News analysis: CRB checks - too much information?

Including allegations on Criminal Records Bureau checks is seen by many as unfair. Indira Das-Gupta reports.

The recent case of John Pinnington has shone the spotlight on the issue of exactly what information should be included in enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks.

Pinnington lost his job as a disability training manager at a charity for autistic young adults after Thames Valley Police included allegations in the disclosure that they themselves had dismissed as untrue (Third Sector, 6 February). Pinnington had even received an apology from the Police Complaints Authority.

The system of including details of allegations and suspicions, known as 'soft information', in enhanced checks in addition to any convictions was introduced in order to protect vulnerable groups such as children or older people. The CRB, which carries out the checks, will be replaced later this year by the Independent Safeguarding Authority. Under the new system, people will have to be checked only once, but this assessment will also include soft information.

Some critics are concerned that the CRB and the ISA have not got the balance right in their decisions about what information to include.

 

Misguided

 

Josie Appleton is a founding member of the Manifesto Club, a pressure group that believes the new criminal records vetting system is "a misguided and excessively invasive mechanism" that will punish charities and do nothing to protect vulnerable people.

"She says: "We have a situation where, once an accusation has been made, it sticks. The person concerned becomes a toxic individual who is unemployable. When presented with this type of information, organisations are erring on the side of caution - not for the right reasons, but because they want to cover their own backs.

"It's a basic principle of the justice system that if a person has been cleared of something, they are innocent."

Mervyn Barrett, communications manager at Nacro, the crime reduction charity, says the way the system operates has cost many innocent people their jobs.

"We have dealt with numerous cases where people have lost their jobs and disputed the information, but in none of those cases have they been able to get their jobs back," says Barrett.

As well as information about allegations of which an individual has been exonerated or acquitted, the police can also include allegations that might have been made without the individual's knowledge.

"People's careers can be ruined by malicious allegations," says Barrett. "The worst part is that you can never know what information will turn up on an enhanced disclosure until it is returned."

Mark Restall, head of information at Volunteering England, agrees that the police should take more care when deciding what information to include on disclosures.

"The nature of soft information is extremely sensitive, so you would want to feel confident that what is passed on is entirely relevant," he says. "If something has been dealt with, then it's not relevant. We'd be fully supportive of any means that ensured consistency in what is passed on."

Debbie Usiskin, one of the founders of the Association of Volunteer Managers, is sympathetic to the plight of those who find doors closed as a result of tainted CRB disclosures, but feels it's crucial that soft information continues to be included.

"I have come across a similar case where something came up on an enhanced check for someone who was clearly innocent," says Usiskin.

"It can be a big problem if you take someone on who has something on their check and you work for an organisation that is audited, especially if you get an inspector who doesn't understand the nature of volunteering."

 

Useful information

 

However, Usiskin believes soft information can be useful because not everyone who has committed a crime is found guilty. This view is shared by Shaun Kelly, safeguarding manager at children's charity NCH.

"I think the balance is already about right because very few people who have committed crimes actually get convicted," he says. "In these matters, it's not about proving someone's guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but making a decision based on the balance of probabilities."

Baroness Julia Neuberger, head of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, believes the real issue is one of prevailing attitudes.

"We have been struck by the nervousness of many charities," she says. "They are so fearful and worried about insurance cover or being blamed that they tend to be over- zealous or simply do nothing."

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