Moves to vet every adult who works with children are set to be watered down after the Government ordered a last-minute review of the controversial anti-paedophile scheme.
Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, acted amid fury that the criminal record checks would affect parents who give lifts to children on behalf of sports teams or voluntary organisations such as the Scouts. The move comes after The Independent revealed that prominent children's authors, including Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, have threatened to stop visiting schools rather than subject themselves to the "insulting" requirement.
Pullman said last night: "I hope they use this as an escape hatch and come up with something more acceptable." Denouncing the current plans as a "witch hunt", he said: "It's quite clear people in positions where they are constantly in contact with children need to be checked. But occasional visitors to schools – like visiting authors, or people who come to talk about a charity, or policemen who come to supervise cycling proficiency tests – aren't alone with children. It's crazy."
Critics have protested that the checks – drawn up in response to the Soham murders by the school caretaker Ian Huntley – are intrusive and cumbersome. They have also argued that it would undermine community life as law-abiding adults decide it is too bureaucratic to become involved in charities and local organisations. The NSPCC has claimed that the moves, which could eventually cover one-quarter of the adult population, will stop people doing things that were "perfectly safe and normal".
In the face of the growing protests, Mr Balls announced a fresh examination of the Vetting and Barring scheme. He said the review was intended to ensure the "right balance" has been struck over how many people would face checks.
Under current guidelines, anyone who has frequent or intensive contact with children or vulnerable adults – defined as once a month or three times in a single month – faces compulsory vetting. The Children's Secretary has instructed Sir Roger Singleton, the head of the new Independent Safeguarding Authority, to examine whether the rules on frequency and intensity need to be relaxed.
Mr Balls said: "In recent weeks some concerns have been voiced about this specific point. The responses we have received to our consultations suggest to me we have got the balance about right, but it is tremendously important that we are certain that this is so."
Mr Balls stressed yesterday that the checks would not apply to private agreements. He added: "Nor will it cover instances where parents work with children at school or a youth club on an 'occasional or one-off basis'."
But the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, said the Government was in retreat: "When a scheme designed to protect [children] is criticised from all quarters, including children's charities, it is clear that it has gone too far. The Government is in danger of creating a world in which we think every adult who approaches children means to do them harm."
Anyone who falls within the rules and is not cleared by the ISA before working or volunteering faces a fine of £5,000, and any organisation which uses them without checks could be fined the same amount. Registration costs £64 for those seeking employment but is free for volunteers.
Sir Roger has argued that the Vetting and Barring scheme was designed to ensure those who abused children could not just move elsewhere and carry on abusing. Addressing the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Congress in Swansea, he said: "We need to calm down and consider carefully what this scheme is and is not about. It is not about interfering with the sensible arrangements which parents make with each other to take their children to schools and clubs."
The new checks were set up following the Bichard report into the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by Huntley, who had secured his job despite previously facing accusations of sex with under-age girls.
As it stands, MPs who regularly visit schools in their constituencies, parents who allow foreign pupils to stay in their houses as part of school exchange programmes, and builders who carry out work on school buildings during term time will all need to register.