In whom we trust

24th November 2000 at 00:00
The tragedy of Dunblane violently brought to the limelight the lack of checks there are on volunteers who work with children. Following Lord Cullen's recommendations, the Scottish Executive is acting to establish an index of people who should be barred from such positions. Raymond Ross reports on the hopes and concerns this raises.

In the report of the public inquiry into events at Dunblane Primary School on March 13, 1996, when 16 children and their teacher were shot and killed by Thomas Hamilton, a local man who had run a number of boys' clubs in the area, Lord Cullen recommended: "There should be a system for the accreditation to a national body of clubs and groups voluntarily attended by children and young persons under 16 years of age for their recreation, education or development."

Its main purpose would be "to ensure that there are adequate checks on the suitability of leaders and workers who have substantial unsupervised access to them".

Hamilton, a former assistant scout leader, had been blacklisted by the Scout Association for unsuitable and unstable behaviour, but there was nothing to stop him then proceeding to set up and run 15 boys' clubs in the Dunblane area and coach children in gymnastics, even though his behaviour was said to be domineering and his style of running clubs was frequently criticised by parents.

In last month's TES Scotland (October 20), Alan Jones, director of cultural and leisure services for Highland Council, called for urgent protection of children in sport, where they are particularly vulnerable in close working relationships with coaches and volunteers. He quoted the case of Paul Hickson, the former British Olympic team's coach jailed in 1995 for two rapes, 11 indecent assaults and two other serious sexual offences.

This month Ewan McGillvray, a leading athletics coach, was jailed in Edinburgh for indecent behaviour and abusing youngsters aged four to 13 over a period of 25 years.

The protection that has been called for has come a stage nearer. Following Lord Cullen's recommendations, the Scottish Parliament included the idea of a national accreditation system of people working with children in its programme for government. On July 7 this year the Executive issued the pre-legislative consultation paper Protecting Children - Securing Their Safety. Responses from local authorities and organisations working with young people, both regulated and voluntary, were required by the end of October.

More than half a million young people take part in Scotland's 11,000 youth organisations and clubs. Not surprisingly, the proposal to set up an index of persons deemed unsuitable to work with children under 16 has been widely welcomed by youth organisations and local authorities. But there are legal, fiscal and administrative concerns about how the index will be accessed, how it will function effectively and fairly and what the costs will be to the youth organisations and clubs which are staffed by 2,000 paid workers and 80,000 volunteers.

Under the Police Act 1997, which is in the process of being implemented, three types of checks are provided for. One is a "criminal conviction certificate" which will be issued to any individual who applies to the Scottish Criminal Records Office and will give details of any convictions which are unspent unde the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

The second is a "criminal record certificate" with details of any spent and unspent convictions which will be available only for those occupations which are exemptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

The third is an "enhanced criminal record certificate" which shows any spent and unspent convictions and other information from local police records where this is considered relevant to the post being sought.

The Scottish Criminal Records Office is being expanded to cope with the increased demand for certificates, which will not be available before the end of this year.

The case for change which the consultation document makes is that the certificate safeguards are "largely based on convictions and related information. There is no source of information on misconduct that does not lead to criminal charges or convictions."

Susan Smith, a freelance consultant who works with organisations such as Sportscotland and Youth Clubs Scotland on child protection issues, says:

"The proposed index, if introduced with care, will add to the growing range of tools that organisations working with children can learn to use to increase child protection standards.

"With resources, support and training, the index could raise standards and reduce the risk of children being repeatedly exposed to individuals whose actions make them a risk."

However, Ms Smith argues that it is difficult to predict the precise impact such changes will have, especially on voluntary activity levels in communities.

"If introduced without thought to its impact, especially on over-stretched and largely volunteer-led voluntary and community groups, the index will almost certainly result in a diminution of the number of opportunities for children and young people.

"Without resources, training and sensitive and sympathetic support, especially for volunteers - who, let's face it, do not have to give their time to coach children in rugby, take the local scout group on a summer camp or go out for yet another management committee meeting - the index will become a frightening piece of legislation which may send them running back to their homes rather than risk falling foul of a document which talks about putting people in prison."


With reference to Lord Cullen's recommendation that there are "adequate checks on the suitability of leaders and workers who have substantial unsupervised access" to children, the Scottish Executive's consultation document 'Protecting Children - Securing Their Safety' proposes that:

* the index will be a list of people who have been dismissed or transferred from positions giving access to children as a result of misconduct which has caused harm to a child (or children) or put a child (or children) at risk of harm; or who have resigned or simply walked out in such circumstances;

* employers of those working with children will have a duty to notify the Executive of those people whom they judge to meet the criteria for inclusion on the index;

* regulated organisations will have a duty to consult the index when considering applicants for positions working with children. Other organisations (mainly voluntary) involved in working with children will be able, but not obliged, to consult the index.

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