The regime described in the preceding article by our brother Gillham is based on the Protection of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. It is important to appreciate that the 2006 Act applies only to England and Wales. It has no application to Scotland and limited application to Northern Ireland. The following comments are restricted to the Scottish system.
The Scottish system of child protection is presently governed by the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003. It enables background checks to be done on those whose employment brings them into contact with children. The voluntary sector is also regulated and it is for this reason that work with children by churches is caught by the Act. However, in my opinion the system is not really designed to deal with Sunday School and children’s work of the sort provided by the assemblies.
Many of those that work with children in Scotland obtain their disclosure through the Central Registered Body (CRB) which provides a free disclosure service to those who work in the voluntary sector. The application forms provided include declarations at the rear which require the signatory to state that he is ‘likely to ask exempted questions’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, or is ‘likely to countersign applications under the Police Act 1997’. ‘Exempted questions’ under the 1974 Act and applications under the 1997 Act are designed to find out whether a potential recruit/volunteer has any criminal convictions. The Police Act provides a mechanism for permitting employers to make background checks with the police to ensure the suitability of the applicant.
These forms are used by assemblies to disclose their Sunday School teachers or Children’s Meeting workers. I do not believe, however, that the forms are suitable. I have yet to hear of any assembly which asked ‘exempted questions’ or could truthfully say that they were ‘likely’ to apply to the police for a background check on one of their workers. Usually, those who work with children in the assemblies are so well known that there is no need for an interview process, far less a background check.1 Some might say that it is ‘possible’ that they might have to ask these questions but I don’t think anyone could say it was ‘likely’. I would guess that these forms are signed because no one has the faintest idea what an ‘exempted question’ is or what sections 113 and 115 of the Police Act 1997 are about. This is hardly surprising since the form makes no attempt to explain the meaning of the declaration although it goes on to say, ‘Warning: it is a criminal offence to make an untrue statement to help obtain a disclosure certificate’.
To my knowledge the CRB does not reject applications from the assemblies, however, that is probably because of ignorance of the way assemblies function. Thus, while disclosure has valuable ‘PR’ advantages, and can be used to reassure parents, I do not think the present regime can be used by the assemblies.
The law will shortly be changed. The Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 has been given royal assent. The Scottish Government website presently predicts that it will be late 2010 before it comes into force. It remains to be seen whether the new regime will cure some of the problems identified above. The greater and more general risk is that assembly work will be subject to ever increasing regulation by Government. The scope for conflict between Government committed to an equality agenda and traditional Christian values is amply attested by the present debate over the Equality Bill.
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