How the vetting frenzy alienates adults from kids

ESSAY: The state’s vetting of adults working with children suggests it no longer trusts us to use our judgement to socialise the next generation.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The Liberal-Conservative government’s announcement that the controversial Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) will be ‘very significantly’ curtailed is very welcome.

Under its new incarnation, rather than seeking to subject anybody who works or volunteers with children to a police check, the vetting scheme will reportedly focus on ‘those in sensitive posts or who have intensive contact with children or vulnerable people’. The onus will shift to employers ensuring that people are checked, rather than individuals themselves; and in a move apparently designed to address concerns about civil liberties and the errors thrown up by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), criminal record checks will no longer be sent directly to potential employers, but to the individual first to allow them to challenge any concerns or suspected errors.

All in all, the number of people affected by the vetting scheme is expected to halve. A Whitehall source told the Daily Telegraph that the new vetting scheme ‘will tread a sensible line between, on the one hand, making sure that sensible people, volunteers and everyone, are not let down by this ridiculous, bureaucratic system, and on the other hand protecting children and passing the “school caretaker test”’.

At the time of writing, the exact nature and scope of the new vetting scheme have not been revealed. However, three things seem clear. First, the coalition government has rightly responded to the destructive consequences of the Vetting and Barring Scheme unleashed by New Labour, and attempted to address some of its excesses, as well as the proportion of the population to whom the scheme applies. Secondly, the VBS will not disappear entirely, so we can expect some of the problems inherent in the scheme to continue. Thirdly, despite the scaling back of the official VBS, the assumptions behind the national vetting scheme have already acquired a momentum of their own in everyday life, which will not disappear overnight.

Reducing the scope of the vetting scheme will have a considerable impact, both in practical terms and in terms of dampening some of the confusion and hysteria that has surrounded ‘CRB-checking’ over the past few years. But in the interests of keeping this new scheme in check, it is worth taking a sober look at the roots and consequences of New Labour’s unpopular VBS – and asking ourselves how we got to this point in the first place.

The destructive consequences of the VBS

The Vetting and Barring Scheme was developed by the New Labour government, in a classically kneejerk policy response to the Soham murders of 2002, and enshrined in law by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Yet by September 2009, even New Labour was forced to recognise some of the destructive effects of its pet project. Sir Roger Singleton, the head of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), conducted a review of the scheme and told a conference:

‘We need to calm down and consider carefully and rationally what this scheme is and is not about. It is not about interfering with the sensible arrangements which parents make with each other to take their children to schools and clubs. It is not about subjecting a quarter of the population to intensive scrutiny of their personal lives. And it is not about creating mistrust between adults and children or discouraging volunteering.’

In our report Licensed to Hug, first published in 2008, Frank Furedi and I argued that the national vetting scheme was indeed about all of these things. Unfortunately, as we indicate in a second edition of the report, in the space of a mere two years it was already apparent that the national vetting scheme had interfered with parents’ ability to make private arrangements, subjected a quarter of the population to intensive scrutiny of their personal lives, discouraged volunteering, and institutionalised mistrust between the generations. Whatever the intentions of those charged with creating and implementing the Vetting and Barring Scheme, it took very little time for the scheme’s destructive consequences to acquire a momentum of their own.

Regulating private arrangements

For example, in February 2010, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) published a ‘myth-buster’ about circumstances in which the Vetting and Barring Scheme would apply. The key aim of this factsheet was to highlight that ‘personal and family’ arrangements were exempt from the VBS: that, for example, ‘a parent who takes part in a rota with other parents to take each others’ children to school once a week’, or ‘a parent arranging, with the parents of her child’s friends, for the friends to stay at her home for a sleepover’, does not need to be formally vetted.

This ‘myth-busting’ was issued in response to news headlines reporting that ‘Parents who ferry children to clubs face criminal record checks’: because, according to the requirements of the VBS, ‘anyone working or volunteering on behalf of a third-party organisation – for example, a sports club or a charity – who has frequent or intensive access to children or vulnerable adults will have to be registered with the scheme’.

The distinction between parents volunteering on behalf of a children’s club to ferry children around, and parents organising a rota between themselves for the school run, might have been clear to policymakers. But for people engaged in the real world of children’s clubs, school runs, play dates and sleepovers, the line is far from clear – and the rationale for drawing it even less so. The messy, informal nature of working around children’s activities means that it can be difficult to determine, exactly, when the impetus for organising lift-sharing comes from a club or from a group of parents; and in any case, why should somebody volunteering on behalf of the Scouts be more suspect than a father making his own arrangements to kick a ball around with a group of kids on a Saturday morning?

