Would you leave your child alone with a cabinet minister?
Govt says kids safer with politicians than authors
When it comes to vetting adults who may come into contact with children, there is yet again one rule for politicians, another for the rest of us.
There is much fuss in this morning’s papers over a statement by Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy, that once the government’s new vetting system is in place, he will simply stop making visits to schools. In an interview in the latest Bookseller, he says: "This is Labour's Section 28 — the implication being that no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them. What will it say to children? It'll say that every adult is a potential rapist or murderer, and that they should never trust anyone."
He expresses his regret that he may never be allowed inside a school again, but adds: "I refuse to be complicit in any measure that assumes my guilt before I've done anything wrong. The proposal deserves nothing but contempt."
Mr Pullman is not alone in his refusal. Other authors who object to being vetted include Anne Fine, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake. According to former Children's Laureate Mrs Fine: "The whole idea of vetting an adult who visits many schools, but each only for a day, and then always in the presence of other adults, is deeply offensive."
However, spokespeople for the relevant departments – including the Home Office and Department of Children Schools and Families – appear adamant that authors should be registered on the new database and vetted accordingly.
They are not so clear on the need for their own Ministers to do so. A Spokesman for Number 10 could not confirm whether Gordon Brown was planning to be vetted. A similar response was received at the Home Office in respect of Alan Johnson, who masterminded the legislation that put this requirement in place.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health appeared unaware of the implications of this legislation and opined that vetting was for "people with access in their work". Therefore Health Secretary Andy Burnham "doesn’t need to be vetted as part of his job".
Best of all, though, was the Department of Children Schools and Families (DCSF), where a spokesman argued that Ed Balls would not need to be vetted because he "doesn’t work with children directly and in an unsupervised way". He went on: "the reason authors are required to register is because they go to the same school over and over again: familiarity means that a teacher could go out of class and leave them unsupervised, whilst a one-off visitor (such as a government Minister) would never be left alone."
Whilst he was quick to re-assure that nothing was therefore implied about Philip Pullman or any other author, El Reg is concerned that the DCSF hasn’t done its research too well. As Anne Fine points out, most authors only visit a school once in a year or more. Therefore, the chances of them establishing a relationship based on frequency of contact is slight: and according to a school governor with whom we have spoken, best practice within schools is never to leave a visitor alone with children.
The new approach to vetting is due to launch this October, and will be introduced gradually over the next five years, although the likelihood of it surviving a Tory administration is slight. The system, to be supervised by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), will function alongside the current system of criminal records bureau (CRB) checks. In many cases it will do away with the need for CRB checks that are currently carried out on anyone wishing to work with vulnerable groups (children, disabled and elderly) – and a key benefits is that it will do away with the need for multiple checks.
This is because it will consist of a database of people who have been vetted, and either passed as OK to work with the vulnerable or "barred", and a Board to oversee vetting decisions. The standard of checking will be to what is known as the CRB enhanced level, which means that not only will actual criminal convictions be taken into account – but also allegations made to the Police and, it is expected, "soft intelligence" about individuals.
In other words, despite Home Office assurances to the contrary, the base will include elements that are no more than "gossip and rumour". The use of such data was sanctioned by the case of John Pinnington, when courts ruled that even where police knew there to be little or no substance to an allegation, they had a duty to record it and pass it on to employers.
If the system survives, it is likely to impact on the lives of a significant proportion of the UK population. The Home Office estimates 11 million people will need to be vetted and added to the database (for a fee of £64): our own analysis suggests the figure could be much higher – perhaps as high as 14 to 16 million.
This will deprive thousands of children of the positive and educational experience of meeting an author, but at least they will still be able to enjoy the educational experience of meeting a government minister.
If the problem the DCSF is attempting to solve is that of unsupervised access, the solution is simple: never allow it.
The real issue sits within a consultation exercise that the DCSF carried out in respect of who would need vetting. This addressed the issue of frequency, and concluded that excessively detailed guidelines were unnecessary: it should be left to the courts to determine what constituted significant contact and to deal with individuals trying to avoid being vetted.
However, the report was quite clear about the need to vet individuals whose contact stretched across different individuals in different locations. Par. 33 stated:
"Some respondents were unsure whether contact on different occasions had to be with the same member or members of the relevant vulnerable groups to count towards determining whether the frequency criterion is satisfied, or whether contact with different children or vulnerable adults (as appropriate) is sufficient.
"The answer is that contact with different children or vulnerable adults is sufficient. The reason for this is that what counts is the opportunity to form relationships with particularly vulnerable people in a setting, and this opportunity exists where there is frequent general access as well as access to individual members of the vulnerable groups."
This presumably is why authors visiting different schools over a period of time would need vetting – and why Ministers who visit schools and hospitals probably do too.
Ministers need to take proper legal advice and not simply decide that they are exempt from vetting, as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 makes it clear that an individual who avoids vetting in this way could be liable to a fine of £5,000 and possibly prison. ®