How about safeguarding innocent adults?

In the name of protecting children, new vetting procedures will condemn adults based on hearsay and dubious decision-making.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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From October this year, the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) will be responsible for taking decisions about who should be barred from working with children, as part of the roll-out of the British government’s new scheme for checking all adults who work or volunteer with children. The justification for this system is to make better decisions about risky individuals, with the aim of preventing tragic events such as Ian Huntley’s murder of two schoolgirls in Soham in 2002.

Yet judging by a leaked guidance document obtained by the Manifesto Club – and first reported in our briefing document Who will be on the Vetting Database? – the ISA’s decision-making process is a mess. It seems to amount to putting hearsay and other ‘information’ into a computer program, and effectively getting the computer to make the decision. All of which is likely to increase the number of innocent people losing positions, as well as no doubt missing some of those who pose a real danger.

The ISA’s procedure dispenses with niceties such as proving a case against someone – that is, showing that they actually did something wrong in the first place. False allegation is a real danger, and there have been a number of cases already of people losing their jobs because of accusations of which they were later cleared. Now though, the ISA will invite hearsay from all sides: as well as considering information on local police files, it will also consider ‘relevant information’ passed on from employers, personnel suppliers, ‘keepers of certain registers’, supervisory bodies and others.

This ‘information’ must be supplied if an individual did something that would ‘harm’ a child, or potentially harm them. Harm can be ‘physical, emotional, financial or developmental’. This definition is so vague as to be meaningless. What if a child has an accident in a physical education lesson – should the teacher be accused of causing ‘physical harm’? Can telling a misbehaving kid off cause ‘emotional harm’? Moreover, information should also be passed on to the ISA if a person is found to be in possession of ‘sexually explicit images depicting violence against human beings’, or if somebody is suspected of inciting another person ‘to harm a child or vulnerable adult’.

Once the ISA has received all these bits of ‘information’, which must be sent ‘in writing’, then case workers will sit down and start with their ‘structured decision-making process’ to find out if that person is a risk. This, it claims, will enable the ISA to make ‘consistent, justified decisions in what will often be complex and sensitive cases’.

The first question the ISA case worker will ask is ‘whether relevant conduct or a risk of harm “on the face of it” seems to have occurred’. ‘On the face of it’? It takes courts whole days to decide whether an event happened, that is to prove it rather than just go on what seems or is alleged to have happened. Yet the ISA will go through its various bits of ‘information’ and assess them ‘on the face of it’.

The procedure gets vaguer still: the case worker will examine the individual’s ‘predisposing factors’, such as ‘those factors relating to an individual’s interests or drives’; ‘cognitive factors’, such as ‘strong anti-social beliefs’; and ‘behavioural factors’, including ‘using substances or sex to cope with stress or impulsive, chaotic or unstable lifestyle’. Drug use, sex life, favourite films… it all gets thrown into the mix.

The appendix of the Home Office’s guidance document elaborates on the ‘risk assessment models’ that case workers will use to reach a final decision on whether somebody should be barred from their job. The aim of this process, it says, it to make decisions ‘in relation to standardised points of reference that minimise subjective decision-making’.

The risk assessment model starts by identifying a series of possible ‘hazards’, which may come about as a result of a person taking a job/volunteering position, and listing them in a table. It gives the examples of ‘inappropriate physical contact with a 12- to 16-year-old pupil during a lesson’, ‘building a relationship which is exploited out of school resulting in underage sex’, and ‘taking photos of 12- to 16-year-old pupils (eg, during swimming lessons)’. Once they have identified the hazards, the case worker will give each a figure from one to five for the impact it would have on a child (in the examples above, it gives these hazards the figures of four, five and two). Then, they will give it a figure between one and five for the likelihood that the event will occur.

Once they have these two figures for each hazard, they will transfer the figures to ‘a matrix’, which seems to involve basically plotting them on a graph. So for each individual they are considering barring, they will end up with a graph with a series of dots on it: ‘The risk matrix gives a picture of the risk assigned to each hazard as a result of the likelihood and impact assessments.’ Then – somehow, it doesn’t exactly specify how – the ISA is supposed to be able to tell from this graph whether the person is a risk or not, and whether they should be barred.

This reminds me of a ‘procedure’ an academic once showed me for his essay marking, which involved giving students figures from one to five on a series of different areas. The whole exercise was nonsense and wouldn’t reflect the quality of an essay. It was not actually intended to assess the student’s work, but rather to protect the academic from student grade challenges. Such attempts to eclipse judgement, and instead introduce standardised procedures, stems from our fear of making decisions, a fear of being wrong. Yet it turns out that the alternative to judgement is mere nonsense.

The ISA is driven by the same back-protecting impulse. The existence of this organisation comes out of an apparent mistake: that Ian Huntley, a school caretaker at the time of the Soham killings, was allowed to work with children. The result is that nobody now wants to make a decision about who to bar – not politicians, not the police, not social workers. So the buck is passed upwards to this mythical band of ‘safeguarding experts’, who in some darkened office block are supposed to make decisions that keep everyone safe.

Reading the guidance document it becomes clear that this is a very foolish thing to do. These procedures will further erode people’s privacy and civil liberties and increase the likelihood of innocent people losing their jobs because ‘on the face of it’ somebody thought they did something that seemed wrong. Yet the obsession with managing risk could also, paradoxically, increase risk, because it replaces sound professional judgement with computerised mysticism.

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=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton supported writers who refused to be CRB checked. She also felt that acts of kindness have been criminalised by vetting procedures. Elsewhere she argued against policing ‘touch’ in schools and 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.

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


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