In June 2010, Home Secretary Theresa May promised to ‘scale back’ criminal records checks to ‘common-sense proportions’. There was a widespread recognition that vetting was creating mistrust, turning away volunteers, and absorbing the time and money of local community groups. Confirming public criticisms raised by children’s authors such as Philip Pullman and others, the Home Secretary said that mass vetting treated everyone as ‘guilty until proven innocent’. It was time, she said, to begin ‘to trust each other again’.
The government passed the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, abolishing the vetting database and, it claimed, limiting vetting to only those in the ‘most sensitive’ positions. These changes were enacted in September 2012. In the wake of this, many assumed that a sensible balance had been struck and the problem of over-cautious vetting had now been solved. The government predicted that reforms would lead to ‘a reduction of some 50 per cent in the number of… certificates being issued, dropping from about 3.7 million a year to something like 1.7 million’.
This has not occurred. In fact, checks are beginning to rise.
In the year 2014-15, there was a total of 4,144,245 criminal records checks (DBS checks) submitted, including 837,048 on volunteers (1).
|Checks on Volunteers
The available statistics for April-September 2015 were slightly higher than the same period the previous year, indicating that vetting is continuing to rise. In total, there were 2,178,643 submitted DBS checks for April-September 2015, compared to 2,098,201 for this period in 2014.
CHECKING PARENT VOLUNTEERS
People are now being DBS checked to take on the most everyday volunteer roles in their communities. Such checking creates a barrier to community involvement: it introduces a barrier of mistrust and red tape separating would-be volunteers from the organisation they seek to help. Our FOI requests reveal that in the financial year 2014-15 there were at least (2):
24,935 checks on parent volunteers in schools
2,312 checks on volunteers to go on school trips
10,844 checks on volunteers to listen to reading
199 checks on volunteer bellringers
726 checks on volunteer choir members
13 checks on volunteer flower arrangers
57 checks on grandparent volunteers in schools
(These are minimum figures: they were obtained from the ‘position applied for’ section of the DBS check form, which is written in by the body submitting the check.)
It is now common practice for schools to ask for checks from parent volunteers helping out with reading or school trips. In some cases, parents are asked to pay to cover the administration costs of their check. The request for DBS checks – along with associated child protection procedures – means that parents are treated in a formal and suspicious manner, even in a small local school where parents are well known by both teachers and children. Schools often say that they ‘welcome parent volunteers’, but such procedures certainly do not create a welcoming atmosphere.
Here are some examples of kinds of procedures required of parent volunteers:
All Saint’s School, Surrey: says that they prefer to only take DBS-checked parents on school trips. Regular parent volunteers are asked to complete a DBS check, to which they are asked to contribute £5. One-off volunteers will not be DBS checked; they will be given a different colour lanyard to distinguish them from those which are checked. All volunteers must sign the school’s ‘code of conduct for volunteers’.
Claverdon Primary School, Warwickshire: requires all parent helpers to undergo annual checks, and asks parents to request a check through the Warwickshire County Council website. It says that annual checks are required ‘in line with Warwickshire County Council guidance’.
Lubenham All Saint’s Primary School: requires all parent volunteers who have ‘regular contact with children’ to be vetted: ‘In order for you to work in school as a volunteer, you will need to complete a DBS online check.’
St Elizabeth’s Catholic Primary School, Richmond: says parent helpers must be vetted and asks for a ‘voluntary contribution’ of £15 towards the ‘administrative cost’ of the check, which is charged by the local authority to the school. Parents are asked to sign two copies of the school policy, and abide by ‘guidelines’ such as not being ‘overly affectionate’ with their own child, and not going to the toilet at the same time as the children on school trips.
Swindon Village Primary School: parent volunteers must be DBS checked. They are asked to ‘dress appropriately’ for work in school, and told they must not buy children gifts on school trips. They must sign to say that they have received and read the school’s Safeguarding Policy and the Department for Education’s ‘Safer Working Practices’ booklet.
These are just some examples of the many schools checking parent volunteers. These are not isolated cases and they are not the personal initiatives of particular headteachers. Many of these policies aimed at parent volunteers have a similar format, indeed using the same phrases, suggesting that they are derived from local authority or other guidance. Certainly some local authorities (including Warwickshire) are asking schools to check all parent volunteers.
It is also the case that child protection organisations, or bodies processing checks, are advising schools to check all parent volunteers. For example, the organisation Personnel Checks tells headteachers: ‘it is advisable to maintain up to date DBS checks on…regular volunteer chaperones for school trips’ and that ‘It is good practice to submit regular, unpaid volunteers for the same pre-employment checks as a paid member of staff.’
Most problematically, current government guidance seems to suggest that checks on parent volunteers in schools are necessary. For example, the guidance document on the meaning of ‘supervised volunteers’ – those who are exempted from obligatory vetting – defines supervision as: ‘reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure the protection of children’. The document suggests that a head teacher should engage in detailed consideration of each volunteering role in order to discover whether a person should be vetted. In each case, ‘organisations should consider the following factors: ages of the children, including whether their ages differ widely; number of children that the individual is working with; whether or not other workers are helping to look after the children; the nature of the individual’s work (or, in a specified place such as a school, the individual’s opportunity for contact with children); how vulnerable the children are (the more they are, the more an organisation might opt for workers to be in regulated activity); how many workers would be supervised by each supervising worker.’
It would be unrealistic for a head teacher to examine the exact nature of each volunteer’s contact with children, or the exact nature of a teacher’s supervision, since these things would vary from case to case and week to week, depending on a host of factors that affect schedules in a busy school. It is little surprise that headteachers may opt for a blanket policy of checking all volunteers, including parents.
