Child safety sham puts lives at risk

By David Leask
22 March 2009 / Scotland on Sunday
A CRUCIAL part of Scotland's child protection system has been exposed as a sham after it emerged that thousands of youngsters attend clubs and faith groups whose staff have not been vetted.
Politicians and campaigners last night demanded changes to the law after Scotland on Sunday discovered there is no legal way to force many organisations working with children to carry out criminal records checks on their prospective employees.

The loophole emerged after a children's charity discovered that Imams in four out of five of Scotland's mosques and madrassahs are educating youngsters without being checked by vetting agency Disclosure Scotland. Charities also believe numerous local sports clubs have also failed to vet their volunteers.

However, an investigation by this newspaper has established that most organisations are not under any legal obligation to do the checks, there is no sanction for failing to check, and no organisation is regularly monitoring compliance.

The current system only punishes organisations that fail to carry out checks if it subsequently emerges they recruited someone formally barred from working with children, a situation described by one commentator last night as "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted".

Last night, the Tories and a child protection adviser to the Scottish Parliament called for urgent reform of the law to make it an offence not to carry out Disclosure Scotland checks on all prospective workers with children. And the SNP deputy convener of the Parliament's education committee said that he wanted to re-examine the whole issue.

The current system was introduced after the 2002 murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire. It was designed to root out individuals who, like the Soham killer Ian Huntley, work with children despite concerns over their past.

Schools, nurseries and other organisations which are subject to official inspection are expected by their watchdogs to comply and face disciplinary – but not criminal – action if they fail to do so.

Child protection experts are most concerned by organisations outside the mainstream, where there is no system of compliance, enforcement or monitoring.

Roshni, a charity which fights child abuse in ethnic minority communities, says around 40 of the nation's 50 mosques and madrassahs north of the border have failed to sign up for Disclosure Scotland checks, despite looking after as many as 3,000 children every day.

The charity's chairman, Ali Khan, has launched a campaign to sign up minority faith groups for the disclosure system. Khan said: "We believe that around 20% of madrassahs and mosques are aware of the need to carry out Disclosure Scotland checks on their staff and are already compliant. Our project is to make sure that, in time, all the rest are too."

Martin Henry, of Stop It Now, a charity that raises awareness of child sex abuse, stressed that smaller sports clubs were also slipping through the net.

He said: "There are some organisations, usually small ones, who manage to duck under the radar because they don't belong to larger frameworks that tell them to comply."

The current law only allows serious punishment of any organisation that is subsequently found to have recruited a barred person and managers could face five years in jail. No organisation has ever been prosecuted.

Critics have long argued that some organisations have been far more zealous about the way they pursue checks than others. Some schools, for example, insist on vetting casual helpers on children's trips. Established groups, such as churches and the Scout movement, which are committed to the system, sometimes do not make the same demands for the same kind of activities.

Anti-abuse campaigner Helen Holland last night called for a major review of the way Scotland's disclosure system is policed. Holland, who suffered horrific sexual abuse while at a church children's home, now counsels fellow survivors and advises the Scottish Parliament on the issue.

She said: "It defeats the purpose of having Disclosure Scotland if compliance with its system is not going to be monitored.

Holland was backed by Tory MSP Bill Aitken, who said: "Clearly there is a flaw and a loophole in the law that needs to be investigated."

Kenny Gibson of the SNP, deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament's education committee, yesterday called for further investigations into the Disclosure system. He intends to raise the issue with children's minister Adam Ingram and the education committee. Like many, his main concern is simply that so many bodies appear ignorant of the system.

Gibson said: "It's really important that we communicate with organisations that they have responsibilities here."

The Scottish Government yesterday said its agencies and partners had carried out significant awareness-raising work with children's organisations, including 1,000 groups from black and ethnic minority communities. The Disclosure system is set to expand to include vulnerable adults from 2010.

A Government spokesman said: "We are committed to protecting vulnerable groups in Scotland and laws are in place to stop unsuitable people gaining access to children through work, either paid or unpaid.

"We are engaging Muslim communities in a positive and constructive dialogue and specifically supporting projects to work with Muslim women and youth."
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