Read the small print

Does the UK government’s rejection of the Vetting and Barring scheme really evidence of a new trusting approach to those governed? Or are they just going for the easy headline, leaving the nasty illiberal stuff in place just below the surface?

For those who haven’t been following the ins and outs of UK child protection over the past few years, the VBS was the last government’s answer to the paedo threat. Some – unspecified – number of paedophiles were establishing relationships of trust with children by working with them, either officially or in a voluntary capacity.

Such people obviously needed to be “regulated” – and VBS was the answer. This, it turned out, would have been a database of between a third and a half of the UK working population, with each and every one carefully vetted to ensure that they were not a known risk to kids (or vulnerable adults).

Risk, in these circumstances, was a quality drawn very widely indeed: it included hearsay evidence, possibly along the lines of “he’s a bit of an odd sort”; the types of films that individuals were known to watch; and an entire ragbag full of speculative psychometrics designed to tease out the “probable” paedophiles from the rest of the population.

If i had to single out any one measure from the last decade as being the most dangerous infringement of civil liberties, this could well be it: for once enacted, it meant that the ever-present risk of non-conformity was exclusion – with no right of appeal – from a major part of the UK jobs market.

Punishment without crime.

So why am i not outside dancing for joy at today’s announcement that the scheme is to be stopped – and the Home Office and other assorted government bodies intend to “remodel” it?

First, and most obvious, the government are not going to toss the baby out with the bathwater. There is a need for some sort of scheme to ensure that known paedophiles, who constitute a risk to children, are not placed in positions of trust over children. The same argument would apply in any walk of life: probably best not to leave banks in the hands of convicted fraudsters either.

There needs to be some sort of scheme: whatever is put in place needs to be better than the simplistic criminal records checking that goes on now. This is both over-long and cumbersome – as well as failing, in some cases, in the task of bringing together the most elementary bits of key data.

On the other hand, whatever is put in place instead needs to move forward from reliance on hearsay evidence. It needs to walk away from predictive modelling. It must, very clearly, be about separating the known innocent from the known guilty – and not about creating shades of grey on the basis that some individual does not conform to societal norms.

Above all, it must move away from an approach that focuses on sexuality and the idea that non-normative sexuality is, per se, a potential precursor to bad behaviour of other kinds.

This, as those with long memories will remember, is the slander levelled at gays in the ’60’s and ’70’s: the sneering suggestion that homosexuality was just one step up from paedophilia – and that however much one supported the rights of gay people in abstract, they just weren’t safe around kids.

That slur, in some parts of the world at least, now seems to have transferred to the transgendered: and in the News of the World, to anyone whose sexuality doesn’t quite fit.

And whilst we’re on the subject: shame on Parmjit Dhanda, the former Labour Education Minister, who appears today to have described this as “a sad day for children and their parents and a good day if you were a predatory paedophile”.

Oh dear…


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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