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Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): May I say how pleased I am to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Evans, particularly as it was almost 20 years ago that I played a key role in your first attempt to win the Ribble Valley seat? Unfortunately, you were unsuccessful in that attempt, but it is undoubtedly no coincidence that, once I stopped working for you, you succeeded in becoming the Member for Ribble Valley, to which you have been an adornment for many years.
This is the first time I have sought a Westminster Hall debate on an issue of national policy, but the number of Criminal Records Bureau cases that cross my desk, both as an MP and in my capacity as my party's spokesman on culture, has led me to apply for the debate, and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to do so.
Several themes run through the cases that I have come across, and I suspect that the Minister will be all too familiar with them. The first theme is the delay in getting a CRB check, which often directly affects the livelihood of the constituent involved. The second theme is the number of CRB applications someone has to make to cover the various roles that they might have that involve working with children. The third theme is the often inappropriate application of CRB checks for what I would describe as casual and informal arrangements. Finally, there is the iniquitous provision within the Police Act 1997 that allows unproven allegations to appear on a CRB file.
As the Minister knows, the CRB was established in March 2002 under part V of the 1997 Act. Under the Act, newly employed personnel may be asked to apply for one of two checks, depending on the nature of their position. Specifically, the CRB can provide information held on a police national computer, including convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings in England and Wales. It can also provide information held by local police forces and other agencies relating to relevant non-conviction information. So a vast amount of information can be provided, the implications of which I will turn to in a moment.
I will deal first with the delays that I have come across and their impact on people's lives in my constituency. The CRB's website claims that, in 90 per cent. of cases, it takes from 10 days for a standard check to come through, to four weeks for an extended check. That is not my experience. For example, that claim is of little comfort to one of my constituents who, after successfully applying for a job last July, had to withdraw his application a few months later when his CRB check had still not materialised. Finally, after extensive waiting and some intervention from me, it arrived in November, five months later, by which time it was entirely useless. My constituent had lost his time, his money and, indeed, his job.
Another constituent of mine had been unable to return to work as the renewal of her work permit required an up-to-date CRB check. That check took another five months, during which time she was unemployed and found it very difficult to care for her children. Her employers did not know that they could apply at the time to the protection of vulnerable adults scheme,
which apparently would have let her work while her CRB check came through. I gather that POVA's role may now have been superseded by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, although I will wait to hear from the Minister on that.
Incidentally, I think that it is symptomatic of the incompetence that seems to surround this entire Administration that, on the Home Office's website, the word "independent" is spelt wrongly, with an a, rather than an e. That is a change the Minister can effect immediately.
I find it utterly exasperating that there is a second Government body designed purely to cope with the delays of the first, but it is even worse to realise that that service was at the time unheard of by a company that regularly uses the CRB. Another constituent found that Thames Valley police took more than 10 weeks to complete their part of the check, because they did not have the appropriate resources and, indeed, had built up a backlog of 40,000 cases, which is an astonishing number.
What is the Minister planning to do about what I regard as completely unacceptable delays? I am sure that she will read out the statistics supplied by her officials, citing the 85 to 95 per cent. success rate that the bureau itself cites, but perhaps it might be more revealing if she stated how many hon. Members have written to her about delays in the CRB, or indeed how many people have made complaints to the CRB about delays. That would be an equally telling statistic.
The second issue that I will address is the all-too-familiar one of multiple CRB checks, in relation to which I suspect that every hon. Member has had constituents approach them in exasperation. Another constituent of mine, while trying to get a job in a difficult economic climate, rightly chose to keep his options open and applied for two jobs-one at a school and a second at a museum. Both jobs were ultimately under the aegis of Oxfordshire county council, yet two separate checks had to be applied for, each costing between £35 and £55. Those checks were both the same, were being carried out simultaneously and looked at the same things, such as his criminal history. Both checks analysed his competence to work around children and both would have been valid for exactly the same time, so I should like to ask the Minister what she is doing to minimise what are, in effect, duplicate checks.
Why cannot a CRB check be portable once it has been carried out, at least for a period of time? Why could not subsequent CRB checks be carried out much more quickly, simply by confirming that the person applying for the job is the same person who received the original check? Surely, that would be quicker and cheaper for all concerned. I should also like the Minister to consider what impact that must have on the job market in sectors that frequently require such checks. To pay £35 or £55 every time one applies for a job must surely be a severe strain on anyone who is unemployed.
