Leading article: We must not let our revulsion give way to moral panic

Crude barriers between children and adults serve the interests of no one
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The Independent Online

Revelations of child sexual abuse are always sickening. But even by those standards, the crimes of Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Colin Blanchard, convicted this week of being part of an online paedophile ring, are especially repugnant. The fact that George abused children in a nursery, a place where their parents had reasonably assumed they would be safe, seems to compound the depravity of the abuse itself. But emotive as this case is, we must resist a knee-jerk response. We have seen where moral panic gets us.

The popular outrage that stemmed from the 2002 murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by Ian Huntley, a caretaker at their school, led directly to the creation of the Government's Vetting and Barring Scheme, which is due to come into force this month. This scheme will require any adult who has regular contact with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted by the authorities. It has emerged that everyone from after-school sports club volunteers to authors who give readings in classrooms will come into this category. About 11 million adults are expected to be required to register.

There will be some who argue that if the new scheme helps to prevent the kind of sickening abuse we learned of this week, it will be worth all the inconvenience. But this week's case highlights the scheme's practical limitations. Such checks would not have prevented George from being employed at the nursery because she had no recorded history of being a risk to children. Moreover, the available evidence suggests that four-fifths of children who suffer serious sexual assaults are abused by a friend of the family or a close family member. This sweeping scheme would do nothing to protect such children.

Of course there is a balance to be struck between privacy and scrutiny when it comes to working with children. It is reasonable for teachers, professional child carers or those working in nurseries to be vetted by their employers. But such safeguards were already in place before the Soham murders. The problem, identified in the wake of that case, was that the police, schools and government agencies were not working together to pool information on abusers such as Huntley. Rather than concentrating on tightening up those existing safeguards, the Government decided to cast the vetting net to encompass a full quarter of the adult population. This maximalist approach is likely to prove not only of limited benefit, but damaging too. Decent people are likely to be put off volunteering to work in youth groups by the existence of such intrusive and unnecessary checks. And such measures, by encouraging children to be wary of all adults, exacerbate an already dangerous generational divide and corrode further the glue of trust that holds communities together.

The Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, ordered a review of the vetting scheme last month. But the outrage springing from this latest scandal might persuade ministers to leave it intact, perhaps even bolster it. That would be a grave mistake. And if the Conservatives are serious about their desire to create a "post-bureaucratic age", they ought to pledge to strip it back if they win the next election.

It is understandable that we seek legislative and bureaucratic remedies when faced with depravity such as that of Huntley, Blanchard, Allen and George. But we need to understand that putting up crude barriers between adults and young people does little to inconvenience abusers and even acts against children's true interests.

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