21 Nov 2009

CRB checks: have they gone too far?

CRBs have been in the news recently. We have seen Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo and Anne Fine all announce they will not visit schools in protest against the "insulting" criminal records bureau (CRB) vetting system. Why do they object to a measure that surely is ensuring the safety of children?

As folk will know the newly created Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) introduced rules that say any adult who works or volunteers with children or vulnerable adults will first have to be vetted and given the all-clear as a trustworthy adult. The scheme was introduced following the terrible case of the Soham schoolgirls murders by the school caretaker in 2002. At the time the Manifesto Club challenged the Home Office on this new law - the Home Office said that if someone didn't want to be vetted then "there must be suspicious reasons for that."

I already have three mandatory CRB checks in connection with work and running a local youth group - in fact tonight at the Woodcraft Folk group there will be over a 100 of us and a bonfire and 'scary' walk - most of the adults will have had to have been CRB'd to enable them to lead the groups - but I digress... I've heard it suggested that maybe even councillors need to have a CRB check, so perhaps that will make it four CRBs? There is no system that allows you to get one CRB - you have to get one for each activity/job.

However at last there are noises from politicians like Ed Balls, Christopher Grayling and others questioning the system. But where were they in 2006? Even the author of the post-Soham report, Sir Michael Bichard said that this law was not his intention.

As Catherine Bennett notes in a recent article in The Observer, Sir Roger Singleton, chairman of the ISA has pointed out that members of Parliament did not, back in 2006, appear to have any great problem with this law. She goes onto ask where was the scrutiny of this law? In answer she explains some of the reluctance being due to Gloucester MP Parmjit Dhanda, the Minister responsible for the Bill, who suggested that 'such critics wanted to make life cushier for paedophiles'.

Indeed she goes on to say: "As Parmjit Dhanda made clear, the more vetting the merrier. Whatever its lamentable vaguenesses about scope, definitions, enforcement and so forth, no one would ever fault his bill for inclusiveness. 'There are between 7.5 million and 9 million people involved in work with children or with vulnerable adults in one way or another, so it will not be possible to legislate to cover all those people in one fell swoop', he said. 'It will take time.'"

Additions to the list now include Saturday job supervisors, driving instructors and others, bringing the total of those likely to be affected to an impressive 11.3 million of the adult population. Even newsagents may not escape the need for a check.

It is claimed that since 2004 the CRB has stopped 98,000 unsuitable people working with vulnerable groups. This is impressive. However this is not the whole picture. The Home Office in May 2006 revealed that about 2,700 people were mislabeled as criminals during checks and further examples in following years.

It is also suggested by campaigners that many have been rejected for jobs on hearsay - just rejected from the job - it doesn't go anywhere near a courtroom or jury? See for an example Manchester Councillor Richard Baum's comments here about cases he has come across. Indeed there has been increasing concern particularly that the Enhanced Disclosure was reproducing trivial gossip, with the CRB labelled the "Criminal Gossip Bureau". At the very least these needs tightening up seriously to avoid abuses of civil liberties.

There is also the monstrous amount of paperwork - nearly a quarter of a million forms were returned as they were wrongly filled out by organisations. Plus Nacro report thousands of applicants have been subjected to illegal checks for jobs that do not require CRB. Costs are also spiraling and have reached an astonishing £600 million.

Indeed this scheme proceeds from the assumption that none of us can be trusted with children and vulnerable people. Every adult who engages, even fleetingly, with children now has to prove they are not a pervert, and to pay for this privilege where possible No one is presumed innocent. As James Panton writing in the Big Issue South West in August this year, said: "We are assumed to be potential paedophiles until proven otherwise."

Registering a third of working adults will do little to protect children from the small number of individuals who would do them harm. A CRB check may reveal what you have or have not done, but it does not reveal what you have not been caught doing nor what you might do. A CRB is no cast-iron guarantee.

A child's safety is not best guaranteed by subjecting us all to a state-sponsored certification scheme. This surely only adds to the corrosion of the informal relationships of trust and support that are so crucial to communities? Indeed children are becoming “no-go” areas: local sports teams and youth groups are struggling to find volunteers and some teachers are running scared to even put a plaster on a child’s knee.

Some key children's charities like the NSPCC have welcomed the CRB but even they are now questioning whether it has gone too far.

This current scheme is out of control. It needs serious attention. Of course we need to strengthen measures to protect children from potential sex offenders, but there are better ways to protect the vulnerable in our communities. We need to invest much more in teaching adults and children how to recognise warnings rather than relying on a piece of paper.

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