Malicious gossip could cost you your job

Landmark ruling brings 'informant society' one step closer

A recent landmark ruling by the High Court takes the UK one step closer to becoming an “informant society” along the lines of the former East Germany or Soviet Union.

El Reg previously reported on the case of deputy head, John Pinnington, who was fired from his job when an enhanced criminal record background (CRB) check turned up allegations of abuse made against him. He took his case to judicial review, arguing that the allegations were seriously flawed, were unsubstantiated, and that the police should only include them in a CRB check where there were some grounds to believe they might be true.

This view was rejected, as Lord Justice Richards ruled that there was nothing unlawful about the actions of the Police force in passing on allegations. And future employers "should be aware" of the accusations, however weak and unreliable they are.

In relation to employment with children or vulnerable adults, it is information of which an employer should be aware. It is then for the employer to decide whether the employment of the person concerned involves an unacceptable risk.

Let’s be completely clear: Vulture Central has no way of knowing whether these allegations were true, false, or the deluded imaginings of politically-correct Martians.

What we do know is that police investigated and took no further action, and that at least one set of allegations was based on the controversial "facilitated communication" method of eliciting statements from children too damaged, otherwise, to speak on their own behalf. On any objective scale of evidence, they belong in the category labelled “weak”.

Although the legal reasoning is immaculate, it misses the point when it comes to how the real world operates, which is that when faced with a candidate about whom allegations have been made, employers will almost universally opt for the safe option – and not employ that individual.

For further analysis, we spoke with Chris Saltrese, the solicitor who has represented Pinnington throughout this case:

The ‘enhanced criminal record certificate’ is a consummate example or Orwellian doublespeak. Required for all who work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults, it refers not to criminal records as such, but to untested information made available to the police.

As such it may ruin the life and livelihood of a person with no criminal record at all. Flimsy and insubstantial allegations are lent bogus respectability exciting revulsion merely by the fact that they are there to read.

For when it comes to sexual allegations in print, the power of the word is far deadlier than the facts.

When John Pinnington launched his bid to have unreliable allegations removed from his certificate, there was already case law to suggest that the threshold of disclosure was low. The statutory obligation for the police to include information ‘that might be relevant and ought to be included’ had been held to include acquittals and misconduct falling short of a criminal offence.

Mr Pinnington’s case tested the outer limit of inclusion by posing the question of whether allegations that did not attain a threshold of reasonable suspicion ought to be included.

Reasonable suspicion is a low threshold – it is that required for arrest and to trigger care proceedings in family law. It is no where near the standard of criminal prosecution, let alone conviction.

Yet the court held that the threshold should fall below reasonable suspicion. All that was required was that the allegations could not, on the untested material in possession of the police, be dismissed as necessarily untrue.

This is significant (and topical) for two reasons. John Pinnington was OK on a standard CRB check, but he fell foul of the system when he changed jobs and was asked to undergo an “enhanced” CRB check – which includes soft information of the type used here.

However, as we move from the existing system of CRB checking to the new enhanced “vetting database” – as reported in great detail by El Regall checks will be effectively enhanced checks.

Second, still smarting from its defeat at the hands of Max Mosley, the News of the World has been laying in to what it considers the iniquities of the developing law on privacy. In defence of its right to poke into individual private lives, it asks its readers whether they would not wish to know what their children’s teachers get up to at the weekend.

Undoubtedly many parents would, and it is this, plus the result of the Pinington case, that is likely to provide a new focus for future salacious reportage.

Last word to Mick Brookes, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers:

We believe this is a retrograde action that will simply put more teachers and other members of the children’s workforce in danger of malicious and false allegation at risk. We recognize absolutely the need for our schools to be safe places, but this action overturns natural justice as it appears that colleagues working in schools run the risk of being guilty by accusation. This makes professional and dedicated staff vulnerable to the ruination of careers and even lives for no substantiated reason. We would ask the High Court and the police to reconsider their position.

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