Mary Wakefield: I want to help – but I'm not allowed to

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The Independent Online

Does Dave Cameron really mean it when he bangs on about Conservatives creating a "post-bureaucratic age"? If he does – and let's pretend he does so as to keep from crying – then the very first thing he'll do is to put an end to the crazed zeal for Criminal Records Bureau checks that's taken hold of this government.

On Thursday, this paper reported that even one of the scheme's chief architects, Sir Michael Bichard, was having doubts about the new souped-up CRB due to be launched next month. It's just dawned on him, I suppose, as it did on Dr Frankenstein, that he's created a monster. But Frankenstein's monster has nothing on Bichard's. Poor Frankenstein's creation just mauled a few innocents to death.

Bichard's brainchild is designed to seek out any glimmers of public-spirited decency in man, woman or child and ruthlessly stamp them out. It won't just stop celebrity authors from speaking in schools; the new CRB requirements will ensure that anyone who wishes to help a child or a "vulnerable adult" – during after-school activities, in old people's homes or soup kitchens – will need to go through such an expensive and frustrating process that more often than not they'll give up and go back to playing Wii instead.

Earlier this year, for instance, I felt the first uncomfortable stirrings of a charitable instinct, so I signed up with a neighbourhood scheme to visit an old lady once a week. My old lady was called Elsie, and she was lonely, wanted a chat. I fancied a chat too, but before Elsie and I could get together I had to send off for a CRB check.

One month went by. Two. After three I called up the CRB office, but they had no record of my form. I filled in another one. When that too went astray I'm afraid I lost heart and Elsie lost out. I wonder how many of the lonely old actually die before their prospective pals are vetted.

The CRB process isn't just tedious; it's expensive too. Though the Home Office insists volunteers don't have to pay, in practice the CRB office won't accept individual applications so volunteers must apply through "umbrella bodies" which charge hefty admin fees. And it's dangerous. This week the CRBoobs had to admit that they made more than 1,500 false accusations last year and have forked out £159,148 in compensation.

Since my brush with them, I've heard hundreds more stories of goodwill thwarted by the CRB. There's a deputy headmaster and former rugby pro who wasn't allowed to coach kids as he hadn't been cleared for that particular activity; a head teacher (CRB-checked to the hilt) who was forbidden from helping out at a community charity for the same reason. Why don't we hear more of these awful stories in the news? There's an appallingly simple reason: the Government has the charity cheque-book in its grubby mitt. If a do-gooding group wants state dosh, it keeps schtum.

Meanwhile, like all risk-adverse legislation, the CRB scheme keeps breeding, spreading like pond weed, creating a society that realises it's easiest not to bother. And the further it creeps, the less sense it makes. I made the great mistake recently of looking up the Home Office, CRB-certified definition of a "vulnerable adult". A vulnerable adult it turns out, is "someone who is receiving any form of health care". Come again? Like acupuncture? A vulnerable adult is also "anyone who requires assistance in the conduct of his or her own affairs". Do you fall into that category? I know I do. So we all need CRB checks just to look after ourselves. Another alarming sign is the CRB website's anxious repetition of the phrase "quite simply". As in: "The new service is designed to ensure that anyone who presents a known risk to vulnerable groups is quite simply prevented from working with these groups."

As I'm sure the Home Office has now realised, the only "quite simple" thing about a CRB check is how "quite simply" a child molester or ex-con can get around it. All a CRB does is to check (albeit slowly and painfully) a name against a list of known offenders. Any paedo worth his salt can submit false ID and come up squeaky clean.

After several months of bewildered investigation, the only possible rationale I can think of for the CRB is that this Government genuinely believes that anyone who wants to help others, especially unpaid, is probably a pervert or weirdo who should be discouraged from interfering in what is rightfully the state's business.

There is, however, one bright spot on the horizon: a small story this week saying that Gordon Brown plans to spend part of his Scottish holiday volunteering with disadvantaged teens. I have already put in several calls and an email to Downing Street to find out whether the Prime Minister has undergone the necessary CRB check for the particular activities he wishes to undertake. No answer yet.

Just look at what Anya started

Chatty bags are back, and chattier than ever. The horror. I opened a nice shiny mag the other day looking for Brangelina titbits and instead found a whole page devoted to handbags with something to say: "I am a plastic bag"; "I'm an old bag"; "Bagsy me". What started with Anya Hindmarch's "I'm not a plastic bag" has morphed into an intolerable conversation between little canvas narcissists. By autumn, high streets nationwide will be buzzing with bagchat, all of them yik-yakking away to each other. Please Anya, make it stop.

I fear it's all over for Angelina

It's not an easy admission to make, but for a few years now I've been a little fixated with Angelina Jolie. Though I struggle to remember who's who in the shadow Cabinet, the names, even ages, of the Pitt-Jolie brood are hard-wired into my mind.

Odd, then, to wake up this week and find my Angelina obsession quite vanished. And even odder to discover that the rest of the world, equally suddenly, seems to feel the same.

For the first year in ages, Angie's failed to make the cut in Vanity Fair's best-dressed women (out this week) and Brad Pitt has said he won't marry her until "everybody else can get married", whatever that means. I think it's all over for Angie.

That's the downside of being a public obsession rather than national treasure: there's no coming back. From here on in I predict gentle decline into Mia Farrowdom: watching her more famous partner get all the attention while she consoles herself with international progeny and cats.

*Was there ever a bigger nitwit than Alan Sugar? Sugar is threatening legal action against the political journalist Quentin Letts for being mean about him on the radio. Quentin called Sugar a "telly peer" who "doesn't seem to have enormous intellect", so now Sugar – famous for humiliating people on TV – says he'll sue unless Quentin coughs up for his legal fees and promises not to criticise him again.

I've never heard such a bunch of cobblers. In flouting the convention that you don't sue individual journalists (just the broadcaster or newspaper they write for), Sugar is threatening our tradition of free speech. What poor hack could afford to take on touchy politicians and celebs? We printed a letter in The Spectator this week signed by 27 journalists – including the editor of this newspaper – urging Sugar to back down. In his Times column this week, the brilliant Matthew Parris called Sugar a "pathetic ninny" and offered to contribute to a whip-round to meet Quentin's costs. Me too. Moreover, now that Lord Sugar has proved Quentin absolutely right, I reckon it's every decent columnist's duty to point out in print that it is vain, foolish and bullying to take this action.