Safety checks altered

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
A SANTA clause, introduced to amend new child protection legislation, could help save the festive figure in Scotland's schools.

Fears were raised that volunteers would be deterred from playing the Christmas character if they fell foul of the proposed law which will require everyone working with children and vulnerable adults to undergo rigorous checks.

However, an amendment agreed by parliament's education committee last week will exclude from vetting family and friends helping out in one-off situations.

Tabling the Santa clause, East-wood MSP Kenneth Macintosh said it would allow schools discretion, and revealed his child's school in East Renfrewshire nearly didn't have a Santa last year. "I asked a friend from Glasgow who had a Santa outfit and had been disclosure checked, but he had to be checked again - and in the end pulled out."

Fortunately, another volunteer, who had been checked recently by East Renfrewshire, saved Mr Macintosh from having to step into the fur-trimmed boots himself, but it prompted his call for informal arrangements to be safeguarded within the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill.

Mr Macintosh told the committee: "An example is the school trip - where someone, at the last minute, pulls out and you need a volunteer. But he or she needs a disclosure check without which the trip can't go ahead.

"What I am suggesting is that families and friends in particular should not be tied in with local authority employees. It (the amendment) transfers risk to parents or guardians and does not try to impose inappropriate or disproportionate legislation."

Robert Brown, the Deputy Education Minister, agreed with the amendment, which he called cunning. However, he described some of the examples given of voluntary activities, which could be hit by the legislation, as acquiring mythical status.

Mr Macintosh described that as a serious point: "I have come across examples where disclosure checks are over-used and are a barrier to good judgment.

"There would always be one or more parent present, so it is a miniscule risk. Having a disclosure check doesn't guarantee behaviour: it is supposed to assist you in making a good judgment."

He said he hoped his amendment would help to establish where the difference lay between formal and informal, statutory and non-statutory work. However, he denied his personal experience was due to heavy-handedness by East Ren-frewshire, saying a recently well-publicised ban on parents helping to seat their children on school buses resulted from bus company policy to speed up timetables.

A spokesman for East Renfrew-shire Council defended its policy of subjecting everyone working with children to disclosure checks. "We take the approach that you cannot be too careful," he said. "Our motto is to expect the worst and plan accordingly, and you cannot go wrong. It may seem heavy-handed but our experience over the years shows you cannot take chances.

"The most innocent of situations, in retrospect, can turn out to be far from innocent. We owe it to parents."

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