Are tree surgeons really a threat to children?

For all the Lib-Cons’ attempts to rein in Britain’s crazy vetting regime, still millions of adults are being treated as potential paedophiles.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

In June 2010, UK home secretary Theresa May announced the scaling back of the system of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks ‘to common-sense levels’. This regime was certainly wanting ‘common sense’. Launched in 2002, it meant that each year several million adults working with children or vulnerable adults, whether in a professional or a voluntary capacity, were subjected to a mandatory criminal-record check. The coalition government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill, however, was set to rein in this vetting frenzy by limiting the obligatory CRB checks to those working frequently or intensively with children in an unsupervised capacity.

Yet this significant shift in government policy has actually had a negligible effect on vetting practice on the ground. As we at the Manifesto Club reveal in our new report, Vetting Tree Surgeons: CRB Checking and Local Authorities, there were in total over four million CRB checks in 2011, a quarter of which were on volunteers. The CRB statistics for 2011 were barely any different to 2010 or 2009.

Worse, many of these CRB checks are being carried out by – or demanded by – state-funded bodies, including local authorities, the education-standards watchdog Ofsted and Sport England. Indeed, local authorities are one of the biggest processors of CRBs, carrying out nearly a million checks a year.

CRB checks were traditionally carried out on a limited range of child professionals – such as teachers, social workers and care workers – and the current government position advocates a return to such common-sense levels. Local authorities, however, are less keen. They are currently checking everybody from tree surgeons to leisure-centre managers, keep-fit instructors to parents volunteering at the school disco, burger-van operators to asbestos monitors. Indeed, receiving freedom of information (FOI) results from councils, I was left wondering if there is any job for which local authorities do not carry out a CRB check.

It seems that the criminal-records check has become a de facto clearance for professionals and volunteers to have contact with members of the public. People are being checked because they work in public gardens or parks, where there is – in local authority jargon – ‘opportunity for contact with children or vulnerable groups’. Where in life is there not such an ‘opportunity’?

And why opportunity for contact? It suggests that every adult is simply looking for a chance to groom and exploit. And it also suggests that there is something unnatural and dubious about contact itself, which might in other times have been described as a social relationship or an exchange, or just public life.

Local authorities are openly taking an over-cautious approach: it is seen as ‘best practice’ to be ‘careful’. Yet this is not about taking responsibility for children. It is about covering backs; having the right piece of paper in the file. The shameful truth is that public bodies carry out these checks so that if anything happens, they cannot be held responsible. Bureaucratic compliance takes the place of real responsibility for children.

CRB checks are largely carried out on low or no-risk individuals: mothers’ helping out in their kids’ class and so on. It is a strange mindset indeed that makes a school, upon receiving offer of help from a local grandmother, gravely put her through state vetting procedures to check she is not a sex offender. This is not sincere – nobody sincerely believes that the grandmother could be a risk – yet in an act of dissociation, people working in local authorities separate their beliefs from their practice.

These checks cost £45million pounds of public money each year, at a time when local authorities are cutting back on frontline services. The local authorities making the greatest number of checks – Devon, Hertfordshire and Essex county councils – carry out over 20,000 CRB checks per year, at a cost of nearly a million pounds per authority.

Money that could be put to productive public use is being frittered away on systems of mass state surveillance. It must be an upside-down world in which CRB checks for tree surgeons appear as more being important than an old people’s home or support for the homeless. When it comes to making cuts, bureaucratic checks appear as essential, and public services as dispensable. It is also likely that many of these checks are illegal. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 restricts the request for criminal-records information to a limited number of positions, which does not by any stretch of the imagination include tree surgeons or burger-van operators.

The government’s shift in vetting policy is very welcome. There is a rare common-sense attitude in the Home Office right now, and a recognition of the damage that over-cautious CRB checking can do to trust and community relations.

However, our research sends the sobering message that whatever the policy shift, vetting practice on the ground has barely changed. There are currently no effective procedures for the investigation of, or challenge to, illegitimate CRB checks. We’re calling for the government to make a strong statement on over-checking – and for individuals subject to illegitimate CRBs to be able to challenge the request in an independent forum.

The Manifesto Club will continue to expose over-checking authorities, so if you want us to take up your case, do get in touch.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Read the report, Vetting Tree Surgeons: CRB Checking and Local Authorities here.

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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