A new vetting scheme for adults who work with children is too draconian and almost certain to be counter-productive. An example of government getting too big for its boots?by Ben Rogers / March 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
A neighbour tells me that, for the last few years, her child’s primary school has encouraged parents to spend 20 minutes every Friday morning reading or drawing with their children and their children’s friends. This activity is valued by parents and is a good example of the parental engagement the government says it wants schools to encourage. But recently teachers began to warn that these sessions might be in violation of the government’s new vetting and barring scheme, designed to safeguard children from dangerous adults. I check with the scheme, and it turns out that it is indeed in violation. From November, anyone who starts in a role that gives them weekly contact with children through a school or other organisation—including parents who read or draw with their children in class—will have to be vetted by the new Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) which oversees the scheme.
The idea that public servants and volunteers pose a threat to children is a relatively new one. The state only began actively protecting children in the 19th century, and that was against inadequate or violent parenting and exploitative employers. But over the last 20 to 30 years, this has begun to change. The state has become concerned with protecting children from itself—or at least from its agencies and servants.
But the government’s new attempt to shield children has rebounded on itself. The ISA is worthy of George Orwell, says the Guardian. It is an outrageous attack on our liberties, protests the Daily Mail. It is an example of all that is wrong with new Labour’s big state, says David Cameron. And indeed, the controversy is a good lens through which to explore both the charge that Labour’s instincts are too statist, and the perils that lie between us and Cameron’s “post-bureaucratic age.”
To understand why the ISA exists, start with the Soham murders, the public reaction to them, and the subsequent Bichard inquiry. In August 2002, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, both aged ten, were walking about in their home village of Soham, Cambridgeshire. They stopped at the house of their teaching assistant Maxine Carr and her boyfriend Ian Huntley, a caretaker at another local school. Maxine was out but Huntley enticed the girls in and murdered them. In his inquiry, Michael Bichard, a former civil servant and permanent secretary at the department for education, showed that Huntley had a long history of sexual relations with underage girls, rape and violence. Despite many contacts with the police and social services, poor record-keeping and sharing meant that this had not emerged until it was too late.
Bichard’s 2004 report ended with a torrent of recommendations on how to tighten up the way information on people who pose a threat to children and vulnerable adults is recorded and shared. His central proposal was that anyone wanting to work with vulnerable people should be vetted and registered by a central agency. Put on the defensive by public outrage and Bichard’s criticisms, ministers promised to act on all his recommendations. The creation of the vetting and barring scheme, one department for education insider recalls, was “a very major piece of work,” involving primary legislation and a lot of cross-departmental consultation. “I worked on this with Ruth Kelly when she was minister, and she was actually quite concerned about its impact on volunteers and things like exchange visits. But the pressure from the media and the children’s lobby to do more to safeguard children was very strong.” The ISA was launched in autumn 2009, though requirements to register only come into force later this year.
Social action, not state action
The vetting and barring scheme represents a significant extension of the state’s role in regulating our contact with vulnerable people. Previously employers and voluntary organisations had much more discretion over whether to run a criminal records bureau (CRB) check on an individual. Now anyone working for an organisation who has access to children overnight, once a week or four times in one month has to register with the ISA (even if they are a parent accompanying their children on an overnight school trip). The government estimates that around 9.5m adults will eventually be registered. The scheme establishes a number of new legal requirements on individuals and organisations. It will be an offence for an organisation to allow a person to work with a child without being registered. It will also be an offence for an organisation to fail to inform the ISA if it has concerns about the suitability of an individual to work with children and vulnerable adults. Registration should take seven working days and employees, or employers, will have to pay a one-off fee of £64. (Volunteers won’t have to pay.) The scheme cost £77m to set up and will cost £50m to run this year.
The vetting and barring scheme was conceived in the midst of one public outcry. Its birth caused another. But while the post-Soham criticism was that the government should have done more to prevent the crime, the new charge comes from the opposite direction—that the state is now too intrusive and the present government favours bureaucratic solutions to problems rather than working with people.
