Select Committee on Public Accounts Forty-Fifth Report

2 Providing better protection for the vulnerable

7. The paper application channel which the Agency and their contractors developed late in the implementation process did not work well initially, leading to a backlog of applications and delays for customers. The Home Office nevertheless confirmed that in their view the Bureau was now operating much more effectively than in its early weeks and months, and was delivering a much better service than the arrangements which had existed before it was created. The Bureau denied that improved performance had resulted from a relaxation of service targets. The initial targets had been to process 90% of Standard Disclosures in one week and 90% of Enhanced Disclosures in three weeks. In February 2004, the Bureau achieved 57% of Standard Disclosures in one week and 84% of Enhanced Disclosures in three weeks, which was a significant enhancement from September 2002 when the performance was 6% and 31% respectively. New targets for 2003-04 provided for 90% of Enhanced Disclosures to be processed within four weeks and 90% of Standard Disclosures to be processed in two weeks. At the time of the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report, unaudited performance suggested both these targets were being met.[8]

8. The Home Office emphasised that the Bureau was providing a more comprehensive and consistent service than its predecessors, reliably delivering over twice the number of checks undertaken by the police each week under the previous arrangements. The Bureau has, however, had to delay the issue of Basic Disclosures[9] at least until the end of 2004, and hence the service being provided to the public is narrower than planned. The Bureau considered that it would, nevertheless, have the capacity to cope with this further service. Since Christmas 2003 around 54,000 applications had been received each week but there had been a short period during the summer of 2003 when the Bureau had dealt with over 70,000 applications per week. The number of cases over six weeks old awaiting processing, where the Bureau was not awaiting information from applicants, fell sharply from 53,754 cases in January 2003 to 923 cases in December 2003 although numbers have risen again during 2004, with 1,561 cases awaiting processing as at the end of February 2004.[10]

9. Following the murder of two young schoolgirls in Soham, public attention has focussed on the extent to which identity and police checks would identify individuals whose past actions render them unsafe to hold positions of responsibility in close proximity to vulnerable young people and adults. As part of the application process an applicant is required to provide any name they have used in the past and addresses they have lived at over the previous five years. All names should be checked against the Police National Computer, and if an Enhanced Disclosure were applied for, relevant local police forces would be automatically notified. The issues arising from Soham were under examination by Sir Michael Bichard's Inquiry at the time of our hearing, and he reported on 22 June to the Home Secretary.[11]

10. Primary responsibility for the identification of those seeking disclosures had been passed to registered bodies on the basis that such bodies were in the best position to undertake this role. There is a risk that if somebody chooses to provide false information to the registered body,[12] whether name or address, the Bureau would not have access to relevant data. This risk could seriously undermine the value of the Bureau's service. The Home Office confirmed that applicants were asked to provide two kinds of identity, for example a passport or a recent utility bill. Significant efforts are made to establish that the identity of the person is the same as the name on the form. The Bureau's service does not, however, pretend to be a 100% guarantee that any individual can be hired without any risk, nor does it absolve the employer of the ultimate responsibility for an employment decision. The Bureau confirmed that it had issued guidance to registered bodies about how to carry out identity checks and that it did routinely check applications against the list of forged passports held by the Passports and Records Agency. Nevertheless a registered body is not able to seek such confirmation directly from the Agency. The checks undertaken by the Bureau had resulted in three people being arrested and another five were under investigation. The Bureau agreed that a system of ID cards and biometric testing would make it easier for people to carry out identity checks and strengthen the Disclosure process. The Home Office had recently conducted a consultation exercise through registered bodies about using fingerprinting as part of the early stages of the Disclosure process and are currently analysing the results of that consultation.[13]

11. The Bureau does not refuse Disclosure applications but instead issues Disclosures with relevant information about previous convictions or local police intelligence as appropriate. This approach applies in all cases unless an application is withdrawn. It was not the Bureau's role to make judgements about the employability of an individual, as that judgement rested with the employer. Valid conviction information from the Police National Computer would appear automatically on the Disclosure. Where there is local police intelligence, it is a matter for local Chief Constables to decide on the relevance of that data for the Disclosure itself. The Bureau's research had shown that some 70% of registered bodies or personal applicants valued the service offered by the Bureau as part of their employment decision making process. One in five employers surveyed by the Bureau had said that the results of Disclosures had materially influenced their recruitment decisions.[14]

12. The Bureau's service has been concentrated on checks in respect of people wanting to work with young people and not weighted equally in terms of those who wanted to work with elderly people. The Home Office confirmed that when the Bureau ran into difficulties, a decision was taken to prioritise making its operations effective for the original target groups before taking on new work. The Bureau was, however, now undertaking additional checks on new care home staff, on domiciliary care agency staff and was gradually extending its reach to cover other potentially vulnerable groups and people who work for them and with them.[15]

13. The Home Office wanted to obtain evidence as to whether the Bureau was actually delivering employers a more secure recruitment service. As noted earlier, surveys of employers suggested that the service was impacting on and influencing recruitment decisions, and the Home Office was considering whether more research could be undertaken on this aspect. In terms of wider research on the impact of the Bureau's service on crimes against the vulnerable, the Home Office considered that there would be difficulty in being able to separate out the impact of the existence of the Bureau and its service from other factors which influence levels of crime and levels of abuse. Ideally the existence of the Bureau would have reduced the risk of employers recruiting unsuitable people for positions where they have vulnerable children and adults in their care but the risk could not be reduced to zero.[16]

8   Q 7; C&AG's Report, Figure 14 Back

9   A Basic Disclosure comprises unspent convictions on the Police National Computer. Back

10   Qq 7, 9, 11, 94; Ev 16 Back

11   Qq 10, 50, 52, 54 Back

12   A Registered Body is an employer or voluntary organisation registered with the Bureau to verify that applications are genuine. Back

13   Qq 110-115  Back

14   Qq 55-60  Back

15   Qq 61-64 Back

16   Q 116 Back

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