The Big Question: Have we taken child protection measures too far in Britain?

Why are we asking this now?

Surrey County Council has been criticised by Ofsted over its "unacceptable and dangerous" efforts to vet staff working with children, warning that youngsters are being put at risk as a result. The issue of checking teachers, youth workers and others responsible for youngsters' welfare has steadily risen up the agenda during the last decade, and the Government is preparing to launch an agency that could result in a quarter of the adult population being vetted for any criminal past.

But there are signs of a backlash against the increase in child protection measures, with claims that it is poisoning the relationships between the generations and deterring law-abiding members of the community from volunteering to work with children.

When did the current checking system start?

Fears grew in the 1990s that children and vulnerable adults had little protection from people that sought to abuse them. As police did not have the time or resources to look into the background of job applicants, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was set up in 2002 to carry out rapid checks.

But the same year the CRB failed spectacularly when it allowed Ian Huntley, the school caretaker who carried out the Soham murders, to slip through the net although he had previously been accused of rape, indecent assault and burglary. The result was a dramatic tightening of the checks faced by all people whose work – either as a paid employee or volunteer – brings them into contact with youngsters.

What sort of employees are we talking about?

The CRB says that includes teachers, care workers, scout and guide leaders, registered childminders, sports coaches, youth club workers, foster carers or adoptive parents.

A typical story is told by a children's librarian from south London. She has undergone four checks in the last three years: for her job, as a school governor, as a volunteer in her parish church and to accompany her children on school trips.

What checks are carried out?

The CRB, which has carried out more than 15 million checks since it was set up, describes itself as a "one-stop-shop", checking police records and, where relevant, information held by the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

For its standard check, it will trawl the Police National Computer for details of current and spent convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings, as well as lists of people banned from working with children and vulnerable adults.

Its "enhanced" checks – aimed at anyone in sole charge of youngsters – also covers "any relevant and proportionate information held by the local police forces".

In its early days, the CRB faced heavy criticism for delays in scrutinising applicants' backgrounds. Today, more than 99 per cent of standard checks are carried out within two weeks, and 95 per cent of enhanced checks within four weeks.

Is so much checking a good thing?

The Home Office, which has responsibility for the CRB, is in no doubt, describing it as a "vital safeguard". It points out that about 20,000 people a year are barred from working with vulnerable individuals as a result of the checks, which it says is "a success in anyone's book".

A spokesman added: "There has to be a way to identify and weed out unsuitable people. But such checks do not mean an end to commonsense. Instead they give employers the tools to make the best employment decisions."

What do critics of thechecks say?

They warn that the pendulum has swung so far in the drive to protect children that a general "atmosphere of mistrust" has developed in society. It means that adults are reluctant to interact with other people's children – for example, comforting a toddler who has fallen over – for fear of being labelled a paedophile.

Frank Furedi, leading sociologist and a professor at the University of Kent, argues that the checks have expanded arbitrarily to encompass "virtually any adult who wished to come into contact with any children". He says volunteers at school parties and church events are increasingly being told they cannot help out unless they have been checked by the CRB.

He published research which discovered 28 per cent of people said they knew someone who had been deterred from volunteering by the CRB process.

Martin Narey, the chief executive of the children's charity Barnado's, strongly supports checks on adults' backgrounds. But he has warned: "I am likely to usher my wife forward if a child falls over in the street, lest my picking up the child could be misinterpreted. Adults – particularly men – should not routinely be seen as potential child abusers."

Is the CRB deterring volunteering?

Some charities confirm they are struggling to recruit men, with the children's charity NCH saying only 20 per cent of its volunteers are male, forcing it to use women in roles where men are preferable, such as mentoring boys without a male role-model.

A poll by NCH and the volunteer group Chance UK found that work commitments and lack of time were the most common reasons given by men for not volunteering, but 20 per cent said they did not want to be checked by the CRB and 13 per cent said they were frightened of being branded paedophiles.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner, recently warned that organisations such as the Girl Guides found it difficult to attract volunteers because of CRB checks. He said: "I do not deny the importance of this, but it is perceived to be a real obstacle for adults working with children." He added that they often "flounder trying to find their way through the morass" of gaining clearance to work with children.

There is also anecdotal evidence, but no firm proof, that some primary schools found it almost impossible to recruit male staff because of the suspicion men might feel they face because of choosing to work with the under-11s.

Will the checks be scaled down?

No. There is no prospect of any government willing to take the risk of being labelled soft on protecting children. Next year sees the launch of the new Independent Safeguarding Authority, whose establishment was recommended by the Soham investigation. It will hold up-to-date lists of adults cleared to work with children and those barred from such posts. Eventually it could hold details of more than 11 million people, or one quarter of the adult population.

Is so much checking a good thing?

Yes...

* You can never be too careful with the safety of children and vulnerable adults

* The Soham murders were a tragic example of the consequences of lax vetting

* Paedophiles are skilled at inveigling themselves into the lives of children

No...

* An atmosphere of mistrust has developed towards to any stranger who talks to children

* Men are being deterred from volunteering to work in community groups and schools

* Adults increasingly think twice about coming to the aid of a child in distress

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