Richard Graham is the Conservative candidate for Gloucester. Read more about his campaign on his website.
About a month ago Jenni Russell of the Sunday Times started an article "Richard Graham is willing to go to jail". She was, and is, right: I am.
For what and why? For the principle that there is no need for the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) rules to go as far as they do: that they interfere with the normal relations between adults and young people, and risk damaging the contribution of an army of volunteers and volunteer drivers. And because I believe that the law, on this occasion, is an ass, I am prepared to be locked up so that everyone may see it is so – knowing that the personal consequences may be tough indeed.
Let me give you the particular example that led me to take this stand. In the summer I play for the Gloucester City Wingate Cricket Club (GCWCC) 4th team. We are usually 3 or 4 relative veterans and 7 or 8 under 18 year olds. Quite often my younger son, 13, plays. And quite often, whether he is playing or not, I give lifts to some of the side – to their homes after a home game, or to and from the cricket club to our opponents' club if away. The other adults do the same.
I said I would happily ring the parents of all the group of youngsters who play for us at the beginning of the season and ask them if they are happy for me to continue giving their sons a lift. They will be puzzled by the question and confirm it's very helpful. And that is all, so far as I'm concerned, that needs doing. There is no reason for the government to get involved, to demand a CRB check specially for this activity, to ask the GCW cricket club to keep a list of approved persons or to get involved with the business of lifts at all. It is up to us to arrange things sensibly. So I object strongly – because I can see millions of people just saying 'well if that's what they want when I'm helping with the scouts/rugby training/match driving, I'll just stop doing it'. Which would be a tragedy.
When Andrew Marr asked Ed Balls about this on his TV programme, the Minister replied along the lines of: "Oh we're relaxing the rules, and it won't affect Mr Graham, the scheme has got nothing to do with parents and children". On closer examination his law will still affect nine million people (instead of eleven million), including me: and on closer still examination, he has actually tightened the laws on activities like mine. So when he followed this up by writing to the Sunday Times to say: "I can reassure (Richard Graham) that there is no such law to defy and no question of him going to jail" – the answer is: sorry, Minister, you are wrong.
Let me explain the detail – because it will affect hundreds if not thousands of people in every constituency, and many people don't understand it yet.
The ISA is created to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. An activity that must be regulated to prevent this is defined as: something that happens frequently in the same specified place (ie a sports club), could be paid or voluntary work, and includes transportation. The activity has to be regular – redefined by Ed Balls as once a week or more, and applies to all people under the age of 18 (it was 16 but he has raised the bar here).
I submit that a sports club which plays weekly matches, predominantly (but not exclusively) at home, and involves volunteer adults driving under 18s to a match is specifically covered, and therefore I would face a sentence of up to £5,000 fine or prison if I am found to be transporting a young person without the relevant CRB check and being on an approved list. GCWCC would be in trouble too.
When you explain this to volunteers and sports clubs they are appalled, because without a specific exclusion, which this Government is not going to give, we will all be caught in this net. By the time we realise what we've lost, it will be too late. Children will be growing up to think we're all perverts unless we can show them our sports club CRB check.
If you complain, as I have, you can be sure your local Labour MP will jump up and say 'Remember Holly and Jessica'. How can any of us forget – but it is a great New Labour conception that all the evil in mankind can be regulated out of existence by yet more rules. Tragically, I don't believe this is the case – and the idea that nine million people must register for a special CRB check because of this misconception is very sad. There is only one thing to do – to stand up and challenge it.
Since I started this personal campaign, I've discovered that a whole Under-14 football league has collapsed close to my city because the volunteers had had enough. How many more children's activities will stop before someone in government will say, "was this the outcome we really wanted? When we know that sport is the one thing that gets young people off their computers and out of feeling grumpy at home, did we really take life forward by making the business of driving youngsters to matches more complicated?"
I fear that once again we have seen the true New Labour, the organisation to whom David Blunkett gave its final epitaph: "a day without a new initiative is a day lost for New Labour". This is an initiative, however well intentioned, that we could all do without. And I'm sorry, but I don't believe that the my Get Out of Jail Free card from Ed Balls is worth the paper it's written on. He does not understand the monster he's created. Tell all your sports clubs before it's too late.