Last winter a father I know went to collect his 12-year-old son from an evening at a youth club in a neighbouring village. It was dark and it was raining. There was only one other child left at the club — another 12-year-old whose mother had rung to say that she was delayed at work and couldn’t pick him up. My friend, who knew the family, offered to take him home.
The female youth worker was adamant. That was not allowed. No written permission had been given, so regulations forbade it. Nor could she drive the boy home, even though she, too, lived in the village; she wasn’t permitted, under child protection rules, to have an unaccompanied minor in her car. That left the boy with one option. He walked 10 miles home, in the dark, along an unlit country road. He might have been hit by a car, or even abducted by a stranger; he certainly arrived back wet, bewildered and a little scared. That didn’t matter. All the rules had been followed, and whether a child was more or less safe as a result was beside the point.
This is the lunatic universe that we are creating in our attempts to use regulation and legislation to make society safer. …
More profoundly [than the false sense of security and the statistical certainty of getting it wrong], this insistence on the importance of distrust is eating away at our society. One in three men claim to have been deterred from volunteering, and the Brownies cannot find enough Brown Owls. A churchwarden in Hertfordshire told me all the spontaneous activities his church used to organise, such as picnics on a sunny Sunday, had had to stop because nothing could be done unless officially signed for far in advance. The summer play scheme on the green, with rounders and parachute games and art, went when the parents who manned it were asked to have Criminal Records Bureau checks. Even though everyone in the village knew everyone else, they weren’t allowed to act on that trust. He described parents and church workers as paralysed by the fear of doing something wrong. “We’re organising out the idea of community,” he said.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the executive director of Community Service Volunteers, an organisation with almost 230,000 people a year taking part in it, says that nobody is counting the cost as people decide to withdraw altogether from the legal and bureaucratic nightmare that helping others has become. In Cornwall, volunteer flower arrangers at a hospital chapel were informed that they could not continue unless they took CRB checks. Instead they left. Football clubs in deprived areas are, Hoodless says, becoming impossible for disadvantaged children to join. They don’t have parents with cars to get them to training or fixtures, and already the better-off parents are refusing to give lifts in case they are accused of illegal behaviour or assault. The CSV’s own procedures for scrutinising volunteers have worked without any serious problems for almost 50 years, but that means nothing now.