Are you on the A-list?

    Ever tried to get into a club and been told “If your name’s not
    down, you’re not coming in”? For those wanting to work with
    children and vulnerable adults this could be the case if Sir
    Michael Bichard gets his way. A key recommendation from the Bichard
    Inquiry report into Ian Huntley’s appointment is the creation of a
    central register for everyone working with children and vulnerable
    adults (news, page 6, 24 June).

    Under the proposal, an individual wishing to work with children or
    vulnerable adults in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors
    would apply to a central body for registration. They would be
    checked and, if suitable, would be registered. Employers would
    consult the register to ensure a prospective employee’s name was on
    it before hiring them.

    At the launch of the inquiry’s report last month, Bichard said the
    phased introduction of a new UK-wide registration system for all
    employers to access “would reassure them nothing was known about a
    particular individual which would disqualify them from working with
    children and vulnerable adults”.

    Home secretary David Blunkett responded by saying the
    recommendation was already being considered. And children’s
    minister Margaret Hodge confirmed a scoping exercise to look at the
    feasibility of the register. The Bichard Inquiry is due to
    reconvene in January to review progress on the report’s
    recommendations.

    Where the central register differs radically from other
    “safeguarding” lists is that it is a “can” list rather than a
    “cannot” list, in that it will record those individuals deemed safe
    enough to work with service users. Bichard’s report suggests the
    body overseeing the central register has access to all the
    information available to the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). This
    includes, among others, the Department for Education and Skills’
    (DfES) List 99, which bars unsuitable people from working with
    children in education, and the Department of Health’s Protection of
    Children Act (Poca) list and the Protection of Vulnerable Adults
    (Pova) list, which came into effect this week.

    So is the idea of a central register a good one? Michele Elliott,
    director of the charity Kidscape, thinks it is in principle because
    “what we are doing now isn’t working”. She says a central register
    may result in more accurate information that can move freely
    between agencies.

    Chris Hanvey, Barnardo’s director of operations, understands why
    Bichard proposed the idea, but warns: “There is the potential for
    some people to slip through a number of existing initiatives. It’s
    more important that we get the system of registering people right
    than whether people are eligible to work with a child.”

    The children’s workforce is estimated at 3.3 million and there are
    many more millions working with adults. Is it feasible that all
    these adults can go on to one register? Judith Hughes, director of
    sexual offending prevention charity the Derwent Initiative (see
    panel, facing page), says: “How do you define who ‘works’ with
    children? Is it the woman in the sweetie shop or the cleaner in the
    local baths? It’s all of us.”

    Penny Thompson, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social
    Services’ children and families committee, agrees that clarifying
    who the register covers is vital for its success. But this could
    lead to a dilemma. She says: “If the definition of working with
    children and vulnerable adults is wide the register will be huge,
    but if it’s not will it really do the business?” She adds any such
    register would require significant investment from the government
    and a tremendous effort to set up.

    The DfES is not yet in a position to reveal how much the central
    register would cost to create, who it would include and who would
    run it. But it aims to report back to Bichard at the start of next
    year with detailed plans of how it intends to proceed.

    If the register goes ahead Bichard suggests people on it carry an
    identity card or licence. Thompson supports this, pointing out that
    social services and other local authority staff already carry
    ID.

    But Hughes questions the proposal: “Would it say that if you had no
    convictions, as Ian Huntley had, that you can work with
    children?”

    And licences or ID cards could easily fall into the wrong hands or
    be forged by people determined not to have their backgrounds
    checked. Hanvey advises against assuming an ID card is a “permanent
    guarantee” that a person has not harmed children or vulnerable
    adults. “A licence or ID card is not a substitute for regular
    reviews and police checks,” he says.

    The government has yet to confirm who would operate a central
    register. Given its chequered history in dealing with disclosures
    speedily and effectively, the CRB and Capita partnership may not be
    the automatic answer. Hanvey agrees: “We are apprehensive about the
    way the CRB has operated since its inception. Its response to
    difficulties has been to put up prices but not provide a better
    service.”

    A children’s commissioner is the ideal candidate to oversee the
    central register, according to Elliot. She says: “They will have an
    overview of everything, they’ll be independent but will also have
    the necessary support staff.”

    So will a central register protect children? Although it is a step
    in the right direction, Thompson says: “We all know that the guile
    and cunning of people who are determined to abuse children is
    almost unimaginable.”

    A model approach   

    Leisurewatch is the sort of interagency approach Bichard wants
    those working with children to adopt. Operated by Newcastle upon
    Tyne-based charity the Derwent Initiative, the scheme is intended
    to safeguard children using leisure facilities, such as swimming
    pools, which paedophiles often target.  

    Although the name of the project conjures up images of signs
    saying, “Don’t run by the pool”, Leisurewatch trains all leisure
    centre staff in child protection awareness. From the cleaners to
    caf‚ workers and swimming coaches, all the staff complete a
    three-hour training session on protecting children. They are taught
    how to identify vulnerable children, how to spot someone acting
    suspiciously and how to respond. 

    Leisurewatch started in 2002 and is at different stages in 10
    areas in England. So far more than 1,500 leisure centre staff have
    been trained. Julie Hogg, the Derwent Initiative’s service
    development manager, says social services teams have welcomed the
    scheme. 

    She supports a central register of people who have one-to-one,
    isolated contact with children, but adds: “You can’t ask people to
    register if their job isn’t primarily about dealing with children.
    They will say ‘I’m just sweeping the floor or driving the coach’.
    For them it will be going too far.” 

    Newcastle Council started the Leisurewatch project two years
    ago. Angela Searle, the council’s social care co-ordinator, was a
    member of the original development team. Through the area child
    protection committee, her department fed into the training of staff
    at the city’s 16 leisure centres.  

    Searle says: “Staff are more aware about approaching an
    individual or intervening in a potentially risky scenario. They are
    confident about actively participating in safeguarding children
    rather than standing back and wondering what to do.”

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