Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 78 - 99)



  Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming to see us. Michael Fabricant.

Mr Fabricant

  78. Good morning. Between the two of you, I have worked out that you represent something like 2,100 organisations, so I guess you are in an ideal position to comment on the introduction of these new fees and CRB checks. I wonder if I could ask you, I am not really looking at anyone in particular, so whoever is feeling the most active just get in there, I think you were all sitting there while we were talking to the previous witnesses, but I am curious to know what advice has been given by the Government, and the Home Office in particular, as to the sort of CRB checks that you should be conducting? This is a similar question that I was asking the Scouts and the Guides. Ought you to be conducting checks on every volunteer, and, if so, are they always at the enhanced level? Who wants to volunteer for an answer? Stuart Etherington looks as if he is taking in a deep breath.

  (Mr Etherington) The guidelines have been issued, marketing leaflets have been produced; in general, it is going to be for enhanced checks for those who have unsupervised access to children. There is a further question about vulnerable adults, which is part of this as well, but at the moment there is no definition of vulnerable adults, in terms of the Act, so that is still an ongoing debate about how far that will be extended. Of course, if it was extended to vulnerable adults, as we expect it will be, then the number of voluntary organisations affected by this would increase quite significantly. What we do not have any view on from the Home Office at the moment is the price of the check, people are quoting numbers, and they have been quoted this morning, and they are based on people's best guess; but what we have to remember, in relation to the CRB, is that it is a self-financing agency, and, therefore, the price of the check is, in many ways, determined by the level of demand for the check. Now what the Home Office has produced, and no doubt the Minister will talk to you about this when he sees you, is estimates of possible demand levels, and what the potential price of an enhanced check and a basic check would be under various levels of demand; and these vary from £10, as a minimum, up to £20, so it rather depends on what the demand is. And, of course, what you have got to bear in mind as well is the cost of the Registered Body, not just the cost of the CRB check. Now some organisations are running checks already, and you heard from two today; some voluntary organisations are not running checks at anything like that level of professionalism, and they are going to have to have Registered Bodies who will seek whether the applicant is a bona fide applicant. Now the Registered Bodies are not going to do this as a charitable activity, they are going to do this either at cost, if they are voluntary organisations, or at profit, if they are `for profit' agencies, some of whom have expressed an interest in doing this. You add those two numbers together and you get a much larger number, and that is why the disincentive effect could be that much greater. So people are talking slightly in a vacuum about the level of cost of the check, because it rather depends on the demand level. But it might be a question the Committee will want to put to the Minister, in the sense that they should have a better idea than anybody of what the cost might be likely to be, but they have not told anybody what it is going to be yet.

  79. I shall certainly put that question, on your behalf and the Committee's behalf. To what degree though have you been in contact with the Home Office, expressing these concerns?
  (Mr Etherington) From a very early stage, we have been in contact with them, since the original Act was passed. We have pointed out the fact that these checks may have a disincentive effect, we have pointed out that voluntary organisations will need to gear up for this, that Registered Bodies will need to be identified, to assist voluntary organisations, we pressed the case during the passage of the Act and subsequently, we have met with Ministers and pressed this privately. I am the representative on the ministerial advisory group. So we are pretty up to speed with the sort of information that they have available. So we have been working on the inside track quite a lot to make our concerns known.

  Mr Winnick: Which Ministers are they?

  80. Despite being on the inside track, you still do not have any real idea, very deep concerns, as to the costs involved, and yet CRB will come on stream in summer 2001. Just to follow on from David Winnick's question, with which Ministers have you been in contact?
  (Mr Etherington) Initially, Paul Boateng, who was responsible for this area, but responsibility was transferred to Charles Clarke, so since then we have been in contact with Charles Clarke, who has taken on ministerial responsibility for this area of work.

  81. And it is Charles Clarke that we will be speaking to and putting these very questions to. To what degree are the organisations which you represent prepared, do you believe, for the impact this is going to have, not just the impact in terms of fiscal charges but also the impact in determining who should have checks addressed to them and what level of checks they should be? Perhaps I will ask Mrs Reeve.
  (Ms Reeve) Thank you. I really wanted to take the opportunity maybe to be just a bit presumptuous and go back to your earlier point, in terms of advice.

