Don’t tinker with the vetting rules: scrap them

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act is based on a poisonous assumption: that every adult is a potential abuser unless state-approved.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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In response to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s ‘Your Freedom’ initiative, spiked contributors are putting forward suggestions for which illiberal laws should be consigned to the shredding machine of history. Here, Josie Appleton, convenor of the civil liberties group, the Manifesto Club, puts the case for dumping the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act.

My vote for the law to be scrapped goes to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. The Act was passed in October 2006 – with cross-party backing and virtually no detractors – and means an unprecedented degree of state intervention into everyday adult-child relations.

The law states that every adult who works or volunteers with children or ‘vulnerable adults’ (the homeless, disabled, elderly or sick) should go on a database and be subject to constant criminal records vetting by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA).

At a stroke, a whole swathe of civic life, much of it entirely voluntary and altruistic, became conditional on people joining a fantastically intrusive state licensing system. If you carried out what officials called ‘the regulated activity’ (ie, listening to children read or helping out with coffee mornings at the old people’s home) either ‘frequently’, ‘intensively’ or overnight, you would have to register. If you failed to do so, you would be guilty of a criminal offence and subject to a fine of up to £5,000.

So the security checks imposed on the mother volunteering at her local nursery became greater than those imposed on sellers of explosives. As we revealed in a recent Manifesto Club report, some two million volunteers would have to go on the vetting database for the most benign and everyday of activities.

At base, the vetting database is not actually a system for child protection from abusers. Professor of social work Sue White has described how in 26 years of experience she had not met one child who this system would have helped. None of the high-profile abuse cases of recent years would have been prevented by this database, since the perpetrators either did not have criminal records or did not meet their victims through their work.

The vetting database is first of all a system for the state management of adult-child relations. It is not about the identification of strange or perverted behaviour, but about the regulation of the mass of decent adults and of normal behaviour.

In the past, the state would hold lists of people who were barred from working with children. Now – with the vetting database – it wants to hold a list of nine million people who have been cleared. This is in effect a safe adult list, and your ISA registration number would be your safe adult ID number. Every adult is presumed to be a paedophile until proven otherwise; it seems that only constant state surveillance can offset our predatory instincts.

The database is based on the assumption that an unmonitored relationship between adult and child means a potential to abuse. The dividing line for registration on the vetting database is the ‘potential to form a relationship of trust’ with a child.

Civil servants have wracked their brains about how many frequent or intensive meetings with a child are required to suggest the potential to form a relationship of trust. First, they thought once a month or three days at a time was sufficient. Then the Singleton Review last December moved the boundaries, and decided that the dividing lines should be somebody who worked with children once a week or four days at a time.

The Lib-Con coalition government has suspended registration on the vetting database, which was due to start at the end of July, while it conducts a review of the scheme. The Manifesto Club has been calling for this for the past three years and so we are delighted.

We want to ensure, however, that the current review doesn’t end up with yet more consideration of the meanings of ‘frequent’ and ‘intensive’ activity. Wherever officials draw the line for database registration, it will still be an absurdly bureaucratic exercise. It would still present big problems for voluntary groups and children’s organisations, not the least of which is trying to work out the tortuous specifications of exactly who is supposed to register.

What is needed is a deconstruction of the vetting and barring scheme, right down to its poisonous roots. We don’t need yet another edit of this thoroughly wrong-headed piece of legislation: throw it all to the fire.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the civil liberties group the Manifesto Club, which has been leading the campaign against the vetting database for the past three years. You can contact Josie {encode=”” title=”here”}.


Don’t tinker with the vetting rules: scrap them, by Josie Appleton

Stop policing our thoughts, including the hateful ones, by Brendan O’Neill

Read more at spiked issue Liberites.

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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