The Bill that will kill trust between the generations



Not long ago, I tried to pay our newspaper bill at a village shop in the country. It was a Sunday morning, and the shop had just shut, but I knew that the owner was keen for me to settle up. I could see a child of 11 or so inside, so I knocked on the glass door and pointed to the chequebook in my hand.

The boy ignored me, so I knocked again and tried to explain through the glass why I needed to come in. After several more appeals, the boy disappeared and returned with his father. Instead of being pleased that I had come to pay him, the shopowner berated me furiously for expecting his son to open the door to a stranger.

Just how many “strangers” (for which read “customers”) want to harm an 11-year-old boy in a village shop on a Sunday morning? What are the chances that a 45-year-old woman smiling and waving a chequebook will turn out to be a violent paedophile, intent on abducting and attacking a child? Most of all, how will this child — and many others like him — grow up if he has been led to believe that all adults are dangerous?

This mindset pervades Britain now, not just at the personal level but in public policy too. A virtually unnoticed piece of legislation is wending its way through Parliament right now. You might think you could not take issue with something called the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. You might think that any legislation designed to promote child safety should be supported. You might be wrong.

This new Bill will insist that every single person who could conceivably come into contact with a child, whether through work or volunteering, has to be subject to continuous criminal-record vetting.

Josie Appleton, author of The Case Against Vetting, calculates that up to a third of the adult working population will be covered, from the plumber who comes to mend a school’s leaking radiator to a parent running a football team or a 16-year-old helping schoolchildren to read. It will be an offence, subject to a fine of up to £5,000, for an employer to hire someone to work with children without being vetted, except in the context of private family arrangements.

Of course, those of us with nothing to hide will have nothing to lose. Except that the vetting is almost as bureaucratically onerous as getting a new passport. There are forms to be filled in, three pieces of identity to be proferred and, in some cases, cheques to be written. You then have to wait several weeks before you are cleared.

One new headmaster last year could not enter his own school for the first couple of weeks of term because his check had not come through. Another man — a father of three and member of the Scottish Parliament — was not allowed to lead the “walking bus” to his son’s primary school because he had not been officially cleared. We grown-ups, however public-spirited, are all now assumed guilty until proved innocent.

As a result, adults are being deterred from offering to help with children. The Girl Guides and Scouts are chronically short of volunteers: the Guides have a waiting list of 50,000, the Scouts 30,000, and some parents have resorted to signing their children up at birth. These checks will reveal not just convictions, but also offences of which people were accused but not convicted. This could wreck the lives of adults who have been falsely accused. And what about, for instance, Cherie Blair, who was investigated by the police for play-slapping a 17-year-old who made rabbit ears above her head while posing for a photograph? Will she now be banned from working with children? Or the vicar who kissed a girl on her forehead during a maths class?

One of the nicer aspects of being a child used to be the random acts of kindness offered by adults outside the family: the friendly shopkeeper who ruffled your hair and gave you a sweet; the enthusiastic PE coach who gave up time after school to help with your gymnastics and was constantly — and wholly innocently — adjusting your body position to get the moves right. These adults were generous with their time and their affection. We knew who the pervs were and took pains to avoid them.

Now all adults are deemed to be perverts unless they can prove that they are not. Most will now avoid contact with other people’s children and will refrain from touching them for fear of the action being misconstrued.

So what this Bill threatens to do is to poison the relationships between generations. Just as the ultra-feminist slogan “All men are rapists” tainted the relationship between men and women for a decade, so the assumption that all adults are potential paedophiles will imbue children with fear, parents with paranoia and other adults with excessive caution.

The new law was inspired by the Soham murders, in which Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, killed two young girls. Yet he did not even work at their school; it was his partner who did. In other words, the legislation may save no new lives. But what it will do is sour the trust between millions of children and millions of innocent adults. What a great shame.