Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/11/02/illegal_agents/

All CRB agents broke the law

None face prosecution

By Mark Ballard

Posted in Media, 2nd November 2006 07:02 GMT

Nearly all the Criminal Records Bureau's agents have illegally discriminated against people with past criminal convictions that are innocuous or irrelevant under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

The CRB has assessed nearly 2,500 of its agents, which vet applicants for jobs working with children and vulnerable adults, to determine if the police checks they are doing for their clients are within the law, it told The Register in a statement.

"They are all invariably non-compliant because of lack of experience or understanding," it said. A CRB spokesman said it was reasonable to make assumptions about the other registered bodies (agents) from those assessments it had made.

"The main issues raised in Assurance interviews relate to an RB's understanding of eligibility and ID authentication," it said.

Eligibility is the way the CRB describes those jobs for which it legal for employers to check applicants against police databases through one of the bureau's registered bodies, or agents. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, contains exemptions that allow certain job applicants to be checked against police databases to prevent, say, former sex offenders taking jobs with responsibility for children.

But the main purpose of the act is to protect those vulnerable adults with criminal records from being persecuted because of their spent convictions.

In February the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) reported that it had received 15,000 complaints from people who had suffered discrimination when making job applications because of irrelevant criminal records.

In April the CRB gained new powers to prosecute agents who illegally consulted the police database for inapplicable jobs, or took into account convictions that were meant to be disregarded.

Yet the bureau said today that it had fingered no agent for prosecution or deregistration since they were found to have breached its code of practice.

Those 2438 agents it had assessed had merely been told to pull their socks up. "Invariably all [were]...willing to adopt measures to become compliant," it said. Neither had they been given official warnings. The CRB would wait to see if they changed their ways.

"It's not good enough," said Mervyn Barrett, who runs the helpline service for ex-offenders at Nacro. "This is an issue of law. Ignorance of the law has never been a defence. The reality is that when [the agents] all signed up to do the checks, they sombrely agreed that they would abide by the law and the code of practice." he said.

Barrett blames this illegal discrimination on commercial pressures imposed on the checking system since the CRB farmed out the handling of queries to its agents.

Nacro has become an umbrella body, a sort of uber-agent, so it could do the checks that its helpline callers were complaining about. Barrett said it is difficult to persuade some employers to follow the rules when they wanted a criminal check done on a job applicant.

"Employers say, 'never mind the paperwork, just do it'. We insist on proper arrangements. They say, 'just do the checks, we'll pay you'. We say, 'that's not good enough', so they go elsewhere to unscrupulous umbrella bodies," said Barrett.

"That happens time and time again because employers can't be bothered. But it costs us business."

Employers have a legal obligation to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to ensure they make only legal requests for criminal records, said a CRB spokesman. Agents are also responsible for checking the request forms they received from employers. The CRB is not responsible for the checks it makes on the police national computer on behalf of agents, although it would reject any it discovered were illegal, said the spokesman.

Civil servants at the CRB are authorised to make standard checks on criminal records held on the police national computer. Jobs that are granted enhanced disclosures under the Act require checks on local police records, so the requests are passed on to police. It is not known what responsibility the police have to ensure the checks are legal. But most of the requests made under the exemptions of the Act have been for enhanced requests, which suggests a further abuse of the system. Enhanced checks contain unqualified police intelligence.

The CRB is preparing to sack all but a third of its agents in an administrative cull. All those filing fewer than 100 requests a year are facing the chop. 3,000 have already been deregistered. Yet none of these were sacked for breaking the law.

The CRB previously stated that was culling the agents to get rid of those least experienced in making requests and therefore most likely to make mistakes. Yet a spokesman for the agency admitted today that it had not been coping with the volume of requests well enough to fulfil its duty to check if they were legal.

"That's the reason why we are reducing the numbers of RBs (agents) - so we can better monitor that people are using the disclosure service properly," he said.

Those agents who had been unofficially reprimanded after visits from the CRB would be given three months before they were visited again to see if they had bucked their ideas up, said the statement.

The CRB has said in the past that 22 per cent of its agents made 89 per cent of queries. It has not said what proportion of agents were responsible for most of the illegal applications. Nor has it named them.

Another CRB spokesman said: "Where we have found out that a registered body hasn't done its checks properly we explain what was done wrong. If they continue, we'll deregister them. But that hasn't come up."

"It's not a case of letting people off, its explaining what the law is. If people where repeatedly doing this it could have been an issue, but it just hasn't happened," he said.

The CRB said its agents were also commonly making inadequate ID checks on people applying for jobs requiring a police check. The idea is that a sex offender might forge someone else's identity so they can get a false pass on the police check to work with children. This has been forwarded by the Home Office as a reason why ID Cards should be introduced.

However, Barrett said he had never heard of any problems stemming from the identities of applicants being falsified, either from his dealings as an agent or in meetings official meetings. ®