Britain orders screening of would-be nannies

Two court cases led to rules, released Tuesday, demanding background checks.

Britain's nannies, estimated to number 100,000, will face tougher controls as the government seeks to reassure parents looking to hire someone to take care of their children. Under the new rules, any agency providing nannies will be urged to apply for an official mark of approval signifying that nannies on their registers are fully qualified. Only agencies found to meet standards set by local authorities will be able to use the mark on their literature. Agencies will also have to prove that they have made extensive background checks on nannies on their list. But child-care experts say the new government rules, which were announced on Tuesday, still won't act as a curb on unqualified "rogue" nannies who operate as freelancers and could put children's lives at risk. The issue has achieved a high profile in the United Kingdom partly because of the 1997 murder conviction of British au pair Louise Woodward in the United States, later reduced to manslaughter. There have also been comparable cases in the UK that have added to public concern. Helen Stacey was sentenced to life in prison last year for the shaking death of Joseph Mackin, a five-month-old in her care. The boy's parents chose Ms. Stacey from a county council list of nannies or "childminders." She was approved for the list after passing a first-aid course, but the council did not know she had previous convictions for prostitution and shoplifting. Local control problem Part of the problem is imposing national standards for nannies. Local control is jealously guarded in Britain, and even the country's police function as a patchwork of separate forces. Critics of the government's latest move complain that joining the mark register will not be compulsory. They also point out that the new, stiffer rules will not apply to nannies who don't work through agencies at all. Tricia Pritchard, chairperson of Playpen, a London-based lobbying group on children's safety, believes child-care professionals and the government should be working together more closely to encourage parents to expect, and demand, higher-quality child care. "The government should provide incentives to the thousands of nonqualified child-carers, enabling them to become trained and valued," she says. Louise Davis, principal of Norland College in Berkshire, near London, which trains nannies, dismissed arguments that a compulsory register would be cumbersome, saying, "It would be no bigger than the register of general nurses." Caroline Abrahams, head of public policy for the London-based charity Action for Children, says child care involves a constantly shifting population, often of young women, that would be difficult to monitor without a national register that could be used to police the work of agencies and the nannies in their employ. But Employment Minister Margaret Hodge, who announced the new rules to the House of Commons on Tuesday, stressed the problems of compiling and operating a compulsory national register of nannies, calling the process a "bureaucratic nightmare." "People who become nannies come in and out of the market, and they go all over the country," she said. The Department for Education and Employment was also drawing up guidelines for parents on how to choose nannies, she said. Concern for working parents Despite its reluctance to insist on a mandatory register for nannies, the government cannot be accused of averting its eyes from the needs of working parents. In May last year it announced a 300 million ($497 million) National Childcare Strategy. A consultation paper, "Meeting the Childcare Challenge," proposed that as many as 50,000 single mothers be trained to help in child-care expansion. Under the strategy every four-year-old is guaranteed a free place in a day care center. On at-home care by nannies, however, the problem of policing the system still appears to defy a comprehensive solution. It seems evident, however, that pressure from parents' groups and others interested in controlling the activities of nannies will continue.

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