Independent Safeguarding Authority
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The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) is a British non-departmental public body created by the Home Office in 2009 to provide a national vetting and barring agency. Due to be phased in commencing October 2009 it is the largest project of its kind in the world. Every person who comes into regular contact with children, "vulnerable adults" or the elderly must be vetted and approved by ISA officials checking for criminal convictions, disciplinary action by past employers, "anti-social views", unsuitable lifestyles and even unproven allegations.
The politicians responsible say that this is necessary to protect children from paedophiles. Critics have pointed out that the inadequate scrutiny of the legislation is a familiar characteristic of law-making under New Labour, and that "the amendments that were not properly considered allowed ministers to extend the scope of the law and catch millions more people within its ambit... It is evident that this new system is grotesquely out of proportion to the risk."
The ISA was created as a result of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 which was passed following publication of the Bichard Inquiry arising from the Soham murders in 2002, when school caretaker Ian Kevin Huntley murdered schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. Following extensive consultation, 25 new clauses, 4 new schedules and 250 Government amendments we now have a law which "attempts the almost unimaginable: to regulate those instances and those circumstances in which trust might arise between a 'vulnerable person' and another individual."
The ISA, however, would not have prevented Huntley from murdering the two schoolgirls: although he was a school caretaker, that is not how he met his victims, who went to a different school. They met Huntley because his girlfriend was a teaching assistant. They stopped by his house to see her, she was out and Huntley invited them in. His employment was totally irrelevant. And his only conviction was for riding an uninsured motorbike.
The ISA was created to help prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults. It emerged that Huntley had previously been investigated for one act of indecent assault, four acts of underage sex and three rapes. Four separate complaints about her had been forwarded to social services. Humberside Police claimed later that they believed that it was unlawful under the Data Protection Act to hold data regarding allegations which did not lead to a conviction. Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry concluded that the police were guilty of serious failures in recording and managing information. These failures included mismanagement of local systems for recording, retaining and accessing data. Sir Michael further recommended:
- The introduction of a national intelligence system. Where information has been collected which points to someone posing a threat, this information should be shared and acted upon before that person is employed in a sensitive post.
- Stronger, more consistent vetting - the introduction of a new system for registering those working with children and vulnerable adults.
- The database should hold details of all alleged sexual offenders involved with named children and needs to be easily searchable.
These recommendations formed the basis of the ISA, which the Home Office described then as "a register... to bring together all the relevant information held on individuals in a way which is easily accessible as part of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, [linked to] identity cards containing individuals’ biometric details."
Sir Michael admitted, however, that in the Soham case, because records were handled so badly and deleted, even a national intelligence system could not have identified Huntley prior to the murders.
Sir Michael's report was scathing of Humberside Police, whose failings over such a long period of time were "deeply shocking". He concluded that the "final responsibility for these serious failures rests with Chief Constable David Westwood", a position the Home Office and the then Home Secretary David "Dunk It" Blunkett found it "difficult to disagree with".
Blunkett stated: "Chief Constable Westwood must take personal responsibility for... those failures. The role of any Chief Constable has to be one in which the public have confidence. In the face of serious criticism, it is my responsibility as Home Secretary to question whether people in Humberside can continue to have that confidence... The strength of the report's criticism of him has led me to conclude that, using the powers available to me under the Police Act 1996, as amended by the Police Reform Act 2002, I should require Humberside Police Authority to suspend Mr Westwood as Chief Constable forthwith."
Chief Constable Westwood was suspended by the Humberside Police Authority on 2 July 2004. And re-instated a few weeks later, eventually retiring to live happily ever after with a jolly nice pension, thanks very much.
Who is affected
Anyone in a position to develop a "relationship of trust" with children, vulnerable adults and the elderly (the so-called "regulated activity"), including parents looking after someone else's child for more than two hours, may be required to undergo vetting by the ISA. In conjunction with the Childcare Act (2006) this means that any parent whose children interact regularly with other children falls within the regulations unless the childcare - whether paid or unpaid, formal or informal - takes place for less than two hours in the day, fewer than 14 days a year. Otherwise, the parent would need to be trained, make modifications to their homes, undergo a CRB check, and be registered on the ISA database. There is a high likelihood that all other adults residing in the household would also need to be vetted. Besides regulated activity, the legislation also covers "controlled activity", which it defines as an activity which "does not constitute regulated activity but which provides opportunities for contact with children or vulnerable adults."
