Home Office shifts feet as vetting database looms

Doesn't look good, does it?

With just one month to go before the new vetting database goes live, the public appear finally to be waking up to the threat to civil liberties implied – and they are not happy. Well, Home Office... we did warn you.

It was just over a year ago that we did, in fact. Although the scale of the disaster about to hit the buffers is likely to be far greater than we imagined.

The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of news articles about the imminent arrival of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and their shiny new vetting database. The Indie reports that the scheme is likely to cost the public £170m.

On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, veteran radio inquisitor John Humphrys barbecued civil servant John O’Brien over the rationale behind the database. Was this not, he asked on several occasions, turning every adult into a suspected criminal: is this not the state deciding who is fit to have contact with children?

O’Brien wriggled and squirmed - he explained that it's about making sure "appropriate" safeguards are in place, and went on to repeatedly insist that the decisions would be made by an independent body – despite an eventual grudging admission to John Humphrys that yes, the Independent Safeguarding Authority would be appointed, ultimately, by Ministers.

To understand just how big a problem the government has set in place for its successors, you need to go back to the origins of the Vetting scheme. These lie in the Bichard Report which, post-Soham, was meant to ensure that such things "could never again happen" – and also to difficulties that former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly had when it was discovered that her department had allowed some individuals to work with children despite a previous history of paedophile offences.

One difficulty was that the main mechanism for checking on individuals – the criminal records check - was clunky, took forever, and could require individuals to obtain multiple checks in the course of a year, paying a fee on each and every occasion. The second issue was that information about "suitability" for employment sat in multiple systems, not all of which were brought together in one place.

The standard CRB check provides information on criminal records. The enhanced CRB check (ECRB) pulls together CRB plus information held in various local police systems. This can include unsubstantiated allegations about an individual.

Quite separate from the above, the Department of Education has created List 99, which is a list of individuals deemed unsuitable for working with children: and even scarier is List 98, which appears to be a local government variant of the same.

The idea behind the vetting database was that instead of checking individuals each time they applied for a new job, the state would check everyone who ever applied for a "regulated" role and decide whether they were fit to work in one – or whether they should be barred. Individual status would be updated throughout an individual’s lifetime.

On the surface, this does away with the clunky CRB, replacing it with a state-backed gold standard of "eligibility for work": no matter that this meant that on the Home Office's own figures, some 40 per cent of the workforce would in future owe their job to state patronage. Children would be safer – and that is all that would matter.

At one point, too, the impression crept into debate that this new system would do away with the need for CRB checks. How foolish. What is now clear is that the vetting database will be a massive state-run system - funded by a stealth tax of nearly £1bn - providing a minimum standard of clearance for work. It will take on board some of the information from the CRB check – but not all of it. For individual employers the CRB check, which gives details of an individual’s past criminal history, will continue to be a better guide.

So instead of one system, we will have two: given the public outrage whenever it is discovered that some awfulness could have been avoided "if only a particular piece of information had been shared", it seems inevitable that many organisations will go into back protection mode and require employees to have both CRB and vetting. This is reinforced (pdf) by indications we are already receiving that CRB umbrella groups are encouraging organisations to continue to obtain CRB checks even where vetting will take place.

We will have two systems, not one. The problems with CRB will not have been solved. Whenever someone is missed, the public will still blame the authorities.

What then of the numbers – 11.3 million eventually on the database – that the Home Office continues to quote? El Reg built a model over a year ago, using the same base data and same approach as the Home Office: by varying assumptions about take-up slightly, and in line with advice from Professor Frank Furedi, an expert in this field, we ended up with a far higher figure, between 14 and 16 million.

Despite the fact that recent exchanges in the Commons suggest that government itself is not sure of exact definitions – and the fact that Harriet Harman’s "common sense" view would certainly imply a very different total from that suggested by MP John Battle - the Home Office sees no need to change its view, or even provide a range of outcomes.

On this morning’s Today programme, John Humphrys established that where parents made "informal" arrangements amongst themselves to ferry children to and from school, no vetting would be required. Where a club organised it, failure to be vetted could result in both parent and club being fined £5,000.

The Home Office could not give a definitive answer as to the status of informal arrangements arranged by a club – although these seem inevitable. Oddly enough, the Home Office also continues to reckon that the end total of 11.3 million will not change one jot – irrespective of how the law defines formality, or clubs interpret it.

In the face of such intransigence, expect some shocks when reality eventually catches up with wishful thinking. ®

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