By James Baxter
Tabloid editors, most of whom work for Conservative-supporting papers, were faced with a rare ethical dilemma last week with the news that the coalition government was to reduce child worker checks under its proposed Freedom Bill. If enacted, the legislation means that over half of the 9 million people who have needed criminal record checks to work with children will be absolved of this requirement.
The issue is a highly sensitive topic among the British media as many have campaigned for tighter checks on those who volunteer or work with children and vulnerable adults. The current Vetting and Barring scheme system was introduced under Labour following an inquiry into the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002. However, the need for new job applicants to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) was scrapped by Home Secretary Theresa May last summer pending a review. The bill proposes that the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and ISA be merged into a new, streamlined entity that provides a more proportionate criminal records and barring function.
The government’s aim is that around 4.5 million people who work regularly and closely with vulnerable adults or children will still be vetted but those who do intermittent, supervised volunteer work will no longer have this burden.
The Freedom Bill also proposes that criminal record checks can be portable across jobs to reduce bureaucracy and to prevent employers from knowingly requesting criminal record checks on individuals when they have no right to do so.
Under the new legislation applicants would also have the right to see the results of a criminal record check against them prior to their prospective employer so that mistakes can be rectified.
Ministers believe that the vetting and barring system is bureaucratic and intrusive and that its proposed new system will be as effective yet less intimidating. Academics have also suggested that the current system contradicts human rights legislation.
The government hopes that its new proposals will encourage more well-meaning adults to apply to work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults.
Unsurprisingly the proposals have split opinion despite broad support from key children’s charities such as Barnados. Concerns persist in some quarters that persistent offenders will simply gravitate to where the checks are less intrusive.
With the legislation, if passed, due to become law in 18 months, the coalition government will be braced for a tough debate as it attempts to balance personal freedoms with the protection of children and vulnerable adults.