Vetting and barring: 'The longer it takes, the longer the risks will persist

Indira Das-Gupta meets Sir Roger Singleton, the ex-head of Barnardo's, who will oversee the new system for vetting individuals wishing to work with children and vulnerable adults.

Sir Roger Singleton
Sir Roger Singleton

Numerous charities have already expressed concerns about the new vetting and barring scheme that will run alongside the current Criminal Records Bureau system of checks from next autumn. CSV has warned that it could scare off would-be volunteers (Third Sector, 18 July). Unsurprisingly, Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will administer the new scheme, is convinced that it will be an improvement on the status quo.

"As well as extending the scope of the present vetting and barring arrangements to a much wider category of people, the new scheme will have a constantly updated arrangement in comparison with the present scheme, which is really only as good as the day it takes place," he says.

"The ISA will monitor the reports that are made to it. If, for example, you got a conviction that could make you unsuitable to work with vulnerable adults, the authority would decide whether to put you on the list and whether to inform your employer. People will have to register only once, unlike in the current system; once a person is registered with the scheme the monitoring will be consistent and continuous."

This ongoing nature of assessment has led some critics to claim it will place an administrative burden on charities, but Singleton denies this. "Although existing employers will need to inform us of their concerns about staff who have been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour, it should not lead to an administrative burden because people should already be doing this," he says.

"The ISA will then report to employers if people subsequently behave in ways that suggest they are not suitable for work with vulnerable individuals. That's part of the response to Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry into the Ian Huntley case. A number of low to medium activities Huntley engaged in were not connected up: it was the lack of connection that probably prevented him being spotted. It's the same lack of connection that the new system is seeking to address."

Singleton does concede, however, that there will be a "time consequence" for charities, but he says this is a small price to pay to ensure better safeguards for vulnerable individuals.

"I worked in the voluntary sector for many years and was chief executive of Barnardo's, so I am not blind to the impact of the potential bureaucratic burden," he says. "On the other hand, quite a lot of the sector is about working with children and vulnerable people, and much of it seeks to offer a level of service that is exemplary. Part of that should be to ensure that people who shouldn't work with these groups are not allowed to do so."

Singleton dismisses the idea that the new system could act as a deterrent to would-be volunteers. "I think most fair-minded and genuinely motivated people will recognise it's a proper and reasonable course of action," he says. "People may be irritated, but I don't think they will have major objections."

At present, the plan is to phase in the scheme over the next three years. When it was proposed that the equivalent vetting scheme in Scotland should be phased in over the same period of time, there was a charity backlash that resulted in a pledge to extend this period.

"The longer things take, the longer we sustain the current risks," explains Singleton. "So we need to strike a balance between doing it in a way that everyone can cope with and not letting it drift on as if it isn't important.

- See At Work Management, page 25.

THE NEW SYSTEM'S RATIONALE AND PROCEDURE

When Criminal Records Bureau checks were first introduced for those working with vulnerable groups in 2002, they were soon mired in controversy. The system, which checks the criminal backgrounds of everyone working with children or vulnerable adults in schools, voluntary organisations or professional bodies, was launched six months late because of IT difficulties. An emergency rescue plan then had to be implemented two months after the system's launch. Computer operators in India were employed to input details of 35,000 people.

Although the CRB recovered from these teething problems, many voluntary organisations have complained about the time it takes to process checks - particularly in London, which accounts for 15 per cent of them. Three years after the system was launched, checks in the capital were taking up to five months to process against a national average of four weeks. This was a deterrent for many volunteers.

There has also been confusion about who needs to undergo enhanced checks, which are meant for those in regular and close contact with vulnerable groups. Many charities have been demanding enhanced checks for all volunteers.

The new vetting and barring scheme will reduce the need for CRB checks, although the CRB will still carry out much of the administrative work. A Home Office spokesman said: "Many people have said the CRB checks provide too much information, when all they really need to know is whether it is safe to let someone work with vulnerable individuals. The new ISA checks will do just that." It remains to be seen whether they will do that without other problems emerging.

WHY IS THE NEW VETTING AND BARRING SCHEME BEING SET UP?

It is a response to Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry into the vetting procedures that allowed Ian Huntley, who later murdered two young girls, to get a job as a school caretaker. Huntley had been the subject of several allegations of indecent assault, underage sex and rape.

- What is the system at present?

Anyone working with children or vulnerable adults has to have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check to see if they have a criminal record or there is relevant police intelligence about them. An employer makes a decision about whether to employ people, although some are put on lists that prevent them from working in certain jobs, such as the Protection of Children Act List (known as List 99), which contains the names of people barred from teaching, and the Protection of Vulnerable Adults List. There is also a disqualification orders system.

- How will the new system work?

The Independent Safeguarding Authority will similarly rely on criminal convictions and police intelligence. It will cover wider categories of staff - for example, domiciliary care staff will be covered, as well as staff in social care homes. The authority will update its records continuously, and will create two lists - one of people barred from working with children, another of those barred from working with vulnerable adults. It will make all discretionary decisions on who should be on the lists - ministers will no longer have a role in decisions on individual cases. The authority will examine representations from those being considered for inclusion on the lists and decide whether to remove people.

- Will people with criminal records be barred automatically?

No - there will be automatic barring only if someone has committed one of a number of specifically listed offences. If someone has a criminal record, it will be up to the ISA to look at the totality of information available about that person - including details about the individual's previous behaviour and attempts at rehabilitation - and then to make a judgement on whether it is safe for that person to work with vulnerable people.

- Is there an appeals process?

Yes, through the Care Standards Tribunal. If people's circumstances change, they will be able to ask for their cases to be re-examined.

- Will CRB checks still be needed?

It will be up to employers to request CRB checks if they feel they're necessary, but it should significantly reduce the need for them.

- Will parents who volunteer at their children's schools be checked?

It depends on the frequency with which they wish to volunteer. If the parents of a child want to volunteer by helping out in their child's local school on a single occasion, they will not have to be checked. But if volunteering is a regular occurrence, an individual will have to be checked.

- How should charities prepare for the changes?

Charities should check their records to see how many of their volunteers have had checks recently. Then they need to consider who has regular and close contact with vulnerable groups and will have to be checked again. They need to consider, for example, whether bus drivers who predominantly deal with vulnerable adults need to be checked.

- How long will charities be given to comply?

Singleton envisages a timescale of three years, but volunteering charity WRVS believes that somewhere between five and 10 years would be more realistic. WRVS and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations have already successfully lobbied against the proposal of the Scottish Executive (since renamed the Scottish Government) to implement a similar scheme over three years in Scotland (Third Sector, 1 August). It is estimated that about 10 million people will be checked in the first three years.

- Will the new system be phased in?

According to the current proposals, yes. Those who have never been checked will be checked first, those who were checked some time ago will be in the middle phase and those who have been checked recently will be last.

- Who will make up the new Independent Safeguarding Authority?

Although the fine detail has yet to be worked out, there will be a chair with nine publicly appointed board members and up to 250 Independent Safeguarding Authority employees. The authority is expected to be up and running from autumn next year.

- How much will it cost?

The ISA will be self-financing. The fees for vetting and barring have not yet been decided. They will be paid on a one-off basis and are expected to be lower, but in addition to the CRB disclosure fee. Singleton says that there are no plans to charge volunteers.

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