Watching me, watching you

The controversial Vulnerable Groups Bill could create more problems for children's agencies

VOLUNTARY GROUPS say they are being asked to write a blank cheque under vetting procedures in new child protection legislation.

The Scottish Parliament's education committee heard concerns last week that retrospective checks, if introduced through the controversial Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill, could take 20 years and cost pound;20 million to reach everyone who worked with children or vulnerable adults.

Russell Gunson, policy and communications officer for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said more detail on funding was needed, and warned that the bill could create an enormous bureaucracy and deter volunteers. He called for at least three or four years' grace before retrospective checks are introduced, and suggested 10 years to ensure voluntary groups could afford implementation; otherwise they could fold.

Voluntary workers should have their fee for the checks waived by the Scottish Executive, Mr Gunson added.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, senior parliamentary officer for Youthlink, said: "Be under no illusion that the voluntary sector is in a hostile environment and we are all living from hand to mouth. This is an added burden at a time of pressure. We are being asked to write a blank cheque without knowing the costs, at a time when we are already in financial difficulty."

Michelle Miller, convener of children and families at the Association of Directors of Social Work, warned it was crucial to protect children as soon as possible.

The committee heard the scheme could cost Fife Council alone pound;150,000, with pound;100,000 for just the checks, before additional administration and staffing costs.

However, Robert Brown, the Deputy Education Minister, ruled out a lengthy implementation period for the bill, which is based on recommendations from the Bichard inquiry into the 2002 Soham murders. "Any timescale that goes over 10 years is rather longer than I would like myself," he said. "By the same token, we see three years as rather on the short side."

Mr Brown said a consultation document could be published by October, with the legislation taking effect from August 2008.

At the first parliamentary stage last month, MSPs unanimously backed the legislation, but only after the executive withdrew the section of the bill which covered information sharing.

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