Examination of Witnesses (Questions 78
TUESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2001
Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much
for coming to see us. Michael 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
(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
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
(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
(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
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
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.
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.
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
(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.