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NSPCC blurs lines as vetting debate kicks off

Confusion reigns

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As debate on the future of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) gets under way, the NSPCC is demanding the right for authorities to carry on hiring and firing on the basis of uncorroborated "soft information" about employees.

In a statement issued today, the charity further muddies the water by blurring the distinction between those convicted of sex offences and those who have allegedly displayed "inappropriate behaviour".

There is undoubtedly some method to this. Shortly after coming to power, in June 2010, the coalition ordered a halt to development of the VBS, pending a thoroughgoing review of arrangements put in place by the previous government.

The attitude was that although the VBS might be a good thing in principle, there was a perception that it "went too far”, possibly having the counter-productive effect of "deterring well-meaning adults from working with, and improving the lives of, children and vulnerable adults".

The review reported back (pdf) on 11 February, with recommendations that would broadly return the responsibility for safety back to employers, while doing away with the necessity for the vast majority of individuals to be regularly vetted. Those entitled to a criminal records disclosure should in future find this facility becomes portable through "a system which allows for continuous updating".

The fine detail of legislative change will be enacted through the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which starts its second reading in the Commons today.

The NSPCC have expressed a number of concerns about the steps already proposed. In particular, they are worried that the new proposals will:

- Restrict the range of activities classed as needing to be "regulated" and therefore increase opportunities for individuals who are only supervised "lightly" to develop relationships of trust with children;

- Exclude from regulation any activity that is provided for, or relates to, children aged 16 or 17, apart from the provision of health, personal or certain types of social care;

- Restrict information on barring decisions to occasions where individuals are seeking to work in regulated activity.

The intent behind these changes is clear: individuals should not be penalised for information that has not been legally tested, or through employers being made aware of adverse information that has nothing to do with their current employment.

For the same reason, the proposed new legislation shifts the burden of obligation on professional bodies so that in future notification of "prescribed information" about an individual "may" be passed to the Independent Safeguarding Authority – as opposed to "must", as is required at present.

It is possible that this change will impact cases such as those of John Pinnington, whose career as a Head Teacher was effectively blighted after an allegation of inappropriate behaviour was investigated by local police. They decided there were no grounds for further action, but the High Court held in August 2008 that the Police had no discretion as to whether or not to pass this information along as part of an enhanced CRB check.

Lastly, the new legislation proposes penalising organisations that request a check on employees where they are not entitled to by law. This move is likely to go a long way to tackle the project creep, exposed by the Reg, which has seen more and more employers demanding checks "just in case".

The NSPCC has put together a considered parliamentary briefing paper (pdf) examining the proposed changes in detail.

However, in stirring up publicity for its cause, it rather less helpfully muddles public fears of sex offenders having access to children (16 and 17 year olds) with teachers barred for "inappropriate behaviour" and later seeking to work in an unregulated supervised role.

The debate on the Freedoms Bill starts today. A spokeswoman for the Home Office tells us further detail will be added as that debate unfolds. ®

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