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[Articles & Essays - B] 

A law to vet volunteers who work with children will harm the very people it is designed to protect 

Famous people who do good works with children will not be immune.  TV presenter Johnny Ball says he will refuse to be vetted 

Marcel Berlins, The Guardian, Wednesday October 25, 2006

I was not, until Monday, overly concerned with the safeguarding vulnerable groups bill, now going through parliament. I saw it as an excessive over-reaction to a limited problem, but there's a lot of that about, and I would not be writing about it had I not heard someone on the radio defending the proposed law. 

Its aim, with which I cannot quibble, is to prevent children being abused by adults who have temporary care of them - for example, volunteers who run weekend sports activities, babysitters, or even parents who help out at school functions. Employees who work with children - teachers, for instance - already have to be vetted and have their pasts investigated. The new bill extends vetting to volunteers. 

I'm coming on to the nub of my criticism in a moment, but what the woman from the NSPCC said that so disturbed me was that the law was needed 

"even if it stops one child from being abused or hurt". 

That shows an attitude of staggering disproportion and tunnel vision. My belief is that, if the bill becomes law, it will hurt many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of children - though not by way of sexual or physical abuse, which seems to be the only kind of harm the NSPCC considers important. There are others. 

The law will diminish the lives of children because so many of the adults who were making them happy and enhancing their lives will no longer be there to do so. The trend was already apparent even before the bill. Large numbers of enthusiastic, well-intentioned non-paedophilic adults are no longer prepared to provide their generous volunteer services to run or contribute to children's activities, for fear that some totally innocent gesture or inadvertent contact will be misunderstood and result in appalling personal, social and legal consequences. 

The anecdotes abound: the teacher frightened to bandage a pupil's cut, the tennis coach apprehensive of placing his hands over a youngster's when showing him how to hold the racket; adults who won't help an unaccompanied child across a busy road in case their motives are questioned. 

So there is already a climate of fear surrounding contacts between children and adults. If the bill becomes law, I predict that the flow of good-hearted adult volunteers deciding to withdraw their time and effort will become a torrent - not because they have anything shameful or criminal to hide, but because getting vetted is an imposition too far, and an insult to those who, for years, have been gladly trying to improve the quality of children's lives. 

The result will be fewer sports, fewer youth groups, fewer outings, less tuition in things such as art and drama - all of which depend on a constant supply of eager volunteers. Famous people who do good works with children will not be immune. Johnny Ball, the television presenter and mathematician, has been entertainingly educating children for several decades. He has announced that he will refuse to go through the vetting process. Many celebrities will follow his resistance. 

It is the children - many, perhaps most, from deprived areas and communities - who will suffer. Some of them will respond by turning to the very evils that the work of the volunteer adults was steering them away from - drugs, crime, drink. Others may not go that far, but their lives will have become impoverished. And against all that, the woman from the NSPCC asserts that saving just one child from possible abuse (we can never know if it would have happened) is more important. 

I've heard the same argument used to justify seemingly exaggerated security measures to combat terrorism. 

"Ah yes, but if it saves just one life (which may be yours), all the inconvenience will have been worth it." 

Not necessarily. There can come a point - I'm not saying we have reached it, even at airports - where security is so overwhelming that normal life becomes intolerable. 

"You can't be too careful", they say. 

Yes, you can. I would prefer to live in a city where I can move relatively freely, un-harassed by cameras and people in uniforms, rather than in one which is effectively a prison - even if that means a slightly greater risk of something bad happening. And I prefer to live in a society that values volunteers rather than suspects them, and that allows them to apply whatever skills or talents they have to the benefit of masses of children - even if, perhaps, one child is hurt along the way. It's called a sense of proportion.

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