The attempt to draw such rigid distinctions between ‘volunteering’ and ‘private arrangements’ betrayed officialdom’s otherworldly understanding of community life. People remain, understandably, highly confused about who needs vetting in what circumstances, and it was an insult for Sir Roger Singleton to tell them to ‘calm down’ about the confusion that his organisation helped to foment. It was also noteworthy that officials should feel obliged to reassure parents that it does not intend to vet them before holding sleepovers for their child’s friends.

The Vetting and Barring Scheme caused particular outcry with headlines such as ‘Now parents face criminal checks just to enter their children’s school’, ‘Now even Sunday-school parents must be vetted’, and ‘Schools vet parents for Christmas festivities’. Nobody has ever demanded that parents be vetted in order to interact with their own children. But unless families are assumed to be living totally isolated lives, it became clear that parents were likely to find themselves vetted anyway – because many volunteers for children’s activities are also parents, or simply because they want to enter a public place such as a school or playground.

The logic of this approach was drawn out in 2009, when it was reported that Manor Community College in Cambridge, where pupils are aged 11 to 16, put up a sign stating: ‘We do not allow anybody who is not fully CRB-checked to enter the college premises or to work unsupervised.’ Defending the sign, Ben Slade, the college principal, said: ‘We had a safeguarding review which suggested we should make it clear to people who are entering the building they are not to walk around unsupervised or work with children if they haven’t been CRB-checked… Ofsted [Britain’s schools inspection body] makes the rules up, not me, and a lot of schools have failed their inspections for not safeguarding pupils.’

The people who spend the most, and the most ‘intensive’, time with children (both their own and other people’s) tend to be parents. Once the distinction is eroded between childcare professionals and members of the community in general, as it was with the VBS, the idea that just anybody should be vetted acquires an unstoppable logic. And while we can hope that the search for formal CRB checks on other parents may cease with the revised vetting scheme, the anxiety about ‘other adults’ has already been firmly implanted in people’s minds. Parents quite simply worry about car-pooling and play-dates in a way they did not before, and it will take more than a change in the formal rules to undo that damage.

Surveillance and civil liberties

One of the most headline-grabbing aspects of the national vetting scheme has been the number of adults who would be covered by the scheme, and the financial and time cost of this process. In July 2009, the Independent reported ‘outcry’ as it was revealed that 11million adults would be included in the proposed vetting database; following the New Labour government’s review of the ISA, the media reported scant consolation as this estimated number dropped to nine million.

If the numbers covered by the new scheme drop considerably, that is all to the good. But we should remain mindful of the expansionary logic of any vetting scheme that attempts to prevent child abuse through a system of precautionary checks. There will always be questions about why one adult should be vetted and another should not, and employers and policymakers alike will need to resist the temptation to check whoever they can, ‘just to be on the safe side’. Indeed, one of the issues that has continued to lurk behind the operation of the vetting scheme is that of ‘illegal’ CRB checks, where organisations and employers demand a CRB check when none is required – and such has been the confusion surrounding the law that it is difficult to know when this requirement can be resisted.

The inclusion in the ISA’s records of ‘soft intelligence’ about employees or volunteers sparked considerable consternation. In October 2009, Britain’s newly-established Supreme Court ruled that the system of investigating people’s backgrounds for employment vetting is wrongly ‘tilted’ in favour of protecting the public, posing a threat to individuals’ rights and representing a ‘disproportionate interference’ in people’s lives. Earlier in 2009, the outgoing information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned that the ISA’s use of so-called ‘soft intelligence’, such as allegations or suspicions, combined with its power to ban an individual from a job, had the capacity to damage an innocent person in his or her career, ‘financially and socially’.

The problems facing individuals in such situations are likely to persist. Just last month, the Court of Appeal handed down its decision in the case of Desmond v Nottinghamshire Police, which was that a person cannot bring a claim in negligence against the police in respect of information provided to an employer during an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check. This related to a ‘soft intelligence’ disclosure that Desmond had been arrested on suspicion of indecent assault and attempted rape, although no charges ensued. The police disclosed the incident to the CRB, which Desmond claimed impeded his employment as a teacher. But the Court of Appeal held that the police do not owe a duty of care to members of the public in this situation, and that the structure of the statute does not suggest that there should be a duty of care, as this would create a conflict with the statutory purpose of protecting vulnerable young people.

