Oldie of the Year 2011: An interview with Annabel Hayter

Posted by Alexander Hay

In a timely interview, Annabel Hayter talks about her fight against overzealous CRB checks.

Gloucester Cathedral - hardly a hotbed of sexual depravityThe 2011 Oldie of the Year event was blessed by many high profile guests. Jon Snow, recipient of the 'Poppy Denier' award, was strangely diffident, perhaps because he was sharing the spotlight with compère Terry Wogan and overall winner Barry Humphries, whose force of presence jutted out several feet out in front of him as he entered the reception in a theatrical black hat and red tie.

A firestorm of camera flashes greeted Julia Somerville and Jean Marsh, the lead paparazzi bawling out orders to his brethren as they begged them to strike a pose. In the background loomed the tall figure of Oldie editor Richard Ingrams, glaring...

But I was there to interview another nominee who wasn't 'off the telly'. Her name is Annabel Hayter, a 64 year old grandmother, and she is this year's Oldie 'Campaigner of the Year'. A bold, confident woman, she's also a recently unemployed one.

Until December of last year, she used to run the Flower Guild at Gloucester Cathedral, helping arrange and create traditional English floral displays for special events there, but her public campaign against its CRB check policy had cost her the position.

Quite why is a mystery. The Flower Guild – hardly Sodom nor Gomorrah - doesn't work with children and Annabel checked with everyone from the Church of England to the CRB itself: "And they were all saying it was unnecessary".

She adds, "if I were working with children, I'd happily be checked" - the issue being not whether children should be protected but whether anyone not directly working with them should be probed non-stop.

Annabel's campaign has already borne fruit. "The government is going to roll it back. Today, in the commons, the Home Secretary is making an announcement to that effect. The wording is going to change, and I've contacted all the other cathedrals - all but one have replied, and they will all be reviewing their policies."

She's not out to do away with CRB altogether, however. Annabel thinks what it needs is an independent body to police it, where someone ordered to get a CRB check can go to get a second opinion, "and their word should be final" she concludes.

The problem though, as Annabel has found, is that the people running the system are as much to blame as the system itself. "It's very hard to find someone with common sense", she says, "what we need is a system with that and vigilance." She also argues that people need to take responsibility for themselves and, indeed, their children.

Annabel's problems began in 2005 when the Dean of the Cathedral imposed CRB checks on the Flower Guild, despite it being made up mainly of “mothers and grandmothers”. Not really wanting to lose any members, she encouraged them to all play along with the measure. But in early 2010, the cathedral decided it was Annabel's turn for a good going over.

Her response was, as she puts it, "no, no way!" This was eight months before the next flower festival, and so Annabel decided to see what the other guilds across the country thought about it. Thirty replied saying they were against it and so, buoyed up by this, Annabel decided to fight the decision.

She also made an odd discovery. Owing to guild members wearing matching tabards, they were classed as 'wearing uniform', and it was this that made them liable for CRB checks. There are many words for this, of course, though Annabel's summary of it being "a waste of taxpayers' money" perhaps works best.

What's behind this? OlderIsWiser has already waxed lyrical on the mass lunacy behind such paranoid measures. Annabel puts it down to “safety officers making work for themselves”, a deep fear of being sued by a blame culture that has eclipsed its American parent and also a lack of understanding about what the rules in fact state.

She found out to her amazement that while Gloucester claims it's obliged to check everybody, other cathedrals don't. It can't even hide behind the 'we need to do it for the insurance' line – it's insured by the same company as all the other laxer cathedrals.

But what next for Annabel? Gloucester has offered her old job back, and she has doubts that her replacement is up to the job of running the guild as she did. “The guild has been broken asunder” she says sadly.

Will she take it back? Annabel sighs. Her intention was to retire anyway, after around 40 years of voluntary work, and she has both “a huge family” and three houses to occupy her time. “I just don't know”, she laments. “It would have to be on my terms. DEFINITELY on my terms” - and after being treated so shabbily, she probably has a right to make that demand.

“But they probably see me as a troublemaker”, she adds. Her plans instead will be “to retire – for the time being.”

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Alexander Hay

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