Still absurd, insulting and authoritarian

Two key campaigners against Britain’s vetting database argue that Ed Balls’ ‘u-turn’ isn’t nearly enough: the vetting regime must be dismantled.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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UK schools minister Ed Balls is later today announcing a climbdown on the vetting and barring scheme, under which over 11million adults would have to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) before being allowed to work or volunteer with children.

It appears that the government has recognised the growing public frustration with Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, and the fact that vetting has become an increasingly cumbersome obstacle for schools and children’s sports clubs across the country. However, while the new development should be welcomed, as it means that fewer people will be subjected to the burdensome requirements of registering on the vetting database, the essential absurdities of this scheme – and its founding assumption that we are all potential paedophiles until proven otherwise – remain unchallenged. This is why we at the Manifesto Club are calling for the vetting database and the ISA to be scrapped altogether.

In spite of the changes to the criteria of who must be vetted, the policy will still require the registration of the father who helps out at his son’s football team every week, or the mother who volunteers at her children’s nursery. Nine million adults will still have to register on the vetting database – and be subjected to constant criminal records vetting – for carrying out the most natural and everyday activities: working and volunteering with children.

Wherever the government re-draws the line, this is still an absurd law. The key shifts announced today involve changes in the parameters of ‘frequent’ or ‘intensive’ contact with children, which decide who will have to register on the database.

‘Frequent’ activity was originally defined as once a month. The Manifesto Club obtained a leaked government policy document in which officials spent pages musing over the correct definition of ‘frequently’, before finally settling on three times within a period of three months (1). Now, the definition of ‘frequently’ has shifted to once a week. (No doubt officials are hurriedly working on the question of for how long this weekly activity must be maintained in order to count as ‘once a week’.)

‘Intensive’ activity was defined before as three days at a time; now it will be defined as four days at a time. So a volunteer at a three-day children’s book festival or sports competition would not fall under the rules, but those at a four-day event would.

In fact, none of the changes promised by Ed Balls will make any significant difference. The government’s new, arbitrary definitions of ‘frequent’ and ‘intensive’ contact won’t help protect children, since the likelihood of sexually abusing a child is not directly proportional with the number of times you meet them. There is no magic threshold of meetings after which somebody becomes likely to abuse.

None of the horrifying cases of child abuse and murder in recent years – the murder by school caretaker Ian Huntley of two young girls in Soham, the Dunblane massacre by Thomas Hamilton, or the recent incident of abuse photos at a Plymouth nursery – would have been prevented by these rules. In these cases, either the perpetrator didn’t have a record for child abuse, or didn’t know their victims, or both. The absurd truth is that while the Vetting and Barring Scheme was established to improve child safety in the wake of the Soham murder, this law, which affects millions of adults, is based on the sick actions of one man – yet it would not even have stopped him.

The ISA database is based not on a practical but a cultural logic. Its founding assumption is this: that the more an adult has ‘access to children’, or the stronger their ‘relationship of trust’ with a child is, the more of a risk they pose to that child. The essential human relationship between adult and child is seen as essentially corruptible: the more of a connection, the more of a danger.

The basic presumption of the database is that any adult who wants to help children is a potential paedophile until proven otherwise. Before an adult has ‘contact with children’, they must be ‘checked’ or ‘cleared’. Child abuse is no longer seen as a minority crime to be tackled with specialist networks of social workers, offender managers and psychiatrists. Instead, child abuse is everywhere, in all of us and in every human relationship – it is latent and potential in every man who offers to tread the touchline on a freezing football pitch week after week, every woman who offers to ferry a car full of kids.

In the past, the state would hold ‘banned lists’ of people who, for a variety of reasons, were not suitable to work with children. Certain specific professions would check their staff against these lists. Now, in effect, the state wants to hold a ‘safe adult list’. The activity of working or volunteering with children will be subject to a licensing system, just as activities such as selling liquor or dispensing drugs. You need to have a licence to ferry kids to weekly football practice, and if you don’t have the licence you are not permitted.

The most everyday of actions become high-security, only allowed with state permission. This is the hard authoritarian essence of the database, no matter how benign and reasonable Ed Balls tries to make it out to be.

The database did not drop from the sky. It is firmly rooted in a culture of vetting, which has been encouraged by official bodies and institutions over the past few years. There are already over three million CRB checks every year, a massive increase from the few hundred thousand that there were 10 to 15 years ago.

Volunteers are currently being checked to go to a carol service or to write Santa letters to children, and for many vetting is now an accepted part of life. The Manifesto Club has just released figures showing that children as young as 13 are being CRB checked (2), not because of ISA requirements, but because of the culture of vetting encouraged by official agencies and institutions.

So while it is good that children’s authors who make one-off visits to schools will no longer have to be on the vetting database, let’s not forget that nine million adults will. And for us adults who do not currently fall within Balls’ new net, we are affected, too: we will have to count our interactions with children and register with the ISA if it reaches the requisite figure of ‘frequent’ or ‘intensive’ contact in the future. Every one of us is affected by the assumption behind the database: that there is something essentially corrupt about the human relationship between adults and children.

This is no victory for common sense or freedom – it is a tactical shifting of lines, a move to accommodate criticism while leaving the structure of the vetting system intact. This database and the Independent Safeguarding Authority need to be dismantled, branch by branch, right down to their poisonous roots.

Josie Appleton and James Panton are co-founders of the Manifesto Club, the civil liberties campaigning group, which has been campaigning against the vetting database since 2006. You can read more about the campaign here and email Josie Appleton {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton outlined the case against vetting, which she said has criminalised acts of kindness. Dan Travis explained how treating volunteers like criminals will kill community sport. Jennie Bristow urged parents to oppose vetting. Patrick Hayes interviewed a 16-year-old volunteer who thought vetting breeds distrust. Or read more at spiked issue Vetting.

(1) Regulating Trust – Who will be on the Vetting Database?, Manifesto Club

(2) 13-year-olds facing criminal checks, Press Association, 14 December 2009

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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