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Criminal record checks: More often wrong than right

Just how well do they protect children?

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Sleight of hand by the Home Office doesn’t quite cover up the fact that last year the number of people wrongly branded as criminals was actually more than the number of people identified as having committed a sex crime.

That is the picture that emerges if you take the time to wade through the morass of ever-so-slightly skewed figures put out by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). The story begins with the Telegraph, which noted this weekend that 680 individuals were wrongly branded as criminals. This figure appears to be derived from a combination of sources. A recent Press Release proudly proclaims that the CRB carried out some 3.3 million checks in 2007. Meanwhile, the CRB 2008/9 business plan (pdf) states that in 2007/8 the service achieved an accuracy level of “over 99.98 per cent”.

Or, in other words, about 0.02 per cent of disclosures are inaccurate – which gives a figure of 660 over a full year.

This basic maths is necessary because – unless we have missed the point entirely – the precise figures need to be tracked down. Neither the annual report (pdf) nor the business plan deliver figures for each category. If readers can prove us wrong, we are more than willing to print a correction.

Next is the question of how many sex offenders are caught by the checks. The same release that gives us the figure of 3.3 million checks also proclaims that: “190,000 [checks] revealed information about the applicant.”

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This led to “around 20,000 unsuitable people being stopped from gaining access to children or vulnerable adults. Convictions for theft and violence accounted for 56 per cent of those convictions, [but] only 4 per cent related to offences of a sexual nature.” This is where the spin sets in. A naive reading of that paragraph might lead you to imagine that the CRB had flagged up 800 previous convictions of a sexual nature.

Not so. Because as the Home Office explained to The Register, only 74 per cent of those prevented from gaining access – or 14,800 individuals – were stopped as a result of previous convictions. The remainder were stopped on the basis of “other information” (including local police force info and a List 99 check).

Go back to the Home Office again, and it explains that the CRB now has access to over 55 million pieces of non-conviction information via its PLX database. This is held by police forces of England, Wales and Scotland, British Transport Police, the Police Service Northern Ireland and Service Police Crime Bureau (SPCB).

In the absence of any further illumination, we must conclude that the bulk of child protection is based not on hard conviction data – but rather, can be tracked back to “other information”. This is presumably the sort of information that saw former Deputy Principal, John Pinnington removed from his job on the basis of an unfounded and unsubstantiated allegation that the police believe they are duty-bound to pass on. An upcoming judicial review should clarify that particular situation.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Pinnington case is not being contested on the basis that the information is inaccurate - everyone agrees that an allegation was made – but that the substance of the allegation was so lightweight as to be very poor grounds for non-employment.

So this entire edifice, turning over just over £100m in a full year, has flagged up 592 individuals with previous sexual convictions. Plus 660 inaccurate identifications. Plus an unquantified number of individuals who have lost jobs on the basis of misguided suspicion. Is it safeguarding children? Again, it is hard to say, since all of the figures quoted above are for the work of the whole CRB – which covers children AND vulnerable adults. A great deal of the PR highlights child protection, but without disaggregated figures, it is difficult to tell where the CRB is having most effect.

Scots Note: Let it never be said that The Register ignores those north of the border. If you live in Scotland, your background will be checked by Disclosure Scotland. In 2007/08, the service carried out 782,708 checks, with a dispute rate of 0.036 per cent.

Disclosure Scotland utilises much of the same data as the CRB in England and Wales. However, it is a separate body and only focuses on Scotland. The cost of a CRB check south of the border is £31 for a standard check and £36 for an enhanced check, whereas in Scotland it is a £20 flat rate for either. Unfortunately, it is only possible to obtain a check from Disclosure Scotland if you work in Scotland.

It would appear that, proportionally, the Scots check more of their population. The percentage checked in England and Wales in 2007 was c. 6.6 per cent; in Scotland, the figure was closer to 7.8 per cent. ®

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