (as if they had only just heard about it) voted through the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, or responded positively to countless government consultations. They contributed to its creation. Ed Balls did not create the vetting database in his front room; the ISA head did not build his organisation of his own volition. This policy came out of debate, consultation and assent from the main figures in British political life and children’s policy.

The NSPCC, which last Sunday came out against the database, had responded favourably to the database in consultations over the past three years. The government doesn’t pass a piece of children’s legislation without consulting the NPSCC. In its consultation response in April 2006, several months before the law was passed, the NSPCC’s main concern was that the rules would be effectively communicated to the public, and that the Independent Barring Board had enough staff for the job (4). TV personality, turned children’s campaigner, Esther Rantzen, who between 2006 and 2008 appeared in national media defending the database (5), now concludes that the database is ‘less about protecting children than groups protecting themselves’. The database hasn’t changed: so what has?

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act was passed in a low-key Commons debate in October 2006, with cross-party backing. Not one politician raised significant questions about the legislation. In 2007, I spent a fruitless few weeks trying to lobby politicians of all parties on this issue. Most agreed that this vetting law was crazy and would do no good, yet not one would say so in public. One MP explained to me that it would be ‘political suicide’ to speak out against it. In a couple of cases, MPs were initially positive, but were then warned off the issue by their colleagues and quickly backed off.

We need a fundamental review of the vetting and barring scheme, even though this is inconvenient and disruptive at such a late stage. It will be far less disruptive than the wrong-headed policy of making millions of British adults go on such a database. However, we also need to be conscious of the dangers of sacrificing political judgement and the suppression of political opinion and discussion. It is because of this sacrifice, by dozens of politicians and organisations, that this dangerous and destructive policy ever saw the light of day.

Josie Appleton leads the Manifesto Club’s campaign against the government’s vetting database. See their latest campaign work, and petition against the database, here. For a PDF version of the Manifesto Club’s latest briefing document, Regulating Trust: Who will be on the Vetting Database? see here. Email Josie {encode=”Josie.Appleton@manifestoclub.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton argued that vetting procedures will condemn adults on the basis of hearsay and dubious decision making. Elsewhere, she supported writers who refused to be CRB checked, and felt that acts of kindness have been criminalised by the vetting process. She also 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 Liberties.

(1) ISA scheme Consultation Document – Formal Government Response, 30 May 2008

(2) SVG Act 2006: ISA scheme Consultation Document, 14 November 2007

(3) Guidance for the Vetting and Barring Scheme (Draft), 12 May 2009

(4) Response to the Joint Consultation on the Independent Barring Board, NSPCC, 21 April 2006

(5) For example, on BBC Breakfast, 19 October 2006; Newsnight, 20 December 2006

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