Well-founded concerns about civil liberties have to contend with a powerful cultural acceptance of the idea that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ – and that if the scheme prevents one child from being abused, the jobs and reputations of some innocent individuals is a price worth paying. As Furedi and I observed, this sentiment formed the basis of many individuals’ initial grudging acceptance of the Vetting and Barring Scheme in the first place: we can only hope that the architects of the revised vetting scheme will be more vigilant about the cost to civil liberties, and individuals’ vulnerability to mistakes by official bodies, to which they have limited redress.

Discouraging volunteering

A major problem with the VBS was that the inclusion of volunteers within its scope had a massive impact upon people’s willingness to volunteer for community activities with children. As with the rules surrounding ‘private arrangements’, there has been sensitivity to the problem of creating barriers to volunteering, and to that end the ISA revised and tried to clarify the rules about which volunteers need to be vetted when. But if anything, that made the confusion worse.

For example, under guidance issued by the ISA, organisations were supposed to work through whether their volunteers have ‘frequent’ or ‘intensive’ contact with children. Initially, ‘frequent’ was defined as contact that takes place once a month, and ‘intensive’ was defined as contact taking place three times in every 30 days or overnight. Sir Roger Singleton revised the definitions in 2009, so that ‘frequent contact’ was defined as contact taking place once a week or more often with the same children, and ‘intensive’ as contact taking place on four days in one month or more with the same children or overnight.

It may be clear to some, from these requirements, that a parent who went into school once a week to help a class of children with their reading needed a police check while a children’s author going into a school on a one-off occasion would not. But the reality of voluntary work is that the nature and frequency of people’s contact with children is not so easy to pin down in advance. What about the mother who, at the last minute, volunteered to accompany a Scout group on an overnight camping trip, because another volunteer had fallen ill? Or the father who stepped up to the mark to be Santa at his children’s school?

Volunteering, by its nature, depends upon spontaneous and informal offers of help. But the trajectory behind the Vetting and Barring Scheme formalised this process, by regulating all ‘frequent’ or ‘intensive’ volunteers as though they were professionals or employees. This formalised the notion that the more prepared an individual is to volunteer time and energy to help with children’s activities, the more he or she is regarded as an object of suspicion and in need of a licence.

This has fuelled a further disturbing trend, whereby the existence of vetting procedures can feed the officiousness that some members of voluntary organisations have always exhibited. For example, a father who is heavily involved in his sons’ youth football club told Furedi and me that some other parent volunteers seem to have adopted a policing role, constantly checking whether other parents have been vetted or are following accepted procedures laid down by the club’s child protection policy. It seems unlikely that the vetting zealots created by New Labour’s VBS will suddenly relax in the face of formal changes to the scheme.

Creating mistrust between adults and children

It is important to recognise that the willingness of organisations and individuals to go along with the strategy of mass vetting, often going further than they are legally obliged to, cannot be accounted for merely by the existence of a confusing law. The idea that volunteers ‘might as well’ have a CRB check ‘just in case’; that those with ‘nothing to hide’ have ‘nothing to fear’; that a routine CRB check is something that those who want to volunteer to help with children’s activities ‘just do’ – these sentiments speak to the way that being vetted is rapidly coming to be seen as a mark of responsible adulthood and, indeed, parenthood.

According to this perspective, if a responsible parent is one who becomes engaged in voluntary activities involving other people’s children, then a responsible parent will be officially vetted and cleared.

In this respect, the creation of the Vetting and Barring Scheme intersected with a broader culture of fear, to create a formal barrier between adults and children. The reformulation of the idea of ‘responsibility’ in terms of somebody who has been officially licensed has significant implications for the future of inter-generational relations in our society. It has crystallised the assumption that adults who take responsibility for children should be somehow qualified to do so, that holding the status of an adult is not enough.

Holding a valid CRB check, or having clearance from the ISA, has come to be seen in similar terms to having a First Aid certificate or teaching qualification – as though being officially cleared of child abuse gives these adults some particular knowledge of, and skill with, children, while the rest of the adult population is effectively blacklisted and cautioned to keep its distance. In challenging this culture of suspicion, ripping up the CRB checks currently required for millions of adults is a good place to start – but it is only a start.

How did we get here?

The national vetting scheme did not come out of nowhere. There is a story behind its inception, which is the story routinely told by the policymakers and officials who have developed and implemented it: that the Vetting and Barring Scheme was a response to the Soham murders of 2002, when two 10-year-old schoolgirls were killed by Ian Huntley. Government guidance published in March 2010 presents a standard version of this story:

‘The murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman focused public attention on how people who work or volunteer with children are vetted. The subsequent Bichard Inquiry made recommendations about how vetting should be improved and how it should be supported by better information-sharing, which were accepted by the government.’

