The routinely apoplectic Mr John “you can not be serious” Humphrys – may God preserve his blood pressure, for it must surely be too high – this morning reached new heights of indignation on Radio Four’s Today programme.
Mr Humphrys’s spluttering was occasioned by the news that any volunteer coming into regular contact with children will now be required to undergo Criminal Record Bureau clearance before they are allowed carry out their work.
That was quite enough to push Mr Humphry’s blood pressure from amber to red. What made it rise to Krakatoic levels was the underlying assumption that anyone volunteering to work with children must be assumed to be a villain until proved otherwise.
Now, on this occasion, Mr Humphrys – who of course often takes wholly unjustified pops at the medical profession – was right. This new requirement for CRB checks is – if I may be allowed to use what should be an oxymoron, only on this occasion it is not – creep on a monumental scale.
There is a sense of déjà vu here. The new rules have arisen as a result of the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – just as the draconian proposals to regulate doctors have arisen from the Shipman Inquiry. In each case, it is knee-jerk politics of the basest kind.
Doctors, particularly those like locums who are closer to the margins, have long had to endure an assumptions of villainy until proved otherwise. We know how the system works – or rather, doesn’t work. And, trust me (I am, after all, a doctor), what is bad medicine for doctors will be far worse medicine for society at large.
On the face of it, checking has superficial appeal. No one wants crooks and villains ministering to their health needs – or gaining access to their children. So, lets check ‘em out. Run a check on the police computer and see what shows up. Those with a shady past will be brought to light, villains exposed and crooks caught out.
The problem is, these checks are fundamentally flawed. Sure, they tell us something of the past. But they tell us nothing about the future. The instant they are printed, they become out of date. The clean CRB check I had yesterday tells you nothing about my court appearance today.
Determined criminals – those whom perhaps we would like to identify – can get through the net. Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, used a different name – a simple enough subterfuge.
The system itself is already creaking under the strain. Identified errors – failing to spot a criminal record, or attributing one where there was none – have doubled in the 12 months to 31st March 2009 compared to the previous year. No doubt it will creak a lot more under the estimated 11.3 million (an almost three-fold increase) that will undergo checking. Even if current accuracy is maintained – highly unlikely as the extra load comes on – some 4500 errors will occur. Whether that amounts to 4500 villains given clearance, or 4500 innocents branded criminals, or a mixture of the two, it is still an awful lot of fish on the wrong side of the net.
Even more worryingly, the system is open to abuse itself. The new rules will allow the use of “soft intelligence” – a nudge and a wink to you and me – to decide on clearance. Fed up with one of your school governors (a group to be included in the vetting)? No problem – a well placed nudge here and a crafty wink there and you will soon be rid of them.
And not only will the system fail: there will also be blowback a’plenty. It is estimated that as many as one in ten potential applicants will have a skeleton (or three) in the cupboard. Many will simply choose not to apply. Volunteer numbers can only decline, clubs close, and communities suffer. In the ensuing vacuum, more and more kids will turn to drugs and crime.
Placing a reliance on sham governance is bad enough, even if that is what we have come to expect from our smoke and mirrors government. Far more worrying is the very real damage that will be done to society at a deeper level.
For Humphry’s, to his credit, has spotted the real rat. The window-dressing with sham governance is story enough, but the real story here is the way in which the new rules not only allow, but actively encourage us to distrust our fellow citizens. We are to presume they are villains until they are vetted. We are all villains now – until proved otherwise.
Make no mistake: this is creep on a monumental scale. Before we know it, even parents will require CRB clearance before the State allows them to look after their own children.