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2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) for raising these issues. Clearly, the case of Russell Griffiths is very disturbing. It gives rise to an important issue of principle--I shall come to that in a moment--but it is essential that the issue is seen in its wider context. I should therefore like to begin by setting out the background in relation to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974--a key consideration in this matter--the current arrangements for police checks, and the new arrangements that we are putting in place through the Criminal Records Bureau. They are due to come into effect during the latter part of this year and the start of next year.

It has long been accepted that it is important for those who offend to be able to reform, to pick up their lives again after paying the penalty, and to have a fresh start. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 has been the key legislation in that respect for more than a quarter of a century, and it will continue to be so under the new arrangements that the Criminal Records Bureau will operate, to which I shall come shortly.

The principle underlying the 1974 Act is that once a conviction has become spent it is stale, and a person applying for a job should not need to declare it to an employer. However, the need for rehabilitation must be balanced against the risk to society, particularly its most vulnerable members, from the ex-offender. That is why, for as long as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has been in place, there has also been a list of positions for which someone can be asked about spent convictions. People asked about spent convictions have to tell a potential employer what those convictions were for before obtaining the job.

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It is crucial to get that list of positions right. We must protect the vulnerable, but we must not make the list such that an offender who has put his past behind him is disadvantaged if that is not necessary for the demands of the job.

Employers do not currently have access to police checks. If they ask a job applicant whether he has a criminal record, they have no way of verifying what they are told. That situation is partly a reflection of the sensitivity with which we treat information about a person's criminal record. However, there are also police resource constraints.

Prioritisation has been essential. The largest demand is for checks to be carried out in cases to which we would all give the highest priority--the protection of children from those who are in the strongest position to do them harm, such as those in positions affording substantial unsupervised access to children.

Most people working with children in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors are not routinely subject to police checks, and nor are people working with vulnerable adults. Frankly, the situation regarding checks on people working with children and vulnerable adults and the resourcing constraints of the police is not satisfactory.

The establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau is a major part of a much larger package of measures designed to provide additional protection for the vulnerable. Moreover, the CRB will be specifically resourced to undertake the task, and to do so to high service standards. Although protection of the vulnerable will be the primary purpose of the CRB, its service will be broader. The bureau will provide three different levels of certificates--or disclosures, as they will be known: the basic level of check will apply to the broad generality of jobs, and the other two types will relate to posts, positions and professions that attract greater sensitivity. The key gateway will be the exceptions order under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The higher level checks will include people working with children and with vulnerable adults. The highest level will relate principally to those working most closely with children and vulnerable adults.

I now come to the particular case that my hon. Friend has raised. Let me say at the outset how disturbing I found this case, just as she did. As I said, we must take great care to ensure that we strike the correct balance between protection of the individual--the potential victim--and the rights of a potential employee to be able to live down the misdemeanours of his or her past.

We must be conscious of the danger that our reactions to a particular case could lead us to a position that would upset a careful balance. In the case to which my hon. Friend referred, it was possible for information about previous convictions to be concealed. Under the present arrangements, the university authorities did not have access to police information that would have revealed those convictions. The position will be wholly different once the CRB becomes fully operational. Under the arrangements for criminal records checks that the CRB will operate, the authorities could request that a check be carried out at the basic level. That would have revealed the unspent convictions of Russell Griffiths.

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I understand that officials from the Department for Education and Employment have met representatives of Universities UK--formerly the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals--to discuss arrangements for criminal record checks. Universities UK is considering issuing guidance on strengthening existing recruitment for university staff. It is likely to emphasise the need to verify qualifications and obtain independent references, and to advise universities to obtain a basic disclosure from the CRB, when available, as part of their recruitment process.

It would be a very large step to contemplate bringing university staff within the scope of the higher level checks that will be available from the CRB. The main practical effect would be to open up to scrutiny any stale conviction that might lie in a person's past, but which, under the tests set in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, should not be revealed unless there are exceptional circumstances. It would also bring to light a caution, reprimand or warning to a young offender. At the very highest level of check conducted by the bureau, it would mean a search of local police records.

Such information is clearly more sensitive, and making it available remains an exceptional measure under the scheme that the CRB will operate. To warrant such disclosure, the circumstances must be such that the interests of protecting the victim would require that the scales be tilted further in that direction. That has clearly been considered justified in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our society--children, and the most vulnerable adults.

In an area where striking the right balance is so important, I do not have a closed mind, but would have to be convinced that we need to tilt the scales by making university staff subject to higher levels of checks from the CRB. We take the view that the basic checks that would be provided by the CRB would be likely to be adequate, but we are willing to listen to any argument made by my hon. Friend or others to suggest that we need to go to a higher level. We shall listen to such arguments, but we remain to be convinced by them.

I have listened with great care to my hon. Friend. She has raised important issues, and the Government will reflect carefully on the strong points that she made. She asked me to review exemptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. That will take some time to arrange, but I hope to be able to do it in the summer, and we shall consider her arguments when we do so. I cannot prejudge the outcome of that review, and it would require an affirmative resolution of the House if we were to change any of the exemptions. If that becomes necessary, the House will require a further debate at which my hon. Friend could comment further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising an important issue. I hope that we can respond in a way that ensures that the sort of problems that arose in the case of Russell Griffiths will be prevented from causing distress to universities and students in future.

Question put and agreed to.

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