Julie Spence the former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police recently wrote an article which was published in the Daily Telegraph in which she welcomes a more common-sense approach to criminal records checks. She says ….
“It must never happen again.” How many times have we heard this when awful events make the news? Something offends us, as right-minded people, and we believe, even convince ourselves, that with some forethought we can prevent it happening again. The result is not something that provides intuitive foresight, but often a time-consuming, bureaucratic process that acts as a “comfort blanket” – yet in reality has minimal impact on protecting anyone.
In 2002, the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley in Soham saw such an outcry. One of the results was a vetting scheme that now insists on more rigorous background checks into people employed in positions with responsibility for – or contact with – children, and an expensive IT system that enables all police forces instantly to check each other’s intelligence systems. When fully launched, this will supplement the Police National Computer, which has a comprehensive database of known offenders’ conviction histories.
When I started working as the Chief Constable for Cambridgeshire, the county was still reeling from the shock of Soham. More rigorous checks on Huntley may have prevented him from taking up his job as the caretaker of the Soham Community College as they would have revealed unproven allegations of burglary and sexual offences. Yet Huntley did not work at Holly and Jessica’s school; his link to them was via his girlfriend, Maxine Carr, who was a teaching assistant at St Andrew’s Primary in Soham.
The purpose of criminal record checks is to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse. The standard checks look at the Police National Computer convictions database, while the enhanced checks, for those with greater contact and responsibility, look at convictions and information held on police intelligence systems. Before releasing the information to employers, the police have to consider whether the information is more likely than not to be true, and whether or not it ought to be disclosed.
The constant dilemma for the police is balancing child protection with ruining someone’s chance of employment. A rape allegation on the face of it should be disclosed – but say that the male was 16 and the female 15, and in law she cannot consent to sex, the decision is harder. It is harder still considering how frequently employers routinely exclude any applicant with a disclosure. Of course, criminal records, the sex offenders register, and the list of individuals barred from working with children and vulnerable adults do help agencies manage known offenders. But this is not the complete picture. Many unknown and unconvicted offenders are currently offending – yet to be caught and prosecuted.
As I investigate the world of criminal record checks, I question whether, in an age of austerity, we can afford a criminal records agency in its current form. Especially when you realise that, within Cambridgeshire, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) pays – for a unit of 30 people – around £700,000 a year to carry out checks. By comparison, the constabulary has the same number of officers investigating offences against children. They work daily, out of sight of the public, but in conjunction with the social services, the NSPCC and schools to protect those young people most at risk. The CRB website reveals police performance in terms of their turnaround of CRB checks. This is clearly a case of “hitting a target but missing the point”.
To make sure I wasn’t missing the point, I spoke to other professionals who revealed a world where bureaucracy and the over-managing of risk was stifling opportunities for the very children we are trying to protect. “We can barely make ends meet – it’s another expense that only tells me a person has no convictions,” says Ben Slade, head of Manor Community College in Cambridge. “It started with good intentions but has stifled school trips. What with health and safety risk assessments and making sure volunteers have current CRB checks, teachers have had enough.”
Bob Sproson, recently retired head of Cambridgeshire County Council’s EOTAS service (Education Other Than At School) told me of his frustrations at a costly, slow bureaucracy that prevented children receiving an education and teachers securing employment. He spoke of classes without teachers, and teachers paid to sit at home while checks were completed. Bob was clear. “I understand absolutely the need for vigilance but, as with all security issues, we insist on making everyone a suspect. I’m not at all sure that the current system does prevent or deter what it claims to do.”
Red Balloon is an anti-bullying charity that has schools across the country. As a charity, it is exempt from the upfront charges, but that does not make it a free service. Red Balloon pays a data-handling organisation, of which there are a growing number, to facilitate the process for them, and in 2009/10 spent £1,200 for their checks.
A frustrating nonsense lies in the requirement that Tony Dunn, the treasurer, is also a trustee for Red Balloon. Each Red Balloon branch has its own board of trustees and there are four branches. Tony is a trustee for each, and each required a separate check – four in four years! Each time he had to provide evidence of identity that had to be verified. “As I look after business planning and finance, I’m never in the presence of any of the children except when there are staff members present,” he explains. “Surely, one CRB check should have been more than adequate.”
In the past year, a rugby club in the Thames Valley has checked more than 80 volunteers and coaches. No blemishes were found, and the Rugby Football Union picked up the tab, but there was much badgering and form-filling. The club supports the RFU’s Safeguarding Children programme, and a quick glance at the RFU website shows guidance available to clubs on preventing bullying, racism, poor coaching practices and poor parental touchline behaviour. So does the check protect children?
I have been told of parents helping at two different clubs’ gyms and needing two separate checks; and of parents hosting exchange students having to be checked, while families in other countries to whom they entrust their children require no such checks.
The revised vetting and barring scheme will at least remove the requirements for some organisations to continually update their CRB checks, and will allow individuals to work in several organisations without being rechecked. The new Independent Safeguarding Authority with whom they will register makes the interesting claim that it will remove the most dangerous people from the children and young people’s workforce – in itself a dangerous claim. Amazingly, more than nine million people will require mandatory registration as they will be in paid employment or volunteering to work with children and vulnerable adults.
We need an open society where children and vulnerable adults are not prisoners in their own experience, never daring to tell what has happened to them. We need parents and adults with a healthy dose of alertness, and who are confident to use Sarah’s Law (calling the police if they are worried or concerned about someone who is having contact with their children). Additionally, the professionals must have the capacity and capability to intervene in critical cases. The system should be supplemented by appropriate record checks (but not dominated by them) and there should never be a system where there are more people checking than actually proactively intervening – a sure sign of a system out of balance and in real need of reform.
The Government’s announcement that it is to have a more common-sense approach to criminal records checks is welcomed.
Source and acknowledgement: Daily Telegraph