Thursday, 13 August 2009

Author on holiday!

I shall be taking a well-earned break in Italy until the beginning of September. I look forward to bringing all the front line news from the first week of September!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Are you state sanctoned to meet children?

From October 2009 anybody who works with children (or vulnerable people) or wishes to work with them, be it on a voluntary or paid basis, will have to start to be registered under the provisions of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS). From November 2010, this listing will be compulsory and it will be a criminal offence to engage in a ‘regulated activity’ with children and remain unregistered.
The VBS will be administered by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), a new tranche of bureaucracy administered by more than 200 caseworkers and decision makers chaired by Sir Roger Singleton. The VBS will impact upon substantially more people than current arrangements and will include anybody who has interactions with children or the vulnerable. For a one-off fee of £64 (not applicable to volunteers), the ISA will check criminal records, convictions, referrals from employers and, most worryingly, ‘soft’ information not based upon conviction. Indeed, the ISA says that a strength of the scheme is that "it has access to non-conviction information from different sources when building a view of an individual's unsuitability to work with children or vulnerable adults". The checks will be necessary for anyone who has contact regularly, intensively or overnight, defined as once per month, 3 times or more in a period of 30 days or between the hours of 2am and 6am. Therefore, the scheme includes a diverse range of people such as doctors, taxi drivers, dentists and parents participating in foreign exchange programmes.
This latest infringement by the State into everyday interactions between human beings raises a number of serious questions. However, 2 points seem to stand out, Firstly, there appears to be an undermining of the rule of law and secondly the default presumption of inter-generational interactions appears to base itself upon a presumption of mistrust.
It is a sign of how deep-rooted the drift to authoritarianism has become when yet another collection of non- elected decision makers consider the ability to make decisions about the futures of others, free from the inconvenience of the rule of law, as a ‘strength’. Indeed, this further paves the way for those with allegations being made against them, but never proved, to have opportunity denied. Of course, even in the human rights dystopia that New Labour represent, the ISA will not have arbitrary powers and there will be a right of appeal to its Upper Tribunal. However, this will place a burden upon individuals to appeal against an allegation which has never been proven at any tribunal. Should such an appeal fail, which it may, then judicial review would be the legal check against the excesses of the ISA and how many people can afford that? Also, The ISA has indicated that it may consider unsuitable anybody who engages in conduct that endangers a child or vulnerable adult, or is likely to, by causing physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm. This includes having sexual material relating to children or depicting violence against people. At face value this appears to be innocuous and, in particular, possession of child pornography would render an individual unsuitable to work with children in the eyes of most right-minded people. However, possession of pornography ‘depicting violence against people’ raises worrying questions. From 26 January 2009 it became an offence to possess ‘extreme pornography’ under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Under section 63, extreme pornography is defined as:-
- an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals
So, where does that leave the person who may possess pornography depicting bondage between consenting adults? Is this a de facto extension of the rights of the state, at the expense of the individual, into the bedroom? More importantly in the context of this debate, could a body of individuals, other than the courts, deny opportunity to people who may have a penchant for bondage in their private time with little effective route for appeal?
Also, any system which encourages, through expense and bureaucracy, a default position of mistrust is creating a toxic relationship environment which will surely poison natural rapport between the generations. Despite the remarkably low numbers of incidents between strangers and children (which CRB and ISA will likely make little impact upon), children and parents are encouraged to see every adult as a potential danger unless that adult has been state-sanctioned. Quite aside from the peculiarly depressing implication that every one of us is a potential danger and the consequential undermining of informal, colourful relationships, there is also the very real danger that parents may stop using their own discrimination and common-sense when they hand their child over to the paedophile who may not have committed any offence yet. That is surely a danger of the system- it does not catch the first time offender whose certification may induce parents to be less judicious than they normally would be.
Of course, the proponents of the schemes will reiterate ad nauseum that they are simply protecting children. Unfortunately, those with a vested interest in the new procedures will stubbornly refuse to see that, in fact, we are all less free and a touch more cynical as a result of the measures.