The cost of being squeaky clean

26th May 2006 at 01:00
We are long-standing critics of disclosure checks as a way of enhancing child protection although we see child protection as being of critical importance.

Our concerns with disclosure are that the system is poorly targeted, involving low and high-risk activities without distinction; it is costly and bureaucratic, taking money away from front-line services; it generates a false sense of security, and finally it depends on databases which inevitably contain some errors.

Indeed in our response to the recent consultation proposals to extend the disclosure check system we wrote: "We are very concerned about depending on the absolute accuracy of data stored on a large data system. We are aware of just how often such data can be wrong.

Misinformation could have a very damaging effect on someone who is falsely accused of past crimes against children, particularly when that information is obtained by an informal group such as a PTA or local football club."

Our stance on this matter is regarded as odd by many. How could a parents'

group object to such checks? However, the news this weekend that some 3,000 checks in England had falsely labelled innocent people as criminals (with presumably a similar number labelling guilty people as innocent) demonstrates the truth of our position.

The Home Office's response, "We make no apologies for erring on the side of caution", obviously only works with the "innocent labelled guilty" group; it does not help with the converse cases which have yet to receive any publicity.

However, while their stance may have some validity in high-risk situations -adults recruited to work in children's homes - it is not acceptable in lower risk situations. Imagine if you have simply volunteered to help out at a PTA disco only to find that through some data error you are deemed unfit to work with children and are barred.

The gossip would immediately fly around the school and no amount of correction will ever remove the suspicion that there's no smoke without fire. Now this whole child protection industry is set to extend its tentacles into the world of data handling. Presumably "sensitive data" will be as loosely defined as "childcare" currently is in Section 2 of the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act. Local authorities, schools and organisations will err on the side of caution (like the Home Office) catching more and more people in the net of wrong information and, in the process, spending millions - yes I do mean millions - of pounds.

Meanwhile cases of child abuse that happen within domestic circles or as a result of chance encounters will continue unabated. Disclosure checks, as I discovered in a recent consultation event on the current proposals, are mostly about making sure that organisations are squeaky clean, above suspicion and cannot be criticised if something goes wrong; they are rather less about actually protecting children.

It is time to rethink this whole process, identify the high-risk areas and take action that is appropriate to the level of risk.

It is a chilling but true observation that if the then existing checking procedure had worked in Soham, Ian Huntley would not have had the post of janitor at the school but it is no guarantee that he wouldn't, at some future date, have gone on to kill two young girls.

Judith Gillespie Development manager Scottish Parent Teacher Council

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