This charge is mostly associated with David Cameron. Since becoming Conservative leader, he has sought to disassociate his party from both the alleged individualism of the Thatcher-Major years and “statism” of the Blair-Brown ones. Thatcherism made the mistake of supposing most things could be solved by the market; Labour of thinking they could be solved by the state. Whatever the problem—preventing terrorism, tackling illegal immigration, discouraging antisocial behaviour, improving public services, or reducing discrimination—the Labour government reaches compulsively for the law and the bureaucrat. But top-down policies, Cameron argues, are blunt and costly, discouraging initiative and responsibility and infantilising and demoralising people.
The Tory embrace of what Cameron has called “social action” over “state action” can be seen across a range of policies. It lies behind their change from pro to anti on national identity cards, their defence of “have-a-go heroes,” and their promise to free local government, public services, charities and communities from over-regulation and excessive targets. It can even be seen in their support for the traffic policies of the (Conservative-led) Kensington and Chelsea council, which has taken down signs, barriers and road markings to encourage pedestrians and motorists to take responsibility for their own behaviour. The Conservatives argue this will enable professionals to concentrate on helping people; and people will be empowered to help themselves and others. But while they certainly believe in these arguments, they would not be making so much of them if the ideas did not resonate more broadly. While researching this article, I talked to many left-leaning public servants and academics who offered a critique of the new rules more or less identical to the Tory one. When I pointed this out, they would look uncomfortable and reply along the lines of, “Well, I don’t agree with them on most things, but if that’s what they are saying then they’re right.” I have come to share their view and their discomfort.
Where does most child abuse happen?
The main charge against the vetting and barring scheme is that it is disproportionate given the rarity of the harm it tackles. The second, and the one closer to the heart of the Tory critique, is that there are less intrusive and equally or more effective ways of protecting children.
Proportionality first. This needs careful handling. Roger Singleton, chair of the ISA, says that the organisation already gets 400-500 referrals a month from employers, voluntary organisations and the public concerned about an individual’s suitability to work with vulnerable people. Many, he says, concern school staff and other volunteers having inappropriate relations with older children. But procedures already exist both to vet teachers—that is what references are for—and to deal with those who are found to have behaved inappropriately—namely, disciplinary proceeding and courts. Meanwhile, study after study has underscored that the great majority of child abuse is perpetrated within the family circle.
Child murder, the most extreme form of abuse, is thankfully rare in Britain and getting rarer. Around ten children are murdered each year, a dramatic fall from the early 1970s. But Colin Pritchard, a professor of psychiatric social work at Bournemouth University, estimates that 85-90 per cent are perpetrated by an “in-family assailant,” most often the mother.
It is much harder to estimate the proportion of non-murderous abuse that takes place at or through the home. But the most thorough survey to date, by the NSPCC in 2000, confirmed that the vast majority of cases are perpetrated by people within the family network. It found that nearly four-fifths of violence against children was inflicted at home, most often by the mother (49 per cent) or father (40 per cent). The NSPCC also found that, according to its definition of child sexual abuse (unwelcome sexual behaviour, or sexual acts involving a person five or more years older) the great majority was carried out within families, or by family friends, neighbours and the child’s peers. Very few cases involved a person with a professional relationship with them rather than a social one.
Children have been widely abused in one particular setting. Over the last two decades, investigations have revealed children in residential care subjected to sickening physical and sexual cruelty. Many of the worst examples involved Catholic priests in Ireland and the US—already this year, new accusations have emerged about similar abuse in Catholic boarding schools across continental Europe. But inquiries into the “pindown regime” used in Staffordshire children’s homes, and the abuse in homes in Leicestershire and North Wales shows that Britain’s record is nothing to be proud of.
Yet this sort of abuse, always something of a special case, is much less frequent than it was, in part because institutional care is less common for children (though not for elderly and disabled adults) and in part because of inspection regimes, helplines and greater awareness from adults and the media. “I would speculate,” says Bernard Gallagher, an expert in child abuse at Huddersfield University, “that the abuse in residential homes has largely been addressed.”
The huge majority of adults who come into contact with children through public services and voluntary groups do so in circumstances that make abuse much more difficult. The Soham case was not exactly a one-off—but murder in this context is extremely rare. (Colin Pritchard conducted an analysis of a random sample of 33 child murders occurring between 1986 and 1995. None fell into the Soham category.) Serious abuse by people in positions of authority and trust outside of the family is relatively few and far between. The Bichard inquiry itself—so influential in child protection policy—identifies no cases beyond the Soham murders to back up its recommendations. All its arguments rest on this one, very unusual case. Set against the relatively modest risk that the scheme guards against, its cost is large. Its £50m budget would pay 2,000 social workers’ salaries or help to fund 10,000 family intervention projects. And this does not even cover the costs to individuals and agencies applying and reporting to it, including the costs of being unfairly barred.
