Lib Dems offer blueprint for records bureau, but will government listen?

The Criminal Records Bureau is failing to protect the

This is the succinct summary of a report, The Anatomy of a
Systems Failure
, published on 30 April by Liberal Democrat
social care spokesperson Paul Burstow.

His analysis of the workings of the CRB reveals that, in its first
year, it managed only 1.4 million of the forecast 3.3 million
disclosures on criminal records. The unexpected demand for a
paper-based application route, on top of significant changes to the
capabilities of the IT system, also led to an increase in the cost
of producing a disclosure.

This “incompetent implementation”, as described by Burstow,
includes an estimated loss of £100m in revenue from the
postponed introduction of basic disclosures over the next three
years. As a result, costs will have to be spread over fewer
standard and enhanced disclosures, which are more expensive to

Burstow predicts that, to pay for these blunders, everyone – from
care homes to child minders – may face a £35 charge for
disclosure checks – possibly as early as this summer.

Burstow is appalled that these individuals and organisations should
have to pay for the CRB’s failures. He says the checks should be
linked to the retail prices index and that the Home Office should
“strike a deal with HM Treasury”.

Despite his failed attempts to force Home Office minister Hilary
Benn to admit to parliament that rumours of the new £35 charge
are true, Burstow says “he will continue to try to tease the answer
out of him” with further questions.

In the meantime, he wants the government to consider his report’s
recommendations to solve the CRB’s problems. These include asking
the Home Office to revise the CRB’s demand forecasts, financial
estimates and business plan, and to set a clear timetable for
introducing checks on those who work with vulnerable adults.

Benn told MPs at the end of April that the CRB business plan for
2003-4 would be published later this month and would include
performance targets. But he could not confirm whether it would also
include a recasting of the financial and demand forecasts.

Burstow’s report also urges the Home Office to work with the
voluntary sector to determine the best way to establish a network
of regional umbrella-registered bodies with “sufficient funding to
enable them to develop sound databases and processes to ensure
local voluntary and community organisations have equal access
across the country”. There has been concern that voluntary
organisations have often struggled to find affordable
umbrella-registered bodies to countersign their applications for
police checks.

“Regional bodies will be able to achieve better economies of
scale,” says Burstow. “The administration charges for checks for
voluntary organisations will be lower than the umbrella

Burstow also recognises the potential insurance liability
implications for regional and umbrella-registered bodies
implementing the Carter Inquiry recommendations. In its report into
the running of the CRB published in February, the independent
inquiry, set up by the government, recommended that the bodies
should validate applicants’ identities.

Burstow says: “Because of the Carter recommendations, if the
regional bodies or umbrella-registered bodies get their checking
wrong there will be grounds for legal action against them. I
recommend that the Home Office should look at the implications and
engage in a dialogue with the insurance industry.”

He is concerned that insurance companies will take a “blanket view”
on any increased liability for the bodies. “I don’t want them to
automatically give an X per cent increase for these organisations.
I believe there will need to be a form of risk assessment put in
place, so if you are more proactive as a body in ensuring that
checks are as comprehensive as possible you should be rewarded with
lower insurance premiums. Conversely the bad ones should be
penalised with higher insurance premiums.”

In response to these concerns, again raised in parliament by
Burstow, Benn invited the voluntary sector “to provide his
department with further information”. He promised that, when this
information was received, the Home Office would “examine the matter
with the Association of British Insurers”.

James Georgalakis, spokesperson at the National Council for
Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), says the first step should be to
convince the government to accept that there is a problem. “The
government has asked us to provide evidence of increased
liability,” he says. “But at the moment we can’t provide this as we
have no data available. It’s something we will have to keep a close
eye on, but we have informed the government that it should also ask
for information from its own insurance cover working group, set up
by its Active Community Unit.”

Andy Forster, information officer at Volunteer Development England,
adds that it is difficult to judge the effect on insurance
liability until the shape of the new CRB is known. “Increased
liability will have a disproportionate impact on the voluntary
sector because we don’t have the sort of money other sectors

Forster and Georgalakis both support Burstow’s calls for the
creation of regional umbrellas.

“We definitely need to see some sort of regional model to provide
the sector with a template of consistency,” says Forster. “There
should be no concerns regarding funding if the government is
committed to an active citizenship agenda.”

Georgalakis says Burstow’s recommendations follow a lot of the work
previously carried out by the NCVO. “The CRB has failed to respond
to the needs of its consumers, including voluntary organisations,”
he says.

Forster and Georgalakis also share Burstow’s fear of higher fees
for disclosures. Georgalakis is resigned to seeing a rise while
Forster predicts a “financial sledgehammer to fall”.

Forster, however, believes that, despite “the creation of the CRB
being a bad piece of legislation which dealt with serious issues
badly”, the voluntary sector must recognise that it has caused some
of the bureau’s failings.

“I don’t think our sector has been using the CRB well at all, with
80 per cent of the checks asked for being enhanced,” he says. “This
slows the entire system. There are too many in the voluntary sector
who believe that Doris who works in the caf’ needs to be checked
because one day someone saw her walk past or beside a child. We
have been guilty of fostering a moral panic in this country. The
simple point here is that there is no need to check most of these
volunteers. We need much more clarity in our applications.”

Forster believes the CRB needs a department that will check what he
calls bona fide applications. “It would need to have an educative
role as well as tell organisations that they don’t need to check
this person or that person. It would accept applications as they
came in and it would filter them. It would be encouraged to inform
organisations to go away and think again if they think that the
application they have just put in should be under the enhanced

“In essence, the CRB must be given a broader role. It cannot just
be used as a letter box.”

Burstow agrees that “there is an argument for a degree of
discernment within the CRB”. He adds: “The checks should not be
seen as a sausage factory, where everything is processed.”

As for his report, Burstow hopes it is only the beginning. “People
feel it has been a positive and helpful exercise. But it is not
over yet. A real step change at the CRB is needed. A lot of frail
and vulnerable people are entitled to better. What is happening at
the moment is unacceptable.”

– Report from

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