The government initially (2006) estimated that the database would hold the details of 8.5 million people, later revised to 11.3 million, slightly more than a quarter of the adult population, although civil rights advocates have predicted a figure closer to 16 million. Due to the nature of the guidelines and its entanglement with current CRB guidelines, extensive creep was predicted and is now being seen. Individuals who work on web sites either as moderators or controllers of the content of that site will need need to be ISA registered where they might have contact with users of the service. Employment agencies and local government now require CRB checking, because that covers them with their clients. Tradesmen such as plumbers are currently being CRB checked, usually because they may be employed as contractors by larger firms seeking local government contracts which might involve working in schools or care homes.
As many as 7.5 million volunteers will need to be registered, plus a further 5 million individuals who carry out informal childcare or babysitting. The Register notes: "Expect scandal, hindsight and a further widening of regulated activity over the next five years. Remember, too, that all of the above is long before the working out of pilot schemes, now in place in four areas, which will enable single mums to check out the past sexual history of new partners."
Powers and penalties
- It will be a criminal offence for an employer to allow a barred person, or a person who is not yet registered with the ISA, to work for any length of time in any regulated activity.
- It will be a criminal offence for an employer to take on a person in a regulated activity if they fail to check that person’s status.
- It will be a criminal offence for a barred person to take part in a regulated activity.
- It will be a criminal offence for an employer to take on an individual in a controlled activity if they fail to check that person’s status.
- It will be a criminal offence for a barred person to take part in a controlled activity without "correct safeguards" in place.
- Employers, personnel suppliers and service providers will be legally obliged to refer relevant information about an individual to the ISA.
- ISA officials are authorised to take into account newspaper stories and anonymous tip-offs from the public, raising the prospect that careers and lives could be ruined on the basis of malicious allegations. "Hearsay, rumour and unfounded suspicion ("soft information") will be the currency of the new procedures, with a reminder to all concerned that they have a duty to share information."
- ISA officials are also allowed to take into account personal beliefs and private life when deciding whether or not to bar an individual. Having "anti-social views" or an "impulsive, chaotic, unstable lifestyle" will count against applicants.
- Simply being shy or lonely may be sufficient to bar an individual: the guidelines also highlight that officials should consider "evidence not specifically relating to any particular event" including "presence of severe emotional loneliness and/or the inability to manage/sustain emotionally intimate relationships."
- ISA officials will be granted access to "texts, emails and a range of personal data to reach a decision."
- ISA officials will operate under an incentive to presume "guilt": "No one loses their job for smearing innocent adults but if a single one of the millions of people not marked down ever seriously harms any child the ISA will be blamed. So despite the fact that it is impossible for the ISA to weed out every dangerous adult, the incentive will be to presume guilt."
- The Home Office has stated that "there must be suspicious reasons" for someone objecting to being vetted. The register, they say, is "like a club, which all decent adults should want to be part of." "Reluctance to be on the database is an indication of guilt indistinguishable from somebody who is a known and serious child abuser. The libertarian objector, the person who didn’t know about the database, and the child abuser will all come back with the same answer: not monitored."
- Once registered, a person is subjected to constant "surveillance" by the system, as the vetting status is continually monitored to ensure that they continue to be suitable to work within a regulated or controlled activity.
- The ISA operates to a lower standard of proof than a criminal court. The guidance states that "the decision whether or not it is appropriate for an individual to be included in a barred list is not a question of law or fact," but rather a balance of probability.
- An individual who has been barred has 8 weeks in which to appeal the decision, following which "they will be barred from the entirety of the workforce affected for a minimum period of one, five or ten years depending on the individual’s age." Under-18s will be barred for a year before their cases can be reviewed; 18 to 25 year-olds five years, and those over 25 must wait ten years.
- Many rehabilitated criminals currently work with young people in drugs treatment, youth offending and mental health. Drugs treatment centres are largely staffed by individuals who understand the clients because they've been there themselves. Under the new regime, they will not be allowed to do so.
- The scheme would not have prevented the murder of Sarah Payne, or similar cases, where the perpetrator was already on the sex-offenders register, but whose employment would not require ISA or CRB checks as it did not involve children.
- Information currently disclosed by the CRB is being misused by employers and convictions which would have ordinarily been spent and have no bearing on the person's suitability to work with children, such as shoplifting, are being used as a reason not to employ the individuals concerned. Thirty per cent of men in the UK aged under 30 have a criminal conviction and 20 per cent of men in general have a criminal conviction. This is a huge section of the work force to write off.