Child protection, but at what cost?
Why such a disconnect between costs and benefits? Organisations—especially public sector ones—tend to fixate on minimising risks, sometimes irrationally. We invest much more, for example, in preventing the death of rail passengers than of drivers and pedestrians. Even if we accept that the government should invest hugely in stopping harm malevolently caused in an institutional context—and the public appears to view it with particular horror—the charge remains that its approach is ineffective or, worse, counterproductive.
There are some grounds for this. The new scheme can’t stop abusers who don’t already have a record. Nor does it prevent those debarred from getting to them in other ways—say, as friends of people who work with children. Ian Huntley knew his victims via his girlfriend, who worked at their school, rather than through his position as a school caretaker. The ISA might have barred Huntley from his job, but couldn’t have stopped him getting access to children in the way he did.
There is also the argument that regulation makes people less vigilant. Just as we are more relaxed about a child’s safety in a playground where all the risks have been removed, so we will surely let our guards down if we believe that everyone has been vetted. I can find no research looking at this in the context of the scheme, and there seems to be little research on risk and resilience in children generally—one reason, perhaps, why the scheme’s creation was relatively unopposed.
But there is evidence from other areas. The phenomenon even has an academic name, “compensatory risk”: the process by which, as a situation is rendered less dangerous, people respond by taking extra risk. We have, it seems, an inbuilt “risk thermostat.” For example, work by John Adams, an expert on risk compensation, suggests that the seatbelt law hasn’t reduced the number of people killed on the roads, merely redistributed risk from drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. He sees a strong parallel between the scheme and seatbelt laws: “The danger is that parents, teachers and children will take risks they would not have taken before.”
What of the charge that the vetting and barring scheme is counterproductive? The biggest negative impact is likely to be that people are less willing to volunteer, or to engage volunteers, when faced with red tape and the threat of prosecution. The registration form will be easy to fill out. But many of us have had minor brushes with the law in the past and we will do almost anything to prevent them coming back to haunt us.
The website for Volunteering England, a government-sponsored body charged with promoting volunteering, contains a briefing on the vetting and barring scheme for organisations working with volunteers. It runs to six dense pages. As a school governor, I sat through a half-an-hour presentation on the scheme. As it ran, a sense of despair descended on the room, metamorphosing into open hostility when we were invited to ask questions. The ISA cautions that any organisation unsure whether to refer someone to the authorities on grounds of “inappropriate” behaviour must seek independent legal advice. A Volunteering England survey found that over half of voluntary groups think the scheme would make it harder to recruit people. One in ten said they would cease to run some activities to avoid the new regulations.
But schemes like this don’t just affect volunteers and those who rely on them. Susan White, professor of social work at Lancaster University, told me that she thought they weaken human relationships more generally by creating a culture of fear and suspicion. A friend tells me about an incident at her child’s secondary school, which seems to support that allegation. Someone suggested a fundraising event with guided tours of the school, so that local people could see what needed doing. But the headteacher was reluctant on the grounds that a paedophile could “case” the school or use this access in another way. When I verified this with the head, he told me: “I must have safeguarding at the front of my mind.” (See box on the word “safeguarding,” opposite.)
If the effect hurts relations between adults, it probably has a worse effect on those between adults and children. As White says, children who are abused by adults tend to mistrust adults generally. The last thing we want, then, are policies that further cut them off from adults who could help. The problem with those boarding schools and children’s homes where the worst abuse has taken place is not that children had too much exposure to adults, but that they had too little. If they had been better integrated into society, they would have had a chance to talk about what was being done to them, or adults might have realised that something was going on.
Work with people, not for them
But what would an alternative look like? To be fair, the scheme is in many respects an advance on the prior arrangements. It has integrated previously unconnected sets of data. It means that applicants don’t need their criminal records checked every time they get a new job. It has relieved ministers of discretionary powers that they weren’t well-qualified to exercise and given these to an independent panel of experts. The government, moreover, stung by criticism last year, has relaxed the requirements to register—previously 11m people were expected to register, rather than the current 9.5m.
