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Vetting and Barring Scheme – new and improved or still old and useless?

Why the government's reported "climbdown" on the vetting and barring scheme for adults working with children is no such thing.
Zach Woodham
20 December 2009

It has recently emerged that the Government will be relaxing the rules for the new Vetting and Barring Scheme governed by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). Under the old rules, adults giving children lifts to schools and clubs may have been forced to register with the ISA, as well as teenage volunteers on the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and many of those who merely visit schools (such as authors) to talk to children.

Ed Balls has announced a 'climbdown' in response to the independent review of the scheme and the outrage it has prompted from parents, teachers, schools, educational bodies and various organisations working with children. Under the old rules, any activity in which an adult came into contact with a child three or more times a month or involved overnight contact would be labelled 'intensive'.

Adults in contact with children only once a month would be labelled as having 'frequent' contact. Those branded with 'frequent' or 'intensive' contact would have to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority and undergo criminal records checks. These measures do sound a little paranoid don't they? You'll be glad to hear that they have been watered down... or have they?

Mr. Balls has now decided that the definition of an 'intensive' activity should be changed to mean any activity bringing an adult into contact with a child four or more times a month – that's an extension of one whole day! The definition of 'frequency' has been more realistically loosened to an activity occuring at least once every week.

Individuals will no longer be required to register unless their contact with the same children is 'intensive' or 'frequent'. Among other changes, the minimum age for registration is to be reviewed - 16, 17 & 18 year olds in education (covering many Duke of Edinburgh volunteers) will not have to register.

The number of people who may be required to register is now said to have been cut by around two million. Whilst this may be considered good news, a clear majority of around 9 million people still stand to be affected.

As has been pointed out by the Manifesto Club, a leading civil liberties group opposing the scheme: "In spite of the proposed changes to the criteria of who must be vetted, the policy would still require the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) 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. Ordinary people will still have to register on this vetting database - and be subjected to constant criminal records vetting - for carrying out the most natural and everyday activities, working and volunteering with children.

Mr Balls has said: “It has always been our intention that mutually agreed and responsible arrangements made between parents and friends for the care of their children should be excluded from the Vetting and Barring Scheme.

This is his get-out clause. It does not sit comfortably with the common knowledge that most child abuse is confined within the family home. So while the majority of abuse is committed by relatives or close family friends, we are being encouraged to focus our attention elsewhere.

Is the scheme really to protect children? Or is it perhaps a symptom of the actions of a Government losing all sense of proportion in its efforts to ever expand the powers of the database state, hiding behind the excuse that it is necessary to protect our children from the predators that are apparently everywhere? Or will it just be a good source of revenue? Registration will cost £64 per person. £64 multiplied by 9 million gives the Government £576 million.

Whilst the newly modified rules appear ever-so-slightly more realistic, the wider scheme is still absurd. As I said in my initial article on the ISA: Whilst I don't doubt that there are valid reasons for such a scheme, first and foremost our rights must be protected and it is when we sacrifice our rights and freedoms to fears of terrorism, terrorists, or the paedophile supposedly lurking round the corner, that we become the founders of the tyranny and oppression that our future generations will be forced to face. Are we really protecting children by encouraging paranoid distrust?

As Philip Pullman said “The whole thing seems to be based on the feeling that you can't trust anyone, that everyone is a suspect until they're proved innocent, and of course you can never entirely do that so everybody has to remain a suspect.

In a recent article, Josie Appleton and James Panton from the Manifesto Club have argued that: “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.

The Manifesto Club have also stated: "Wherever Ed Balls re-draws the line on who must register on the vetting database, this is still an absurd law. It is arbitrary whether he defines 'frequent' contact with children as once a month or once a week; or whether he defines 'intensive' contact as three or four days in a month. Neither definition helps child welfare - and any definition can only obstruct and over-burden the informal ways in which adults help and care for children.” 

The Vetting and Barring Scheme is still as absurd as ever. Forcing people to register for a licence to contact with children simply cannot be conceived as fair or rational. Instead of simply having a 'banned list' of people who shouldn't work with children, the Government has opted for a 'safe adult list', presuming that we're all paedophiles until we have proven otherwise. No licence, no employment. What ever happened to the presumption of innocence? I suppose that concept went out the window around 8 or 9 years ago.

Despite only minor changes, the scheme is being 'marketed' as though it's 'version 2.0', all new and improved. Under the new rules, it will still affect around 9 million people, it will still discriminate and it will still encourage an awfully intrusive 'vetting culture'. The scheme must be scrapped and we must continue to oppose it.

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