CHECKING VOLUNTEERS WITH THE ELDERLY
Secondly, there are also checks on those helping the elderly, affecting voluntary organisations which help elderly people to get their shopping or drive them to local events. Such local arrangements are vital for elderly people to get out of the house and chat with others, and these services are often run on an informal and voluntary basis by neighbours. The request for DBS checks puts such vital arrangements at risk.
For some time there have been cases of volunteers resigning from car-pool or befriending services to help the elderly, after a request for criminal records checks. In most cases the volunteers were elderly people themselves.
These problem are continuing. Margaret Matthews in Bisley, Woking was recently asked for a criminal records check to volunteer to help elderly people at the local lunch club (3):
My husband and I wanted to volunteer to be involved with a lunch club in the village hall in the next village. We would go back in the minibus with the elderly people and help them into their house. All we would do is walk the elderly person from the vehicle to their front door. I was asked to do a DBS check, and I felt a bit presured by the request for documents – as if I was a stranger in that area. We’ve lived in the same house for 50 years. I feel there is such a lack of commonsense nowadays. I went to do the check, but they wanted a passport or picture driving licence, neither of which I had. They wouldn’t accept utility bills as proof of address, and wanted me to return with my marriage certificate – which did make me feel that I was something other than someone wanting to give a little of my spare time! I said that I would leave it for now. It’s a shame becasue they are lovely old people and I think they would appreciate someone new to talk to. There is a lovely lady running the club – she said she was so sorry, and that volunteers had been put off before. It’s a terrible nuisance and unnecessary.
This is one of the many cases where unnecessary obstacles are put in the way of someone trying to offer a simple form of help to their local community. The result, in this and other cases, is unfortunately that good volunteers are lost.
THE COST OF CHECKS
Criminal records checks now represent a bigger drain on the time and resources of society than ever before.
Our FOI requests show that in 2014-15 the DBS received £146.439 million in fees (4) – the highest ever. Along with this goes an administration cost of some £82.88 million (worked out as an average of £20 per check). Together this means a total annual cost of £229.32 million. Although volunteers do not pay fees, the cost of their checks is borne by fee-paying checks, and they are additionally liable for administration charges (either personally or the volunteering organisation).
|Fees paid to CRB/DBS(£million)
|Admin costs (£million)
CHECKING THE CHECKS – AND RESTORING TRUST
The widespread practice of vetting parent volunteers captures in embryo the problems with the current vetting and barring system. These are known and trusted individuals, yet they are treated as dangerous strangers and subject to highly formal and suspicious practices. There is simply no need for a small village school to check a mother’s criminal records before she can accompany a school trip crocodile including her own child. These are not high security activities, and should be carried out quite naturally and normally by parents as part of daily life without need for any special clearance or formal procedures.
In no other European country are parent volunteers vetted in order to help out in their children’s school. The Australian state of Victoria has a comprehensive and in many ways over-cautious vetting system, yet it notably excludes parent volunteers.
That vetting and other unreasonable child protection practices have become normal shows the way in which distorted ideas about ‘best practice’ have to a large extent prevailed over people’s intuitive sense of what is reasonable, and the common-sense judgements they hold about themselves and other people.
We are calling for specific measures:
1. There should be a presumption against vetting parent volunteers for listening to reading or going on school trips. We are calling on parents to challenge these requests; on schools to reconsider their policies; and on the Departments for Education and Justice to back this as a general approach and a default assumption and to issue new guidance to schools. The norm should be that parent volunteers are not checked, unless there are unusual circumstances or particular suspicions.
2. There should be a proper independent system for appealing illegitimate checks. Currently, the DBS oversees questions about the legitimacy of checks (the ‘ineligible application process’), which are raised by the individual undergoing the check or in some cases by police forces. The DBS simply contacts the body submitting the check (such as the local authority) and asks them to confirm that the position is ‘eligible’ for checking. There is in most cases no recourse for a volunteer asked to undergo a check as a condition for helping out: their only option is often to be vetted or to resign. The Manifesto Club has worked with volunteers seeking to appeal clearly illegitimate requests for checks, yet they failed to gain recognition from either the DBS or Home Office that the request was unreasonable.
In addition to these particular measures, we are issuing a broader cultural call: to restore trust.
We are calling for people to trust more to their own judgement and what they know about people, and less to distorted and suspicious ‘requirements’.
We are currently seeing the distortion of relations and conduct in organisations working with children. Safeguarding rules have come to affect every aspect of volunteers’ work and relations with others. In a small recent example, Scout leaders on a Facebook group discussed whether they could walk their son and a friend to cubs, because this would entail them being ‘alone’ with the two boys for 10 minutes before others arrived. One man said that ‘I have stopped walking them now’ because of ‘the 5 min walk along main roads I was only adult/ leader with two cubs’. His partner now brings the two boys along later in order to avoid a ‘one-on-one’ situation with a Scout leader.
These decisions are being made, not because of the real presence of risk, or actual suspicion about somebody, but because of the need to comply with procedures which treat everybody with a default suspicion. In the process, it is the ordinary human relation which is being contaminated.
The mother helping out on her child’s school trip is not a paedophile: everybody knows this. That systems demand that she be treated as such – that there is such a ritualisation of the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ assumption – suggests a warping of our assessments of risk and our judgements about each other.
(1) Data for 2002-2011 from FOI response, 17 April 2012; data for 2012-14 from FOI response, 26 February 2014; data for 2014-15 published on the DBS website
(2) DBS FOI response to the Manifesto Club, 6 August 2015
(3) Telephone interview
(4) Costs for 2014-15 obtained from DBS FOI response to the Manifesto Club, 6 August 2015. Costs for other years obtained from FOI requests documented in ‘Checking Up’, Josie Appleton, Civitas (2013).