Chapter 11

The vetting and supervision of adults working with children and young people


11.1 This chapter is concerned with the means of protecting children and young people who attend clubs or other groups against abuse by leaders or others who have regular contact with them; and in particular with the steps which can and should be taken to vet such persons and to supervise their conduct. I will be considering this subject from a Scottish standpoint, but I will require for certain purposes to refer to practice in England and Wales.

11.2 The evidence in the Inquiry showed the relative ease with which Thomas Hamilton over many years was able to open a succession of clubs in a number of local authority areas despite persistent complaints and concerns about his behaviour. There was no system in general use for the vetting of persons who operated such clubs or for monitoring their conduct. No doubt such systems could be introduced for dealing with the premises of local authorities. During the course of his evidence Mr G D Jeyes, Director of Education of Stirling Council, spoke to the adoption of vetting procedures by the Community Committee of the Council on 8 May 1996. However, this does not achieve the dissemination of information about those persons who are regarded as potentially unsuitable, nor does it deal with those who use premises other than those owned by a local authority.

11.3 The opportunities which adults have for coming into direct contact with children and young people in clubs or other groups are very many. The form of contact can vary from activities where a group of adults are involved, such as in the Scouts or Guides, to cases where a single adult may be involved with a single child, eg in personal tuition. It can range from well-regulated statutory relationships, such as those between teachers and pupils, to informal activities which may be based on personal friendship or family contacts. Membership of a club or group may be free of charge or in return for payment. The payment could be a small subscription to cover costs or a fee which would also provide a return. The adults may or may not be personally known to the parents. The venue for club activities may be a public building, a private building or simply somewhere out of doors. The activities cover arts, music and drama tuition as well as coaching and training in a variety of sports and practical skills.

11.4 At present there is nothing to prevent an individual declaring himself or herself a "youth leader", renting premises and starting a youth club or some other similar kind of activity for children over 8 years of age.

11.5 The number of those involved in working with children and young people on a paid or voluntary basis is very large. According to The Scottish Office paper of June 1996 on the recruitment and supervision of adults, between 70,000 and 100,000 adults are associated with recognised voluntary youth organisations, which number around 11,000. In addition, there may be the same number of adults involved with young people outwith the ambit of recognised youth work organisations; and many volunteers working within organisations concerned with child care, such as befrienders, home visitors and playgroup workers. There is also an unknown number of individuals working alone outwith any organisation, often in very informal arrangements. A youth club may be set up on a trial basis, either to explore the demand for such an activity, meet a short-term need or for the individual to assess his or her aptitude to undertake youth work. Such clubs may continue, become affiliated to a larger organisation or simply cease to operate. Another situation is where a parent or interested individual assists in the absence of a recognised leader.

Existing controls and advice

11.6 In general the existing levels of control are greatest in the case of statutory bodies; and with organisations working with the youngest children, as I will explain in the following three paragraphs.

11.7 It is common practice for statutory bodies to require references at the time of recruitment and to ensure that they are of the right kind. A check with the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO) is mandatory in the case of a person who applies for admission to the register held by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Statutory bodies which are involved in the provision of health, social work and educational services may require an SCRO check in the case of a wide range of posts, depending on the access which the applicant would have to children. Such a check would include any convictions which are "spent" for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. In England and Wales employers in the statutory sector may, depending on the policy of the particular police force, obtain additional information about offenders from local police records.

11.8 In addition local authorities hold lists of those who have been struck off the register of the General Teaching Council and of those who have been banned from employment as teachers in England and Wales (the latter being referred to as list 99 of the DfEE).

11.9 Voluntary organisations which provide "day care" (which includes "supervised activity") for children under 8 years of age for 2 hours or more in a day and on more than 6 days in any one year have to register and be inspected under Part X of the Children's Act 1989, which applies to Scotland, England and Wales. In connection with this legislation local authorities require two references and may require an SCRO check to be made. There is a current proposal to amend the legislation to exclude "supervised activities", the prime purpose of which is to develop skills rather than provide care; and to extend the exemption for occasional day care facilities from 6 days to 60 days in any one year.

11.10 There appear to be greater controls within large well-organised voluntary organisations than within small voluntary or private organisations. Many of the former adopt practices which are in line with the advice contained in the code of practice Protecting Children which was produced by Volunteer Development Scotland. The aim of this code of practice is to encourage voluntary organisations to make the protection of children from physical, sexual and emotional abuse an integral part of their policy and practice. To that end the recommendations in the code are directed essentially to three matters: (i) procedures for the selection of suitable staff and volunteers, including using references, interviewing all applicants as to their experience of working or contact with children, asking all applicants about any conviction for criminal offences against children and making appointments conditional on the successful completion of a probationary period; (ii) the arrangement of work and supervision to prevent opportunities for abuse; and (iii) the use of definite procedures for dealing with complaints or suspicions of abuse, including a system whereby children may talk to an independent person. At present there is, of course, no means by which the use of an excellent code such as this can be made a condition of the operation of a voluntary organisation. For some organisations these arrangements might be considered to represent an onerous burden. The more informal or infrequent a club the less likely it is to have the structure to implement such a code. The less "professional" a group the less likely it is to have a person who would be experienced in vetting or interviewing.

