A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Criminally Rampant Bureaucracy – CRB checks

In Law And Order on September 6, 2010 at 10:08 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

Anyone who has worked around children, or adults with learning disabilities, or other vulnerable groups, will know of the Criminal Records Bureau check. Such a check needs to be performed in order to protect these groups in society whose age or conditions make them particularly vulnerable to being abused. They are obviously good things; anyone who wants to work around these vulnerable groups should reasonably expect to have their past scrutinised, and, if there are skeletons in the cupboard, to have their motives respectfully challenged. Probably many sad stories of abuse have never happened because of CRB checks. However, that doesn’t mean that they are perfect, and that they couldn’t do with some improvement.

As the system currently stands, a person needs to be CRB-checked for each job with a vulnerable group. For most people, this seems reasonable, as they will only work with one vulnerable group (say, children) in one situation (say, at a Scouts group). However, this system swiftly becomes bureaucratic. If I were to work, in my day job, with adults with learning disabilities, while, over the weekend, to help with a youth group, I would need two different CRB checks. More ridiculously, if I were to teach children part-time, teach adults with learning disabilities part-time, and assist in some other youth group outside my work, I would likely need three different CRB checks, each with different levels of disclosure – If, for example, I was doing one-on-one or one-on-few work as I taught, I would likely need ‘enhanced disclosure’, whereas, in running the youth group, I may only need normal disclosure. CRB checks cost £76 a pop, according to the Home Office website.

Infuriatingly, the CRB checks are only tied to one job – if I were to teach at School A, then move to School B in a different area, I well need to acquire another CRB, even if it was the same role requiring the same level of disclosure. To be fair, this exists to stop a person rolling up to a school and getting it to pay for their CRB, then toddling off to a different one, leaving the first school feeling a little cheated. But it is ridiculous.

Of course, some organisations use practical work-arounds. Most church youth groups, for instance, will allow a teacher to work for them without an additional CRB – after all, they have already been checked. Many groups also ensure that their non-CRB’d volunteers are coupled with CRB’d-volunteers or staff, which is thought to be sufficient to prevent any instances of abuse. But the need to possess several CRBs, often with different renewal dates, is potentially a headache for the good-hearted people who wish to help the most vulnerable groups in society.

An easy way to do this would be to allow CRBs to be transferable, like the driving license. It covers me not just for the car I drive, but for any car I might drive. CRBs could cover any such job like the one the person is already doing (say, teaching adults with learning disabilities). And, like the driving license, people could acquire additional clearances to work with other groups – it would be a better system if the volunteer, having already been cleared to work with vulnerable adults, could also be cleared to work with children on the same CRB. Furthermore, some would argue that renewing the CRB every 5 years is too frequent; it is extremely difficult to disguise a crime of abuse once it has gone through the courts, even without a CRB. But, this is only unnecessary if CRBs cannot be transferred between jobs. If CRBs can stretch a long geographical way, it becomes much easier for a paedophile to bury his antics in Cumbria if he is employed in Kent.

Perhaps of greater importance is whether the CRBs are actually a helpful tool in determining who it is appropriate to have around vulnerable groups or not. Under the terms of ‘enhanced disclosure’ every crime, from rape to shoplifting, is highlighted. This could mean that someone who was caught shoplifting during a drunken studenthood could find themselves very unemployable in certain careers. Even under normal disclosure, violent crimes, which might have been a product of growing up on an estate, are flagged. However, the purpose of CRB is not to condemn those who have been condemned, but to draw to the attention of those who take responsibility for care of vulnerable groups that a certain person may be unsuitable.

The most common example, under normal disclosure, is that of substance abuse. A conviction may be handed down around the age of 17 for use of a drug such as cannabis, which has little impact on the person’s suitability to do something around vulnerable groups 40 years later; the CRB discloses all criminal history of a certain severity. This has led to reformed criminals finding it very difficult to find a job in certain sectors, creating unemployment which contributes to an increased chance of re-offending. While it is clear that a serious offence such as rape must show up when considering who is suitable to work with these groups, it is not so clear that a 30 year old drug conviction must.

