Climbdown over plan to vet contact with children

Nationwide outrage kills off scheme that could have criminalised millions of innocent helpers
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The Independent Online

Controversial new rules requiring adults who have frequent access to other people's children to be enrolled on an official register are to be dramatically scaled down, just two months after they were introduced.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, will tomorrow perform a major climbdown over the rules that critics claimed could criminalise parents helping out at schools and deter volunteers from lending a hand at sports clubs and youth groups.

The Schools Secretary will accept all the recommendations of a review into his new proposals that required people to register with a watchdog if they had "regular, frequent or intensive access to children".

The move will mean a dramatic relaxation of the Government's plan, which would have forced parents who regularly drive children for sports or social clubs to be vetted – or face fines of up to £5,000. The new scheme, which began in October, has been condemned by a wide range of people, including prominent authors such as Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, who regularly visit schools.

The Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS), which also covered all 300,000 school governors, as well as every doctor, nurse, teacher, dentist and prison officer, was proposed as part of a concerted attempt to prevent paedophiles from gaining access to children. Registration was fixed at £64, although volunteers had their fees waived.

Amid fury from parents, authors and teachers' groups over the severity of the proposals last September, Mr Balls ordered Sir Roger Singleton "to check that the line was drawn in the right place". His report will be published tomorrow and Mr Balls has already pledged to accept all his findings.

Sir Roger, chief adviser on the safety of children and chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), recommends a relaxation of the "frequent contact test". Individuals will now have to be vetted if they work with children once a week or more – rather than the present once a month.

The stricter "intensive contact test" will now apply where someone works with children on at least four days in one month or overnight, instead of three times in every month or overnight. The report will also recommend the following:

Individuals who go into different schools or similar settings to work with different groups of children should not be required to register unless their contact with the same children is frequent or intensive.

Where organisations such as schools, clubs or groups make the decisions as to which adults should work with their children, then the requirement to register with the VBS should apply, subject to the frequent and intensive contact provisions.

The minimum age of registration for young people who engage in regulated activity as part of their continuing education will be reviewed. The Government should make immediate changes to the rules so that 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds in education will not be required to register.

The U-turn will also grant qualified exemptions to families hosting foreign children on exchange visits, and overseas visitors bringing their own groups of children to the UK.

"It is essential to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are properly safeguarded and that we do everything we reasonably can to protect them from those who seek to do them harm," Mr Balls said in his letter to Sir Roger.

"Our aim throughout has been to develop an approach which is proportionate, balanced and effective, with the scheme operating in a way which is neither burdensome nor bureaucratic, or off-putting to potential volunteers in children's settings – while still meeting the concerns of parents."

Head teachers last month wrote to Mr Balls calling for a rethink of the VBS, which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They warned that volunteer helpers could be deterred, resulting in fewer work placements and language exchanges.

The heads claimed there would be a reduction in the support of parent volunteers in schools, for example, for school plays and fundraising, as a result. They also said it might become difficult to get emergency support staff such as plumbers, heating engineers and lunchtime supervisors.

Head teacher Julie Robinson, vice-chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said she was not convinced the changes would be effective.

She added: "We feel that this is just another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy which in fact will prevent us from doing our job properly.