The Home Office has this week been under fire as it unveils its plans to safeguard children. Any person who has “frequent or intensive” contact with children who are not their own must be continually monitored by the new Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS). It is thought that up to 12m people will have to be registered.
The VBS is a response to the Bichard report into the failings that led to the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002. However, the problem in Soham was not that the police did not know about Huntley- Humberside police had investigated him for allegations of sexual assault, but that the information was not passed onto Cambridgeshire Constabulary. Baroness Morgan-who claimed this week that the VBS would help prevent another Soham forgets that Huntley did not gain access to Holly and Jessica by virtue of his position as a school caretaker-the two girls attended a completely different school. He abducted the two girls when they visited his girlfriend Maxine Carr-their classroom assistant. Even if the VBS had been in place at the time, he could still have had access to them.
Report after report shows that the majority of child abuse happens inside the home and is carried out by family members. Victoria Climbié, Baby P and the thousands of other children killed or abused in their own homes would not have been saved by the proposed reforms. Overstretched and under -funded Social Services could put the £200m the scheme will cost to much better use, employing more and better social workers. This is not to say that proposed system would not stop unsuitable people from getting access to children-such a claim would be impossible to prove: But with severely limited public funds, we need to be putting the money where it is likely to do the most good. A vast database checking up on 12m people, 99.9% of whom will be innocent, is not that place. It goes without saying that the £84m the NHS will have to spend registering its 1.3m workers could be better spent improving standards of care.
No matter how good the intentions, many people will be distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that the government can impose a £5000 fine on people who volunteer in their communities for not requesting that the state subject them to intrusive background checks. The VBS is the latest in a worrying line of government measures, such as Asbos, which extend the power of public authorities to punish citizens without the need to uphold their allegations to the standard of proof required in a court.
Aside from the cost and civil liberties concerns, the system will simply not be practical. The proposed reforms assume that junior sports clubs and other organizations for children can afford to wait weeks while the government checks up on their volunteers. Parents are often called up to help out on a short notice, ad-hoc basis and so the need for help may have passed by the time the VBS checks have been completed. The system would have to constantly monitor at least 20% of the UK population, and the government has yet to show if this could be done effectively and thoroughly enough to justify the cost and intrusion it presents.
There may well be much cheaper and simpler ways to protect children. Sue Gwaspari, director of Community Service Volunteers, the UK’s largest volunteering charity, described the new checks as “disproportionate”. She argues that “vigilance and supervision” on the part of children’s organizations-limiting new volunteers’ access to children at first and not leaving children in the care of a single adult-could prove just as effective. For years groups like the Scout Association have had a comprehensive system of background checking and monitoring of its volunteers without prompting from the government or the threat of steep fines for not doing so.
The VBS risks weakening our already fractured community relations by instilling mistrust. Even while it may not suggest that anybody who wants to work with children or around them is suspect, it implies that they cannot be trusted. Professor Alan Craft, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said “We have created a climate where adults feel they can’t put an arm around a child who is upset, and there is a real danger that this move takes us yet further down that road.”
Ministers argue that the VBS won’t destroy volunteering because community volunteers will not have to pay for registration, and the vast majority of those subjected to checks will not have to worry because they will have “nothing to hide”. That may be so, but it is not a particularly good argument. If the police were to start doing random checks on people’s homes, then why would that be acceptable even if most people have “nothing to hide”? The Chief Constable in charge of the Soham investigation points out that no amount of vetting, checking and paranoia will make children totally safe. At some point, you need to stop worrying. At some point, you just have to trust people.