Ofsted has blown a hole in Home Office claims that deciding who needs to be vetted is a simple matter, after the education quango tarred parents who share childcare arrangements as "illegal childminders" and potential criminals.
The issue came to light at the weekend, when the Daily Mail reported that Ofsted had made a surprise visit to the homes of two Milton Keynes police officers - Detective Constable Leanne Shepherd and DC Lucy Jarrett – to investigate their child-minding arrangements.
What may have seemed a simple matter for these two mothers, of taking it in turns to look after one another’s children, turns out to be a potentially criminal matter according to the Childcare Act 2006.
This stipulates that where care is provided for any form of "reward", then the individuals concerned should be registered as childminders.
According to an Ofsted spokesperson: "Reward is not just a case of money changing hands. The supply of services or goods and in some circumstances reciprocal arrangements can also constitute reward."
An individual would only be exempt from this regulation if childcare took place for less than two hours in the day, fewer than 14 days a year, or only during the hours 6pm to 2am.
Otherwise, both mothers would need to be trained, make modifications to their homes, and undergo CRB checks.
From next month, it also seems likely that parents in this position - those identified officially as childminders - would need to be vetted under the government’s new Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS), and be included on the government’s new vetting database.
This adds yet another twist to public concern over the VBS, which has variously been described by government spokespersons as "common sense" and straightforward. Earlier this month, El Reg reported on public concerns that the new system would place barriers in the way of parents wishing to pool travel arrangements for their children.
The Home Office explained that the position was clear: where such arrangements were made formally - such as when arranged by an organisation or club - parents might well need to be vetted. But where such arrangements were done informally (directly between parents) there would be no need for vetting.
El Reg asked specifically what the position would be in the middle case, where a club refrained from directly organising travel, but was instrumental in putting together parents who might wish to organise travel between themselves. The Home Office would not elaborate on whether this would constitute a formal or informal arrangement – although we have now learnt of at least one school where such an approach could be tried as a means to get round the law.
The weekend’s revelations also call into question one of the most inelastic figures in current politics: the Home Office’s estimate of the number of individuals who will need to be vetted and eventually included on the vetting database. That figure has stuck at 11.3 million for over a year, despite the public updating of guidelines and subtle changes in interpretation of the rules.
Clearly, if the Ofsted view is correct, then the Home Office figures have been nonsense all along, since every parent in the country who regularly looks after a friend’s children – or even whose children are just good friends with other children and spend regular time at their home – will have been included.
One Reg writer, who admitted he was the sort of person who shares childcare with friends, wondered whether he soon might need to be checked and vetted. He commented: "Does this mean that whenever I want to go out for an evening with my wife, I have to decide whether to leave the children on their own and risk a child neglect charge - or with the baby sitting circle and risk the wrath of Ofsted?"
He added: "This does leave you, as a parent, feeling stripped of any opportunity to make any decision about my own children."
His comments closely align with other critics, who feel that the VBS is a step too far in changing the balance of power between parents and state.
The Minister for Children, Vernon Coaker, has now ordered an urgent review of these guidelines. This follows another re-evaluation – and not, according to the Department of Children, Schools and Families, a "review" - of the guidelines in respect of parental contact ordered by Ed Balls earlier this month.
Cynics might wonder whether two reviews, less than a month before a piece of legislation is due to go live, might not indicate flaws in the legislation. ®
According to a Home Office spokeswoman, the issue raised by Ofsted is wholly separate from the VBS. We suggested that such a view was disingenuous, and ignores claims that this government is committed to "joined up thinking". This is because once an individual is registered as a childminder, not only will they need vetting, but there is a high likelihood that all other adults residing in the household would also need to be vetted. In other words, every parent whose children interact regularly with other children may need to be vetted. The Home Office declined to provide further elucidation.