Chronologically, this story is true. The Soham murders prompted the Bichard Inquiry, which recommended the creation of the national vetting scheme, which was then enshrined in law by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Clearly, these murders remain a key justification for the Lib-Con coalition government’s revised vetting scheme, as indicated in its desire that the scheme will pass the ‘school caretaker test’.

However, from the very start it was recognised that a CRB check would not have prevented Ian Huntley (a school caretaker) from gaining access to the girls who he murdered, as he did not work at their school and had not been convicted of previous crimes. While the Soham murders provided a clear political impetus to establishing the vetting scheme, it is more useful to understand its inception within the context of broader developments in child-protection policy. The reality is that the government shamelessly politicised the Soham tragedy to set in motion a set of child-protection measures that the state was already developing.

A compelling account of the development of child-protection policy in Britain over the past five decades is provided by Nigel Parton in his 2006 book Safeguarding Childhood: Early Intervention and Surveillance in a Late Modern Society. Parton, along with other academic experts in social work such as Eileen Munro from the London School of Economics, argues that the aims and meaning of child protection work have changed radically since the 1960s, prompted and legitimised by high-profile inquiries into child abuse. Some of the key inquiries identified by the literature on child protection are:

  • 1974: inquiry into death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather;
  • 1985: inquiry into death of Jasmine Beckford at hands of her stepfather;
  • 1988: inquiry into Cleveland affair, where over 100 children were removed from their families by professionals on (erroneous) suspicion of sexual abuse;
  • 1992: Orkney inquiry: again where children were removed from their homes because of suspicions of organised sexual abuse, which were discovered to be unfounded;
  • 2000: the death of Victoria Climbie at the hands of her aunt and her aunt’s partner, which led to the establishment of the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy. This policy organised children’s services (including schools and nurseries) around aiming to achieve five universal and amorphous outcomes: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, achieving economic wellbeing.

What this historical process represents is the playing out of an ongoing tension between the family and the state, in terms of where the primary responsibilities for protecting children lie. While the Colwell and Beckford cases focused attention on the problem of child abuse within the family, the Cleveland and Orkney cases caused a storm because they focused attention on an over-interventionist state, interfering in the family and taking children away on the basis of little evidence.

Two key pieces of legislation arose from this process of inquiries: the 1989 Children Act, which, Munro argues in her 2007 textbook Child Protection, aimed ‘to set a new balance between the state and the family, increasing the protection of the family from untoward state interference’; and the 2004 Children Act, which aims ‘to encourage professional collaboration and increased collection and sharing of data about children’.

The concern about child abuse and child protection has not only focused on the problem of abuse within the family. Parton notes that, in the 1990s, a ‘range of new concerns’ came to the fore, to do with ‘ritual, organised, and institutional abuse’. These were ‘increasingly focused on extra-familial abuse rather than intra-familial abuse and, by the middle of the decade, were focused not just on residential homes, but daycare settings, sports clubs, youth clubs and the church. Not only did it seem that the state was failing to protect children but it could be seen to be actively condoning and, in some cases, perpetrating abuse upon children for whom it was directly responsible.’

It was around this time, the mid-1990s, that the spectre of the ‘paedophile’ came to dominate the media imagination – the predatory adult male who actively sought opportunities to make contact with children whom he could abuse. The Soham murders of 2002 seemed to embody that fear, in the shape of Ian Huntley.

Many commentators now recognise the public fears over ‘stranger danger’ to be something of a moral panic, and – in criticising the absurdities of the national vetting scheme – are quick to point out the rarity of children being abused by somebody outside their own family. (It is worth noting that child abuse within the family is quite rare, too, although fewer people make that point.)

But the pertinent issue here is that Vetting and Barring Scheme has its roots in a cultural dynamic that existed some years before the Soham murders, and the policy response to these murders was not a practical measure designed to catch ‘another Ian Huntley’, so much as a response to a broader, cultural concern about the risks involved in allowing adults to have unregulated interactions with children.

Following Parton’s analysis, child-protection policy has gradually shifted from a concern about what the state should do in cases where it suspects that a child is being abused (as in the Colwell, Beckford, Cleveland and Orkneys cases), to a preoccupation with prevention of abuse happening in the first place. A good example of this is the Every Child Matters policy developed by the New Labour government in 2003. This was the outcome of an inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie – an extremely rare and horrific event. But the policy that developed was one that sought to encapsulate all children – Every Child Matters – in a process of monitoring and early intervention.

The question behind Every Child Matters was not ‘how does the state respond to cases of abuse to prevent them from going so far as they did in Victoria’s case?’. Rather it was ‘what can the state do to ensure that no children are abused in the first place?’. In other words, it was not a direct policy response to a particular event, but another stage in the project of prevention work already begun.

