The Government announced last week that the Criminal Records Bureau will vet all new NHS staff, but existing staff will not be checked. Charities, in contrast, have to pay for police checks on all staff and volunteers that come into contact with vulnerable groups.
Since August this year, charities have also had to run 'protection of vulnerable adults' (Pova) checks on staff working in registered care homes.
The Department of Health says the estimated £30m cost of checking existing NHS staff would be "disproportionate to any benefit in terms of patient safety".
Clare Smith, the voluntary sector representative on the CRB panel and director of human resources at disability care charity Leonard Cheshire, thinks the discrepancy is unfair. "With the highest levels of abuse of vulnerable adults taking place in the NHS, this half-hearted move is unacceptable," she said.
"The voluntary sector is required to carry out CRB and Pova checks on all staff, which means we often end up paying twice for the same check. The NHS will only be required to carry out checks on new staff. The Government needs to ensure that the protection of vulnerable people in the NHS comes up to standards found in voluntary sector care providers."
Leonard Cheshire works with 20,000 people each year, and has spent nearly £750,000 on checks in the past two years. "It is something that should be done but the cost has been very high," said Smith.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, backed the introduction of the NHS checks but added: "There needs to be consistency."
Mencap chief executive Jo Williams described the NHS checks as a step in the right direction. "We look forward to the Government fulfilling its stated intention to extend the Pova scheme to the NHS and independent health care sectors," she added.
A Department of Health spokesman estimated the new regulations would result in 100,000 extra checks and cost the NHS £3m, but refused to comment on the alleged double standards.
Health Minister John Hutton said the checks will help the NHS make safer recruitment decisions.