  82. Be presumptuous.
  (Ms Reeve) Insofar as, clearly, you have been taking evidence from organisations that have a particular, proper engagement with this issue; in relation to volunteering and volunteers, it is a very much broader sort of matter. Our members, volunteer bureaux, local volunteer bureaux, volunteer and development agencies, giving advice in relation to good practice, are working not only with volunteers and organisations involved in areas where it might be appropriate to be looking at checking and costs, but they work with vulnerable and socially excluded volunteers, in relation to volunteering where there is not any element of care or necessary control. And our members, who are there to be offering advice to other organisations, have long experience of working in relation to the use of the criminal record and volunteering; over the last 15 years we have had pilot schemes in relation to use in the voluntary sector, there have been issues around data subject access. Gill was talking earlier about the local authorities' role in doing checks, which they do undertake on volunteers, both working within their own public sector settings, but also, in some instances, they have undertaken checking for the voluntary organisations in their administration area; some of them do not do it, they are advised against doing it. So we have a long knowledge about this area. But what is really evident at the moment is there is an awful lot of organisations and groups out there who maybe cannot get evidence of the same level of competence and experience and knowledge that you have just had presented to you today, who believe that checks are going to become compulsory on all volunteers and that they all are going to have to be accessing the Criminal Records Bureau, and possibly having to pay for this, some of them who are not very scrupulous about the reasons why they want to do that. And those, I think, are the issues, that is the context in which I think we really need a great deal more from Government, in terms of helping really to clarify the broader issues, not just in relation to payment on checks.

  83. You raise a very interesting point here about unscrupulous organisations who might go to the CRB, I cannot quite think why they should want to, but, nevertheless, they might want to find out information which is not directly related to the volunteer work. Have you speculated about how this might be abused?
  (Ms Reeve) Maybe unscrupulous was an unfortunate word. One of the worries we have is that organisations, and small groups, particularly, will want to substitute the use, access to the criminal record, instead of doing anything else, in relation to their practice of involving people, selecting people, to be involved in their activities, it will actually become the alternative to anything else they might do.

  84. You were not concerned then that somebody might try to find out something about a volunteer, for putting it in the public domain, giving information to the press?
  (Ms Reeve) I think it is a constant anxiety for voluntary organisations, in terms of the knowledge that they do gather about people through their engagement with them, and the way in which they feel they ought at times to make it available to other organisations. There was discussion earlier about the whole sort of ramifications of Dunblane. These things are there, they are an issue for organisations who have to exercise judgement. I do not think actually it is something that we should seriously be worried about, people doing it in a deliberately unscrupulous way.

  85. Maybe some, or most, would not be deliberately unscrupulous, but, and I know Mr Gaines is trying to get in here, do you have concerns over perhaps just lack of, or bad internal structures within organisations, such that they might do a check on someone then reject them and the information gained from the CRB is not kept confidential, such that it gets out into the community as a whole? Mr Gaines, would you like to answer?
  (Mr Gaines) Voluntary organisations, like any other organisation, undertaking checks, under the CRB, will be bound by a code of practice, setting out very clearly how they will be expected to use that information, keep that information confidential. The key concern at this stage within the voluntary sector, to go back to your earlier question, in terms of readiness, is about the issue to do with the development of Registered Bodies, because they are going to be crucial to the functioning of the system, and that is still very early, they are still only now being set up, the information is only now being sent out. We have tried very hard actually to assist, by sending out information to build up knowledge and awareness, within the voluntary sector, about this; but this is going to be crucial to the extent to which this new system is going to be properly available across the country, so voluntary organisations and volunteers can access checks.

  86. I still just want to pursue, before I hand over to the next person, this question; you say there will be a code of practice, but I will go back, if I may, to Ms Reeve, are you satisfied that, despite there being a Home Office code of practice, all your members, and we are talking about volunteer bureaux after all, that all of them are capable, have the internal structures, to ensure that the code of practice will be adhered to?
  (Ms Reeve) Like many voluntary organisations, volunteer bureaux do experience a serious, I think, underinvestment, in terms of their capacity, which affects their delivery. So it will be an issue, I think, for any organisation, in terms of properly managing that process. There is going to be, we are certain, considerable pressure on local volunteer bureaux to become Umbrella Registered Bodies for other organisations, for smaller groups; so there will be not only that additional pressure, there will also be issues around them undertaking work on behalf of their organisations and the additional things they will have to do to make sure those other organisations are behaving fully and properly. I think there is a great deal more that needs to be done, in terms of the offering of information, advice and training, to many organisations. The Scouts and The Guides Association have very full systems and procedures already in place, very commendable ones; for the majority of organisations, they do not have that at any level at all, the aspiration and intention may be there but the practical consequences will be that they will do their best, and very often it may be not good enough.

