is a freelance writer who has had over 150 books published, mostly on
historical subjects. He was one of the MEP candidates in the
East Midlands for the Conservative Party last year.
I do not doubt that the whole apparatus of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks and the new Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) is viewed by many as being essential to protecting our children from sexual predators. I disagree. I think that the way these rules are being used is actually having the opposite effect – it is putting our children at more risk than they would otherwise be.
Not that the CRB process was borught in to protect children or vulnerable adults. It is often forgotten that a prime purpose of the CRB process was always to reduce the risk of organisations (most of them state bodies) being sued if they employed convicted criminals who then went on to abuse persons in their care. The politicians may have spun the story that they wanted to block such persons having access to the vulnerable, but the motivation had come from a number of compensation claims and fears of the growing compensation culture.
The idea was that in the unfortunate instance of a child being abused when in state care, the organisation could fend off any compensation claim by stating that they had followed the CRB process. In other words their response would be “yes, your child was in our care, but it is not our fault as we ticked the right boxes”.
So far, one might think, so good. Convicted criminals with records of dangerous behaviour would be barred from close, unsupervised contact with children and vulnerable adults.
However, there are a good many men out there who do not have criminal convictions but who do nonetheless indulge in such perverted behaviour. CRB checks do not pick them up. Nor do CRB checks pick up men who have changed their names or otherwise set out to find loopholes in the system. That was how Ian Huntley got his job at Soham. And it was as a result of the Bichard Inquiry after the Soham murders that the ISA was established. The ISA can look beyond criminal convictions to unsubstantiated allegations and “appropriate research”. This, it is hoped, will help to close loopholes.
All this, however, rather overlooks how things happen in the real world. Deviants who are determined to gain access to victims will work long and hard to achieve their aim. Genuine volunteers are often not so dedicated. I know of a chap who wanted to help out with a football team for which his nephew played. No doubt as a young, unmarried man wanting access to primary school aged boys, my friend triggered several worries. The process of filling the forms and answering questions proved so irksome that it put him off. He never did go to help.
The consequent lack of volunteers causes organisations looking for volunteers to be not quite so careful as they might. Moreover many of those running such organisations view the CRB check (and no doubt the ISA register) as having done their job for them. A man who has passed the CRB is viewed as being utterly trustworthy, when this is not always the case. The process has given a false sense of security.
At the same time as genuine volunteers are put off, deviants who slip through the net go unsupervised.
And employment law has caused other problems. Fifty years ago school governors looking for a caretaker or handyman would ask around the local community seeking a competent and respectable local chap who was vouched for by parents. That is impossible these days. Such posts have to be advertised publicly and all applicants treated equally. If they were not, there would be all sorts of allegations of discrimination and the like. The state made it impossible for employers to use their own judgement, so now such employers have to use the state to make their judgement for them. And, of course, so long as they tick the boxes and follow correct procedure they will not be to blame, no matter what happens.
So what is the answer? In my view, there are really only two viable alternatives. First we could tighten up rules, regulations and procedures still further. I fear this would slowly strangle the voluntary sector and leave only state provision. Alternatively, we could scrap the whole process and the vast bureaucracy behind it. Those running organisations looking after children or vulnerable adults should be both given the freedom to operate as they see fit, and at the same time be made responsible for their actions.
Of course, this concept of giving people both freedom and responsibility goes against the spirit of the age. After years of Labour, the underlying assumption is too often that only the state can get things right and that only the state should have the power to decide. We shall have to see if an incoming Conservative government has the courage to challenge such assumptions.