11.11 The recommendations in the code of practice to which I referred in the previous paragraph includes the advice that voluntary organisations should obtain at least one reference from a person who has experience of the applicant's work with children, whether paid or voluntary. This is in accordance with normal good practice. At present voluntary organisations in Scotland do not have direct access to the SCRO, although some have access to information informally through their local police force or more formally through local authorities for which they are providing services. Organisations are not encouraged to request applicants to obtain details of any record which is held in respect of them by the SCRO.

11.12 It has been proposed in the consultation document On the Record in Scotland, which was issued by the Home Department of The Scottish Office in June 1996, that the existing arrangements for access to the SCRO should be extended to, inter alia, voluntary bodies in respect of employees, trainees and volunteers whose duties involve regular contact with children. It is proposed that each organisation which wishes to obtain such a check would require to register with the SCRO, agree to abide by a code of practice to preserve confidentiality, and indemnify the police and the SCRO against any civil action arising from the use to which the information may be put. It is also pointed out that in order to avoid the SCRO being overwhelmed by requests for registration, it may be necessary to set a threshold of a minimum estimated number of checks per year below which an organisation would not be able to secure direct access. However, it would be open to smaller organisations to group together, perhaps using existing trade or professional associations, or to link with a larger organisation in order to meet the necessary conditions.

11.13 It may also be noted that in England but not in Scotland, the Department of Health provides a pre-employment consultancy service for social work authorities and voluntary organisations. According to The Scottish Office paper of June 1996 this service consists of a list which, apart from including the DfEE's list 99, notes the convictions of those who at the time of conviction were in child care work; and the names of persons formerly in such work who have been dismissed, or have resigned or been moved to other work, or left in circumstances which suggest that the safety or welfare of children was, or may have been, put at risk. A similar service is available in Northern Ireland through the Department of Health and Social Services. The effectiveness of this type of check is dependent on the provision of information by organisations to a specially qualified information bureau.

Is there a need for further measures?

11.14 Having considered the very wide field with which I started I propose to concentrate on situations in which children and young people under 16 years of age voluntarily attend clubs or groups for their recreation, education or development. I distinguish the cases in which they have no choice, such as the requirement to attend school, since in such cases there are well-developed systems for the scrutiny of those who have children and young persons under their charge.

11.15 I consider that it is preferable to take an approach which is directed to safeguarding children from the attentions of unsuitable people rather than to create additional offences to deal with problems after they have occurred.

11.16 It could be maintained that it is sufficient to leave each club or group to regulate itself, adopting whatever practice it chooses to limit the potential for abuse. Thus parents would have to assure themselves that the club or group was run on satisfactory lines and that there was no reason for them to think that the leaders or those who had unsupervised access to their children were unsuitable for the work.

11.17 However, if it is to be left to individual clubs or groups to carry out their own checks and to adopt whatever practice they please there would be no system for ensuring, or at any rate obtaining assurance, that the checks were adequate or that the practice was sufficient for the protection of those who attend their activities.

11.18 Further, it may be said that parents are not always in a position to make adequate enquiry into the way in which clubs or groups are run or their personnel are checked. Parents sometimes have to take a great deal on trust; and it is reasonable that they should be assured that the clubs or groups which their children attend have shown that they provide an adequate degree of protection against abuse. The children's safety is paramount.

11.19 The information which can be provided by the SCRO gives details of convictions and enables the enquirer to determine whether there is anything which makes the applicant obviously unsuitable. Such a check would reveal any offences committed against children and to this extent the SCRO record fulfils the role of a paedophile register. However, as I have already indicated, smaller organisations may face difficulties in obtaining access to this source of information. Apart from anything else, they may not be in a position to give an indemnity. In any event the interpretation of the information may create problems for them. Even if the SCRO check reveals nothing of significance it does not follow that there is no risk of abuse. It is common for a child abuser to have offended many times before he is detected. While the SCRO check provides information not only about convictions but also about pending cases it does not extend to other intelligence. In the case of Thomas Hamilton it would have revealed nothing, whereas the experience of the Scout Association with him was sufficient for them to "blacklist" him. These considerations point to the desirability of finding a means of assembling information which would alert any legitimate enquirer as to information about a person's past behaviour which indicates his potential unsuitability.

11.20 As matters stand there is no system for co-ordinating information between different areas of the country about persons regarded as potentially unsuitable for work with children and young people.

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Prepared 16 October 1996