“As soon as a negro comes to England he is free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.” (attrib. Chief Justice Holt, 1702)
Well, it’s finally happened. My wife and I are now experiencing our first ‘Brazil’ moment (Brazil being the film by Terry Gilliam in which, to quote Wikipedia, the hero “is not so much beset by malicious characters as he is by a vast, impersonal, and indifferent social structure that is both hypocritical and pedantic for its own sake.”)
Since moving to live in Elsenham, my wife has applied for a job with a home nursing agency. The work is not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed she described one of her earliest jobs as “involving a lot of poo”. But where Alison is particularly good at this sort of work is that she actually likes the clients — she doesn’t just do it for the money, she enjoys the people despite their Alzheimer’s and their disabilities.
Imagine her concern, then, to be advised at the beginning of the week not to turn up for her ‘shadowing’ jobs, but to call in to the agency later. When she arrived, she was met by two of the managerial staff who told her that they couldn’t employ her because they had received an e-mail saying that her POVA (Protection Of Vulnerable Adults) report had shown something on her record.
Naturally she asked for a copy of the e-mail, only to be told this couldn’t be provided.
When she arrived home, therefore, she phoned the Government’s CRB helpline, where an interesting conversation ensued — a conversation to which I listened on the other phone, so I would know exactly what was said and be able to act as a witness should the need arise.
The long and the short of it is that this has nothing to do with ‘Child Protection’ (as she had assumed), nor, directly, with the CRB as they haven’t yet processed her application. Instead, she was told, it is a police matter since they deal with the POVA process.
To quote from the POVA website, the scheme “will act as a workforce ban on those professionals who have harmed vulnerable adults in their care.” In other words, Alison is under suspicion of harming someone.
Or maybe not, because the nice lady on the CRB helpline then added that this sometimes happens when someone has a ‘common name’. So if you don’t happen to be called Stanislowski, apparently you may be a bit vulnerable yourself. As the lady went on to say, “You’re not the only Alison Richardson in the country.” However, I can vouch she is the only Alison Richardson at this address who was born on her particular birthday — information which she had to divulge before the lady would begin to discuss her case and which they were obviously able to verify with a few mouse-clicks at the other end of the phone.
The good news, then, is that this may be a false alarm. Apparently such e-mails are sent out as a precautionary measure, just in case. Once the police get round to looking at it properly, all may well be resolved.
“How long will that take?” asked my wife.
“Up to four weeks,” came the reply.
“Can they do it any quicker?”
“No, the police don’t have a fast-track facility.”
And there the conversation pretty much ended.
So, having had a seriously distressing morning, my wife can’t work for this agency, or any similar body, for perhaps a month, during which, of course, she won’t receive the income she was expecting.
The most worrying point in all this, however, is not that my wife is innocent of all wrongdoing. It may be that, unknown to me, she has harmed a vulnerable adult in the past. (Though I seriously doubt it, especially since this would have to be 'on the record' somewhere.) However, she does not know what has been alleged, having received no communication about this herself and having been refused sight of the e-mail to her employer, and meanwhile she can’t work and can’t do anything to clear her name. Moreover, there is the distress of having an allegation stand against her. Even the most innocent person will ask, “What have I done?” And even the most generous friends may wonder, “Is there something behind all this?”
My own thought is that this surely goes against the principle of habeus corpus, even if not the letter of the law. According to the Wikipedia article, the basic concept behind this is that, “The King is at all times entitled to have an account, why the liberty of any of his subjects is restrained, wherever that restraint may be inflicted.” In short, you can’t just lock someone up without demonstrable and lawful reason.
Restraint is usually taken to mean ‘imprisonment’. Hence the principle is of enormous social importance and has only been suspended in the most serious of circumstances. However, there is such a thing as ‘restraint of trade’, which Alison is surely undergoing. The important point, as far as I am concerned, is that she can’t find out what is behind this. The phone call to the CRB elicited no further information, and she wasn’t given anyone else to contact. Apparently, she must just sit and wait.
It doesn’t really matter, in the long run, whether one individual is innocent or not. The point is that according to her employers, who won't show her the relevant document, the police may not actually know if a British citizen has done anything wrong, but have acted to stop her working and done so without informing her of the fact or the reasons, and the relevant government agency has said this is perfectly normal and that it is powerless to clear this up. And whilst there may be other things this citizen could do, or ways in which her case has been mishandled, no one she has spoken to has advised her otherwise.
So this is what is comes down to. The ‘free air’ of England, frankly, stinks of bureaucracy, and we all have to roll over.
To add insult to injury, all the parishes in the Diocese of Chelmsford are being asked to ‘buy into’ the POVA process for everyone in our churches, including volunteers, working with adults who might be deemed ‘vulnerable’. Let’s hope they’re not called Smith.
Revd John Richardson