Deborah Orr: This illogical vetting scheme will not safeguard our children

Saturday 18 July 2009 00:00 BST

It's the classic children's lament: "Everybody else has got one." So it's quite droll that the reaction to Philip Pullman's refusal to register with the new Vetting and Barring Scheme is similar.

Pullman, along with a number of other very grand writers of children's literature, objects to having to register before he goes into a school to read his work and discuss it with pupils. In a Britain obsessed with the formalities of equality, many people think he's just being stuck up. Dinner ladies have to do it. Janitors have to do it. Why does Pullman think he's so special? What a fatuous argument this is.

When kids try the "everybody else ..." argument, parents quite often ask whether they would want to do it too, if everybody else jumped off a cliff. That usually useless retort is just as apposite in this case. Everyone is obliged to co-operate with this scheme. But that doesn't justify it, or make it sensible. On the contrary, if every single person who ever goes into a school is registered with a database, then that's just a more elaborate level of empty tick-box equality. It's the thoroughness of the vetting of suspicious individuals, not its fairness or universality, that is important.

I don't think children's writers are making the point that they, particularly, should be "above suspicion". They are surely simply saying that any system that treats everyone as equally suspicious is in danger of marginalising common sense, personal instinct and even, in certain circumstances, actual pejorative knowledge. (She's got the bit of paper, so I must be wrong.) How can a time-wasting scheme which insists that somebody who is patently not "a danger to children" must obtain a piece of paper proving the obvious be of any worth?

The logic appears to be that since it is very difficult to rumble a paedophile, this difficulty can be got over by painstakingly ascertaining who is not a paedophile. It's a bit like deciding that it is too big a job to find the 10 red pebbles on a big beach of white pebbles, then concluding that the easy way would be to find all the white pebbles instead. Except that in the case of paedophiles, lots of the pebbles could look white but turn out to have been red all along, or could be red but be fantastically good at looking as though they are white.

The new Children's Laureate, Anthony Browne, takes the line that writers are claiming exceptionalism, when they shouldn't. He says that the scheme is worthwhile if it "saves one child's life". His reference is to the crimes of Ian Huntley, who started all this when he got a job as a janitor in Soham, and used his position to lure Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman into his home and murder them. His argument is as hysterical and emotive as the scheme he defends.

What needed to be learned from these frightful crimes was that every tiny indication that a person might be a sexual predator should be pursued, and placed on a central record. This was learned, with the Bichard inquiry recommending that a registration scheme for people working with children and vulnerable adults should be developed, and that a clear code on record-keeping should be adopted by all police forces. It was this inquiry that prompted the setting up of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which has introduced the system to which the writers are objecting.

But Ian Huntley got into his vile little niche because allegations from various sources, one of indecent assault, four of underage sex, three of rape, and a burglary charge, had been disregarded or trivialised. The headmaster of Soham Village College says that even knowledge of the burglary investigation would have persuaded him to turn down Huntley's application, because part of his job was maintaining the security of the building. (Against government guidelines, he hadn't even checked Huntley's references, while the private company that did the police check treated it as a formality.) The truth is that had so many other necessary changes not have already been made since the murders, even Huntley would now get his £64 certificate of worthiness. Paedophiles, of course, are the only people who will really, really want to have them.

Is this scheme foolproof, though? Will it make it impossible for a child to be harmed by a person who has access to them through his job? Should we go along with it because even though it is cumbersome and counterintuitive, bureaucratic and illogical, it is totally safe? Again, we only need to look to Soham to understand that such security can never be achieved.

It should not be forgotten that two of the Cambridgeshire police officers involved with the families of Holly and Jessica were themselves convicted later of sexual crimes against children. One, Antony Goodridge, pleaded guilty to child pornography offences. The other, Brian Stevens, who had spoken at the memorial service, was cleared of indecent assault and child pornography offences after his trial was stopped due to faulty evidence. Later Stevens was convicted of perverting the course of justice, when it was proved that he had produced a false alibi to clear himself of the charges. For me, that gut-wrenching reminder that hands only have to look clean, and pebbles only have to look white, is the clincher. The bigger and more complicated a vetting service is, the more people are involved in administering it and the more likely it is that those targeting it for nefarious reasons will be successful. How many people are doling out these tens of thousands of unnecessary passports into schools? Who is vetting them? And how?

Mind you, there's something about the herd mentality that makes people blind to the fallaciousness of their own self-righteousness. This vetting register business reminds me of all the people who lined up after the liquid bomb scare declaring that they didn't mind throwing their lip gloss in a bucket if it would stop one act of terrorism. "Mind," I felt like screaming at them, "terrorists just abducted your innocent lip gloss! Don't just stand there telling them that it's perfectly all right with you if they do that! It's not!"

No one is created equal where crime figures are concerned

The latest crime figures are rather cheering, not least because murder is at a 20-year low. But up close, they say much more about "inequality" than those who are sniping at the motives of blameless children's writers. Of course one can be grumpy, and say that stabbing is up, and it would be quite a surprise if more stabbing victims were not saved now by medical science than was the case two decades ago, when we were in the Thatcherite NHS-cuts doldrums. But I'm going to be even grumpier than that.

If you look at the crime map of Britain that has been compiled by "human geographer" Danny Dorling, it becomes apparent that violent crime has become, in the past 20 years, increasingly concentrated into tight little pockets of contemporary Britain. Most of us are much safer than ever, when it comes to being attacked. But a few of us run an astronomically high risk of being injured or dying at the hands of another person. It's not hard to guess where these bands of the unhappy few reside. They live in places where there is endemic high unemployment that has taken over the culture of their communities. They live in little worlds untouched by the boom, so parlous that they may not even have the capacity to be affected much by the bust. They live lives so different from the lives of the rest of us that we can barely even contemplate those lives.

We normals scratch our heads over why these fellow citizens find gangs so attractive and why they carry weapons and use them. Some of us even sneer at their stubborn savagery in the face of so much bolstering from the welfare state, citing this as prima facie evidence that they are "beyond help".

But Dorling has made a distinguished academic career out of studying and collating data about life in Britain, in a way that makes it easy to see "what's really happening". And he knows that one of cruellest inequalities is one he calls "the inverse care law", and he can prove that the places which need resources the most are proportionally doled out less. He believes, essentially, that New Labour failed because it was composed of nice, caring people who didn't really understand what deprivation was. Part of absolute deprivation, surely, is living in daily fear of a knife attack, in a country where the majority of people are right to believe that it could never happen to them.

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