British society no longer trusts grown-ups to interact with children. In
a controversial new report, Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow argue that
the culture of "vetting" adults is damaging relationships between the
British society no longer trusts adults to interact with children. Since
2002, growing numbers of people have found themselves required to
undergo a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check simply because their work
or voluntary activities bring them into contact with children.
This includes football coaches, cricket umpires, Guiders and Scoutmasters,
volunteers in churches, charities and community centres, parents who
volunteer for school trips or after-school clubs, and members of
parent-teacher associations - as well as a host of others whose work is
not to do with children, but might just involve having contact with
them, such as bus drivers, or plumbers who fix school radiators.
This month the BBC calculated that one in four adults will have to register
with the new Independent Safeguarding Authority next year. The ISA
boasts that something like 11.3 million people will be affected by the
new scheme for vetting adults.
In the report Licensed to Hug, published on 26 June, my co-author Jennie
Bristow and I explore the implication of the steady expansion of
criminal-record checks on intergenerational relations and community
life. What we found is that the system of vetting adults has taken on a
bizarre life of its own.
Already the question "Have you been CRB-checked?" has become part of everyday discussion at the school
gates. We have talked to parents who were told that they could not attend their children's disco because they were not CRB-checked.
Suspicion of grown-up behaviour towards children has fostered a climate
in which it has become normal for some parents to trust only adults who
possess official clearance. As one manager of a children's football team
stated, "I only allow CRB'd parents to drive team members to training."
The research for Licensed to Hug indicates that most of our respondents
in the voluntary sector accepted that a system of national vetting was
now a fact of life. Many prefaced their statement with the word
"unfortunately". Some were sceptical about its efficacy; others felt
that it was burdensome and confusing. There were complaints about the
enormous costs of maintaining the system and the amount of time it takes
to process the paperwork. A significant minority of volunteers have been
put off from working with children. One volunteer manager of an
under-13s cricket team told us of his frustration at losing his
"inspiring" coach who simply got "fed up with the hassle and paperwork".
Supporters of the new culture of vetting grown-ups argue that, whatever
the critics say, the system protects children from adult predators.
However, our experience of vetting as a society raises a question mark
over the idea that the system "works", either in terms of protecting
children from abuse, or in terms of increasing public confidence in
those working or volunteering with children.
As the recent history of the Criminal Records Bureau has shown, the first consequence of more
stringent vetting procedures has been a demand for even more stringent security procedures. This indicates that the effect of CRB checks is
less to increase trust in those organisations and institutions that
insist upon vetting than it is to fuel mistrust in those that do not.
Experience indicates that the institutionalisation of the vetting of
adults has unleashed a logic towards increasing the number of people who
are deemed to be in need of formal clearance. So, in February 2008, the
government announced trials of a new scheme that would enable parents to
check with police whether a '"named individual" - a family member, a
neighbour who looks after children, a new sexual partner - has child sex
convictions. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, stressed that the
initiative would not be a "community-wide disclosure", with information
given out to anyone who asks. The more this process goes on, however,
the more arbitrary it becomes to say where vetting should stop and trust
The alleged protective effects of a system of vetting are largely
illusory. Aside from the fallibility of record-keeping and technical
systems, vetting takes into account only what somebody has done in the
past. The most sophisticated system in the world cannot anticipate how
individuals with a clean record might behave.
Thus, the CRB provides little guidance about people's behaviour in the future. It provides the
impression of security, but not the substance. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the national vetting scheme represents an exercise
in impression management rather than offering effective protection.
Vetting measures also fuel suspicion about adults. In that sense, they
are not just harmless rituals, but negatively influence the conduct of
Although proponents of the scheme contend that it is designed to prevent
"worst-case scenarios", the very institutionalisation of the scheme
encourages worst-case-scenario assumptions to become the norm.
One consequence of this process is that adults feel increasingly nervous
around children, unwilling and unable to exercise their authority and
play a positive role in children's lives. Such intergenerational unease
has not made children safer than in the past: if anything, it is
creating the conditions for greater harm, as adults lose the nerve and
will to look out for any child who is not their own.
Perversely, it inadvertently encourages grown-ups to avoid their responsibility for
assuring the well-being of children in their community. One of the
principal consequences of the vetting of grown-ups is the legitimisation
of the idea that it is not the responsibility of the older generation to
take a direct interest in the lives of children.
The most regrettable outcome of the new child protection policies
associated with vetting is the distancing of intergenerational
relationships. They foster a climate where adults feel uneasy about
acting on their healthy intuition and feel forced to weigh up whether,
and how, to interact with a child.
Such calculated behaviour alters the quality of that interaction. It no longer represents an act founded on
doing what a mentor feels is right - it is an act influenced by calculations about how it will be interpreted by others, and by
anxieties that it should not be misinterpreted.
In sport, the difference between a coach automatically reaching out to
correct a child's position and a coach asking himself, "Is this all
right?" before doing so is that the former is a spontaneous action based
on a desire to improve the child's game, and the latter is a timid
gesture, reflecting an uncertainty about authority that the child must
In a community group, the difference between giving a distressed
child a hug and asking that child, "Would you like a hug?" is
that the former is given as an unprompted expression of human
compassion, and the latter is a transaction that requires a child's
Without doubt, children need to be protected from those who may prey
upon them. However, the policing and formalisation of intergenerational
relations does little to help this. The policy of attempting to prevent
paedophiles from getting in contact with children through a mass system
of vetting may well unintentionally make the situation more complicated.
One regrettable outcome of such policies is the estrangement of children
from all adults - the very people who are likely to protect them from
paedophiles and other dangers that they may face. The adult qualities of
spontaneous compassion and commitment are far more effective
safeguarding methods than pieces of paper that promote the messages:
"Keep out" and "Watch your back".
Adults feel at a loss
During the course of our discussions with people working in the
voluntary sector, it became evident that applying formal procedures to
the conduct of human relations also threatens to deskill adults. Many
adults often feel at a loss about how they should relate to youngsters
who are not their children. When formal rules replace compassion and
initiative, adults become discouraged from developing the kind of skills
that help them relate to and interact and socialise with children.
This process of deskilling the exercise of adult authority may have the
unfortunate consequence of diminishing the sense of responsibility that
adults bear for the socialisation of the younger generation. Individuals
who talked to us about the "hassle of paperwork" also hinted that they
were not sure that working with kids was "worth the effort". And if
adults are not trusted to be near children, is it any surprise that at
least some of them draw the conclusion that they are really not expected
to take responsibility for the well-being of children in their community?
Most policymakers, as well as thinking adults, do sense that there is
something wrong with the conduct of intergenerational interaction. Of
course, the crisis of intergenerational trust is a complex cultural
problem, to which there are no quick fixes. It would be one-sided to
argue that policy developments such as the national vetting and barring
scheme have created this problem, and that removing them would solve
However, our research suggests that the creation of a probationary
licence for adults through the national vetting scheme exacerbates the breakdown of trust within communities, and throws
adult authority and responsibility into question in a way that militates
against people stepping in to help children out when things go wrong.
What is needed is both