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In the week that a Civitas report slammed new government legislation on vetting, the case of John Pinnington provides a scary reminder of where we could soon be heading.

Mr Pinnington used to be deputy principal of Thomley Hall, a college for autistic children in Oxfordshire. He was fired when his employers requested an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check after a change in his responsibilities in 2005.

The problem? The check revealed an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual abuse that was made against him by an autistic child four years earlier. Police had investigated the allegation at the time and dismissed it.

This case highlights many of the worst features of the new legislation, due to come into full force early next year. At the time of the Soham murders, much public concern was expressed over the failure of police to pass on intelligence to the area in which killer Ian Huntley later found employment.

But debate also focused on the type of intelligence they could have handed over. In official parlance, intel is classed as either “hard” or “soft”. Conviction data is clearly hard intelligence. However, this would not have applied to Huntley. There had been previous allegations of serious sexual misconduct, as well as a single charge, which was dropped. But no convictions.

Soft and hard intel

Within educational circles, two additional forms of “soft” data were relied upon. List 99 is a secret register of men and women who were barred from working with children by the Department of Education and Skills (now the Department for Children, Schools and Families). The criteria for being added to this list are fairly strict. More controversial is List 98 (pdf), known to have been operated for a while by Essex County Council, and later rechristened as “Index B”.

This covers some criteria that might be justifiable: where an investigation is pending, for instance. It also includes cases where there are simply “grounds for concern if the person were to seek re-employment with the council in future”.

The new vetting procedures institutionalise this form of soft data.

Enhanced CRB checks are the “highest level of check available to anyone involved in regularly caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of children or vulnerable adults”. These – and not the standard CRB check – may include either “additional” information (in the form of a letter) or “approved” information. This includes non-conviction information provided by the police from their local records. The Chief Police Officer in each force will decide what, if any, information to provide.

It is this provision that has caught John Pinnington. His problem is that the police force involved with the initial case believe that they are under an obligation to forward details of any allegation that might be true, no matter how “soft”. So they have done so.

Legal challenge

Although he has won the right to challenge this in court, his solicitor, Chris Saltrese is scathing. “This approach was intended to ring-fence the vulnerable. But its effect could be devastating for the wrongly-accused. Is it right that an innocent person’s life can be ruined without just cause or right of reply?

“This case raises an important principle and puts a question mark over the limits of the discretionary powers of the police.”

He fears that as the law stands, the police have little choice in the matter. If this is the case, then according to legal experts the government will need to legislate again to allow authorities some discretion in what information they provide.

Is this simple oversight? Or something far more sinister? If you join the dots, the new national vetting database will allow the government to keep tabs on approximately one quarter of the adult population. Such a database is not needed if all that you are seeking to do is identify the “wrong’uns” at point of employment. The same ends could be achieved by a much cheaper database of individuals barred from working from children – however defined.

Police disclosure of unsubstantiated information to the Criminal Records Bureau derives from s.115 of the Police Act 1997: but the acceptability of making such diclosures, as well as similar disclosures by educational authorities, has been greatly enhanced by the new vetting legislation.

Oh. And for those who thought the new legislation on extreme porn was the government’s last word on the matter, think again. Under the Vetting Act, you may also be barred from working with children if you are involved in making or possessing “sexually explicit images depicting violence against human beings... if it appears... that the conduct is inappropriate”.

This is a level of material well below the threshold passed in respect of extreme porn – and seems to imply that almost any “non-standard” porn is capable of having you removed from working with children.

Is there a government agenda here? Surely not. ®

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