- The data held by the CRB is not always correct. Some people are discovering that the data held about them is inaccurate and are having difficulties in getting it rectified.
- These procedures will further erode people's privacy and civil liberties and increase the likelihood of innocent people losing their jobs because "on the face of it" somebody thinks they did something that seemed wrong.
- Cases of mistaken identity are bound to happen. Between 2004 - 2006, 1500 people were wrongly branded criminals by the CRB because they had similar names and birthdates to criminals on the Police National Computer. The 1,500 figure also represents only those who had successfully appealed before 2006 and many more may have been wrongly labelled criminals without even knowing. In the 12 months prior to August 2009, 1570 people were wrongly branded criminals or mistakenly given a clean record.
- Hidden away in the Amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill, under Part 8 - Miscellaneous, are Amendment 14: clauses 85 and 88. These were introduced without explanation or debate, and require the ISA to notify employers "and others" even if it is only considering including a person on a barred list and has not yet taken a final decision. This means that although the ISA has not made any decision, and although it may ultimately decide the person should not be included on the barred list, the employer will be still be made aware of this fact. Even if ultimately the person is not barred it is not difficult to imagine how an employer, erring on the side of caution, may decide not to make a job offer to someone who is not automatically cleared to work.
Nicholas Shackel, writing in Practical Ethics, carried out the following exercise:
For ease of figuring, let’s suppose we are vetting 10 million people. For simplicity we are going to consider the entire assessment process as a test which issues one of two verdicts: positive or negative for danger. If we were going to go into depth we would need to consider two different probabilities, the sensitivity of the test, which is the probability of a true positive (that is to say, of a positive verdict given that the adult is dangerous) and the specificity, which is the probability of a true negative, and the relation between them. (It is the relation between these two and any threshold we set for the verdict that causes reductions in false negatives to increase false positives, and similarly for false negatives and true positives.) For brevity I’m going to set aside those complications and start with an optimistic assumption that both the sensitivity and specificity are 99%. I don’t know what the base rate of dangerous adults is but let’s start with a pessimistic assumption that it is 1 in 1000.
These figures would result in the ISA giving 9900 true positives, and 99900 false positives. That’s pretty shocking. We would harm nearly one hundred thousand people and we are still failing to identify one hundred dangerous adults. The probability of someone labelled dangerous actually being dangerous is only 9%. If we get more optimistic (99.9% and 1 in 10000) it looks better, only one false negative but still ten thousand false positives (round numbers from hereon), and still the probability of someone labelled dangerous being dangerous is still only 10%. If we get less optimistic (95% and 1 in 100) it looks very bad, both 5000 false negatives and ½ a million false positives.
Several prominent children's authors - who would all be required to join the scheme in order to conduct talks in schools - have criticised the ISA. Philip Pullman called the scheme "outrageous, demeaning and insulting" and said he would no longer appear in schools because of it: "When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth – how on earth – how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It's preposterous." Author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce said: "As an author you're never alone with a class. There's no possible reason for this, unless it's a revenue-raising scam." [registration costs £64.] Former children's laureate Anne Fine said: "I refuse – having spoken in schools without incident for 32 years, I refuse to undergo such a demeaning process. It's all part of a very unhealthy situation that we've got ourselves into where all people who are close to children are seen as potential paedophiles." Lindsay Mackie, representing the literary charity English PEN, said: "The signal to children that the public space is to be defined as a potentially dangerous space – where the values of the worlds where the visitors work, whether it's in writing or engineering or family, are secondary to the definition of the adult as "vetted" or "safe" – is limiting and fearful. We are creating paranoia."
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "We are going to drive away volunteers, we'll see clubs and activities close down and we'll end up with more bored young people on our streets." Nigel Huddleston, Conservative Parliamentary spokesman for Luton South, said that: " As a father of two I want my children to be safe, but this is a move too far. The government has effectively created a system that says you are all paedophiles unless you pay us £64 to prove that you aren't. I don't want to live under a government that thinks like that." Sir Michael Bichard called for a rethink of the register and told The Independent: "We must have proportionate arrangements. We mustn't over-react." Tom Foster, of the National Association of Head Teachers' policy, politics and education department, said the formation of the ISA was a purely political decision that is fraught with danger, and that "The chances of this going pear-shaped are legion. It won't stop the wrong people being registered." Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne said the scheme was a "disproportionate response" that risked deterring people from volunteering, and that "We are in danger of creating a world in which we think every adult who approaches children means to do harm. Should parents giving other people's children a lift to sports matches really face a £5,000 fine and criminal record if they fail to register? The world’s biggest checking system is a disproportionate response."
