The Vetting and Barring Scheme – Using a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut?

Of all the recent legislation and guidance designed to facilitate the protection of children and the safeguarding of vulnerable adults, The Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) has been one of the most contentious.   Most people are in agreement that children and vulnerable adults should be protected from adults who pose a risk to them – but can this be achieved without assuming people are “guilty until proven innocent”?

We all want children and vulnerable adults to be safe as they go through their daily lives, whether this is at school, playgroups, at caravan or holiday parks, in church, in residential homes, day centres or hospitals, in the house or street where they live.  We know that this involves taking personal responsibility for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults as well as relying on legislative frameworks for guidance and to enforce the law.

The Vetting & Barring Scheme was set up under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (SVGA) following a report by Sir Michael (now Lord) Bichard, after the tragic deaths of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham.  The public outcry which followed after it was revealed that the perpetrator Ian Huntley had a history that identified him as someone who posed a risk to children indicated a new enthusiasm for strategic measures to be taken to prevent such a person from gaining unfettered access to children again.

Barring schemes are not a new concept in strategies for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults and the idea of having a process to stop people who pose a risk to children and vulnerable adults is long established.   Furthermore, the principle of safer recruitment policies and procedures has been in practice in many statutory, voluntary and private organisations for some years, and there is a growing awareness of national guidance and good practice relating to this.  So how would a specialist Vetting and Barring Scheme enhance the safer recruitment guidelines that are already in place?

It would assist employers to ensure that those who are barred from working with children and vulnerable adults because of the ongoing risk of harm they pose are prevented from doing so.  To make a judgement as to how much of a risk a person poses to vulnerable groups is something that takes skill and expertise.  A Vetting and Barring Scheme operated by the Independent Safeguarding Authority would mean that crucial decisions like this would only be taken by a person with extensive experience and national reputations in the fields of risk assessment and management of abuse, someone who has had a significant amount of training in the subject.

It would give employers or voluntary organisations expert reassurance that the person they want to employ in a position of trust has not been barred from working with vulnerable groups. While it is true that no system can absolutely guarantee that a person does not pose a risk, for example, if there is no history of risk, a central system using trained and experienced staff provides reassurance about risk on the basis of information known by a central barring body.

A central barring system holding all the relevant information needed would decrease the amount of paperwork employers would have to carry out by doing the vetting process themselves.

All relevant information would be available to examine as part of the barring process.  This goes wider than court convictions and cautions, better reflecting incidents of behaviour by the police, an employer or a professional body which may cause concern but which have not resulted in a criminal record.

Parents and relatives of children or vulnerable adults would have extra reassurance that the organisation where they were placed was a safe environment to be.  They would be confident that the school, youth club or care home they choose is required to check that prospective employees who will have the closest and most regular contact with their children or relatives are not barred.

It would enable the person who wants to work with children and vulnerable adults to demonstrate, in a consistent and trusted way, that there is no known reason why they should not work with such groups.

It is easy to criticise legislation for appearing to infringe on people’s civil liberties, but it is also legislation that has established that the child’s best interests are paramount.  There is no cast iron guarantee that any Vetting and Barring Scheme will prevent people who pose a risk to vulnerable groups gaining access to children and vulnerable adults – that is the nature of these abusers.

Many people believed that the Vetting and Barring System was based on the assumption that people who wished to work, or undertake volunteering, with children and vulnerable adults posed a risk unless the Vetting and Barring System processes found otherwise.   Perhaps hurt feelings are not such a small price to pay for increasing the safety of children and vulnerable adults.  However, before we dismiss the safest system we almost had, let’s spare a thought for Jessica and Holly, and for all the families who have been left to deal with the aftermath of abuse by people known to pose a risk to vulnerable groups.

Summary of Recommendations

A state body should continue to provide a barring function to help employers protect those at risk from people who seek to do them harm via work or volunteering roles.

The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) should be merged and a single Non-Departmental Public Body or Agency created to provide a barring and criminal records disclosure service.

The new barring regime should cover only those who may have regular or close contact with vulnerable groups.

Barring should continue to apply to both paid and unpaid roles.

Automatic barring should apply for those serious offences which provide a clear and direct indication of risk.

Registration should be scrapped – there should be no requirement for people to register with the scheme and there will be no ongoing monitoring.

The information used by the state barring body (currently the ISA) to make a barring decision should be serious in nature.

Criminal records disclosures should continue to be available to employers and voluntary bodies but should be revised to become portable through the introduction of a system which allows for continuous updating.

The new regime should retain current arrangements for referrals to the state barring body (currently the ISA) by employers and certain regulatory bodies, in circumstances where individuals have demonstrated a risk of harm to children or vulnerable adults.

The current appeals arrangements should be retained.

The state barring body should be given a power to vary review periods in appropriate circumstances.

Services relating to criminal records disclosure and barring provisions should be self-financing. We recommend the Government consults on raising the cost of the criminal records disclosure fee to cover the costs incurred.

The new system will retain two offences; it will continue to be an offence for a barred person to work with vulnerable groups in regulated activity roles. It will also be an offence for an employer or voluntary organisation knowingly to employ a barred person in a regulated activity role.

Finally, the Government should raise awareness of safeguarding issues and should widely promote the part everyone has to play in ensuring proper safeguarding amongst employers, volunteer organisations, families and the wider community.

Vetting & Barring Scheme Remodelling Review –
Report and Recommendations (February 2011)

The full report can be obtained by visiting http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/crime/vbs-report

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