I follow Ed Balls on Twitter. I don’t really get Twitter. I’m only following ten people, and one of them is Ed Balls. I would not like you to gain the impression that this is because I am a huge and passionate fan of Ed Balls. I am not. I consider him, based on the evidence of his behaviour, to be a slimy, slippery, untrustworthy, manipulative, self-publicising, self-agrandising sort of career politician, who never says or does anything without calculating how it will get him more power. Not a fan, no. However, I think such people should be kept an eye on, and whilst Twitter is not exactly fool-proof, it is a way of making myself vaguely aware of what he’s up to.
Most of what he’s up to involves opening new schools, commenting on the adventures of Norwich in the football league, and writing inane articles for newspapers.
His pet newspaper is the Wakefield Express. I haven’t checked, but I imagine that this is because Wakefield is his constituency. It doesn’t come up much, except that he writes a column in their local paper.
I am sure that the good people of Wakefield are delighted beyond measure, when he uses their local paper to explain the latest insanity to come out of the Department for Cushions and Soft Furnishings. I mean, I’m sure people are as het up about the vetting and barring database in Wakefield as they are everywhere else, I’m just saying, it’s not exactly a local issue.
Anyway, I follow Ed Balls on Twitter, which means I read his announcement of his Wakefield Express column on vetting and barring, and so I wandered off to read the article. As ever, in precisely the manner to which I, at least, have become accustomed, he has spent 586 words completely missing the point.
“Oh, no!” he says. “The press are misrepresenting my wonderful scheme. They are saying that parents will need to be checked to do each other favours. That is silly, to say nothing of unenforceable. I will correct their sad misapprehensions, and then they will realise that they only need to be checked if they do a favour for Brown Owl or Akela. Then they will be happy, and will like me.”
No, Ed, on a number of counts. The problem I have is not with the number of people/circumstances that the new system claims to extend to, although it does seem a short step from sticking everyone on one big über-database, where we can check on everything, all the time. Parrallels with Big Brother and 1984 stopped being funny quite some time ago.
However, my actual reason for loathing the proposed system has less to do with who’s in it, than what’s in it. It is not merely a list of people with a history of abusing power and position in relation to children and/or vulnerable adults. It does not refer simply to people who have been tried and found guilty of specific crimes. In the ISA’s lengthy document entitled Guidance Notes for the Barring Decision Making Process, this corker of a statement is found:
even where a jury has found someone not guilty of having done something, you must always remember that, at most, this means is that the court did not find that someone did something “beyond a reasonable doubt”
Not Guilty, it appears, does not mean Not Guilty. It means Probably Guilty, But We Were Confounded In Our Attempt To Prove It. Am I the only person who finds that to be utterly outrageous? Has the concept of innocent until proven guilty – that’s proven guilty, not strongly suspected by some over-zealous official somewhere to probably be guilty – really been dispensed with in this country? Don’t we believe in that any more?
I realise that my idealistic ideas probably wouldn’t have prevented Ian Huntley from attacking those two children in Soham. And it was the Soham murders that kicked off the seven-year process that got us to the Vetting and Barring database in the first place. But the answer is not to ascribe guilt to anyone who has ever had the finger pointed at them, however briefly, however unfairly, however maliciously. It is throwing the baby out with the bath-water. It is eliminating innocent people from large areas of paid and/or voluntary work for no good reason. It is diminishing the day-to-day lives of the children and vulnerable adults that those innocent people might otherwise have worked with.
The problem with Ian Huntley, if we assume for a moment that the previous allegations against him were true, appears to be tied up with the deplorably low conviction rate in rape cases and other sex crimes in this country. I’m no expert in this area – many people who are better informed than I am have postulated as to why the conviction rates are so low, and how that can be changed. However, compensating for this weakness by declaring the Not Guilty to be Guilty is a very low blow. It is unjust, it is anti-democratic, and it is a form of insanity that could turn around to bite any one of us on the behind. It is not my job to prove that I am not a criminal. It is yours to prove that I am.
There’s other stuff, along the same lines – the sort of information that they might use to bar you, unproven, subjective opinion, the sort of thing that might result from your having had a row with a social worker once, or stood up for your superior understanding of the law against a police officer. The sort of thing that might make such a person angry enough to imply things in a report. It’s all pretty seedy, though, and it amounts to the same thing. I am innocent, until you can convince a judge that I am not. Even that process is far from fool-proof, but it is at least a process.
And that is why I am boycotting the ISA and their Vetting and Barring database. I currently hold a CRB check, and if I renew it in the next few months, it could be as much as two years before this new monstrosity crosses my path, but when it does, some people in my church are likely to get very upset with me. Because I will have nothing to do with it, and if that means I can no longer staff the creche, or work with the asylum seekers, then I’m afraid that’s the price to be paid. Democracy is disappearing down the toilet, and I can’t look the other way, and vaguely hope that it stops doing it.