The Times leader writer Camilla Cavendish said: "The road to political oblivion is paved with good intentions out of control. More than 80 per cent of attacks on children are made by people they know. A third of sex crimes are carried out by adolescents, who will not be vetted. If the Government really has £84 million to spare it should be treating sex offenders, not subjecting millions of decent people to a modern inquisition."
"The Home Office are looking for more and more reasons to expand the database state, feeding on the fear of terrorists, immigrants and now paedophiles. The CRB is already struggling to handle the current system properly, with the number of CRB errors in mistaken identity on the rise. The new systems will no doubt be significantly larger, yet they expect us to believe that very few errors will be encountered... If we say it's okay to subject someone to such intrusions of privacy, threatening them with unemployment because they just might possibly be a paedophile, or we say it's okay to subject someone to an interrogation when trying to obtain a passport, because they just might be a 'terrorist', then we allow ourselves to become fools manipulated by propaganda and we justify the abuse of our rights."
You are a paedophile unless proven otherwise.
- Beckford, Martin. What is the Independent Safeguarding Authority and how will it work? 11 September 2009. The Telegraph. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Vaguely defined by the ISA, this group includes, at one time or another, virtually the whole of the adult population.
- Porter, Henry. A toxic culture of suspicion is souring our children's lives. 19 July 2009. The Guardian. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Beckford, Martin. Independent Safeguarding Authority: Limited appeal then 10-year wait for barred parents. 13 September 2009. The Telegraph. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Ozimek, John. Government swiftly backpedals on vetting scheme. 15 September 2009. The Register. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Shackel, Nicholas. The Independent Safeguarding Authority. 19 July 2009. Practical Ethics. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Protecting children: Ed Balls's review on vetting doesn't go far enough. Editorial. 14 September 2009. The Telegraph. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006
- House of Commons Hansard Debates. 23 October 2006. www.parliament.uk Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Ozimek, John. Criminal record checks could hit over 14 million people. 14 July 2008. The Register. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Welcome to the Independent Safeguarding Authority. ISA. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- DERA copy of Bichard Inquiry Report - Home Office Response. 22 June 2004. Home Office. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Cuckolded husband in media plea. 4 December 2004. The Age. retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Ozimek, John. Nation's parents prepare to be vetted. 28 September 2009. The Register. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Ozimek, John. A quarter of UK adults to go on child protection database. 4 June 2008. The Register. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Ozimek, John. Home Office: El Reg may be right on vetting figures. 27 October 2009. The Register. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- The pilot scheme started in September 2008 and allows single mothers to check new boyfriends to make sure that they are not listed on the sex offenders' register.
- Johnson, Mark. There's no escape from the past in this kangaroo court. 17 June 2009. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Appleton, Josie. Why we should support this writers' revolt. 17 July 2009. Spiked. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Regulating Trust: Who will be on the Vetting Database? Campaign Against Vetting Briefing Document. 31 July 2009. Manifesto Club. Retrieved 3 November 2009. Site temporarily down.
- Hart, Helen. Is the UK sleepwalking into a world where any criminal conviction, however minor, will come back to haunt its citizens. International Bar Association. Retrieved 4 November 2009
- Branded as criminals. 21 May 2006. The Daily Mail. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Amendments on the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of Lords. Part 8 – Miscellaneous Chapter 1, Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups and Criminal Records. June 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009.
- Mackie, Lindsay. Vetting's message of fear. 17 July 2009. The Guardian. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Flood, Alison. Authors in revolt against plans to vet them for school visits. 10 July 2009. The Guardian. Retrieved 3 November 2009.
- Huddlestone, Nigel. Independent safeguarding authority - another barmy nanny state idea from New Labour. 12 September 2009. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- ISA scheme criticised. 14 August 2009. Times Educational Supplement. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- We are in danger of creating a world in which we think every adult who approaches children means to do harm. Steve Beasant. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- We are all suspects in the new inquisition's eyes. 1 May 2009. The times. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
- Sinister plans to merge ID database with Criminal Records Bureau checks. 30 August 2009. openDemocracy.net Retrieved 4 November 2009.