My third theme relates to the example of a constituent in a position of responsibility who was accused of a serious assault on a minor but never charged. He was the headmaster of a special school for boys with emotional problems. Indeed, the school is one level below a secure unit, so one can imagine the kind of boys who, perhaps through no fault of their own, are at the school and the kind of behavioural problems encountered. It seems to
me inevitable that there would be clashes between staff and boys, and of course staff are highly trained to deal with those circumstances. My constituent, who was involved in such an altercation, is described by his union representative, who has known him for 10 years, as a man with an impeccable reputation-indeed, an international reputation-in the field in which he works.
My constituent left his job for reasons wholly unrelated to the incident that took place, yet when he applied to do voluntary work for a charity that he had been involved with for 15 years and on whose management committee he has sat, he had to apply for a CRB check. After huge delays, which of course I had to get involved in, the CRB form finally arrived. Imagine his surprise when he read a detailed two-page synopsis of the allegations that had been made against him: not only were they reproduced, in essence, as facts, but as facts themselves they are entirely inaccurate.
The Minister will have noticed that I am keen to keep confidential the details of all my constituents who have run up against the CRB, but I have the bureau form here, and she can see the length of the details of the allegations. In one part, the form states that Mr. X restrained the victim, took him to his office and slammed him against the wall and that the incident was witnessed by another member of staff at the school and so on. All the allegations are listed as fact, despite the fact that they are inaccurate about what happened and the number of people who witnessed the incident. Furthermore, they were thoroughly investigated and completely dismissed.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and concur very much with his concerns. Does he agree that the real problem is the inconsistent application of section 113 of the Police Act 1997? A chief constable may wilfully refuse to amend or remove allegations against people who have never been charged or convicted of a criminal offence, and as a result of malicious or vexatious accusations, those allegations cast a pall over their professional life.
Mr. Vaizey: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is similar to an issue that I suspect both he and I have encountered-of innocent people having their DNA taken by the police. The default position for the police is that they simply will not change or amend the details. They have no sense at all of the effect that that might have on an individual. One suspects that they take the view that it is convenient for them and increases the information available to them, but there is no sense beyond that of their wider duty.
This is completely outrageous and a huge offence against natural justice. As a result of what happened to my constituent, he is, in effect, unemployable. I admit that I would not employ him on the basis of simply reading his CRB check. A new offence seems to have been created by the 1997 Act whereby an allegation against someone can blight the rest of their life. That old film cliché, "You can walk from this court without a stain on your character," is no longer true. It seems that under the CRB, once an allegation is made, a person is guilty as charged, even if they are found not guilty.
Another issue that I want to address is the inappropriate use of CRB checks. I recently discussed the effect that they were having on children's authors with a well-known
children's author who regularly visit schools. I appreciate that some of these points may be out of date, because I gather that the issue has been reviewed as a result of the uproar caused by the creation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. However, as a snapshot of what people are up against, the author's letter is telling and, given that she is a well-known children's author, very well written. She stated:
"Recently, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of schools insisting that visiting authors have CRB checks. This is despite the fact that we are never (not least for insurance reasons) left alone with children, and that we are usually only in a school for a few hours. Many of us do have CRB certificates, but some do not, and getting one is not easy-they have to be secured through an 'umbrella' organisation, and authors, as self-employed freelances, tend not to belong, nor to want to belong, to such things. Even when they do, it can take ages for clearance to come through."
"In the meantime, visits are being cancelled and children, while being 'protected' against an infinitesimal risk, are being denied the far greater benefit of meeting an author and possibly being inspired to read".
"seems to be not so much the law itself (daft though some of us think it is) but the interpretation of that law by schools, and particularly by Ofsted... The whole thing is becoming massively more complicated by the delayed (and botched) introduction of the new 'ISA' checks."
"On top of this there is the question of what we are doing to children by implying that all adults, and even their favourite writers, are potential threats."
As I said, I understand that some progress has been made, but even Sir Roger Singleton stated in his report that the Government must do more to communicate how the system works and what the benefits are.
We all know of cases-yes, I have had one in my constituency-where exchange visits that have gone ahead without any problem for years have had to be cancelled because the parents in host families suddenly had to take CRB checks. To coin a phrase, we cannot go on like this. The Government have created a monstrous and-I use the word advisedly-Orwellian bureaucracy. Between 9 million and 11 million of us fall under the remit of the CRB; in fact, I am astonished that I myself, in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, have not been asked to provide a CRB check when visiting a primary school. The CRB costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. It processes about a million people a year. It is decimating voluntary working, creating a climate of fear and putting people off getting involved in civic duties. Does the Minister truly believe that it is making us safer?
At the very least, can the Minister commit today to providing clear guidance for employers and voluntary groups to deal with the confusion that seems to arise about schools asking for CRB checks and to make employers aware of the processes? Can she provide a clear threshold, based on time spent working with children, for when a CRB check should be applied?
