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When panic shapes policy

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Mark Easton | 11:13 UK time, Friday, 11 September 2009

The government's Vetting and Barring Scheme is a child of moral panic. It is a textbook case of how media hype, political expediency and bureaucratic process lead to conclusions that can later appear disproportionate.

CRB officeThe story starts in the "silly season" of 2002. That August, like every August, newsdesks were searching around for stories to fill their papers and bulletins. With Parliament on holiday and the usual lobbying ping-pong game suspended, a tragic child abduction and murder story from Cambridgeshire came to dominate the headlines.

The Soham murders became a national talking point and commentators demanded that "something be done". Politicians took up the cry and ministers had to respond.

bichardThe inevitable inquiry was held, the report [749Kb PDF] written and the recommendations made. Lord Bichard, asked to try and ensure that children were not at risk from people like Soham school caretaker Ian Huntley, came up with a tougher and more extensive vetting system.

"New arrangements should be introduced requiring those who wish to work with children, or vulnerable adults, to be registered. The register would confirm that there is no known reason why an individual should not work with these client groups."

Having got this far in the process, ministers really had little option but to accept the idea - to have rejected it would have left them wide open to the charge that they didn't care about the lives of little children.

Then came the tricky bit. Lawyers and legislators spent years working out how this new register might work. The result was a new quango, the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), which will start working in earnest in the middle of next month.

The new system insists that anyone who has frequent or intensive contact with children or vulnerable adults through an employer or a voluntary organisation must be vetted.

It is expected the process will eventually see 11.3 million adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland seek registration - that is about one in four of all adults. A separate but aligned system will apply in Scotland.

By 2015, the ISA will probably have files on one million people where there is some information from criminal records or other official sources that they are obliged to consider. Of that million, an estimated 40,000 will be barred from working with children or vulnerable adults - double the number currently banned.

A large proportion of those vetted will be public sector workers - doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, prison officers and care workers - but some of the anxieties about the scheme relate to the demand that voluntary workers should also have to register.

The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Those required to be ISA-checked include those involved in "any activity which involves contact with children or vulnerable adults and is of a specified nature (eg teaching, training, care, supervision, advice, treatment or transport) frequently, intensively and/or overnight". It also covers any activity in a specified place (such as schools and children's homes) frequently or intensively.

The register will not apply to "family or personal" arrangements, we are told, but there is bound to be some debate as to when the informal kickabout in the park becomes a regulated voluntary activity.

One can see why they might want to cast their net wide. The evidence is that four out of five children who suffer serious sexual abuse are abused by a friend of the family or a close family member. It is the "mate of your dad's" who gives you a lift to swimming every Thursday; it is the uncle who volunteers to help the boys get changed at football on a Saturday morning.

And abuse of children is ubiquitous - survey evidence suggests that one in nine pre-teenage children suffer serious sexual abuse. Experts estimate that a million children in Britain are or have been abused in the recent past.

These are crimes which cause longer-lasting psychological damage than, for instance, being mugged by a stranger.

The counter-argument is that we risk deepening the generational segregation that, to my mind, is now a greater cause of community disharmony than ethnic or class segregation. There is an increasing disconnection: adults are encouraged to see all young people as potential muggers while children are encouraged to view all adults as potential abusers.

How many adults will decide against volunteering to work at the local youth centre or after-school club because they don't want to be judged by some faceless quango on the basis of a spent conviction for cannabis use a decade ago?

On the other hand, if the system does identify an additional 20,000 people whose past presents compelling evidence that they are a risk to vulnerable people, how much abuse might we prevent?

This debate, happening after the authority has been created and the laws have been passed, did not (and perhaps could not) happen when David Blunkett announced the inquiry or even when Lord Bichard presented his report in 2004. The innocent faces of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were still burned onto our consciences.

Our democracy is regularly buffeted by panics which make rational, considered discussion impossible until the dust settles years later.


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