Lawyer Criticises List 99 Vetting of Teachers
Manchester, UK – 2 February 2006.
Richard Scorer, a personal injury lawyer with UK law firm Pannone & Partners addresses the media clamour about teacher vetting and the protection of children and urges government action.
“Is the furore surrounding sex offenders in schools a synthetic row stoked up by the tabloids and opposition politicians, or a genuine problem which the government has failed to address?
On any objective view, the current system for vetting teachers has serious flaws. These have now been widely canvassed in the media. The underlying problem is the existence of several different lists, including the sex offenders’ register and List 99, which are compiled according to different criteria. Although the sex offenders’ register lists all those individuals who have been convicted of, or cautioned for, specified sexual offences, it isn’t the first port of call for clearance to work in schools. Teachers can be cleared to work after being checked against List 99. Although persons convicted of sex crimes are automatically added to List 99, in cases falling short of a prosecution – including cautions – the individual is not automatically added. It’s for the Department of Education to decide. In the first case to prompt outcry, a teacher from Norwich who was cautioned for viewing banned images of children over the internet was placed on the sex offenders’ register but was not added to List 99, because a junior education minister had decided that the evidence against him was ‘inconclusive’.
Individuals such as this one not on List 99 can be appointed to teaching posts pending a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, but this can take weeks or months. As a result, some sex offenders are barred only reactively, after appointment. After the Soham murders, the government wanted all new staff to be thoroughly checked by the CRB before starting work – a point reiterated by Ruth Kelly in recent days. However, as the government recognises, CRB checks can take so long that schools have to appoint new staff before the check comes through.
Of course, some of these problems can be exaggerated. In the Norwich case, it could be argued that the system worked because the teacher in question was forced to resign after eight days when his arrest and caution as part of Operation Ore (the police investigation of internet paedophiles) came to light – the CRB check came through quite quickly, and the issue was dealt with. That said, the flaws in the current system are undeniable. As Sir Michael Bichard set out some eighteen months ago in his report following the Soham murders, a single ‘one stop shop’ list which pulls all the disparate information together is the key reform necessary to make the system safe and restore public confidence. Last week, very belatedly, the Education Secretary put this in hand.
The government’s initial response to this issue three weeks ago seemed at best confused. On the one hand, ministers seemed to misunderstand the legal implications of a caution, assuming that this might somehow cast doubt on the individual’s guilt. However, in accepting a caution a suspect admits the offence. His or her guilt is not in doubt, and he or she should be treated for these purposes as if convicted of the offence. Therefore, if the offence renders that person unsuitable to work with children, an automatic bar should follow – there is no question of the evidence being ‘inconclusive’.
The much more difficult issue is the borderline situations where a criminal offence or technical breach may have been committed but many would doubt whether what was done can fairly be described as child abuse at all – the ‘fumbling teenager’ cases. Should a 19 year old student teacher who has sex with his 17-year old pupil be barred from teaching for life? These are the cases where the system must retain a degree of discretion - a discretion however which should be exercised, as Ms Kelly has now recognised, by experts in the assessment of sex offenders, not by politicians.
The reforms now announced by Ms Kelly will take time to bring in. The administrative hurdles involved mean a new system is several years away. What is most surprising about the latest row is the government’s unexplained tardiness in even starting to implement The Bichard Inquiry Report. Overall, this government has been very proactive in the child protection field. A succession of measures from new criminal offences of grooming to the appointment of a Childrens’ Commissioner testifies, apparently, to a genuine determination to improve child protection.
All this makes the delay in legislating over teacher vetting difficult to fathom. Given that The Bichard Inquiry arose from the Soham murders, the political imperative in acting quickly could hardly have been greater. Yet eighteen months after Sir Michael Bichard reported, his recommendations are barely any closer to becoming law. Whilst Ms Kelly has now reassured the public that reforms are in progress, the lack of urgent action over the past eighteen months is not just disappointing, but politically inexplicable.
Implementing The Bichard Inquiry Report isn’t just important for schools. It would show that the government is setting the agenda on child protection rather than the tabloids. In recent days the tabloids have been calling for the introduction of ‘Sarah’s Law’ – the idea of giving the public information about the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles. However loud the popular clamour, no responsible legislator would seriously entertain such a measure – apart from the dangers of vigilante action, the evidence from the US is that such measures make it more difficult, not less, to keep tabs on convicted child molesters. But unless the government is seen to be handling the issue properly, the public will lose confidence that politicians understand and care about child protection. Vigilante action against paedophiles, though reprehensible, reflects a loss of public faith in political willpower to deal with the issue. Simplistic, populist measures seem more attractive if sensible alternatives like The Bichard Inquiry Report are left to gather dust. This makes it imperative that the government implements the necessary reforms – and quickly”.
Richard Scorer qualified as a solicitor in 1994 and became a Partner at Pannone & Partners in 1998. He specialises in serious personal injury compensation cases including head and spinal injury claims, child abuse cases, aviation and maritime accidents, compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and legal actions under the Human Rights Act.
Richard is a Fellow of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, a member of the Law Society Personal Injury Panel and a member of the Legal Services Commission North West Area Appeals Committee. Richard has acted as solicitor in many high profile personal injury compensation cases. Recent successes include New –v- Ministry of Defence (MOD) the first ever award of damages to a soldier for the MOD’s failure to diagnose and treat post traumatic stress disorder; and Budden –v- Police Aviation Services, a personal injury compensation claim by the widow of the pilot killed in the 1998 Kent Air Ambulance helicopter crash.
Pannone & Partners Solicitors is a full service law firm with over 300 lawyers and a legal staff of 620 people based in Manchester, UK.
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