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Call to extend protection of local authority vetting

Whatever parents may assume, there is no vetting procedure in either England or Scotland for privately run youth clubs if the children concerned are over the age of eight.

There were, then, few official sanctions to be taken against Thomas Hamilton who was free to run a whole network of clubs in the Stirling area despite apparently widespread suspicion of his activities. After all, the police had no case against him.

The aftermath of the killings has brought calls for an extension of the child protection system introduced by the Children Act in 1991. This ensures that any organisation caring for children of eight or younger is both registered and inspected by the local authority.

It was an advance on the previous arrangements, which did not go beyond the age of five. Now some, including the Kids Club Network group, want to see the system extended to cover children up to 14.

The Government, they say, has already gone most of the way: a version of the Children Act recently introduced to Northern Ireland ensures that clubs dealing with 12-year-olds must be inspected.

Parliament has also passed an Activities Centres Act which aims to set up a system of licensing outdoor activity.

This followed the death of four young canoeists at Lyme Bay in Dorset. The final regulations are due out next month.

"Parents expect some kind of registration to go on," said Anne Longford, director of the Network, made up of 3,000 after-school clubs. "It's hard to believe that someone is able to run a club without people asking any questions. I think parents believe that checks have gone on.

"We have seen a huge increase in quality since the advent of registration. The vast majority of clubs say it has been positive. We've had a clear reminder of the dangers of allowing just anyone to work with children. We need to start looking at how we can extend the protection."

Others, however, remain cautious. Alan Parker, education officer with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, whose members would be obliged to implement any further legislation, said that any new measures must be carefully calculated. "You need a cool look at what actually is going to be achieved. It's like police vetting: it doesn't do you any good unless the person concerned has a record and it shows up.

"There's also a problem with the extent to which you can impose things on volunteers."

Local authorities already have a duty to investigate any complaints about the mistreatment of children, whatever their age.

In fact, as a Department of Health spokesman pointed out, Thomas Hamilton had been clearly identified as a risk.

Indeed the suspicion surrounding him and the fact that he was barred from a number of local authority premises were specific factors in his resentment.

All the same, recent proposals from the Department of Health which would relax the existing registration procedures for play-schemes have been put on hold, said a spokesman.

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