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Mr. Howard: I shall come to that point in a moment.

We intend the new system to be self-financing and for the costs to be met by individuals when they apply for a certificate. The fees charged will be modest, and are likely to be in the region of £5 or £6 for a criminal or criminal record certificate and £8 to £10 for an enhanced criminal record certificate.

When the Bill was considered in another place, it was amended to exempt volunteers from paying fees for criminal record checks. We opposed that move. The Government fully recognise and appreciate the good work that is done by the millions of volunteers in this country, and we have done much to encourage those who help their communities in that way, but the financial implications of the amendments are potentially enormous--costing possibly as much as £200 million.

We do not believe that it would be fair to redistribute those costs among other users of the agency. Some of them, as the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) said, will be unemployed or otherwise on low incomes, and possibly less able to pay a fee than many volunteers. The only other option would be for the taxpayer to pick up the bill, but no public funds are currently available to meet the costs of providing free checks for volunteers.

We propose, therefore, to amend the Bill to remove the amendments made in another place, but to introduce an order making power to enable free checks to be provided for specific groups, such as volunteers, if and when the money became available to cover the costs of doing so.

Mr. Mackinlay rose--

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) rose--

Mr. Howard: I give way to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

Mr. Mackinlay: This afternoon I spoke to the chief executive of the Scout Association, who says that it will cost the association about £500,000 a year to fund this vetting and that, more importantly, it will be a disincentive to volunteering. The association wants total vetting to protect young people, but the association and many Labour Members feel that it would be grossly

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unreasonable that such a fee should be picked up by a voluntary organisation which does tremendous work for the community. It is absurd and ridiculous.

Mr. Howard: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, his question is absurd and ridiculous. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot at one and the same time point to the cost to the organisation and also suggest that the cost would be a deterrent to the individual volunteer: it must be one or the other.

It is unnecessary for the organisations to pay for the checks. The vast majority of volunteers will not be deterred from their voluntary activity by a one-off payment of £5 or £6. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of volunteers voluntarily incur expenses in the course of their volunteering which far exceed the cost of a check of £5 or £6. I do not believe that the provision will have the consequences to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I ask the Secretary of State to think again, especially about introducing an order. It is possible that some volunteers will not be deterred, but most volunteers are unemployed people. There are those who volunteer at a different level and could afford the expense, but many could not. Charities, especially, have already suffered as a result of the advent of the national lottery. I recognise that there might be cross-party support to keep the taxpayer clear, but it should not be a case of reversing the role of Robin Hood and taking from the poor to pay for the rich.

Mr. Howard: I am sorry to have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. First, I am not sure that his observation about the effect of the lottery on charities is well founded. Secondly, I do not accept that a modest one-off payment will be a significant deterrent to volunteers.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while a person who gives his time for nothing to work in a charity may find it acceptable, for example, to use his own transport to get to the place where he does the voluntary work, it is another thing entirely to ask that person to put his hand in his pocket and pay £5 or £6 to run a criminal record check on himself when he knows perfectly well that no criminal convictions are recorded against him? Such a person may see that as an insult, and certainly as a deterrent to volunteering his services.

Mr. Howard: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The distinctive characteristic of volunteers is that they are generous and public-spirited. They will understand the importance of the checks and they will not be at all insulted at the notion of having a check. They will readily accept the importance of providing more protection for children, which the provisions will allow, and they will be ready to make the modest payment involved.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. Volunteers will be only too happy to know that other volunteers are clean. In the light of some of the dreadful cases that have occurred recently, volunteers will be happy to pay for peace of mind.

Mr. Howard: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's point.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware of the tremendous work done

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by voluntary bodies in the north of Ireland. He should consider that every voluntary body conducts a massive lobby of the Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland. The largest lobby that I have ever had was on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal, and I have been in the House for 27 years, as have my colleagues. People who are helping daily as volunteers to meet the needs of the community in Northern Ireland know the difficulties of telling an unemployed person that he would be excellent to do a job but that he will have to pay for a certificate to clear his name when in fact his name is clear. Could not the Home Secretary devise a system whereby a volunteer could take an oath in public declaring that his name is clear?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: That would cost a great deal more.

Rev. Ian Paisley: No. The notaries and members of the public would be working for the voluntary sector for nothing. There would then be no onus of payment on a volunteer working in the voluntary sector.

Mr. Howard: I fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), in her intervention from a sedentary position, may well be right. The attestation of such an oath before an official may well be more expensive than the very modest cost of the check that we envisage.

The voluntary sector has long been pressing for better access to criminal record information, and it welcomed our proposals when we first put them forward. But wider access costs money, and so cannot be provided unless the cost will be met. Our proposed approach will enable a balance to be struck between wider access funded by those who use the service and the provision of free checks to specific groups if financial resources permit.

The Bill contains a number of important safeguards to ensure that sensitive information is not misused. Employers who register with the agency will be required to abide by a code of practice. Good practice guidance on the application of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the need to consider the relevance of any convictions will be issued to registered bodies, and the Bill will also make it a criminal offence for a member, officer or employee of a registered body to disclose information about criminal records other than in the course of his duties.

Mr. Gerrard: Does the Minister agree that the code of practice would apply not to the criminal conviction certificate but to the full and enhanced certificates that would be relevant to registered bodies? Would that not leave all sorts of anomalies, with people applying for different jobs within the same organisation sometimes being asked for checks and sometimes not being asked? As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) pointed out, a person might be repeatedly asked to provide a new certificate. A prospective employer might not be interested in a three-month-old certificate but might want to see an up-to-date certificate, so the person will be faced repeatedly with having to find the money to pay for one.

Mr. Howard: On the first point, I do not think that the provisions would give rise to the anomalous consequences

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identified by the hon. Gentleman, but that could be looked at in detail in Committee and on Report. On the second point, we do not envisage it being possible for repeated requests for new certificates to be made. We envisage a time limit so that it is not incumbent on someone in the circumstances identified by the hon. Gentleman repeatedly to have to reapply for fresh certificates.

As my noble friend the Minister of State signalled in another place, we believe that these measures will help to put an end to the practice of enforced subject access when an employer requires an applicant to exercise his access rights under the Data Protection Act 1988 in order to pass on information about his criminal record. That practice is undesirable. It is contrary to the spirit of the Data Protection Act and, because it reveals details of both spent and unspent convictions, it undermines the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. We appreciate that, if enforced subject access were to continue, it might also undermine this Bill, which seeks to protect information about spent convictions. We are considering, therefore, what steps can be taken to outlaw that practice. However, it is not straight-forward and it has implications that go wider than criminal records.


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