The government published its rather grandiosely named Protection of Freedom Bill last week. It covers a whole tranche of proposals including, inter alia, banning wheelclamping, destruction of DNA samples retained by the police and reducing the maximum time someone can be detained without trial. But one that seems to have caused the most controversy is the section which severely cuts back the CRB system and takes a lot of people out of its remit.
Most of the complaints about this proposal are based on a simple proposition: reducing the number of people subject to CRB checking will make abuse more likely. I think that’s wrong. I think that the CRB system was unnecessarily intrusive, ineffective and overdue for reform. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are a few facts and figures which support my position (and that of the government).
Firstly, how prevalent is the type of abuse which CRB checks aim to prevent? The answer appears to be “not very”. At all. Actual statistics for abuse are fairly hard to come by, and “abuse” itself is a very generic term which covers a lot of different classifications. But the NSPCC has published the results of research into sexual abuse in particular, and it makes interesting reading (a PDF summary of the actual research is here). And one of the things it shows is that abuse by people in positions of authority or professional responsibility is very, very rare.
By far the largest proportion of abuse comes from within the victim’s own family. The second largest group is from those within the victim’s existing social circle (friends, and family of friends). Together, these add up to a massive 96% of all abuse. The next most common is the one that parents are often most afraid of – abuse from strangers. Even so, this amounts to only 4% of the total, and the majority of that is relatively low-level. Most sexual abuse perpetrated by strangers on children is indecent exposure – the classic “flasher in the park” scenario. Violent abuse (including sexual assault) of children by strangers is vanishingly rare. So rare, in fact, that when it does happen, it is almost always headline news.
None of that, though – family, friends or unconnected strangers – is covered by the CRB system. There has never been a requirement to check people simply because you know them, and it would clearly be impossible to check every stranger (and, even if you did, it wouldn’t stop them abusing). CRB checks only apply to people who have some form of authority over, or responsibility for, children – teachers, youth group leaders, classroom assistants, priests, etc. But here’s the key figure: Despite the fact that most children have contact with a large and wide-ranging number of adults who fall into that category, the proportion of abuse committed by people in it is less than 1%. And, again, when it does happen, it’s sufficiently newsworthy that we generally end up hearing about it. Examples include the Catholic Church abuse scandal and the Plymouth nursery case, and Google throws up other cases when queried for ‘nursery abuse‘.
One thing which does need to be mentioned here is the case of Ian Huntley, since his crime – and the fact that he was known to the police, but that information hadn’t been passed on – was one of the main drivers behind the creation of the CRB system. But, as introduced, CRB checks wouldn’t have done anything to stop Huntley committing murder. They might have stopped him getting a job as a school caretaker, but his victims didn’t come from the school where he worked. His contact with them came via his partner, who was a classroom assistant at their school. And CRB checks would not have prevented her from getting that job, since her record was (and still is) clean. Huntley could have been a mechanic, a truck driver or a computer programmer and he would still have had exactly the opportunity to murder, since all it took was for him to be at home when the girls called round to see his partner. It would be almost ironic, if it were not tragic, that the system created in the wake of Huntley’s crime ended up addressing a completely different issue that was not, and still isn’t, a problem at all.
Even so, it’s not unreasonable to argue that, even if CRB checks only have the potential to deal with 1% of abuse, it’s still worth it if it does in fact do so. But does it? One thing that all those examples referred to above have in common is that CRB checks did not. It’s staggeringly difficult to obtain actual statistics for child abuse by people in CRB-relevant situations – what we really need to know is how much there was before, and whether that figure has changed since the introduction of compulsory CRB checking, but those figures don’t seem to be available anywhere – so all I can go on is anecdotal evidence. And that evidence certainly shows that abuse has not been eliminated. It is possible that, if the figures were available, they would show a decline. But, since we’re talking about a very small number anyway, it’s quite possible that any such change (if it exists) is within the bounds of normal statistical variation.
All that would be mostly academic if the worst that the CRB system was is useless. But, in reality, it’s worse than useless, because it imposes significant additional burdens on voluntary groups. There is a lot of evidence that the CRB system has deterred people from volunteering in situations where a CRB check would be required, and, unlike the examples of where it has failed to protect children, this data is based on real statistics. A lack of suitable volunteers can be extremely damaging to voluntary groups, and if any are failing to do their job because of a CRB-induced lack of staff then the CRB system itself is directly responsible for harm that may be caused as a result. Add to this the number of well-documented cases where CRB data has been wrong, and falsely labelled people as abusers when they were not, and it seems clear that it’s time for it to go.