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UK gov vets the vetting process

Overzealous checks on workers and volunteers may ease

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After a bit of a false start earlier this month, the official Coalition review of the current vetting and barring system (VBS) – as well as the associated criminal record checks – kicked off last week.

According to a release from the Home Office on Friday, the review will consider the fundamental principles and objectives behind the vetting and barring regime. This will include evaluating the scope of the scheme’s coverage; identifying the most appropriate function, role and structures of any relevant safeguarding bodies and appropriate governance arrangements; and recommending what, if any, scheme is needed now.

The false start was highlighted by El Reg earlier this month, when a clearly enthusiastic Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, announced the forthcoming review to her constituents - only to have cold water poured on by an official Home Office spokesman suggesting that she must be using the "wrong tense" and had spoken prematurely.

This review is likely to be of paramount importance to those concerned at the increasing encroachment on our civil liberties that took place under the previous government, not just through the creation of formal programmes such as the VBS, but also through the development of the law.

Two key cases in this respect were the Pinnington appeal and a case brought to the Court of Appeal by the chief constables of five police forces – Humberside, Staffordshire, Northumberland, West Midlands and Greater Manchester.

The Pinnington appeal established that police were obliged to pass on information about a third party – even where they had grounds to believe the information might not be true. In the second case, it was established that police were entitled to hold on to data on minor and "spent" criminal convictions for as long as they wished - or at least 100 years.

One key difference between the Coalition approach and that of their predecessors, New Labour, is that the review will also take into account "how to raise awareness and understanding of risk and responsibility for safeguarding in society more generally". On the surface, this looks very much as though the government wishes to start pushing some responsibilities back toward parents and families.

Announcing the review, Featherstone said: "While it is vital that we protect the vulnerable, this scheme as it stands is not a proportionate response.

"There should be a presumption that people wishing to work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults are safe to do so unless it can be shown otherwise."

The review will also take on board the criminal records regime, which Featherstone describes as having developed "piecemeal" and "due for an overhaul to ensure that we strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting the public."

At one time, it was suggested that the VBS might eventually supplant the regular CRB checks required in many professions and occupations: in fact, the evolution of the scheme meant that both would be in place, with some individuals needing to satisfy both before obtaining employment.

The review of the criminal records regime is to be led by independent government adviser on criminality information, Sunita Mason. Mason will carry out the review in two phases. The first will be a report on those elements that impact on the VBS, and will look at specific issues such as whether police intelligence should form part of the background check. A full review is to be provided to the home secretary early in the new year. This will look at a number of more fundamental issues, including how the content of a criminal record should be defined, where criminal records should be kept, who should manage them, who should have access and the rights of individuals to access, challenge and correct their own criminal records.

In order to achieve the maximum coverage possible, more than 66,000 employers, charities and voluntary groups were informed informed of the terms of reference around the re-modelling of the scheme on Friday. ®

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