The end of nanny state checking is imminent. Or is it?
Last week, Coalition Equalities Minister and Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone treated local constituents to an intriguing insight into her own and presumably Coalition thinking, on just how far the state should intrude into child-care arrangements.
Writing in her local paper, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, Ms Featherstone starts with a sobering tale of a young black boy picked up by the police for the appalling crime of playing hide-and-seek on the grounds of a local hospital. No action ensued. But, of course, the record of the fact that this boy had been picked up – the "soft information" – would remain on file pretty much forever, and the result of a brief and innocent youthful jape could blight his entire life.
Ms Featherstone is naturally not too happy with this. She writes: "The Home Secretary and I have commissioned an independent review of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. Obviously if someone is charged and convicted you would expect that information to remain on the police database – and it does. But in the area of 'soft' information (ie non-conviction information) at present this remains on the database too.
"And 'soft' information varies – anything from the above incident of playing Hide and Seek – to the sort of 'soft' information about Ian Huntley – the murderer in the Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman murder in Soham.”
She goes on to argue that it's possible we over-reacted to the horrific events in Soham, coming up with a system where some nine million adults might have ended up on a national vetting and barring database. Time for some balance!
The government – as per the coalition agreement - is therefore now reviewing the Vetting and Barring scheme, with a view to scaling it back: the process of setting the terms of reference is under way.
Well, not quite.
An instant uber-frothy write-up of this story by the Mail on Sunday suggests that cutbacks in the CRB scheme are already a done deal, with parents no longer required to get checked before helping out in schools, and details of offences committed by new partners also far more limited than current schemes would make them.
The Home Office doesn't quite see it like that. A spokesman there told us last night: "No review has yet been announced. Nothing is official."
He then relented and admitted that even if nothing was yet official, the move was in the coalition agreement. It is the sort of thing that might be brought forward in this Autumn’s great repeal Bill - so we could do the math ourselves as to the likely timing for a consultation on that issue. The Minister might just have used the "wrong tense".
It is to be hoped that the consultation will look beyond child protection, taking some time also to consider the legal and cultural consequences of New Labour’s machinations. Despite the Bichard Inquiry, it is highly unlikely that the Vetting and Barring scheme would have done much to stop Ian Huntley. His contact with his victims was secondhand, through a partner with a clean CRB record.
Meanwhile, an increasing reliance on "soft information" (aka hearsay) and its second cousin, behavioural scoring, has done much to legitimise the singling out of individuals who fail to conform. It has been given legal justification by the Pinnington case, in which judges ruled that even where police placed little reliance on "soft information" they held, they must still pass it on to a prospective employer.
A further green light for state surveillance was provided by the Court of Appeal last October, when three senior judges ruled that the police were perfectly entitled to carry on holding on to conviction data for as long as they wished - in fact, for up to 100 years – thereby driving a coach and horses through both data protection and legislation around the rehabilitation of offenders.
Two further thoughts that the Minister might care to insert into her consultation process.
The Independent Safeguarding Authority was hailed as a means to inject professionalism into the debate, but it owed as much to former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s embarrassment at finding her department too closely involved in the decision-making process, as it did to any real need for such a function. It was a prime example of ministerial buck-passing masquerading as statesmanlike wisdom.
What about the nine million who now won’t all need to be vetted? As El Reg has consistently argued, the end total, even under the reduced scheme announced by Ed Balls, was always going to be far greater, given the cultural drive towards "proving" one’s innocence. We reckoned between 14 and 16 million.
Without clear signals from government, that cultural imperative towards fearfulness, so assiduously fostered by New Labour, is still there, and is a key reason why so many employers not required by law to CRB-check their employees have started to do so. The recent case of a parent banned from a school sports day for not having a CRB check is just one instance of that culture.
At last, perhaps, the tide has started to turn - but it may yet need more than a little help from government to make sure it stays turned. ®