EMBARGO: 00.01 hrs, Monday 27 September 2010
Police vetting decimates 'Big Society'
Police vetting a 'disproportionate interference' that doesn't make children safer
With the imminent results of the Coalition Government's major review of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS), which regulates contact between adults and any child not their own, independent think tank Civitas releases a new edition of Licensed to Hug, which insists the Government must get rid of the VBS once and for all. The dramatic escalation of child protection measures, such as the VBS, has created an atmosphere of suspicion that actually increases the risks to children and damages relations between the generations.
The pernicious consequences of the VBS
In 2008, the first edition of Licensed to Hug exposed the absurdities and dangers of the VBS. It predicted the scheme would: subject a quarter of the population to intensive scrutiny of their personal lives; interfere with sensible arrangements made between parents; institutionalise mistrust between the generations; and discourage volunteering. Unfortunately, these predictions have been proven right, and so the VBS has faced a severe backlash. Today, in light of the imminent government review of the VBS, Licensed to Hug authors Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and Jennie Bristow, author of Standing Up To Supernanny, return with a fully-updated second edition in which they outline recent developments to demonstrate that the VBS has been, at best, a costly distraction and, at worst, deeply damaging to both adults and children.
Absurdities caused by the VBS
Furedi and Bristow outline recent absurd cases resulting from the scheme to provide a stark reminder of why the Government cannot afford to let the nonsensical vetting continue:
[In October 2009] Watford Borough Council banned parents from two of its playgrounds, stipulating that only council-vetted 'play rangers' would be allowed in while parents had to watch from outside a six-foot high perimeter fence. (p.xvi)
In some instances, confusion provoked by the VBS has, if anything, encouraged even more compliance with the scheme's demands as organisations, preoccupied with following official safeguarding procedures, err on the side of precaution:
...signs [were] put up in Manor Community College in Cambridge stating: 'We do not allow anybody who is not fully CRB checked to enter the college premises or to work unsupervised'. Defending the sign Ben Slade, the college Principal, said: 'We had a safeguarding review which suggested we should make it clear to people who are entering the building they are not to walk around unsupervised or work with children if they haven't been CRB checked… Ofsted [the schools inspection body] makes the rules up, not me...' (p.xv)
Confusion reigned when Ofsted countered that it would 'never seek to prevent parents and carers having access to their own children', but Furedi and Bristow argue that Ofsted's response ignores the reality that all parents can be targeted for vetting because adults interacting with their own children in public will generally be interacting with other people's children as well:
Given the extent to which this scheme seems likely gradually to encompass all parents, as well as adults working or volunteering with children, the logic is that the majority of the adult population will sooner or later find itself on the vetting database. (p.xviii)
The logical consequence of demanding that some adults need to 'pass the paedophile test' is to set up an expectation that other adults, organising play dates or giving children lifts in their car, should have their motives similarly scrutinised:
A father who is heavily involved in his sons' youth football club told us that some other parent volunteers seem to have adopted a policing role, constantly checking whether other parents have been vetted or are following accepted procedures laid down by the club's child protection policy.(p.xxii)
Government's 'myth-buster' left parents mystified
The escalating confusion and public outcry grew to such heights in February 2010 that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) published a 'myth-buster', to clarify circumstances in which the VBS did not apply. It took pains to distinguish between parents volunteering on behalf of a children's club to ferry children around, and parents organising a rota between themselves for the school run. Yet, such distinctions between 'volunteering' and 'private arrangements' betray officialdom's other-worldly understanding of community life:
It is noteworthy that things have gone so far that a government should feel obliged to reassure parents that it does not intend to vet them before holding sleepovers for their child's friends. (p.xiv)
A 'disproportionate interference' in people's lives
In October 2009, Britain's newly-established Supreme Court ruled that the vetting system poses a threat to individuals' rights and represents a 'disproportionate interference' in people's lives. Also in 2009, the outgoing Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned that the use of so-called 'soft intelligence' had the capacity to damage an innocent person in his or her career 'financially and socially'. However, well-founded civil liberties concerns had to contend with a powerful cultural acceptance that those with 'nothing to hide' have 'nothing to fear':
Concerns about civil liberties tended to be outweighed by the idea that you cannot argue with a scheme that intends to protect children. (p. xix)
Many individuals simply complied with the rules, and hoped the problems caused by false allegations or incorrect information would not affect them. For some, this gamble didn't pay off:
Headlines such as 'Vetting blunders label 12,000 innocent people as paedophiles, violent thugs and thieves'... indicate that the consequences of the inevitable errors that will be made by this vast technical system should not be regarded lightly. (p.xix)
Government review must 'halt the juggernaut'
Home Secretary Theresa May announced the major review of the VBS in June 2010, in recognition that the existing system has got out of hand. She insisted that a new proportionate and commonsensical scheme would 'take a measured approach' and 'scale back' the regulations. If the Government fails to halt the VBS, the scheme will continue to poison the relationship between the generations, intersecting a broader culture of fear, which creates a formal barrier between adults and children. Licensed to Hug calls on the Government to adopt a radically new approach which recognises that the healthy interaction between generations enriches children's lives:
What's required is not just a new system, but an enlightened approach towards the promotion of intergenerational contact. (p.xxiv)
Perhaps the worst thing about the current vetting procedure is that it doesn't guarantee that children will be safe with a particular adult. All it tells us is that the adult has not been convicted of an offence in the past. Employers might even feel that they had fulfilled their obligations by paying for a CRB check and lower their guard:
'[The VBS] works as a form of impression management. It provides a ritual of security rather than effective protection.' (p.xxxi)
Rather than creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion based on the assumption that the majority of adults have predatory attitudes towards children, we should encourage greater openness and more frequent contact between the generations.
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Notes for Editors
i. To buy Licensed to Hug (second edition) by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, click here.
ii. Frank Furedi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. His publications include: Paranoid Parenting (2001 & 2008) and Wasted: Why Education is not Educating (2009).
iii. Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny (2009). She writes the 'Guide to Subversive Parenting' column for the online publication spiked and edits the website Parents With Attitude.
iv. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.