Criminal Record Checks and Civil Liberties – things are never as simple as they seem.
[ Sorry this one's a bit longer than my usual posts - stick with it though ! ]
I happened to hear a snatch of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions today. A rarity for me but I was captivated by the first question which concerned the Government’s “Vetting and Barring scheme”, and whether it will prevent parents from giving other people’s kids a lift to the football or not. Unsurprisingly it precipitated emotional outpourings about the Government going over the top, and sowing the seeds of moral panic.
It’s never so black and white though. The BBC have explained the legislation Q&A: Vetting and Barring Scheme – and actually give a balanced and factual explanation of the scheme, but link also to Mark Easton’s somewhat more sensationalist blog When panic shapes policy .
As Headteacher of a special school – and previously a 52 week residential special school (categorised as children’s home), I’m more familiar than most with the requirements of CRB – Criminal Record Bureau – checks. It doesn’t surprise me that the Government is finding it difficult to wade through the complexities of this legislation.
Seemingly the aim of the legislation is to streamline the existing system, to make it more efficient and effective by combining the various lists in use, and having common protocols to ease the process. There is still confusion among different employers and authorities, for instance about whether pre-existing checks can be used as clearance for a new post, and the difference between standard and enhanced CRB checks. For organisations such as schools, the legislation will simplify – but not substantially alter – the existing scheme.
The other bits of the legislation though are a bit of a minefield. It is well documented that those who seek to target children deliberately in order to abuse them, are likely to do so via roles which necessitate contact with children, and will do so in ways which are informal and apparently innocent. Of course these people are very few in number, and the vast majority – statistically almost 100% – of people involved in those kind of activities are not just apparently innocent – but totally innocent. So you can understand why they’d feel aggrieved – their good intentions are apparently doubted by the government.
In fact in the eyes of some members of the public, people who volunteer to work with children, are considered to be slightly dodgy right from the word go. Especially if they are male. If they’re male and gay they’re almost judged and hanged the moment they reveal that they might be, for example, a scout leader.
Although the justification given for the legislation though, is the recommendations of the Bichard report into the Soham murders, it’s perhaps true to say that it’s the sense of moral outrage which followed that case which is the real reason. The current system of CRB checking would not have prevented Ian Huntley from being appointed. Although his work was with a school it did not involve direct regular contact with, or supervision of children. As such he would have been subject only to a standard CRB check – not an enhanced one. It would show only convictions – of which he had none. An enhanced CRB would also flag up cautions and bind-overs – a far more extensive screening – which would effectively usually identify people “known” to the police. Not Ian Huntley though – he had no cautions or bind overs – and so quite properly, no central record was kept.
One of the key improvements made by the existing regulations has been that police guidelines regarding cautions, have been modified in the light of the enhanced CRB scheme. A caution can no longer be given to expedite situations where police lack evidence to secure a conviction. It’s only issued where a suspect has admitted the wrong doing – so the argument of “they gave me a caution but I never did it – I was never convicted” simply does not apply. The situation where Huntley confessed to having sex with an under age girl for instance, but faced no penalty because the girl did not wish it to be pursued, could no longer happen. He would at the least be given a caution – which would show up on future checks.
The amendments to the legislation will iron out still further these anomalies.
Anyone reading the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph could be forgiven for thinking that the nation’s children were under constant grave danger from a veritable army of paedophile perverts, with the assistance of the Government’s refusal to successfully control their actions – just have a look : Gay rights campaigner led a double life as leader of paedophile ring that carried out a catalogue of child abuse , Convicted paedophile can continue naked Alton Towers trips, rules judge , Almost 7,000 criminals ‘applied to be teachers’ last year. Giving the public the distinct impression that the risk of abuse is huge, and that the Government is complacent in managing this risk.
Yet predictably when the Government augment their legislation they’re accused of branding law abiding citizens as criminals, of abusing civil liberties – and of course presiding over the Nanny State. As is usual for these publications the hypocrisy of arguing for opposing plans of action at the same time is not considered a problem
Unusually though I have some sympathy with them. CRB checks for schools are a pain to administer. At this precise moment I have an employee who was offered a job in another local authority in July, still waiting to be able to formally give notice to us, and likely to not have a start date until late October – or possibly later. This due to her losing her own copy of the form, and the delays in processing a new one. You’ll see the irony – she’s prevented from going to a job which requires an enhanced CRB check, so must remain in her existing job – which requires – an enhanced CRB check ! Even more ironic, she’s an EU citizen who’s been in the UK only 2 years – so the check won’t cover any offences prior to her arival.
It is also difficult when – as a for instance – I’m approached by a student on teacher training course with two weeks to spare before her course starts wishing to work for nothing during those two weeks. Great – eager, hard working, interested in our work, and free of charge. Not without a CRB check though – which is likely to take at least a month and probably more like 2 or three to come through. So many employers are justifiably less than enamoured of the process – and local sports clubs and voluntary organisations who lack the support of organisations such as local authorities will find this even more confusing, and will be tempted to bend the rules on occasions like those I’ve mentioned.
Those occasions though are exactly the times which are “weak points” in the system, and where perhaps the checks are at their most valuable.
So this is really a situation where the Government will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
I once attended a child protection strategy meeting regarding a member of staff who was found to be fabricating evidence to suggest that abusive assaults had taken place on children in her care. Even though no actual abuse had taken place, and even though in 26 years working in schools this is the only example of a deliberately planned programme of unacceptable potentially abusive action that I’ve encountered, I was still sufficiently disgusted at her activities, and endeavours to side step the checks in place to prevent such behaviour to reach the conclusion that Governments should ensure that every attempt to prevent this kind of action is made.
Although I can sympathise with those who think it is overkill, and unnecessary, and to some extent agree with them – when push comes to shove I am in agreement with the new proposals.
If you are the parent of a child who is unfortunate enough to be the victim of abuse perpetrated by the tiny minority of people who utilise trusted access to children as a vehicle to further their unsavoury appetites for harming our young people, the distinction as to whether this a volunteer or a paid employee will be an irrelevance.
It is the public’s disgust with the abuse of children that ultimately dictates that this legislation is justified.