A COLLAPSE in the number of people barred from working with children after rules were relaxed is described as “deeply troubling” today (Tuesday, June 24).

Labour will raise the alarm over a dramatic decline in actions taken by a North-East based vetting agency, set up to prevent a repeat of the Soham murders.

Official figures show the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) – at Morton Palms, Darlington – barred almost 14,000 people in 2011, after convictions or police intelligence.

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But that figure plummeted to just 3,151 last year – a drop of 77 per cent in just two years.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said the steep drop was mainly the result of controversial changes, in 2012, which had scaled back automatic barring.

And she warned: “This massive drop in the number of people being barred from working with children - at the same time as reported child sex offences are rising - is deeply troubling.

“Theresa May [the Home Secretary] was warned repeatedly that the new legislation left major loopholes in the system. This evidence shows those warnings were right.”

Labour said the figures showed big falls in both types of barring:

* After sexual offences were committed against children – from 12,360 in 2011 to 5,758 in 2012 and to 2,800 in 2013.

* As a result of intelligence sharing - from 1,542 in 2011 to 471 in 2012 and to 351 in 2013.

Ms Cooper said the first fall followed the decision to automatically bar only people employed in a school or nursery, or with overall responsibility in a youth group or sports club.

That meant volunteers in sport, reading or drama, who are supervised, can escape action by the DBS - even if they have convictions.

Furthermore, most offenders are not added to the barred list until after they have had a chance to make representations – instead of being required to appeal afterwards.

However, there was also a big drop in barrings after intelligence sharing which, Ms Cooper said, suggested fewer investigations by the DBS and local police forces.

She added: “We need some very rapid answers from the Home Office about why these figures have dropped so much and whether they believe the child protection system is strong enough.”

The Northern Echo asked the Home Office for a response to the statistics, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, but none was provided.

In December 2011, the proposed changes came under fire from Lord Bichard, who led the inquiry into the 2002 Soham murders of ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, by Ian Huntley.

The former top civil servant suggested supervision of “extremely manipulative” people would fail to prevent “the likes of Ian Huntley from perpetrating their evil”.

However, Ms May argued for putting a greater burden of responsibility on employers to decide whether somebody should be able to work with children.