Editorial : To Vet or Not to Vet?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

It may have been only that the media needed some story or other to get steamed up about, but for a few days they got terribly anxious about the system being introduced to check people working with children, and the pressure was strong enough for Ed Balls as Secretary of State to have to say that he would have to ask for the system to be reviewed.

As Sir Roger Singleton pointed out, the whole system was set up by Parliament three years ago after a full and proper debate. Objections should have been made then. It’s a bit late now. So why are people objecting?

Is it that they have only just realised that a complex system is needed if you are going to do this sort of thing properly? But that is true of every sort of check. Complexity is not an argument against the issuing of passports or driving licences. Complex systems cost money and entail the establishment of bureaucracies. It would be simpler to have no border controls and no driving tests. Some day next century that might happen, but at present there would be an outcry if anyone were allowed to drive or enter the country. Yet till now, almost anyone has been able to work closely with children.

Up till now there have been limited lists of people who have been identified as dangerous to children, as if everyone could drive who had not been found guilty of dangerous driving.

The most widely voiced complaint has been that the requirement goes too far - to people who share in driving children to school, for example. The problem here is that a line has to be drawn somewhere between those who are checked and those who are not. In some cases it is clear who is on one side and who is on the other. We expect teachers and child care workers to be checked, and any employers failing to check their employees would risk serious public criticism, let alone legal penalties. We do not expect parents to be checked, yet there are parents who abuse their children.

Then there is the grey area where parents care for the children of other parents. Who takes responsibility? How do they know whether the arrangement is safe? We take a lot on trust, and prefer to do so. We do not like to think of other people we know as potential abusers. we perhaps have an image of abusers as being different from us. And that is just where the ordinary-looking abuser slips in.

Another reason why people may be objecting is that they do not like to be treated as if they were suspects. It feels as if it is an insult that people feel it necessary to check us, especially if we see abusers as somehow different from us. Or we may realise (subconsciously perhaps) that we all have ‘feet of clay’ and the checking may remind us all of our fallibility - not necessarily as serious abusers of children, but as people who fail children one way or another from time to time. And then, of course, abusers would object to checks, as they make life difficult for them.

It would be better if we had a perfect world where no one ever contemplated abusing a child and no checks were needed. It would be nice too, if we did not have to lock doors, insure against theft, have police to catch thieves and build prisons to hold them. It would make good economic sense, but with human nature being what it is, it is not going to happen in today’s complex world. The same with child abuse. When no one needs to be excluded from working with children because no one is abusing them, Sir Roger Singleton will be able to shut up shop and go home. But not yet.

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