(Originally published in our FREE Magazine available HERE)
We’ve all heard about them, most people know what they are, individuals fear them and employers – well, some employers love them, some do not. Ever since the creation of Criminal Record Bureau checks, people have had mixed feelings about them. Many regard them as a necessary evil, many believe that they are disproportionate, some feel they are badly applied and meanwhile, the evidence shows that not only are there very often mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences but CRB checks also fail to catch those who have malicious intent.
So what are these things that cause so much trouble, where did they come from, how do they really affect our lives and what is their likely future? The CRB was established under Part V of the Police Act 1997 and was launched in March 2002, following public concern about the safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults. It was found that the British police forces did not have adequate capability or resources to routinely process and fulfill the large number of criminal record checks requested in a timely fashion, so a dedicated agency was set up to administer this function.
One of the main reasons for the formation of the Criminal Records Bureau was to reduce the risk of organisations being sued for employing convicted criminals who went on to abuse vulnerable people while in the course of their duty, as the 1990s saw an increase in the American-influenced compensation culture across Britain. An organisations which is entitled to ask exempted questions (under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974) must register with the CRB before they can request Disclosure data about an applicant.
The individual applies to the CRB with their application countersigned by the organisation. The applicant’s criminal record is then accessed from the Police National Computer (PNC), as well as checked, if appropriate, against lists of people considered unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable people maintained by the Independent Safeguarding Authority and others; these include the ISA Children’s list, the ISA Adults’ list and List 99. Copies of completed disclosures are sent to the applicant and the countersignatory organisation.
Employers and temporary staff agencies have bemoaned the time it takes for a worker to be cleared by the CRB and in an effort to cut waiting times the government allowed the establishment of “ISA Adult First”. Registered bodies may check whether an applicant appears on the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) list through this online checking system, which takes around two working days to turn around. If the check is clean the body may provisionally employ the applicant, subject to an increased level in supervision, until the return by post of the full disclosure. Disclosure process
The process by which the CRB provides criminal record data is called “Disclosure”. There are two levels of Disclosure: Standard and Enhanced. These checks cannot be obtained by members of the public directly but are only available to organisations and only for those professions, offices, employments, work and occupations listed in the Exceptions Order to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
A third form of disclosure, the “Basic Disclosure”, is not currently available, but is intended for individuals to obtain copies of their own criminal record, though members of the public can currently do this by requesting ‘subject access’ under the Data Protection Act from any British police force, regardless of where the subject lives.  Standard disclosure The standard disclosure is primarily for positions involving regular contact with children or vulnerable adults, but can also be used for some other professions of high responsibility (for example, accountancy). Standard Disclosures reveal details of any convictions, cautions, reprimands and final warnings the applicant has received, regardless of length of time since the incidents; together with details of whether that person is banned from working with children or vulnerable adults (if these details have been requested).
The CRB aims to issue Standard Disclosures within 10 days of receipt of the application. The Standard Disclosure is checked only against the PNC. This is due to the roll out of the ISA Adults and ISA Children’s lists, against which the Standard Disclosure cannot be checked. Any Standard Disclosure applications being sent to CRB from the 12th October onwards with the relevant boxes on the application form selected are rejected by the CRB mail room.
Enhanced disclosure is for positions involving greater contact with children or vulnerable adults (for example: teachers, nurses, midwives, doctors, social workers, student nurses, student midwives, medical students, pharmacists, pharmacy students) and for certain additional professions (for example, judicial appointments). In general, the type of work will involve regularly caring for, supervising, training or being in sole charge of children or vulnerable people.
Examples include a teacher, Scout or Guide leader. Enhanced checks are also issued for certain statutory purposes such as gaming and lottery licences. In addition to the information provided on a Standard Disclosure, the Enhanced Disclosure involves an additional check with the police, who check if any other information is held on file that may be relevant (for instance, investigations that have not led to a criminal record).
The police decide what (if any) additional information will be added to the Disclosure. In rare circumstances the police may write to the employer separately giving confidential information about an ongoing criminal investigation into the applicant. This information may not be released to the applicant and the employer cannot reveal it to them. The CRB aims to issue Enhanced Disclosure within 28 days of receiving the application, however the involvement of local police forces can affect the time taken to process an Enhanced Disclosure application.
Review After the general election in 2010, the new Coalition government announced that it would review the operation of CRB checks, along with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (sometimes referred to as Britain’s Gestapo or Stasi) in an attempt to “introduce some common sense” into a system that was likely to label 11 million people as potential paedophiles and individuals intent on harming children and other vulnerable people. In fact, this was due, not for the reasons publicly stated but actually to placate the vast swathe of public resentment that had built up over the ISA and also to save money.
It was a logical move as well since when it was created, the ISA had assumed operational control of the CRB system and had been given wide latitude to use “intelligence” in its decision making process. Last week, the Cameron/Clegg double act announced some of its proposals which, whilst an improvement, still threatens to affect 4.5 million people. However, in practice the government’s proposed reforms to CRB checks will make very little difference to anyone who is currently unemployed and seeking work. The coalition has made it clear that all they are actually doing is shifting the burden of responsibility from the state to the employer for ensuring that a job candidate is suitable .
It is therefore fairly obvious that employers will be just as reluctant as ever to take on anyone with a criminal record or who have been the subject of a police caution or reprimand. One must also ask whether or not CRB checks work. It is a fairly obvious question but one that seems to have escaped the intellect of most politicians – but that is not so surprising to anyone who took the trouble to listen in on the latest Commons debate on the subject.
By that, I mean that the lack of understanding, both of the operational procedures and the effects of the checks on ordinary people was astounding. Clearly, those in power believe that CRB checks are a good thing; either that or they have shares on one of the numerous training companies that have sprung up offering to prepare employers and individuals for the rigours of the system – at £280 per person per day, plus VAT. A nice little earner indeed., especially when combined with other ‘programmes’ alerting employees and managers to the danger of child abuse and how to recognise it; that costs more of course, usually about £320 per person per day. The effect on ethical employers should not be underestimated either.
Many are so terrified of getting it wrong that they ask for a CRB check as a matter of course, even when they are completely unnecessary and often inappropriate. One local supermarket manager told TheOpinionSite.org, “It’s now company policy not to employ anyone with a criminal record, even for the most minor offence. We simply can’t be bothered with all the checks and the interference from the authorities, not to mention the criticism which is bound to come our way from the public.”
At the same time, unethical firms are asking for the checks in order to knock down the wage they might otherwise have to pay or worse, to have a hold over an employee in order to ‘persuade’ him or her to tow the line when things for the firm get difficult. Here to stay Whatever the government does and whatever is said, there is no chance that the government will get rid of CRB checks. To do so would invite criticism and complaint from the massive and overly powerful UK child protection industry and the inevitable wrath of the tabloids, not to mention the individual crusaders like the ex-head of CEOP, Jim Gamble and the ubiquitous Sara Payne. The bureau itself and its intrusive and ineffective checks are, regrettably, here to stay. It would take a very brave politician indeed (and there aren’t any) to suggest that the wretched things are scrapped and to be frank, there is no chance of that ever happening.
The best that we can hope for is that this import from America is watered down to a level where common sense prevails. That, according to the Home Secretary, Theresa May is the intention of the government.
Only time will tell as to whether or not that is possible in the face of what is sure to be intense and continuing opposition from those who have a vested interest in preserving a mechanism that both misses its intended targets and causes misery and uncertainty to others.