NEWS IN FOCUS: The price of 'free' criminal checks - Free criminal record checks for volunteers come with a charge, one that many small charities may not be able to afford. Julie Pybus reports

JULIE PYBUS, a freelance writer

Some small voluntary organisations could be at risk of financial collapse after April when many will be forced to pay private companies to carry out the so-called "free

criminal records checks on their volunteers (Third Sector, 13 March).

After a long campaign by the voluntary sector, the Government announced in February that criminal record disclosures from the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) will be free for volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults. Checks for paid staff will cost £12.

However, an organisation must be registered with the bureau to access these disclosures. The registration fee is a one-off £300, but a great deal more is spent in staff time and resources to deal with the administration.

The Scout Association needs to carry out 70,000 checks a year and has registered with the CRB, but estimates that it will cost £50,000 a year to run the scheme.

Bridget Morris, deputy director of Kensington and Chelsea Volunteer Bureau, considered registering the bureau with the CRB to provide disclosures to local charities. "We decided against it because we haven't got the funding and it is too risky,

she says.

As there is no government funding to help organisations become CRB registered, few voluntary organisations are willing to take on the burden. Charities are also concerned about being liable for passing on incorrect information.

As a result, smaller charities needing volunteers are struggling to find organisations that will provide them with affordable disclosures.

Chris Penberthy, chief executive of the National Association for Volunteer Bureaux, says: "The voluntary sector is going to have to pay for something that the Government announced would be free. It is a huge burden for small voluntary organisations.

He estimates that disclosures will cost between £15 and £60 per volunteer.

Morris' local council, Westminster, will charge £9.40 per volunteer disclosure for some local organisations. She says: "It is a worst-case scenario that this could shut down some small organisations - but it could happen."

David Shelmerdine, secretary of the Scout Association, calls such charges "ridiculous". "It defeats the object of the Government offering free checks for volunteers.

He is calling for government support for the infrastructure costs for organisations that register with the CRB, plus free registration with the CRB for the smaller voluntary groups.

In Wales, the situation is looking bleak for many small organisations.

Sue Pickavance, director of volunteering at the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, says: "It is going to be quite devastating according to the figures we have had so far."

The lack of registered bodies is forcing charities to seek the service from private companies. "Some of the registered bodies are in it to make money,

says Pickavance.

One of them is Disclosure Cymru, a Camarthenshire company due to open for business on 1 April. A sister company of Securicor, it has been created especially to provide CRB disclosures to recruiters in both the private and voluntary sectors. Manager David Wonson claims that charges for volunteer checks have not yet been calculated, but he says: "Yes, we will be charging a fee. Volunteer checks have to be processed in the same way as other checks."

Stuart Hill, managing director of South Wales management consultancy, Oakdale Consulting, which will be offering disclosures to voluntary organisations, also claimed not to have worked out its charges. "We know that voluntary organisations don't have a lot of money so we will charge as little as possible,

he says. Research by South Wales charities indicate that they face costs of £30-£40 per volunteer.

Several organisations, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, have written to home secretary David Blunkett pointing out these difficulties. They've received no reply.

A spokesman for the Home Office says a reply is due "very shortly". A Home Office spokeswoman added: "Volunteer checks are free if a charity pays the £300 one-off fee. There will be a small administration fee for small organisations that don't do this, but there are 300 organisations already listed on the CRB's disclosure web site who will carry out checks on behalf of other groups, and this number will increase. Market forces dictate that their prices are going to have to be competitive."

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