Exposing the vetting and barring scheme myths

The Vetting and Barring Scheme launched this week after a wave of public criticism and occasional hysteria. Corin Williams looks at its workings

The introduction of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) for people working with children and vulnerable adults should have been relatively straightforward. Drawn up after the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders (see panel, right) and having passed through parliamentary scrutiny with relative ease, the system, which launched this week under the control of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), promised to close loopholes and improve public protection.

But that failed to take into account hysterical newspaper comment (“pure madness” according to one) after rumours emerged of parents having to be vetted if they gave a lift to their friends’ children, while high-profile authors including Philip Pullman threatened to stop school reading tours if they had to register.

This very public criticism forced children’s secretary Ed Balls (right) to order ISA chair Sir Roger Singleton to conduct a review of the VBS even before its launch.

Much of the criticism seems to stem from perceived vagaries in the original legislation, which states that anyone working “frequently or intensively” with children or vulnerable adults should have to register with the ISA. Concerns have also been expressed over whether the “balance of probabilities” civil burden of proof, used by the ISA to assess whether someone poses a risk, could lead to people being barred based on unsubstantiated allegations.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling has warned that a Conservative government would scale back the system, saying a sense of perspective is “desperately needed”.

However, Singleton says much of the furore has been based on a “mistaken belief” that the scheme would regulate activities such as parents lift-sharing when taking their children to school. His review, which will be published in December, will seek to allay these fears and check whether the government has “drawn the line in the right place” between what should be regulated and what should be left alone. Here, we sum up what is known and what still needs to be clarified about the VBS.

Who does the scheme apply to?

The range of jobs and activities included in the scheme will be widened beyond the current system to cover an estimated 11.3m adults in the UK. This will include people working with vulnerable adults in the NHS and prison system, and many volunteers will also have to undergo checks.

The scheme will apply to, among others, social workers, youth workers, probation officers, dentists, advisers working on child-line services and “defined office holders”, such as trustees of children’s charities.

The scheme covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while an equivalent and aligned system is being set up in Scotland.

The ISA will decide only who should be on the barred list – reviewing arrangements, payments and other matters are decided by government.

What situations will it apply to?

Anyone seeking paid or unpaid regular work in a “regulated activity” under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 will have to register with the ISA.

This is defined as an activity that involves contact “frequently, intensively and/or overnight” with children or vulnerable adults. The exact parameters of this will be clarified in Singleton’s review, but it will include fostering and childcare.

From 12 October, employers, social services and professional regulators have had a legal duty to notify the ISA of relevant information on potential abusers. In addition, it will become an offence for a barred individual to seek or undertake work with vulnerable groups or for employers to knowingly take them on.

What situations will be excluded?

This is something that the review will try to clarify.

“There was a massive amount of misreporting and comment that was based on the assumption that the scheme would interfere with the sensible day-to-day arrangements parents make for lift-sharing to take their kids to school, none of which was intended or is intended,” Singleton says.

What is it replacing?

The Department of Health previously administered the barring list for people working with vulnerable adults, POVA, while the Department for Children, Schools and Families administered the list covering children’s care services, POCA, and that for education services, List 99. The ISA will be responsible for maintaining just two lists covering children and adults.

How will it work and how much will it cost?

Applications will be processed by more than 200 ISA caseworkers, who work closely with the Criminal Records Bureau. There is a one-off fee of £64, but volunteers are assessed free.

For anyone who does not have a caution or conviction, the CRB has said that ISA registration will take seven days. However, the process will take longer if the ISA finds suspicious “patterns of behaviour” that need to be assessed. An individual can also opt to undergo an independent risk assessment by an external agency.

If the ISA reaches a “minded to bar” decision, it will write to inform the individual concerned and share all the information used to make the decision. The individual then has eight weeks to put forward their side of the story. However, they can submit new evidence if they can demonstrate a significant change of circumstances.

Appeals are heard at an upper-tier tribunal, which has the final say.

What does it mean in practice for social workers?

Social workers will have to be up to speed on the legislation and have a detailed knowledge of who should be on the register and when to consult the register.

However, British Association of Social Workers chief executive Hilton Dawson thinks the government has failed to maintain a consistent line in implementing the VBS and is worried that social workers have been left in “serious confusion” over the new arrangements. Singleton says guidance will be published soon to apply to social workers.

Self-employed independent social workers will be able to register without the involvement of an employer. There is no duty under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act to report concerns to the ISA about a colleague if they are not in an employer relationship with them.

What do child protection professionals think of the system?

Dawson fully backs the scheme and thinks that the negative press has put it in jeopardy.

“We are in danger of forgetting why we needed the system in the first place,” he says. “This is all about how seriously the public, the media and the government are actually prepared to change child protection.”

So with the Tories’ plans to scale it back, are there any worries over the outcome of next year’s general election? “I would certainly expect any party or politician that seriously wants to run for high office to recognise the realities of child protection and to put those concerns far ahead of easy rhetoric,” Dawson says.

What is the government doing to clarify how the scheme works to stop more scare stories emerging?

Singleton’s review is due to be published in December. “I have the opportunity to clarify how intrusive or not the scheme should be,” he says. “Ed Balls asked me to suggest amendments, if necessary, on where the current regulations draw the line on who should be included in the scheme and also on who should be barred.

“We’re looking at the wide range of groups and interests that have expressed support and the wide range who have expressed dissent. I am inviting people to elaborate on their concerns, including the readers of Community Care.”

For further information, phone the ISA Vetting and Barring contact centre on 0300 123 1111

Roll-out of vetting and barring

Oct 2009

Vetting and Barring System launched, replacing previous barring lists

Dec 2009

Deadline for Sir Roger Singleton’s review into the scheme

July 2010

ISA registration scheme for new employees becomes available

Nov 2010

Registration becomes compulsory for all new employees and volunteers in regulated activities

Jan 2011

Phasing-in of scheme for existing employees starts

July 2015

Compulsory registration for everyone working in regulated activities who has not previously undergone a check

Safety after Soham

The murders in 2002 of schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, shocked the nation.

Huntley had no previous criminal convictions but had been linked to a series of allegations involving sex with underage girls, and had been allowed to get a job that brought him in contact with children.

The subsequent inquiry led by Sir Michael Bichard (pictured) slated the police and social services for failing to share key information and called for the introduction of a unified compulsory employee approval register for all those working with children or vulnerable adults.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act introduced the scheme into law when it came into force in November 2006, but in April 2008 the government admitted the VBS launch would be delayed by a year.

After taking over responsibility for the Pova, Poca and List 99 barring lists in January 2009, this week the ISA became the sole agency to take decisions on whether employees in a range of organisations are eligible to work with children or vulnerable adults or whether they pose a risk.

Published in Community Care 15 October 2009 under the headline Vetting and Barring: A User’s Guide

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