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Police spend more time mass vetting the public than monitoring known sex offenders and suspects

  • Coalition has failed to scale back criminal records checks as promised, report reveals
  • Costs have continued to rise, to £212m a year, as bureaucracy continues to grow
  • Almost 4m checks last year, including more than 800,000 volunteers, FOI figures show

The coalition has failed to deliver on its 2010 promise to scale back the vetting and barring regime. Costs have continued to rise and the bureaucracy has become even more complicated. There has been barely any fall in the number of criminal records checks conducted, and nothing like the halving in numbers that coalition ministers predicted.

These are the findings of a new Civitas report published today which reveals that 3.9 million people were subjected to criminal records checks last year (2013/14), including 843 thousand volunteers.

The report also warns that police are spending more time vetting the general public than they are investigating child abuse allegations or monitoring known offenders. Historic scandals which have recently been exposed, such as the Jimmy Savile affair, would not have been identified or prevented by criminal records checks.

Police resources

In an interview for the report, former Cambridgeshire chief constable Julie Spence says her force spent “far more on the team doing the CRB checks, because they were specifically funded by government, than we were actually putting into child protection. In most forces, more money goes into checks than into investigation”.

The monitoring of sex offenders was generally the responsibility of a “small team” of officers who “don’t have an enormous budget”. “The most risky individuals could get visits weekly or a couple of times a month, and the least risky would be far less, perhaps once every few months,” she says.

The report’s author, Josie Appleton, argues that time and money would be more effective if focused on known offenders and suspects rather than on the general public.

“They (the police) spend more time and money monitoring a very large low-risk group – the general population – than the much smaller high-risk group of known or suspected offenders,” Appleton writes.

“It is notable that many of the shocking cases of child abuse in recent years – from Jimmy Savile to the Catholic church – involved individuals without criminal records: the failure was a failure to report and to investigate allegations, rather than a lack of checking.”

The coalition’s record

In 2010, home secretary Theresa May promised to scale back criminal records checks to common sense levels. It was intended that checks would be halved to 1.7m. But data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that in 2013/14 there were still 3,948,793, including 843,498 on volunteers. This represents a small fall but is still higher than in 2008/9.

In some ways the vetting system has become even more complicated, expansive and expensive since 2010.

  • There are now 23 different types of checks, depending on the type of position involved.
  • The cost has continued to rise, reaching £211.6m in 2013/14.
  • The vetting system has continued to grow, with 730 people employed by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), hundreds of employees of police forces, workers from 3,688 bodies who submit checks, and 300 employees from Tata Consultancy Services.

A new system of instant online checks will mean vetting has the potential to reach further into everyday life, and become even more routine than at present, by making it easier for employers to view criminal records.

“This potentially further expands the role of the criminal records check, making it more like an identity card which one is expected to hold and show upon request, rather than a secure document which must be requested each time, subject to specified limitations,” Appleton warns.

Undue faith creates risks

The cost of vetting – totalling £2 billion since 2002 – is not supported by evidence of its efficacy. There has never been any significant research showing the effectiveness of mass vetting in child protection terms.

The only major government research, in the early 1990s, concluded that mass vetting was of limited use and had potentially negative effects; this research recommended the limitation of vetting to a small number of posts, Appleton says.

Yet the regime is “fast becoming an index of trustworthiness”, commanding undue faith in official checks while breeding mistrust and undermining relationships between adults and children.

“The Disclosure and Barring Service now plays the role of judging authority, but without the rigor or protections of a legal process. This raises the risk of people being unfairly barred; it also raises the risk that serious incidents are not picked up, because an apparently minor incident was not properly investigated,” she writes.

“In establishing guilt or innocence, there is no replacement for proper police investigation and court trial, where evidence can be pursued and tested.”

Overhauling the regime

Appleton calls for a review of the vetting and barring system, including a consideration of its costs and benefits.

“Given that the coalition’s reforms have not resolved the problems with the vetting system, there is a need to go back to the drawing board, and to ask if criminal records checks are the best manner in which to be spending £200 million a year.”

Any reform of the system will have to address why the coalition’s efforts have failed. Appleton says it is because the coalition failed to fundamentally reform the system. State agencies like local authorities and regulators have been able to continue to encourage vetting, demanding checks beyond the government’s guidance.

Meanwhile, the Disclosure and Barring Service has an interest in maintaining levels of checks as it relies on them for income.

“Over four years after the reforms of the vetting and barring system, it is clear that they have failed to achieve their primary objectives. Vetting has not been ‘scaled back’ and people have not started to ‘trust one another again’,” Appleton writes.

“A key reason for this failure was that the reforms left intact the essential basis of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, retaining the obligatory vetting of ‘relationships of trust’ between children and adults.

“Four years ago, some of those companies making money from criminal records checks may have worried for their margins, but now they can rest assured. As Tata Consultancy Services begins to overhaul the vetting and barring computer system, the next phase of the scheme begins, creating the potential for criminal records checks to be further extended into people’s everyday lives.

Checking Up: How the Coalition’s plans to cut back on criminal records checks have been defeated

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