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MPs can't get themselves arrested vetted

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Politicians and civil servants are at loggerheads over who should be added to the Government’s shiny new vetting database. If they can’t get their act together before the scheme goes live later this year, the entire system could be a laughing stock even before it is launched to the public.

Problems arose last week when a number of noted children’s authors, including Philip Pullman, declared that they would give up on school visits rather than undergo the humiliation of the new Labour vetting scheme. Their refusal raises awkward questions about the fine detail of the scheme, and embarrassingly shows how senior Labour politicians have very different views as to how it is meant to work.

In the Commons on Thursday, John Battle, Labour MP for West Leeds, asked the Leader of the House Harriet Harman how MPs could get themselves CRB-checked or vetted. Battle is in favour of vetting, considering it a valuable procedure contributing greatly to public safety, and sees no reason for it not to apply as widely as possible – to authors and MPs alike.

Advice he has taken suggests that MPs should be checked, because of the large number of occasions when they may have to interact with vulnerable individuals. The problem, he explained to El Reg, is the lack of a "sponsoring body". When Councillors are elected, they are all automatically CRB-checked via their local Council. MPs do not have an official sponsor.

He said: "I have been informed that we can't apply individually - our place of work needs to sponsor and reference us."

That is something of an understatement. In his quest for a sponsor, Battle approached the Speaker's Office, which referred him to the Fees Office, which referred him to the Cabinet Office; and the Cabinet Office referred him back to the Speaker's Office.

Unluckily, his question surfaced on the same day as the author controversy. Harriet Harman reacted as though this was a veiled attack on the principle of vetting, responding that she wanted to see a "common sense" solution. She insisted that vetting would only apply if MPs were left alone with pupils.

This statement – echoing a similar view from the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) – suggests a lack of familiarity with school procedures: we have been assured that best practice is never to leave visitors alone with children.

In between these two positions sits the DCSF, who last week explained why authors needed to be vetted and Ministers did not.

A spokesman said: "The minister works for the department and they visit the school to see things. The author has been invited in by the school to provide a service. Many of them charge. Even if they don’t they are still working."

In other words, Ministers do not work: they merely visit.

While this debate may all too easily descend to the level of knockabout, it highlights a serious issue. In formulating guidelines for vetting, the DCSF and other departments were clear that regular contact required vetting.

They then considered how to deal with those with less regular contact: what level of frequency would make vetting a legal requirement. The conclusion from their two year consultancy exercise focused on the potential for a relationship of trust to build up. The logic is clear: the more trust children place in particular adults, the greater the potential for abuse of that trust.

Therefore, the guidelines suggested that access – not "work" - was the key, and where contact with vulnerable groups – even comprising different individuals – took place over a period of time, vetting should apply.

That lends weight to John Battle’s contention that MPs need to be vetted – and since most Ministers are also MPs, they would be vetted too. Harriet Harman’s call for "common sense" suggests either that she does not understand her government’s legislation – or that she is trying to distance Labour from the consequences of their own law, and blaming pedantic civil servants for any unpopular consequences.

On Friday, the DCSF issued an official statement that appears to contradict its own guidelines. It said: "These rules do not apply to visitors to a school, but only to people working in schools on a regular basis."

It also states that the key question is whether a relationship of trust might build up, leading to speculation that school pupils are unlikely to trust Government Ministers.

At base, though, the issue is about whether the law needs to regulate almost all significant interactions between adults and children. As it stands now, the answer appears to be yes. ®

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