  87. Finally, Mr Gaines has expressed a concern regarding volunteer organisations, and you have, on another aspect. We have probably got a general election coming between now and when the CRB comes into operation. Are you satisfied that there has been sufficient consultation with the Home Office, and that the Home Office has given sufficient thought to all the difficulties that may arise with regard to the operations of the CRB?
  (Mr Etherington) I think there are outstanding issues to be resolved, and I think there are principally three, two of which engage volunteering, one of which, I think, is another operational issue. The two which are volunteering-related, I think, have both surfaced. One is the fact that the fee level may act as a disincentive, we do not know what the fee level will be, so to speculate about how much of a disincentive it would be is difficult, but clearly it will be a disincentive, and it will fall either on the organisation or the individual. At a time when the Government, in my view, rightly, is trying to encourage volunteering, there is a contradiction in these two policy objectives. The second issue, which is the operational issue which has been brought up by both Helen and Adam, is the issue of Registered Bodies, how many will there be, will they be prepared, will they be adequately resourced, in order to undertake the task. To take the Scottish Executive example, they are funding free criminal records checks and they are publicly funding a Registered Body for the voluntary sector; so it is a slightly different situation, but it shows the extent of differences between, say, Scotland and England and Wales. The third area which I think is an issue, which is not directly relevant to the voluntary sector but probably does need probing, is the quality of the police information that is available to the CRB, and there are two elements to this. Because this has been a localised system, the information from police authorities has been very variable; you are suddenly creating a national system, and therefore you have got a lot of police forces which require significant investment to bring them up to speed in relation to the quality of information which they can provide. One anxiety which I think it is quite difficult to do anything about is that a lot of the information that has been around, which actually has prevented people from being selected as volunteers working with young people, is actually soft information, it is information that local police forces hold; now they will not put this on the CRB, there are all sorts of reasons why they will not, so there may be a loss of soft information available. And that may be a problem, but it is very difficult to see what one would do about that, if you are creating a national checking system. But I think those are the three principal operational issues. As far as other things are concerned, I think, undoubtedly, there will be a delay, because it is actually quite a complex system to put into place, and I think it is probably, my view would be that it is, better to get it right than get it exactly on time, because these systems have a habit of falling over, particularly if they involve substantial IT investment, as this one does.


  88. It was this Committee, 11 years ago, which suggested a Criminal Records Bureau, of one sort or another. Here we are, six months from the target starting date, you know much more about this than we do as you sit on this ministerial group, and yet you have indicated there is a lot you do not know. You touched on the point of delay. Why is it there are so many loose ends knocking about, six months from kick-off?
  (Mr Etherington) I think there are two or three reasons for that. It is quite a complex thing to move from a quite fragmented, localised system, with a number of things being put together, to a national system. I think that is a complicated move. One of the real difficulties that they face is estimating the level of demand for checks, it is quite difficult to do that, when you are putting a national system in place; and we have based our numbers, in terms of a potential cost to the voluntary sector, on their most likely scenario for the level of demand. So that data is around, but it seems to me that it is going to be quite difficult to tie this down until the service becomes operational. That is why I have not got the information, and, in a sense, it is a matter for Government.

  89. What is being said, Mr Etherington, about ambitions about the time I say, "I want you to check on this dreadful fellow, David Winnick," and I get an answer?
  (Mr Etherington) Do you know that, Adam?
  (Mr Gaines) The Bureau is going to be setting out a series of service standards, in terms of turnaround times for checks and information, and, in fact, they have consulted quite widely on that and carried out a specific piece of research, looking both at the voluntary sector and also at employers; so that turnaround times would be, my understanding is, around 15 days for an enhanced check and about three days for one of the Basic Disclosures.

  90. These would be working days?
  (Mr Gaines) These would be working days; and also it is intended that the Bureau should be able to receive information up until late at night, by working via a call centre. So the service standards which are being set out appear to be fairly good, and the question is, are they actually too ambitious. But the important thing about them is, they do actually take into account the different levels and different requirements for information, because, obviously, this is going to be a national system, and information, particularly at the enhanced level, will need to come through from the different police forces.