For example, Nigel Parton discusses a significant report published by the Department of Health in October 2002, titled Safeguarding Children: A Joint Chief Inspectors’ Report on Arrangements to Safeguard Children. The development of this report clearly predated the Soham murders, and two things stand out.

Firstly, notes Parton, the report’s attempt to define the concept of safeguarding ‘demonstrated… concerns about children and young people’s welfare as well as risks of harm to children’s welfare. We thus have far more agencies identified as being responsible and a broad focus of what those responsibilities should be.’ This indicates how the concepts of risk and harm shifted to mean damage to the child’s optimal potential, as in the Every Child Matters policy, rather than meaning demonstrable abuse.

Secondly, writes Parton, the Joint Chief Inspectors’ Report addresses the problem of ‘potentially dangerous persons’ and agencies struggling to respond to ‘unconvicted people who presented “a high risk of harm to the public, including children”’. This indicates the expansion of concern from children who may be at risk within their specific circumstances, to concern about adults in the general population who may pose a risk to children.

A similar pattern can be seen with the way the safeguarding agenda developed after Soham aimed to protect children from adults in general. It is widely accepted that the national vetting scheme will not ‘work’ in terms of preventing all cases of child abuse by people working or volunteering with children – this was grimly illustrated by the case in 2009 of the Plymouth nursery worker convicted of abusing children, who had had a CRB check. The national vetting scheme only ‘works’ in cases where somebody has been previously convicted, or officially suspected, of abuse.

But the ‘preventative’ idea, that it is better to regulate adults’ contact with children than not to regulate it, enjoys a high degree of cultural support – even if people might kick against its practical application.

Where do we go now?

In attempting to understand the dynamic behind the national vetting scheme, we have to look at the way in which policy developments over the past three or four decades have gradually come to shape a particular view of child protection. This is the view that children increasingly need protection from adults – whether these are adults within their families, adults working for the state in the professions, such as social work or teaching, or adults in the community as a whole.

From the Maria Colwell inquiry onwards, each development in the child-protection agenda has attempted to address the unfortunate reality that some individuals do abuse the children in their care with a generalising policy response, which gradually adds more monitoring and regulation to the relationship between all adults and all children. This focus has gradually expanded to cover relationships between adults and children within the family, between children and professionals, and now between children and adults in the community at large – symbolised by the vetting of volunteers.

This development is problematic, for one key reason. Child protection is not a technical question, but a human one. Adults protect, and socialise, children every day of their lives – by educating them, coaching them in sports, caring for them emotionally and stopping them from running out in front of cars. This intergenerational relationship is fundamental to society. If adults did not assume responsibility for children, very little that we do in society would make sense.

The trajectory of child-protection policy, however, is to disrupt this taken-for-granted sense of adults’ responsibility for children. It does this by continually imposing a distance between adults and children, by regulating their interactions in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The Vetting and Barring Scheme imposed this distance by monitoring who you are. The scheme insisted that only ‘suitable’ individuals can play a role in children’s lives; that it should no longer be assumed that adults should play a role in socialising the next generation because they are adults – rather, a proportion of adults should submit to surveillance and certification to do so, while the rest are warned to steer clear.

Other well-known aspects of child protection policy monitor what you do. One recent area of concern among many has been the growth of codes of practice preventing adults from touching children, or monitoring how they touch them – for example, nursery workers wearing gloves to change a baby’s nappy, and similar issues discussed by Heather Piper and Ian Stronach in their 2008 book Don’t Touch! The Educational Story of a Panic. There is also increasing disquiet about the rules surrounding parents taking photographs of children – at sports days, school plays and so on.

In their own terms, some such rules might be sensible, some might be profoundly silly. Taken together, the weight of these regulations contributes to a sense of profound disorientation among adults. Adults do not feel that they can simply behave with children in a way that they think is right or responsible – they feel they need to defer to the rules.

In this sense, adults are not exercising responsibility for children directly and using their own human judgement about what is right or wrong or safe or unsafe – they are deferring to technical systems such as the vetting scheme, or the child-protection policy by which their institution operates. This has the ultimate effect of de-skilling adults and making them unwilling or incapable of effectively socialising children.

The formalisation of intergenerational contact has made adults unsure of themselves and each other, and created further tension between adults and children. We should use the review of the Vetting and Barring Scheme to ask some deeper questions about how our society has come to conceptualise child protection as a technical process of certification rather than a generational, human responsibility, and work out some ways of turning this around.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today