Criminalising acts of kindness
The routine vetting of everyone who works with kids will sow suspicion and discourage volunteering. So why aren't volunteering groups worked up about it?
UK government legislation requiring background checks on anyone who works with young people - including volunteers - could have a devastating impact on important areas of social life for children while placing a cloud of suspicion over adults. Yet one of the main bodies that promotes volunteering has published a rather mealy-mouthed report that offers no proper criticism of the ominous vetting culture.
The report by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, Manifesto for Change, almost criticises the expansion of criminal records checks for all adults working with children. But it doesn’t quite, and so is left in a bind. The report shows the extent to which this kind of background check - ‘vetting’ - is now an unquestioned, untouchable practice. It also shows how the volunteering sector is in denial about the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which comes into force this autumn. This Act will make vetting compulsory for all adults working with children - including those who are providing their services for free as volunteers. That means everybody from mothers helping out at playgroups to fathers teaching a local football team will be checked. The Act will mean that 9.5million adults - one third of the adult working population - will be subject to ongoing criminal checks (see The case against vetting, by Josie Appleton at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/1888/).
The Commission is quite rightly not merely concerned with the technicality of volunteering - who can do it, when, how easy it is - but also with the ethos necessary for volunteering. The Commission’s vision is ‘a society in which we will be united by our common concern for the wellbeing of others; a society in which we enrich our own lives by enriching the lives of others through the giving of time’; and it emphasises that this ‘depends as much on the way we all feel about ourselves and others as about technical questions’.
Yet the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check for all adults working with children turns people away from one another. The CRB check turns the suspicion of others into a basic assumption for the organisation of our relationships with one another. It means that the first question asked about people putting themselves forward for volunteering is: ‘Have they been checked out?’ The spontaneous offering of help, freely given and received, simply cannot happen if that relationship is channelled through some unwieldy government bureaucracy. Genuine volunteering cannot happen if we need state clearance before our offer of help is accepted.
The Commission’s report takes up the technicalities of vetting. It notes that mass criminal records checking is in many respects irrational; that CRB checks have ‘degenerated into caricatures of risk aversion’, and are ‘disproportionate in relation to any actual risks’. But in the end, all the Commission can say is that vetting should be made more efficient: ‘We are absolutely in favour of safe practice and protection for volunteers and those receiving services, but it cannot be right that good people are deterred by avoidably slow and inflexible procedures’. These weasel words - ‘safe practice and protection’ - embody the whole nasty assumption behind vetting: the assumption that an unvetted adult spending time with a child is an ‘unsafe practice’.
Who knows what Baroness Julia Neuberger, the chair of the Commission, really thinks. A rabbi and Liberal Democrat peer, and author of The Moral State We’re In, she has a deep grasp of how morality has changed, and must remember the time before 2003 when vetting was not an everyday thing, when people turned up on a say-so to help out at a football match and society did not fall apart as a result. She must know that it is possible to organise adult-child relationships differently to today.
And yet the Commission was established by Volunteering England, which has from the beginning supported the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Volunteering organisations are, almost to the letter, behind the compulsory expansion of vetting of their members. The discussion of vetting has become almost taboo in volunteering circles - you can criticise the way mass vetting is done, but not the principle that it is necessary.
These volunteering organisations are burying their heads in the sand about the implications of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Come autumn 2008, if a man helps out at the local football team and is not checked, he will be called a criminal and will be in line for a Â£5,000 fine. The government is cheerfully holding sessions to talk to ‘stakeholders’ about what the Act will mean. But have they really thought about how this law will play on the ground? How many children’s football teams/nurseries/cricket clubs are there that rely on local volunteers? Have officials really thought about what it means to make ‘helping out’ into a crime?
This is an issue that cannot be fudged. If you support volunteering and the principle that we should give freely to help others, then you must be against the vetting law. This is no time for sitting on the fence. More people within the volunteering community need to start questioning the new vetting law, before it has the chance to erode the already-fragile community relationships that exist in the UK today.
5 February 2008