Rosamund McCarthy: More checks and regulation will only choke the freedom of civil society

The voluntary sector is at its best when it takes risks to work with the excluded, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Calibrating the relationship between risk and regulation goes to the heart of civil society. Lord Hodgson's excellent red tape report reveals a miasma of regulation that obstructs voluntary organisations. Underlying the red tape is a fear of risk, as well as a downgrading of common sense.

I am far from being a libertarian who rails against any state intrusion. I'm volunteering for a week with young people on a residential course in August. Should I be vetted? Absolutely. But disproportionate checking fails to make children safer and also erodes trust.

Many agree that regulation has to be scaled back to sensible levels. Yet, when something horrific happens, we are tempted into thinking more regulation is required. Take the proposal for Clare's Law, which is backed by Louise Casey, the Victims' Commissioner. Clare Wood was murdered after meeting a man online. Under the proposal, women would be able to ask the police if a potential date had a violent past. The police could also warn a woman if they thought she was at risk. These proposals are well-intentioned, but misconceived. Clare died because the police failed to protect her after she reported numerous assaults.

In my single days, I dated men whom I met through various methods. If the thought had crossed my mind that I needed a police check, my safety would have already been at risk. Most violence against women arises not from stranger danger, but from long-term partners. If we go down the road of regulation, where would it stop? Should women be able to ask past girlfriends if their dates are prone to stray?

Protesting against swingeing cuts to legal aid, housing benefit and women's support centres is a far better way of protecting women than campaigning for additional vetting. Clare's Law would not only give women a false sense of protection; it would also chip away at the freedom that civil society needs to flourish. For me, the voluntary sector is at its best when it takes risks to work with the excluded.

Take Circles UK, which facilitates volunteer 'circles' that support sex offenders. Circles UK seeks to manage risk through inclusion rather than exclusion. The object of Circles UK is for there to be no more victims. Extending the hand of friendship to convicted sex offenders involves risks, yet the evidence indicates that this support is crucial to minimising reoffending. I would far rather place my trust in a properly funded volunteer circle than a disclosure-by-request police scheme. It is the bravery and courage of civil society interventions, such as Circles UK, that we should salute.

The desire for regulation is understandable - we desperately want to protect those at risk. But ill-conceived regulation might not only fail to reduce offending, but also actually increase risk. Loss of trust could also choke the very freedom that civil society needs.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, but writes in a personal capacity

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