As its defenders point out, the media exaggerates its intrusiveness. Dad won’t have to register to appear as Santa at the Christmas fair—as long as he doesn’t play the role four times in a month. Mum won’t have to register to drive her child’s friends to a park—if she isn’t doing it on behalf of a voluntary group once a week. And she will be able to attend the school concert—though she won’t be able to go on an overnight geography trip. There is also something in the argument that a regulatory, intrusive approach is a price we have to pay for living in a hyper-mobile, globalised society. Identity cards, CCTV and anti-terrorist measures are justified in the same way. With the scheme now set up, it is more a case of rolling it back rather than abolishing it. There remains, however, a strong case for further exempting volunteers—as the Conservatives have pledged to do—by relaxing the rules on those required to join the scheme. One simple improvement would be to exempt parents involved in any school activities where they are accompanying their own child.
But the real change needed is to build up the capacity of adults to look out for children and for children to look out for themselves. Public information and education campaigns could help, as would classes in school, and support for organisations like Childline. Most ten-year olds can learn the cues from adults and others, and from taking risks themselves. Unlike the vetting and barring scheme, this would help prevent abuse at home, and from strangers as well as in institutions—and not just the latter. As White says: “Giving children the confidence to speak about abuse is key.” Of course, children under four can’t assess risk or alert a teacher if they are being hurt. But abuse at this age occurs almost exclusively at home and the new rules will do virtually nothing to prevent it. Josie Appleton, a campaigner against the scheme, says: “Children need to learn how to make judgements for themselves. When I was growing up, we were pretty good at working out who the perverts were and avoiding them.”
And there are limits to the case against the big state. In fact the British state, measured by GDP, is not particularly big, either by the standards of other European countries or of its postwar history. In important respects it has become less intrusive: the liberalisation of laws on homosexuality, abortion, marriage and, gradually, euthanasia, means it interferes less in personal decisions. Power has been devolved to Scotland and Wales. More funding is going to voluntary groups. Local authorities and public services consult their residents and users more often.
It is also misguided to assume the big state is always a bad thing. There is growing evidence that more equal societies do better—and these have large and active states (as well as strong civil institutions). I spoke to one social worker who, while trying to be positive about the scheme, clearly saw it as of little relevance. But she talked in graphic terms about the everyday battle to tackle neglect and abuse resulting from poverty, drink and drugs.
Any government rolling back the state will have to deal with the public’s schizophrenia on the subject: angry when it interferes, angry when it doesn’t. This is a particular challenge in a country like Britain with its centralist history, culture and political system. As long as ministers get the blame for every child death, they will create new laws to prevent the next one. Moreover, those critical of the state are often statist in some areas, like the Tories on immigration or law and order.
Perhaps the best way to situate the debate over vetting and barring is not between Labour and the Conservatives, both of which are subject to popular pressure, and both of which have better and worse instincts. Instead, it is between those in both political parties who want to regulate their way out of a problem, and those who look first to strengthen individual and civic capacity. With budget cuts looming, the case for working with people, rather than for them, is stronger than ever.
The rise and rise of “safeguarding”
First used in the 15th century, the word “safeguarding” has a long history in English. The first Children’s Act, in 1948, was a response to the death of a child at the hands of foster parents and aimed to “safeguard” children from abuse. In 1973, the murder of Maria Colwell by her stepfather led to the creation of area child protection committees to further co-ordinate the “safeguarding” of children.
It was not until 1997, however, that the word began its transformation into jargon—and its infiltration of every level of child protection policy. In 1997, a government report on “safeguards for children living away from home” was published in response to the abuse of children in care. This report turned the notion of “safeguarding” from a mere verb into a central plank in the government’s rhetoric, and it has since spread like a weed.
Since 2002, “safeguarding children” reports have appeared every three years, while the Children’s Act of 2004 formally established “local safeguarding children boards” for every local authority. In December 2009, education secretary Ed Balls announced that “safeguarding children is the government’s top priority,” while Googling the phrase “safeguarding children” now reveals over 1m results on British websites alone.