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Complaining about the Soham checks - The Ex-Communicator

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July 16th, 2009


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09:49 am - Complaining about the Soham checks
Author Anthony Horowitz complains that he has to have a criminal records check before he is allowed to work with children.
What I really hate about this database is the way it poisons the very special relationship that exists between children and the authors they admire. What sort of sick mind could whisper that there might be something suspect in that relationship, that children should be wary of all adults – unless they're government-approved?

People on metafilter say this makes them unwilling to enter the UK.
The repressiveness going on in the UK is really starting to scare me, to the point that I don't even want to go there, even to visit.

Get a bloody grip. I had to have a criminal records check last month, because of my voluntary work with Kairos. It was a wee bit challenging for me because the test was administered by the Catholic Church, not my favourite institution (we use their premises). You know how I rant about things on this blog... well, I never complained about that check did I? What makes Horowitz feel he is above it?

I have radically changed my views on this over the past few years. Here is my comment on metafilter which might explain why.
I used to think this was a ridiculous bureaucratic intrusion. For example, a friend of mine ran a little pre-school nursery, and she had to run a police background check on the old man she employed as a cleaner. How ridiculous. Then in turned out he had just got out of prison for raping children. She wouldn't have known - because he lied on his application form (of course).

And another friend was complaining that the employers who offered work experience to the pupils at her son's school had all had to register for criminal record checks. I can remember the two of us sitting in her kitchen ranting about how it would put employers off. Then in turned out one of them had a record decades long of repeated incidents - and he'd actually been abusing boys in her son's class. That shut us up.

I do actually have another friend who was unjustly accused of abuse (not by a child, but by a disturbed teen) and he was damaged by the experience, in a way I will never forget, so I know it isn't simple.

ETA Thanks to ajr who points out that the context of his complaint is a change from the current system of a new CRB check every time you start a new job to a single registration system, the ISA - described here.
We will charge a small fee for applications to register with the ISA as an employee or self-employed worker. This fee covers our administration costs and you will only be asked to pay it once, no matter how many times you change jobs. We do not charge volunteers for ISA applications.

My verdict - hugely better in that it is once-only registration. Worse in that lowly paid employees and starving writers will have to fork out seventy quid. Horowitz and myself are not in that category. None of his histrionic complaints, or the loopy Tory ranting in the comments thread, relate in any way to this change IMHO.

(38 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:nwhyte
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:06 am (UTC)
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It was the William Mayne case that really shook up my own views on this one.
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From:communicator
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC)
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I think I missed that when it happened. To my mind that is a definitive refutation of Horowitz's exceptionalism. creative people are not better than other people.

I can understand him not wanting to pay for it - I didn't have to - but apart from that, it's a quick computer check using your National Insurance Number. It's absolutely nothing.
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From:ajr
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
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Just wanted to point out, the scheme that Horowitz is objecting to is not the criminal records check that you mention, but a new scheme called the 'Vetting Barring Scheme', which from a spot of Googling, appears to be lined up to replace the Criminal Records Bureau check.

With my (admittedly cursory) Googling, I haven't been able to find out whether authors previously had to do the CRB check or not, so I can't tell whether it's the whole thing they're objecting to, or if it's to the new VBS replacing the CRB check.

In any case, I have to thank you for bringing this to my attention, as I had to have a CRB check done when I started work, and according to this page on the site of this authority running the scheme, I will "will need to apply for ISA registration in due course." A matter I may have to look into, given that a fee will be charged. On this point I can see the validity in the 'stealth tax' criticisms.
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From:communicator
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
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Fair point about the change of legislation. However, if Horowitz's point was that there was some significant difference between the old and new systems, which made the new system worse - then he should say what those differences are. Perhaps what is proposed is a change for the worse, genuinely it might be, but you wouldn't know it from that article, which only complains about circumstances which have been in place for a decade already.

If the change is from employer pays to employee/volunteer pays than that is indeed a signficant change for the worse. But that's not what he's complaining about. He's saying that checking if he has a record of sexual abuse of minors is poisoning his relationship with children.
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From:jemck
Date:July 16th, 2009 11:22 am (UTC)
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No, previously, authors didn't have to undergo CRB checking for one-off visits to schools. That was only required if they were teaching classes on an on-going basis, likely to be alone with children, with no other members of staff present.

Whenever I've been in to schools as a writer, just making sure there's always a teacher present has been sufficient. And I'd want that regardless, from a discipline point of view.

Because of course, neither of the separate CRB checks I've already had done - for scouts and for martial arts coaching - count. If this new system does away with this need for multiple checks, that's a plus.

Child protection's important, no question. I have teenage sons and want to know they're safe from physical or sexual assault from people I've entrusted them to. I'm also old enough to recall incidents from schooldays when classmates' reports of some quite sinister encounters were brushed aside as 'just being silly.'

But I have found these CRB checks a little intrusive - mostly because they've wanted a lot more detail than my NI number, which gives me concerns about data security.

There is definitely a generational issue, and a real problem of perception, here. Older, male coaches in my particular martial arts organisation genuinely feel seriously insulted by what they see as a demand to prove they're not perverts, because the assumption is they could well be.

The consequence is they simply stop teaching children, who then lose out, on the physical activity and the chance to see male role-models, to observe and develop social skills and so on.
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From:happytune
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)
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Pullman was ranting similarly on the radio this morning. He was saying that this was a reflection of a deficit model of relationships between adults and young people.

