The impact of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act on online activities

11 January 2010

Victoria Gardner

New legislation requiring people who work with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted and registered applies to chat room and website moderators.

Since 12 October 2009, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (the Act) has required employers to register any employees who are engaged in “regulated activities”, which include moderating a public interactive communication service which is likely to be used wholly or mainly by children. As a result, employers need to ensure that prospective moderators of chat rooms and websites are carefully vetted to prevent them posing a threat to children or vulnerable adults.

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act

The Act was introduced following the Bichard Inquiry, which was set up after the Soham murders in 2002. The main requirement of the Act is that those who work with children (defined as anybody under the age of 18) or vulnerable adults by carrying out a “regulated activity” must be registered. Among the list of activities relating to children regulated under the Act is “moderating a public interactive communication service which is likely to be used wholly or mainly by children”. A person carries out this activity if, for the purpose of protecting children, he or she: a) monitors the content of the service; b) removes content from, or prevents the addition of content to the service; or c) controls access to or use of the service. The Act only applies to monitoring, removing or preventing the addition of content if the person carrying out these activities has both access to content and contact with children and vulnerable users.

Moderating chat rooms therefore constitutes a “regulated activity” and a regulated-activity provider (RAP) must check whether the potential employee is or should be barred from engaging in the regulated activity.  A RAP is defined as an organisation or individual that is responsible for the management or control of a regulated activity, paid or unpaid, and makes arrangements for people to work in that activity. A prospective employer of a chat room or forum moderator would therefore be a RAP.

Under the Act, it is a criminal offence, resulting in a prison sentence of up to five years and/or a fine of up to £5,000, for barred individuals to work or apply to work with children or vulnerable adults in any regulated activity. Employers in regulated activities can also face criminal sanctions, with fines of up to £5,000, for knowingly employing a barred individual or having reason to believe they are barred or for employing an individual who is not registered with the ‘Independent Safeguarding Authority’ (ISA) (see below). They could also face criminal sanctions for employing a person in a regulated activity if they have failed to make the necessary checks as to whether that individual could pose a threat to children or vulnerable adults and for failing to report to the ISA if they dismiss an individual or if an individual resigns because they have evidence that he is a risk to or has harmed children or vulnerable adults.

The Vetting and Barring Scheme and Independent Safeguarding Authority

On 12 October 2009, a new Vetting and Barring Scheme was introduced. The scheme is run by the Home Office in partnership with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), which administers the scheme, and the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), which makes the barring decisions. The scheme has introduced a single process to assess all individuals who wish to work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults, and established a mandatory registration programme. Two new ‘barred lists’: the Children’s Barred List and the Adults’ Barred List,  have been created by the scheme to identify individuals who are unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults and then bar those individuals from gaining access to such people through their work.

In 2008, the Act established the ISA (replacing the Independent Barring Board). In accordance with the aims of the scheme highlighted above, the ISA assesses information referred to it, from police sources, regulatory bodies and other organisations or individuals, on the risk of harm posed by an individual working or applying to work in a regulated activity. It will then make a legally binding decision as to whether or not the individual should be included on one of the ‘barred lists’ created by the scheme.  Another side to the new scheme is the ISA-registration system which, once the scheme is fully implemented, will require anyone who wants to work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults to register with ISA through one of the organisations registered with the CRB. This system does not however replace the need for CRB checks on individuals.

Future developments

Website owners and bulletin board operators need to be aware of whether they are providing regulated activities and must introduce procedures to ensure compliance with the Act. Employment history and references of prospective employees should be carefully checked and ISA-registration completed for the relevant employees to avoid facing criminal sanctions.

Key dates to be aware of:

  • from April 2010, prospective employers in a regulated activity will be able to apply to the CRB for enhanced disclosures of whether a prospective employee is barred from working in a regulated activity;

  • from 26 July 2010, new workers working regularly with vulnerable groups or those moving positions within these sectors can become ISA-registered and join the scheme;

  • from 1 November 2010, it becomes a legal requirement for all new workers or those moving into regulated activities to be ISA-registered;

  • from 1 April 2011, people who are already working in a regulated activity and have not moved into a new role with a new RAP may apply for ISA registration; and

  • by 31 July 2015, everyone working in regulated activity must be ISA-registered.