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Home Office: El Reg may be right on vetting figures

ISA Chair admits published estimates are wrong

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A senior Home Office official has admitted that figures presented for the last 18 months regarding the number of adults likely to end up needing to be vetted may be a serious underestimate. He also suggested that El Reg figures may be right, despite frequent previous denials.

Sir Roger Singleton, Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), admitted today that the scope of the vetting database could well increase significantly as social pressure forced individuals to be vetted, even where a strict interpretation of the law said they did not.

He said: "There may be some categories who don't have to register, but who might decide there is a commercial advantage in registering.

"For example, the person who gives private piano lessons or the person who puts a postcard in the local post office saying, 'I'm able to provide domiciliary care for dependent people.' They may decide that to be able to put on the bottom of the postcard 'ISA-registered' is something that gives comfort and it may be that the uptake is likely to be increased.

"The electrical contractor who wants school business may decide that although he is not required to have all his electricians registered with the ISA, there is a tendering advantage to doing so."

Compare and contrast this with what we wrote back in July 2008, in relation to the precursor of the Vetting database: CRB checks. According to El Reg:

Plumbers and handymen of all species now regularly boast of their CRB check status. First, because once one plumber gets CRB-checked, everyone else feels they need to do so. Second, and more seriously, many small tradesmen will be employed as contractors by larger firms seeking local government contracts which might involve working in schools or care homes. These organisations do not want to lose a tender because they cannot satisfy Council requirements for CRB-checking, so, again, in order to work with such an organisation, you will need to be CRB-checked.

At the time, we were sceptical over Home Office estimates of the numbers likely to end up being vetted. We built our own model, using work place data – and were encouraged when a spokesman for the Home Office confirmed that our approach was broadly in line with that taken by the consultants who provided a headline figure of 11.3 million individuals likely to require vetting.

However, rather than restrict our counting to those legally required to be vetted, we added in assumptions based on the above. We assumed that there would be social pressure to be vetted: and we came up with a figure of between 14 million and 16 million people.

This matters at two levels. First, there is the political argument. When this law was debated, government retreated from including certain categories of worker because the 11.3 million number was already provoking some controversy.

Second, there is the simple operational question. The infrastructure and support systems required (not to mention staffing and budget) for a database designed for 11 million people are very different from a database that might eventually include 16 million. Failure to take that into account is likely to lead either to serious inefficiencies in the running of the scheme – or eventually a need to spend a lot more on it.

Those familiar with the saga of the Child Support Agency will be aware that it was a similar mismatch between reality and what it was politically acceptable to recognise as reality that led to many of the issues with that agency.

We have offered to share our model with the Home Office. They have declined, preferring to repeat ad nauseam that the 11.3 million figure stands. Asked to explain Sir Roger’s comments, the Home Office direct us to the ISA, who explain that it is not their job to estimate figures.

In that case, why was Sir Roger talking about figures? Perhaps, a spokesman for the ISA ventured, it was in his capacity as the Government’s Chief Adviser on Safeguarding Children. So there the matter stands. The ISA are responsible for "operational matters" – but have no view on the figures likely to pass through the doors of their database.

The Home Office has a model, but declines to budge one jot from the legally required figure. Sir Roger Singleton, wearing one hat, is allowed to have opinions on figures – but it is not clear whether he is allowed to listen to those opinions whilst acting as ISA Chair.

El Reg still has its model which, we are pleased to announce, may soon be viewed by Opposition politicians. Today, finally, a member of the ISA has said they would be very interested in seeing how we worked out our figures. ®

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