  91. Up until recently, it has taken the Metropolitan Police 12 months from getting an application from somebody to become a police officer to deciding whether or not to take them; they are patting themselves on the back now, they have got this down to four months. Timing obviously is critical, and particularly where employment is concerned, and it is critical also, I think, with volunteers, they do not want to be kept hanging about?
  (Ms Reeve) Gill was mentioning earlier about the variations, around the country, in terms of local authorities. Part of this issue, as reference has been made, is the IT one. If the national database is not fully functioning, it will still be reliant on that variation, which will mean that, whatever standards are set, they may not be able to achieve them. And I think the other aspect to add to it is, it is in some ways a chicken and egg situation, around trying to anticipate levels of potential demand, you can actually generate that potential level of demand in things that have been done or not done over the period in which the development has been happening as well.

  92. Can you say for how long you think the certificate should be valid; has anybody at the Home Office suggested a period to you, for this? Because the point was made earlier they are as good as the day they are issued.
  (Mr Etherington) Absolutely.
  (Ms Reeve) It is a snapshot.

  93. If any good at all, the way that some of them are going to be built?
  (Ms Reeve) Yes.
  (Mr Gaines) As you say, Chairman, their only currency is really up until the day they are issued; however, the guidance being suggested would suggest that an organisation would be able to hold onto those details in an appropriate way for up to six months. However, of course, the concern would be if there is any change in the circumstances within that time which an organisation may not have access to that information about. But the information would suggest that it would be up to six months for an organisation to be able to hold onto that detail before that disclosure document would have to be destroyed.

Mr Winnick

  94. But there is no room for complacency. The danger, as I see it, Mr Chairman, is that the Criminal Records Bureau, once they issue the clearance, there may be a feeling, "All's well; there's nothing to worry about." Surely, the message should go out that voluntary organisations which have any contact with children, anyone under 18, must be constantly on their guard; and what would be most unfortunate would be if complacency came about as a result of the CRB coming into existence and giving clearance. Would you agree with that?
  (Ms Reeve) Most certainly. The evidence you had this morning from The Scouts Association, in terms of the competence of their current systems, and the fact that they are clearly very vigilant about not only wanting to access the additional opportunity of a check but also maintaining their systems, that needs replicating in other, similar, appropriate settings; and it is going to be very, very challenging for many voluntary organisations, I think, to be able to do that.
  (Mr Gaines) The other point, Mr Winnick, is that, obviously, access to the Criminal Records Bureau and being able to get a check is very helpful, but it is only one part of a child protection policy overall which a voluntary organisation might well be wanting to undertake.

  95. Arising from what Mr Russell asked the representatives of the Scout movement, it is clear, is it not, that Hamilton, the mass murderer, would not have been exposed as a result of the CRB coming into existence. That is a very interesting aspect, is it not?
  (Mr Etherington) Yes, I think that is true, and I think that just reinforces the point that has been made, that this has got to be seen as part of a range of measures to protect children and vulnerable adults, it is not a substitute, it is additional information, and it has got to be seen in that context. One of the problems that you have identified may well be there, that if people thought that this was all they needed to do then it would be a fairly fragile basis upon which to develop a child protection policy alone; so we would encourage people to develop much more robust systems than that.

  96. Were you aware, the four of you, of what I certainly was not, until today, I cannot speak for my colleagues, that Hamilton had tried on successive occasions; you were all aware of that?
  (Mr Etherington) Yes, we were.

  97. And you would agree that it shows the diligence of the Scouts movement, certainly, does it not, in making sure he did not join?
  (Mr Etherington) Absolutely.

Mrs Dean

  98. You mentioned before that some of the soft information held by the police might not be conveyed to the CRB. How much of a problem do you see that could be, and do you think, therefore, there is still a necessity to make checks with the local police?
  (Mr Etherington) In the Dunblane case, that has already been mentioned, it was the soft information, in the main, that was picked up by a different system used by The Scout Association, which prevented him from becoming a Scout leader. So that is a very pertinent and dramatic example of the value of soft information, in some of these cases, and the CRB is not going to pick that up. I think, in general, we are talking about cases in extremis here, and it is certainly the case that good organisations would have soft systems in place to pick up information. And that is why I think it is important that CRB checks are not seen as a substitute for good policies, in relation to volunteers who have contact with young children or vulnerable adults.


  99. Just picking up on that point, Mr Etherington, we know that the Bureau will not be able to tell us what people have done abroad. Now there are one of two things going to happen then; either voluntary bodies are going to be, and properly, exceptionally cautious about taking either foreign nationals or UK nationals who have spent long periods abroad, or they are going to have to rely on their own internal checks, as best they can. Where do you see this going?
  (Mr Etherington) I think it is a particularly difficult problem. I think Adam probably has a view.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 28 March 2001