News analysis: A quicker, simpler vetting system?

Some think the new Independent Safeguarding Authority will put volunteers off. Indira Das-Gupta reports

Nobody could deny that lessons should be learned from the Soham tragedy, in which two 10-year-old girls were murdered by their school caretaker, Ian Huntley. The case exposed major failings in the vetting and barring system for those working with children and other vulnerable groups.

But since details emerged last week about the new Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will run the reformed system for checks from next year, some charities have expressed fears that it could scare off would-be volunteers (Third Sector, 18 July).

"There's no doubt that it will deter people from volunteering; the current checks by the Criminal Records Bureau already do," says Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of volunteering charity CSV.

"It's not because people have something to hide; it just makes them feel uncomfortable. Their offer to give up a few hours of their time suddenly means they will have someone prying into their background."

Mandatory checks

The new authority will implement the Protecting Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which was prompted by Sir Michael Bichard's report, published in the aftermath of Soham. Although exact details of how the new system for checks will function are subject to an ongoing consultation, the main difference is that it will be mandatory.

As with enhanced checks currently carried out by the CRB, ‘soft' information, such as leads that did not result in a conviction, will be considered. Unlike the current system, the final decision about whether to take someone on will fall to the Independent Safeguarding Authority and not the charity.

In theory, it will be possible to look people up on a centralised database before deciding to take them on as volunteers, rather than carrying out a new check. It should be quicker and simpler and - because it will be automatically updated - there will be no need for repeat checks.

A number of sector organisations have welcomed the idea of a more standardised system.

"We support the new system because it will remove uncertainty and will mean that a clear decision is made about who can and cannot work with children," says Kevin Brooks, a policy adviser for the NSPCC.

But Douglas Musgrove, manager for volunteering schemes at homelessness charity St Mungo's, questions the wisdom of taking the decisionmaking away from local organisations and giving it to a centralised body.

"We work with some very vulnerable clients, but we also work with volunteers who are service users themselves - they often have quite a history, but no longer pose a risk, in our opinion," he says. "We have a volunteer who had a breakdown, but she's been great. Would this new authority look at her medical record and simply decide she was unsuitable? We gain knowledge from meeting people and getting to know them."

David Shelmerdine, the secretary of the Scout Association, does not believe too much power will rest with the new authority. "Even if the authority has cleared someone to work with vulnerable groups, an organisation could still decide not to take them on for reasons that might emerge from other factors," he says. "It's not only about someone's convictions; it's about assessing their overall suitability."

Chris Dobson, head of people support at WRVS, which provides volunteers in hospitals, concedes that it could put volunteers off, but argues there is a more important issue at stake. "We need to remember why we are doing this," she says. "The security of vulnerable groups is paramount. After Soham, the public expects to be protected."

Involvement and support

Voluntary sector stakeholders are vital to the implementation of the new scheme, according to a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families. "Their involvement and support has been welcomed at every stage of its development," he says. "We are running events and information sessions for the third sector and others to ensure that they are kept up to date with developments and understand how the scheme will work."

One crucial aspect of the new scheme, yet to be confirmed, is how long voluntary organisations will be given to phase in the new system. The Scottish Executive initially proposed that charities should have only a few years to comply with the new system of checks introduced under the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill. WRVS was among those that successfully lobbied against this.

It's important that the system is phased in over a realistic timescale in England too, says Dobson: "Hopefully, lessons will be learned from the CRB, otherwise the new authority could end up with egg on its face."

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