I think your last sentence sums up the issue totally - whether a CRB or VBS, it all feels like a very blunt tool to hammer a subtle issue.

I also think it is totally appropriate for people coming into contact with vulnerable people to undergo a check to keep those vulnerable people safe. But I think there ought to be different levels of check done. So if you're a children's author going into full school halls or classrooms with multiple teachers and adults present, you ought to be able to have a 'CRB/VBS-lite'. If you're a teacher or someone working unsupervised with children then you ought to have a full check. I understand there are /some/ subtleties in the system at the moment, but they're not commonly seen or understood.
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From:communicator
Date:July 16th, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)
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I think when there is a major problem in society - and I think child abuse is a major problem - then there needs to be a big effort to bring it to light. It's like, I don't know, FGM in Africa or footbinding in China - cultural norms had to be challenged because it just could not continue.
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From:snowballjane
Date:July 16th, 2009 10:33 am (UTC)
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Did you see Philip Pullman comparing it to section 28? Bah.

How exactly does Horowitz think it poisons the relationship with the kids? The kids should be no more aware of it than they are of how much the author's travel expenses request is.

Edited at 2009-07-16 10:34 am (UTC)
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From:communicator
Date:July 16th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
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Yes, that is a good point which I hadn't considered. It's a check which will happen once, probably via email or something, months or years prior to the school visit. I do know the slight feeling of dsgruntlement as they enter your NI number into a form and post it off, but it's not exactly Room 101.
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From:swisstone
Date:July 16th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
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This is interesting. There seems to be an awful lot of fog and mist around this story. Horowitz, Pullman, et al., seem to be objecting (histrionically and with their knickers in a thorough twist, which doesn't help) to the fact that they are now required to register, just to set foot in a school to give a talk to children whilst supervised by a teacher. And though the story makes this all about writers and writers only, it would also apply to University outreach activities, or indeed any visiting speaker. Last October I gave a talk to my niece's class. In Nove3mber I gave a talk as part of a Schools Day in Oxford. I got invited to talk to another in Durham in may (though that fell through). On none of these occasions did anybody expect me to have completed a CRB check. Why should they? There was always a teacher present, and I never had any unsupervised access to the children. Paying £64 to a government agency for the privilege of still being allowed to do that seems an imposition when it doesn't actually give any more protection to the children. The examples you cite in defence of the CRB check are all about people who otherwise would have unsupervised access to children. Very fine examples they are too, and make a solid case for checks on people seeking to work in such roles. But they're not really relevant to the case of the supervised visiting speaker. So if the new regulations are calling for this sort of extension of who has to be registered, I can see the objectors' point.

... except that I don't think the new regulations are calling for this. I've looked at the ISA's website, and regulated and controlled activities are identified as those involving frequent or intensive contact with children. It's hard to see that this applies to turning up to a school to give an hour-long talk. So that would suggest that there is no basis for complaint, as there seems to be no new requirement to register in circumstances where one was not expected to do a CRB check before.

I suspect what has happened is that some people have panicked, and decided that to be on the safe side, absolutely everyone who goes into a school must register (as the school jemck mentions evidently did with CRB checks). I don't think that this is the spirit behind the new regulations, which, as you say, actually seem to be an improvement, with reducing the whole process down to a single check, and removing a charge for volunteers (so presumably, whilst you will have to get registered for your work with Kairos, it won't cost you a penny). What is now needed is a statement from the Department of Children, Schools and Families to clarify what the regulations actually require.

Edited at 2009-07-16 02:15 pm (UTC)
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From:swisstone
Date:July 16th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
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And that duly arrived, buried in this story. Which states that no-one who doesn't go into a school more than once a month (and I infer that this means going into the same school more than once a month) will need to register.
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From:bracknellexile
Date:July 16th, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)
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I have no real problems with the CRB checks (apart from the sheer number of errors in the database - ~12,000 complaints upheld in the 5 years to the end of 2008). I'd be more worried about the Enhanced-CRB which includes "soft intelligence". Basically if a kid steps up and says, "Sir touched me!", that teacher's career could be over, no matter how unsubstantiated or unproven the allegation.

Now I stand to be corrected, but I get the impression the new VBS, as well as being a once-only registration is basically all enhanced-CRB.

That's fundamentally flawed IMHO, as per the case of John Pinnington from August 2008.
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From:communicator
Date:July 16th, 2009 01:36 pm (UTC)
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I think there are real questions to be asked about 'soft intelligence' and some time I'll do a post from the other side about my friend whose life was destroyed by a false allegation.

... and having read that linked piece, yes I agree that is wrong.
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From:sugoll
Date:July 16th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
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I don't have any first-hand experience of this. As a martial-arts instructor, my approach has been "I'm not going to accept children or vunerable adults as students," because I don't see it as worth the hassle (and I'm thinking about the other paperwork that one is required to maintain, too).

A friend of mine is on a PTA board, and he's made comments about CRB having given birth to an entire industry of certification agencies, as everyone panics and insists that everyone else get certified. The word "racket" was used. Mind you, I don't recall much of the details. Again, I'd just steer clear of everything involving that. Or children, in fact. :-)
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From:jemck
Date:July 16th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
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I honestly don't know that we - my husband and I both coach - would have done it, if it hadn't been required in order to have our own teenage son join the club we run, because we hire a school hall...

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