Philip Pullman, the children's author, has accused the Labour government of using the murders of two Soham schoolgirls in 2002 as a "scare story" to persuade the public that it was necessary to create a database of adults who work with minors.
Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Pullman said the vetting and barring scheme – which was developed in response to the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by the caretaker Ian Huntley – was a direct result of the former government's desperation to calm public hysteria whipped up by red-top newspapers.
"It was really set up in order to appease the tabloid mentality," the author said. "A sensible government hounded by the press over the vetting and barring scheme would have had the sense and the guts to say that it had nothing to do with the Soham case. Using the Soham case... as an excuse for the scheme was simple dishonesty."
Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced the database – which would have held the personal details of more than nine million people who worked with children and vulnerable adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – had been halted. She said it was time to return to a more "common sense" approach which did not risk alienating people doing voluntary work. A review will now allow the scheme to be "fundamentally remodelled".
Public concern over the proposals was first raised last year, when The Independent revealed that a group of respected British children's authors and illustrators – including Pullman – intended to stop visiting schools in protest at having to register with the scheme.
"There were all sorts of groups of people out there who were deeply concerned about this," Mrs May told the BBC's Today programme. "It was a draconian measure when it was introduced; that's why we have halted the process.
"You were assumed to be guilty, in a sense, until you were proven innocent and told you were able to work with children. By scaling it back we will be able to introduce a greater element of common sense. What we have got to do is actually trust people again."
The registration process, which was due to begin on a voluntary basis next month before becoming mandatory in November, will now be put on hold. Under the scheme, those working with children without being vetted could have faced a £5,000 fine, while employers could have been prosecuted.
Among the authors who originally objected to the scheme was Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the popular Alex Rider series of spy novels. He told The Independent yesterday: "From the very start, the vetting and barring scheme was useless, intrusive and expensive – this seemed to be obvious to everyone except the Government. But the greater cost was the way that all adult-child relationships were being poisoned, the way mistrust and suspicion were becoming the norm."
Author and former children's laureate Anne Fine also told The Independent she welcomed the halting of the scheme. "I am delighted that the vetting and barring system has gone down the drain. The problems that it raised far outweighed any perceived increase in 'safety' for our children. Any system that required a further nine million citizens to be vetted in this way clearly needed rethinking."
An independent review of the scheme, which cost £84m to set up, was ordered last year following complaints that volunteers were being discouraged.
The Independent Safeguarding Authority, created to oversee the vetting process, will continue to make decisions about barring inappropriate people. Procedures for Criminal Records Bureau checks also remain in place.