Ultimately however, despite the rush in which the CRB checks were implemented, it does leave the choice of whether to employ or accept the help of such a person down to individual employers. This to me seems to be the system’s greatest strength, as it only informs and doesn’t dictate. If it becomes clear that a former criminal has indeed reformed, then the employer can chose to employ, but the according risk of this decision lies with him. It is not yet legally clear whether waiving the results of a CRB, and then something horrible happening, leaves an employer or organisation liable. I suspect the decision becomes a lot easier if the person seeking to work among the vulnerable is honest about their criminal history – then, when the CRB confirms it, the employer or organiser would be much more inclined to trust that individual (though here, I speak out of ignorance; I am neither a former felon nor an employer).

The problem of CRBs does raise a few broader questions about whether ‘vetting’ in such a manner violates a person’s assumption of innocence until guilt is proven (very few organisations will employ until a CRB check is done), and how we view past crimes, and whether we believe criminality can be reformed, and if so, how radically. But I am not going to blog on these issues here. If you wish to contribute on this or on a related topic, please leave a comment in the box below. I shall be interested to hear of your views and experiences.

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  1. Fascinating as always polarii, your blog posts are one of the few I read with considerable enjoyment and pleasure.

    I myself have had a CRB check recently, because I’m working at my college during the enrolment process. It seemed strange that I would need to get a CRB check considering I had been at the college for the past two years – apparently some fresh dirt might have been dug up on me, or that if I do happen to have some dirty criminal record it’s fine if I’m put in a classroom full of 16/17 year olds, but not if I’m put in an office answering telephone calls (which I’m doing).

    However, about your piece on CRBs, I’m not sure your facts are entirely correct – particularly which regards to how CRBs are tied to one job only. I did hear that within the NHS one has to apply for a CRB every time they transfer to another hospital, but when I applied for my CRB, I was told I could use that same check for any other job I applied for. Taking a quick check on the CRB website, there is a mention on the “portability” of CRBs, http://www.crb.homeoffice.gov.uk/guidance/rb_guidance/portability.aspx, which leaves it open to employers. You do mention this later on (using the example of church youth groups), but I think currently there’s nothing stopping CRBs being transferable as you say they should be.

    Also, you mention that enhanced CRB checks which look into an entire applicants criminal history lead to them finding it difficult to get work in certain sectors, and imply that old drug offences shouldn’t show up on a CRB. I’m not sure if its true that people have been turned down to work with vulnerable groups on the basis of minor criminal charges, and if someone is applying to work in one of these jobs, the chances are they have qualifications and positive qualities that far outweigh minor drug charges or others. Furthermore, I would say it is an employer’s right to know what criminal offences an applicant has, although I would add that this should be coupled with an understanding, which the government would lead on, that certain minor offences should not make someone unemployable (i.e. there needs to be a social change in attitude, not a change in how we operate our CRB checks). Also, I find personal referencing is always going to be the largest factor when applying for a job (that’s what helped me get most of mine I hear), although admittedly I don’t have a minor criminal record, so I can’t say if a good reference outweighs minor criminal charges (I would imagine they do though).

  2. Great to hear you enjoy them so Stephen. You raise valid points, though I had not previously heard that they could be transferred in the way you describe. If they can, that’s a good thing, though I understand most groups, charities and businesses require a renewal when a new post is taken up. Certainly expired drug offences become an issue in travel – I know several addicts who can’t enter the US for one charge of possession of cannabis 30 years old, and I suspect the same would be true, particularly around teenagers. Things like shoplifting, minor drug offences are thought to hide a broadly irresponsible and criminal attitude, especially seeing as it is quite difficult to obtain a conviction fo some of these minor offences. It is easy to see how one might suspect use of heroin or ecstasy from a cannabis conviction. This is why it makes employers reluctant. The whole issue of substance abuse, decriminalisation and how we treat convicted users is a big debate, and one that I don’t have the scientific background to meaningfully contribute to. And it’s very difficult to have a good reference when you’re applying for your first job, say if the conviction came at university.

  3. “The whole issue of substance abuse, decriminalisation and how we treat convicted users is a big debate, and one that I don’t have the scientific background to meaningfully contribute to.”

    I don’t think one necessarily neds a scientific background. Indeed, knowing the ins and outs of the damage drugs cause to the body might easily blind someone to some of the more important social considerations (IE; what would the effect of banning this substance have on supply?)

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