Keep it legal: Criminal records checks

In June, the Office of the Third Sector issued new guidance to help organisations better understand when Criminal Records Bureau checks need to be carried out on volunteers. It can be downloaded from www.crb.gov.uk.

Third sector minister Phil Hope has described CRB checks as playing an important part in the Government's fulfilment of its duty to protect vulnerable people, but a brief look back over recent Third Sector headlines - "CRB delays cause volunteer drain", "Funders demand unnecessary CRB checks" - charts the stormy waters the bureau has had to navigate in its dealings with the voluntary sector.

The new guidance responds to recommendations made by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, chaired by Baroness Neuberger, which issued its final report earlier this year. The commission identified "inappropriate and often unnecessary application of CRB checks by organisations that involve volunteers" as being a barrier to volunteering. So the guidance has two aims: to establish good practice in the application of CRB checks and to ensure balance between the need to protect vulnerable groups and the need to take a proportionate approach to risk management.

These are worthwhile aims, but does the guidance answer the key question: who needs to be CRB checked? It does provide an overview of the applicable legal definition of volunteers by reference to the Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) Regulations 2002. It also addresses a class of volunteers charities often struggle with - trustees. Unfortunately, it merely signposts guidance, CC30, that has been available from the Charity Commission for some time. However, by including short case studies, practical scenarios and checklists, and by highlighting examples of good practice and key sources of information, this guidance does provide charities with greater clarity.

There is a catch. In October 2009, the Independent Safeguarding Authority will introduce a new registration scheme under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Designed to remove the most dangerous people from working with children and vulnerable adults, it is separate from the CRB check system and will place an additional administrative burden on charities. Further guidance will follow.

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