Can the Minister commit to reducing the time taken for the checks? Can she commit to reducing the need for multiple checks? Can she publish in the next few days
the number of complaints made by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents and, in general, complaints about the CRB and its delays?
Can the Minister provide an annual assessment of how the CRB has allowed us all to sleep safer in our beds? Can she confirm, for example, that there has been a statistically significant drop in the number of attacks and assaults on children, which, of course, I would welcome as a result of the creation of the CRB.
As I said, the case of my constituent who had allegations appear on his CRB form that had been thoroughly investigated and dismissed was the straw that broke the camel's back. I have been informed of several cases through my surgery and my postbag of people who are exasperated by the workings of this bureaucracy, and that is why I felt compelled to call for this debate and why I will listen intently to what the Minister has to say about the CRB.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Evans, I believe for the first time. I shall not repeat the facts about the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau as they have been outlined by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). Instead, I shall get straight on to some of the points that he raised, and in particular go into detail on why we have repeat disclosures, and on disputes about information.
The hon. Gentleman has not tried to discuss an individual case; regardless, I point out that I cannot discuss individual cases, but I am happy to facilitate a meeting between him and the leading people at the CRB and to be present at it myself, if that would be helpful. I hope that we can catch each other after the debate to make arrangements to do that as quickly as possible.
The main subject of the debate is the enhanced disclosure. The CRB currently issues standard and enhanced disclosures. Standard ones include information about criminal records but also about cautions and other police. Enhanced disclosures include, critically, other local intelligence-the kind of local intelligence that was not released in the case of Ian Huntley. That is one of the reasons why it is particularly important.
The hon. Gentleman discussed delays of five months. I shall go into performance statistics in a little more detail, as he indicated I might. Five months is an unusually long time, as most checks are done quickly, and must mean that there has been a need to acquire information from different police forces and perhaps elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically whether the protection of vulnerable adults list will be taken on by the Independent Safeguarding Authority. It is at present undergoing transfer so that any cases on the POVA list from last autumn will be transferred to the ISA. Some will be case-worked again-there may be issues around the decisions.
I wish to make it absolutely clear that a work permit does not require a CRB check. I am not quite sure whether that is what the hon. Gentleman was asking, but it is worth reading it into the record that a work permit itself does not require a check.
The Thames Valley police force has a backlog, but it is one of six forces where the CRB has made a special arrangement to allow staff to access police records directly so that most cases can go through quickly. It is going well with the six forces. In addition, 20 CRB staff are embedded with the Metropolitan police due to the difference in IT systems.
We hope to see more of that, because it means that most checks will be done quickly by trained and dedicated staff. In some small forces, there are very few people to do them. All it takes is for one person to be sick, and the force's ability to deal with the backlog can be affected. I have the latest performance figures of the Thames Valley police; if I do not have time to read them into the record, I can provide them to the hon. Gentleman.
I want to correct a slight misapprehension about fees. Perhaps it is not a misapprehension; perhaps it is based on fact. The fees for a disclosure are £36 for an enhanced disclosure and £26 for a standard disclosure. They are, of course, free for all volunteers, who account for about 22 per cent. of the total, or one in five. Any additional fees may be charged by the bodies that collect the forms and submit them to the CRB on behalf of the applicants. Some local authorities and others provide that service for a fee; others do it for free. It is up to the individual to shop around, should they want to do so.
There is quite a lot of public support for the CRB. Nine in 10 people agree that those who do paid or voluntary work with children should be checked and would be willing to be checked themselves, and nearly three out of four members of the general public think that the CRB is making a difference. I contend that the fact that 98,000 people have been prevented from working with children and vulnerable adults is an argument for the success of the scheme and a challenge to some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman at the end of his speech.
Mr. Vaizey: That seems to get to the nub of the argument. In theory, one of those 98,000 is my constituent. As I said, in normal circumstances, he would not have a stain on his record, because the allegations against him when he was working in a highly complex environment with vulnerable children were investigated and dismissed. However, because the enhanced disclosure form includes those allegations, he cannot work with children. That is what the Minister is describing as a success.
Meg Hillier: That is one case. I will talk a bit more about the total number. Some 6.7 per cent. of checks reveal information of interest to the employer, but only 0.5 per cent., or 21,000 cases-I acknowledge that that is a significant number-contain information from a police force. The accuracy level is very high, at more than 99.96 per cent. The factual information in records provided by the police and attached to the right individual is accurate. In a moment I will discuss in detail the number of people who lose their jobs as a result. It is very small. To touch on the individual case, although I will not discuss it in detail, there is a dispute process. I am happy to talk privately with the hon. Gentleman about what might be happening in that individual case.
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