The Criminal Records Bureau will provide a gateway to the
criminal records of people applying to work with children. While it
has been broadly welcomed, concerns remain about the cost to the
voluntary sector. Ruth Winchester reports.
There appears to be a consensus that the government is to be
congratulated on its determination to streamline the process of
criminal record checks for staff working with vulnerable clients,
and on its decision to make such checks free for volunteers. But,
in the United Nations Year of the Volunteer, concerns about the
impact on the not-for-profit sector continue to dog the
It is four years since plans were announced for the formation of
an independent, central agency to form a single gateway to the
confidential and criminal records of employees and volunteers
applying to work with children. That agency, the Criminal Records
Bureau, will finally begin work this summer.
The bureau will undoubtedly simplify the checking process. It
will operate as a one-stop shop, bringing together a range of
disparate sources of information. These include the Police National
Computer – a centralised information point for English and Welsh
police forces, and records held by hundreds of local police forces.
The bureau will also access two specific lists of “unsuitable”
people. The first is the Consultancy Index – a list of people
unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults – held by
the Department of Health which is accessible to all sectors. The
second is List 99, held by the Department for Education and
Employment, which names people found guilty of misconduct but which
only covers the education sector.
Now the Criminal Records Bureau has been given a firm launch
date of July, if all goes according to plan all organisations will
be able to request that a prospective member of staff or volunteer
should obtain a “disclosure” certificate from the agency. These
disclosures will be available in three levels (see box, right).
Standard and enhanced disclosures will be available from July, but
the basic level will not be available until 2002.
The principle behind the Criminal Records Bureau is that it
should be self-financing through charges made for checks and, after
a certain amount of wrangling, the Home Office has announced that
each check will cost £12.
Earlier this year Home Office minister Charles Clarke staved off
major conflict with the voluntary sector by announcing that checks
would be free for volunteers. The sector had convincingly argued
that slapping a charge on prospective volunteers was likely to
drastically reduce the number coming forward. It also pointed out
that investing £300 million in getting more people to give
time and skills to their local communities, then charging for
essential checks, was somewhat contradictory.
So far, so good. But having dealt with the high profile sticking
points, more mundane concerns are coming to the fore.
People applying for standard and enhanced disclosure notices
from the Criminal Records Bureau will have to get their
applications countersigned by a “registered body” – organisations
that the Home Office envisages will be major voluntary
organisations and large employers. There will be a fee of £300
to become a registered body – a charge which will make registration
impractical for most small organisations. Instead, they will be
able to use the services of registered “umbrella bodies” such as
local authorities, who will countersign the application on their
The implication of this added layer of bureaucracy is clear:
lots more to-ing and fro-ing for workers and organisations, plus an
additional financial and administrative burden for larger
charities, employers and local authorities.
Home Office minister Paul Boateng, giving evidence to the Home
Affairs Committee earlier this year, admitted that the introduction
of free checks for volunteers was intended “as an exemption [from
charges] for volunteers, not for voluntary organisations”.
But the National Council for Voluntary Organisations is
concerned that the cost implications for voluntary bodies who
become registered will be onerous. Countersigning thousands of
applications each year is not going to be cheap, and the NCVO is
calling for financial assistance for smaller organisations to help
them meet their responsibilities.
While the idea of bringing together all the relevant sources of
information together under one roof is eminently sensible, there
are concerns that the quality of information available from the
Criminal Records Bureau may be variable.
On the Record, a report by the chief inspector of
constabulary in July last year found that “the level and nature of
errors, omissions and discrepancies found [in crime records] were
unacceptable”. Substantial delays – of between 15 and 354 days –
were occurring between a conviction being made, and a new record
being entered on the police database. And error rates in the crime
records themselves were running at between 15 and 65 per cent. This
seemingly atrocious record is somewhat overstated because minor
errors such as a missing postcodes are also counted, but the
figures can hardly be described as confidence-inspiring.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s makes approximately 2,500 checks
on staff and volunteers each year and is one of the largest users
of the service provided by the Voluntary Organisations’ Consultancy
Service, which currently checks the criminal records of prospective
staff for many voluntary agencies. Barnardo’s chief executive Roger
Singleton has described the error rates as “deeply worrying” and
says that it is essential that the public should have full
confidence in the disclosure certificates produced by the Criminal
While some are arguing that the bureau’s certificates may not be
worth the paper they are printed on, others are worried that the
sector may be lulled into a false sense of security by the
availability of fast, cheap and in-depth checks. In reality, a
spotless disclosure certificate simply confirms that the person in
question has not been caught doing something wrong – yet. Singleton
admits that the certificate is out of date the moment it is
printed, but insists that good voluntary organisations will
continue to be on their guard.
But he adds: “We are positive about the arrangements and the
creation of the Criminal Records Bureau. Obviously it does not
guarantee everything, but it does make sure that those who are
patently unsuitable can be prevented from working with
Singleton says that the advent of the bureau will bring a range
of challenges for some voluntary organisations, not least the
responsibility for some difficult decisions. While some cases will
be straightforward, such as those who had convictions for offences
against children, he suggests many others could contain shades of
“What will be difficult are things like drug-related
convictions, or convictions for theft. For instance, where someone
has got ‘form’ but has made a sincere effort to overcome it, they
might be able to use that experience to help others. Some voluntary
organisations are already familiar with those decisions, but for
others it will be a new experience,” he says.
Given the amount of power over individuals the Criminal Records
Bureau will hold, it is to be hoped that any teething troubles will
be kept to an absolute minimum. The Home Affairs Committee has
called for the bureau’s start date to be postponed, arguing that
“getting it right” is more important than meeting an arbitrary
The committee highlights the information technology problems
experienced by the Passport Office and the Immigration and
Nationality Directorate, and hints darkly that the same fate may
befall the Criminal Records Bureau, with potentially tragic
The worst case scenario, the committee argues, is that a
confused and inefficient new body stumbles into existence, creates
chaos and delay, and puts children and vulnerable adults in
Reassuringly, Bernard Herdan, the chief executive of the bureau,
seems to have acknowledged the dangers inherent in a false start.
“We are going to start with a pilot operation,” he told the
committee. “Before we go on to full-scale operation with all-comers
we are starting with the organisations that are currently checked
so there is some build up of our experience before we hit the
maximum volumes we can see.”