10m face criminal vetting
Printed in The Guardian, Tuesday December 15, 1998
Report by Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor
Every job applicant in Britain will be expected to provide proof of a "clean" criminal record under new measures to curb child abuse announced by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, last night.
Employers are to have the right to insist job applicants and volunteers produce a certificate detailing whether or not they have a criminal past from a new Criminal Records Bureau which will be up and running within two years.
This massive extension of official vetting will involve more than one-third of the national workforce every year. The Home Office expects ten million certificates to be issued each year and applicants will be charged between £5 and £10.
The new self-financing agency will be based on Merseyside and involve 1,200 new jobs. It will be managed by the UK Passport Agency.
The scheme involves three levels of checks on somebody's criminal past ranging from the basic which lists all "unspent" convictions to enhanced checks for those working with children which disclose unproven police intelligence about current operations.
Fears were raised last night that the scheme runs a real risk that employers will "play safe" and refuse jobs to anyone with a criminal record regardless of official codes of practice stating that only convictions "relevant" to the job concerned should be taken into account.
About five million people in Britain have a criminal record and concerns were voiced last night that many could face permanent exclusion from the labour market.
Voluntary organisations, such as the Scouts and the National Centre for Volunteering, also voiced anger that the Government had decided that their unpaid volunteers will face a charge of up to £10 for each certificate. The Scouts Association last night said the decision would cost it £750,000 a year.
The scheme to vet all job applicants in Britain formed part of Michael Howard's 1997 Police Act which reached the statute book just before the general election. Labour had made few public statements on its position on the new Criminal Records Bureau until Mr Straw announced last night his plans to implement Mr Howard's legislation.
The massive scale of the scheme is based on the fact that under the Data Protection Act only the individual concerned can give permission for his personal details on the Police National Computer to be passed on to a third party. This legally bars private companies and voluntary organisations having direct access to police records.
Home Office Minister, Paul Boateng, last night said the creation of the Criminal Records Bureau was an important step towards stopping dangerous people working with children and young people.
"We do not believe that this is something that will lead to any abuses on the part of those seeking the assurances that the sight of the certificate will give. There will be safeguards to protect civil liberties and the rights of ex-offenders under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act will be maintained."
He defended the decision to charge volunteers saying that £10 was the price of a child's ticket to a football match and would not deter those determined to work with children or undertake other voluntary work.
The National Centre for Volunteering last night said they did not believe unpaid volunteers should be out of pocket for volunteering.
"The campaign was supported by Labour before the general election. Alun Michael called it 'a tax on volunteers'. That is still the issue," said Tony Vickers of the National Centre for Volunteering "This is a big disappointment. Ten pounds is next to nothing if you are in paid work but many volunteers are not in paid work."
The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders yesterday urged the government to reconsider the scheme. They said they welcomed greater access to the criminal records of those working with children or vulnerable adults but raised concerns about giving every employer sweeping powers to demand information about past offences, whether they were relevant or not.
"There is a real risk that many employers will decide to play safe and refuse to employ anyone with a criminal record. If ex-offenders find it significantly harder to find jobs, this will increase the likelihood of reoffending and damage the fight against crime," said Helen Edwards, Nacro's chief executive.
John Wadham, the Director of Liberty, also warned that since one in three adult men had a conviction for a non-motoring offence there was a danger that many would suffer from unnecessary and unjustified discrimination.
But the Association of Chief Police Officers backed the scheme saying it would give improved access to criminal records to help employers assess the suitability of applicants for jobs.
(Copyright The Guardian 1998)