The insidious Independent Safeguarding Authority should not be saved, says Philip Johnston.
In a letter to this newspaper, David Blunkett, the former home secretary, suggested that the Coalition’s plans for a bonfire of the quangos were disingenuous. He said the functions of the existing arms-length agencies would simply be transferred back to the Civil Service, with a loss of expertise and autonomy. He may be right. But behind this scepticism lies a false assumption: that the functions of many of these quangos are needed at all.
Take the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). This was among 94 quangos whose future was “under review” in the list leaked from Whitehall last week. The ISA oversees the Vetting and Barring Scheme introduced by Labour last autumn but suspended in June by the Coalition while a reassessment took place. Theresa May, who as Home Secretary is responsible for the ISA, is said to be considering scaling back the scheme to a more “common-sense” level. And therein lies the problem. There is no sane halfway position that can be adopted; to think that there is mistakenly assumes that the ISA is needed in any form and all that really matters is to ensure the powers are used proportionately.
As a report published yesterday by the Civitas think tank makes clear, this is a dangerous approach. The idea behind the Vetting and Barring Scheme is flawed and remodelling it will make no difference. The scheme was introduced to make children safer after the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham in 2002 exposed the flaws in vetting their killer Ian Huntley. Yet it is more likely to put our children in greater jeopardy, while at the same time poisoning their relationship with adults.
It should go without saying that checks must be made on people seeking to work with children or old people or anyone applying for jobs that require good character. If you were looking to employ someone to look after your children or an ageing parent, you would want to be sure that the individual could be trusted. To that end, most of us would – or used to – rely upon references and word-of-mouth recommendations. These were not foolproof but at least you could talk to someone who knew the individual personally and then make a judgment about their suitability.
Once this function is taken over by the state with its Vetting and Barring Scheme, the temptation is to rely upon a clean bill of health from the ISA. Yet this is not infallible. A potential employee turning up with their clearance certificate is not guaranteed to be safe and reliable: all the bit of paper tells you is whether they have had a conviction in the past, logged by another recently created body, the Criminal Records Bureau. It cannot predict what they might do in future.
More insidiously, as the Civitas study Licensed to Hug observes, we are developing a unhealthy culture of suspicion that discourages adults from stepping in to help children in trouble for fear of being considered a potential molester and reported to the police. Increasingly we live in a society where adults distrust each other and children are taught to regard everyone with suspicion, apart from their immediate family members (who are often the people who cause them greatest harm). The vetting scheme further undermines the concept that the best protection for children is the vigilance of other adults. Moreover, a Big Society based on a culture of mutual suspicion is doomed from the outset.
Initially, the scheme was set to cover 11 million people – not just those who work professionally with children, like teachers, but parents who volunteer their time to coach children in sports, or run Scout groups or adventure outings. After an outcry last year, the Labour government modified the requirements so that people arranging among themselves to drive children to a football match or a dance class on an occasional basis would not first have to obtain clearance. Yet this still left nine million people facing checks, many of them volunteers who resented being told they had to register with the ISA (on pain of a £5,000 fine) before continuing to offer a service they had been providing for years.
How can it be good for children if these people, with their experience and skills, give up volunteering?
Imagine the cancelled school trips when a vetted mother who was to accompany the children falls ill and another with the requisite clearance cannot be found. The simple way around this, of course, is for all adults to be registered – and that is precisely what will happen. “Given the extent to which this scheme seems likely gradually to encompass all parents, as well as adults working or volunteering with children, the logic is that the majority of the adult population will sooner or later find itself on the vetting database,” says the study.
Judging by Home Office statements the intention is to keep the scheme in some scaled-back form; yet you can be sure that over the years it will expand once again because the assumptions behind it are not being questioned. A redesign of this pernicious project is pointless. Mrs May should take a deep breath – and scrap it.
‘Licensed to Hug’ by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, Civitas