NEWS IN FOCUS: CRB fee hike adds injury to insult for voluntary sector

Emma Maier

Delays in staff and volunteer background checks were bad enough - now charities face a funding challenge to pay for them.

In 1997 the newly designed Criminal Records Bureau looked set to revolutionise the recruitment of staff and volunteers working with children and vulnerable people across England and Wales.

As one of the Government's flagship public private partnerships, the bureau aimed to use private sector skills to build the first quick, reliable and efficient system for checking the criminal records and backgrounds of all new recruits.

But the launch was delayed, and when the CRB did open for business it was quickly overwhelmed and ground to a near halt. Few will forget the chaos last September when teachers' checks were not completed on time and schools were forced to send pupils home.

Today, a year after the system went fully operational and five years after the idea was first conceived, dramatic improvements have been made.

But some underlying issues remain unresolved and the mere mention of the CRB's initials has people in the voluntary sector rolling their eyes to heaven.

This reaction has been exacerbated by the CRB's recent decision to double the cost of checks for paid staff (Third Sector, 11 June 2003). The announcement on 5 June that the cost of a standard disclosure would rise from £12 to £24, and that more detailed checks would jump from £12 to £29, was difficult for some to stomach.

"It is a surprise that the CRB's unsatisfactory service hadn't been addressed before the increases in costs were introduced," says Chris Hanvey, UK director of operations at Barnardo's.

To compound this, charities were given just 17 working days' notice of the increase, which came into effect this week.

"During consultations we were asked if we could manage a 'slight increase' in costs, but this is not just a slight increase," says Janice Cook, director of human resources at NCH. "The short notice shows a complete lack of understanding of charities' budgetary structure."

The short notice and lack of consultation about the increase may even constitute a breach of the Compact - something that NCVO is looking into.

The increase could cost the sector up to £9.3 million. NCH says it will have to find an extra £25,000, and youth hostel charity YHA will be hit for £14,000 - the cost of subsidising youth hostel visits for 600 disadvantaged young people. "It takes a long time to raise this kind of money," says Cook.

But CRB director John O'Brien says the new prices reflect the real cost of the service and are needed to meet the Government's requirement that the CRB become self-funding within four years.

This highlights an important underlying issue - the argument that this essentially public service should be totally funded by government and not by service users.

"It is incredible that the safety mechanism for children and vulnerable adults should be funded by voluntary organisations," says Catriona Williams, chief executive of Children in Wales.

But the Home Office defends the pricing policy. "It is entirely reasonable that users of the service should meet the costs," says a spokesman. "The improved protection of children and vulnerable adults provided by the CRB disclosure service inevitably comes at a cost - but it is one worth paying."

Thanks to lobbying by the sector, the Government has conceded that checks on volunteers should be free. However, voluntary organisations still have to pay to vet paid frontline staff.

On top of this, organisations have to enrol as a registered body to be eligible to apply for checks in the first place. Smaller organisations unwilling to pay the £300 this costs are forced to go through umbrella registered bodies, some of which charge an administration fee of up to £60 per check.

There are also other costs aside from the fees. "We process about 300 checks a day and have had to employ the equivalent of three extra staff," says John Fogg, director of communications at The Scout Association.

While cost is an undeniable issue, the sector's other major grievance, the accessibility and efficiency of the service, has been more comprehensively addressed.

Earlier in the year, when the backlog was at its height, the sector faced problems because volunteers were not top priority. "In our experience it can take more than six months," says Arnie Wickens, assistant director at Community Service Volunteers. "Delays mean the loss of potential volunteers."

Smaller organisations also had problems finding umbrella bodies to process their checks.

However, things have changed for the better. At the time of the schools fiasco, the CRB was only able to process 24,500 checks a week. Now, following the implementation of several independent review team recommendations, it is capable of processing 60,000 checks a week - 20,000 more than current demand.

Most enhanced disclosures are now performed inside four weeks, and standard checks in two. The backlog of checks, which once stood at 76,000, has been whittled down to 9,000.

The internet database of umbrella bodies is also updated weekly, and, thanks to vociferous complaints from the sector, plans to reduce the number of umbrella bodies have been dropped.

"On the recruitment side we are pleased to say that standards are improving," saysbeta Katrina Nevin-Ridley, a spokeswoman for VSO.

The next struggle for the CRB will be taking on the checks for care home staff that were postponed last year, and then introducing basic level checks. How these changes will affect the voluntary sector is unclear, but the battle about how the whole system is financed looks set to continue.

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