If you’re 16, you’re a potential abuser

With 127,000 children added to the vetting database annually, one young volunteer explains why being 16 is not so sweet.

Patrick Hayes

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Topics Politics

As part of the New Labour government’s anti-paedophile vetting regime, nearly 127,000 children are now having criminal records checks each year. Young people aged 16 and over who want to help younger kids with after-school reading practice or sports coaching, or to volunteer with so-called ‘vulnerable adults’, are routinely told by local education authorities, child protection agencies and various regulatory bodies that they should undergo Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. Even children of childminders must register on the national vetting database as soon as they turn 16. When the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act comes into force in July 2010, registration will be a legal obligation for such teenagers.

When applying to become a youth volunteer in Hackney, east London, 16-year-old Adelah Bilal was told that, as she would be working with younger children, she would have to undertake a CRB check before the charity could accept her. ‘It was as if the government was telling me that, as I was entering adulthood, I had gone from being a child to a potential paedophile’, Adelah tells me.

Adelah thinks the vetting system is far more than just an inconvenient and costly bit of red tape: it breeds distrust between charities and volunteers, and between adults and children. ‘When a friend of mine was about to turn 16, her mother, who is a childminder, was told that my friend had to have a CRB check or she would have to stop looking after children. It’s absurd! My friend has been around children all her life. Why, when turning 16, was she suddenly deemed suspicious?’

A new report from the Manifesto Club, Vetting Under-18s: An Education in Mistrust, gives several examples of young people who have found the experience of undergoing CRB checks perplexing and insulting. Vetting requirements, explains the report, are also putting pressure on schools, voluntary and children’s organisations and sports clubs, which are required to cover the costs of CRB checks themselves; several schools and community groups are considering cutting down on volunteering positions. ‘It is a sick society’, the report says, ‘that CRB checks a young person at 16 – yet this only reveals the mistrustful assumption of the vetting laws, which equate “adult” with “potential abuser”’. One children’s sports body told the Manifesto Club that children could be vetted from the age of 10.

Indeed, by 2015, once the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) – which will be responsible for taking decisions about who should be barred from working with children – is fully operational, an estimated 11.3million people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to be vetted before they can start work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults.


Adelah Bilal

Hearing more and more stories from friends and family members who have had to undergo CRB checks inspired Adelah to help create a programme for the alternative news channel WORLDbytes, where I am volunteer coordinator. The short documentary, Bitter Sweet Sixteen, looks at the wider social impact of the vetting regime. As the vetting database expands, false allegation is a growing danger, not to mention the negative implications for civil liberties and privacy rights. By formalising the process of eliminating risk from children’s lives, child protection campaigners are, paradoxically, discouraging adults from helping with children who are at risk because such volunteers fear being accused of abuse or paedophilia.

David, a young father-of-two who is interviewed in Bitter Sweet Sixteen, recalls his nervousness of helping a young girl who was lost in a supermarket because he thought the situation might be misinterpreted: ‘If I try to lead the child to the customer service desk so they can put a tannoy message out, will people think I’m trying to kidnap the child?’

Adelah hopes that Bitter Sweet Sixteen will help to ‘open people’s eyes to the realities of the vetting system, and make them realise that it’s not a “necessary evil”, or just an impractical, bureaucratic process’. It is something worse than that.

Adelah is only 16, but she says she notices a big difference in the experiences that she and her two older brothers have had and the experiences of their 11- and 12-year-old sisters. Today, far fewer parents are helping out on school trips or with youth work than they did in the recent past, and fewer adults from the wider community are allowed to help with school activities.

‘At sixth form there are strict controls on who can come in and speak to us’, says Adelah, ‘and we are endlessly monitored, even when we do things like take a bus, which we do by ourselves every day anyway. When me and my friends challenge our teachers about all these rules and the strict monitoring we’re being subjected to, they seem to agree that it’s all too much, but they just say “we have to follow the rules”.’

The impact of this, Adelah observes, is that ‘it clouds your sense of judgement and you end up not knowing how to develop a sense of risk, or your own ability to make decisions. It all just serves really to shelter you. And what good does it do? You end up with a massive reality shock when you leave school.’

Adelah is perhaps part of the last generation who will be able to remember what it was like before the vetting laws were in place. Her younger sisters have no such recollection: ‘Relationships of trust are being broken down, but they weren’t allowed to develop trust in adults in the first place’, Adelah says.

Through the relentless expansion of the vetting database, the paedophilia scare has helped stamp everyone as Possible Abusers, from grandmothers volunteering at facepainting parties and lollipop ladies helping children cross the street to teenagers teaching children to read or swim. We are in danger of losing sight of the value of informal relations, branding millions of people as objects of suspicion, with the state defining, through flimsy criteria, who can and cannot talk to, work with and spend time with children.

Advocates of vetting argue that the process is straightforward and simple, simply weeding out those who have ‘something to hide’. However, as the interviewees in Bitter Sweet Sixteen and in the Manifesto Club’s An Education in Mistrust demonstrate, the consequences of such a formalisation of relationships in communities are far from harmless. Despite intending to ensure that children are ‘protected’, the ever-expanding vetting laws instead make them less resilient and more vulnerable. And, equally, they make responsible, well-intentioned adults feel like potential abusers.

Patrick Hayes is volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Watch Bitter Sweet Sixteen: UK Vetting Laws, a film by WORLDwrite, here. The Manifesto Club report, Vetting Under-18s: An Education in Mistrust, is available here.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton outlined the case against vetting, which she said has criminalised acts of kindness and destroyed trust. Dan Travis explained how treating volunteers like criminals will kill community sport. Jennie Bristow urged parents to oppose vetting. Or read more at spiked issue Vetting.

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

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