Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/14/vetting_climbdown/

Gov retreats on vetting database but ain't climbing down

Balls throws vetting critics a bone

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 14th December 2009 10:32 GMT

Government tinkering with the eligibility rules for the new Vetting and Barring Scheme may satisfy some critics – but the black hole of logic at the heart of the scheme has not been addressed.

This weekend saw the long-awaited report back from Sir Roger Singleton, Chairman of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), tasked in September with giving the once-over to the regulations underpinning the vetting system and checking them for sense – or possibly identifying political bear traps and covering them over before the Minister could fall in.

The published regulations envisaged individuals having to be registered with the Vetting and Barring scheme if their contact with vulnerable groups was "frequent", "intense" or "regular".

Unfortunately, their implementation was stirring up Middle England: parents worried about their continuing right to provide lifts for the children of friends. Authors – and politicians – appeared caught by a rule that claimed contact counted even if it never occurred with the same individuals twice.

This was nonsense even within the limited logic of the scheme, which is all about regulating those circumstances where a relationship of trust could emerge. However, the need for clear and legally enforceable rules has led to this proliferation of bureaucratic detail: an attempt, in essence, to reduce relationship building to a set of civil service guidelines.

Changes proposed by Sir Roger and accepted by Education Secretary Ed Balls include:

- Changing the frequency criteria from three days in three months (monthly) to once a week, and the intensive test to four days a month or overnight

- Scrapping the rule whereby contact with different sets of individuals could count towards the definition of "frequent" contact

- Giving overseas visitors bringing groups of children into Britain a three month exemption before they are required to register

- Excluding from the registration requirement parents who host exchange visits for less than 28 days, although this is qualified by the arrangement having to have been made directly/privately with an overseas family

- A review of the minimum age for registration, and an immediate change to remove the vetting requirement from those aged up to 18 and in education (so removing the registration requirement from sixth-formers doing voluntary work, for instance).

Predictably, this abrupt U-turn - calling in a senior establishment figure at the last minute to review what government had for three years been touting as a done deal - has been welcomed by many critics. According to the BBC, Sir Roger’s review received the thumbs up from the Scout Association, teachers' union NASUWT, children's charity Barnardo's and author Philip Pullman.

Yet this euphoria over change exposes a basic truth behind the Vetting Scheme – which is that it has little to do with the actual safety of vulnerable groups and everything with government giving the appearance of such.

A short glance through the ISA "Mythbusters" page reveals a series of circumstances, from a teenager keeping an old person company, to an old person keeping a teenager company (these are separate categories, according to the ISA) which, common sense dictates, are precisely the sort of circumstance where trust – and therefore the possibility of exploitation and abuse – arises.

Yet these are specifically excluded. So, too, are the partners of parents hosting exchange students – even though nothing short of vetting partners would have successfully stopped the activities of Ian Huntley, who in many quarters is regarded as the excuse for this entire scheme in the first place.

The problem, of course, is that the circumstances in which trust is most likely to be engendered – and therefore where abuse is most possible – are also circumstances that go so close to cherished personal values in the UK that Government dare not look the real issues in the eye.

Last but by no means least are the numbers to be vetted. Although previous policy changes have failed to elicit the slightest change from the Home Office, this latest volte-face has instantly drawn out the bald statement that the vetting total, initially estimated at 11 million, will now reduce by two million.

Unless it was calculated using the same model as that used initially by the Home Office, this figure is pure guesstimate. We have asked the DCSF to let us know who the expert is who did the calculation and how it calibrated its work against the original estimate, but so far have received no response. ®