Change the record

Rod Aldridge, executive chairperson of Capita, talks a lot about
making the case for change in the running of public services. But
when it comes to the private sector running public services he
asks: “Why do we still have to make the case for change?”

Perhaps, in Capita’s case, the problems the Criminal Records Bureau
has experienced in its first year of operation is reason enough.
The CRB, which Capita runs on behalf of the Home Office under a
£400m, 10-year contract, has been dogged by delays to police
checks on professionals working with children and vulnerable

The figures for CRB’s first year performance make uncomfortable
reading for both Capita and the government. Just 19.4 per cent of
standard checks, or disclosures, were completed within one week
(target 95 per cent) and 52.4 per cent of enhanced disclosures were
completed in three weeks (90 per cent target).

Aldridge says the “key” to performance in public services is
“honesty”. He admits mistakes were made and “regrets the disruption
the backlog caused”. But, he says, it is not all Capita’s fault,
arguing that it only handles each “application for five days of the
three weeks it takes to process”.

There was also the government’s decision to insist on a paper-based
process at the last minute, for which Capita was paid an additional
£19m. As Capita’s original bid had been based on an electronic
system, this required a total redesign of the service.

Despite this, Capita’s role in the debacle was reflected in the
government fining it £1.8m in May. However, Aldridge says the
problems have been addressed to the point where today 99 per cent
of disclosures are taking less than three weeks to complete.

It is not likely to be enough and there seem to be more changes
ahead. The first indication of this was last month when, out of the
blue, the CRB substantially increased its fees for processing

From this month, the cost of standard disclosures will double from
£12 to £24 and enhanced disclosures will rise from
£13 to £29. The move has been slammed by virtually

CRB managing director John O’Brien says the rise is needed to
balance the agency’s books – it was making a loss on each

It was envisaged at the start of the CRB that it would be
self-funding, but after a year’s operation the current level of
income is not covering the operational cost, O’Brien explains. In
keeping with the chaotic nature of the planning of the service, he
says the initial fees were based on the best information available
at the time.

“This was a big green field project – there is no other central
checking agency of this type in Europe – and it had to be built
from scratch,” he adds.

This cuts little ice with service users. Justifiably they ask why
they are expected to pay more for a service that performed so badly
– there are still thousands of checks outstanding from last year.
Under Aldridge’s mantra of services being judged on performance,
should not the cost be coming down?

The lack of consultation over the fees hike has angered everyone.
“The first we knew of it was when we received a letter from the CRB
informing us,” says Jan Cosgrove, national organiser of charity
Fair Play for Children.

The CRB claims that its problems have been compounded by 40 per
cent of forms needing to be returned because they were incorrectly
filled in, but Cosgrove says some of the forms he has sent have
gone astray within the CRB system. The fact that the increase has
been introduced with no warning and in the middle of the financial
year will cause havoc with organisation’s budgets and make it
difficult for the private sector, such as care home providers, to
pass on costs to their customers.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairperson of the Local Government
Association, said the decision would add £15m a year to
council budgets, and is calling for a delay until next April. “If
the economics mean that charges have to be increased, then we need
the decision deferred so that it can be built into the financial
planning cycle and take account of budgets for next year.”

The LGA has held discussions with the Home Office, but
realistically the most likely concession it will get is for any
future increases to be consulted on first. The voluntary sector is
going to feel the impact more than most because “they don’t have
customers to pass costs onto”, says Susanne Rauprich, chief
executive of the National Council of Voluntary Youth Services.

“Charities that have set their budgets for the financial year will
now have to spend more than twice what they expected and, at worst,
this could mean cutting back on services,” she adds.

Disability charity Leonard Cheshire has hundreds of existing staff
it needs to have checked in the next few months. “It will cost us
tens of thousands of pounds and leave enormous holes,” says Judy
Douch, personnel manager.

Last year, Barnardo’s spent about £45,000 on enhanced checks.
If it applies for the same number this year the bill will rise to

“It is a surprise that the unsatisfactory service the CRB provides
has not been addressed before the increases in costs were
introduced. The system is time-intensive andÉmany checks are
duplicated unnecessarily, clogging the system and adding to costs,”
says Chris Hanvey, UK director of operations.

For those that have to go through umbrella bodies to apply for a
disclosure the costs will also increase. The YMCA says it will pass
on the increase to parents participating in holiday play schemes,
while a number of companies that handle checks said their fees
would also rise from July, some up to £60 for an enhanced

The independent panel set up by the government to review the CRB
has recommended restricting the number of registered bodies to
those organisations that apply for more than 200 disclosures a year
because of their varying quality and the difficulty some face in
finding one near them. However, analysis of responses to these
proposals published last month showed that fewer than one in four
were in favour of this because it could increase costs and
bureaucracy. There are also concerns over sharing sensitive
information with a third party.

Rauprich says quality is not necessarily linked to volume, but
believes one possibility worth looking at is for local authorities
to take on the role.

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for
Voluntary Organisations, says if this was to happen a large number
of voluntary organisations currently registered would have to
de-register and use umbrella bodies, increasing their costs

One thing that seems almost certain is that the CRB will set up an
electronic applications system, mainly because Capita sees this as
integral to the agency’s future.

The analysis of the independent review responses showed that
three-quarters supported electronic applications but only if there
were no further increases in fees. The CRB’s O’Brien admits it is
looking at electronic submissions but refused to rule out further
price increases.

The Employers’ Organisation is keen to pursue the idea, but
charities are less enthusiastic. “It is impractical and expensive,”
says Douch. “It’s easier for the CRB and a way of solving their
problems, but it’s not about the user.”

Cosgrove agrees, “Some of the electronic systems are extremely
expensive. If you want to cripple people like us then that’s the
way to do it.”

The government is negotiating with Capita over the framework of the
CRB contract. The sums were wrong in the first place and changes
are certain. Its future success will depend on whether those
changes are enough to justify the recent fee increases and any
future ones.

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