Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The trouble with criminal record checks

It is the issue that simply won't go away.  Whenever volunteering gets mentioned it seems three little letters won't be far away.  They are there in media coverage and an ever present source of questions whenever I run workshops, training sessions and sit on conference panel discussions.

I give you CRB, or criminal record checks.  That's what they get called in England although they have different names in different parts of the UK and indeed other countries around the world.

Early on in my volunteer management career I worked for Barnardo's, one of the oldest and biggest UK charities working with vulnerable children and young people.  At the time only a small number of organisations had access to criminal record checks so the vast majority of volunteer involving organisations - without access to police checks as we called them then - applied a number of screening techniques in order to manage the risk to their clients from involving 'unsuitable' volunteers.

Within the context of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975) these included:

Application forms - they paid close attention to the information prospective volunteer supplied, looking for inconsistencies, gaps in employment records etc..

References - considerable care was taken to secure at least two good quality references.  Usually this involved one professional reference and one personal reference, the evidence from programmes like Big Brothers and Sisters in the USA suggesting that personal referees were much more likely to reveal details of someone's past that might prevent them from volunteering then previous litigation-fearful employers.

Canadian screening expert Linda Graff often argues that references are a hugely under-used tool in screening and her book "Beyond Police Checks" is still an essential read in the field of volunteer screening and is highly recommended.

Interviews - ideally done by two people, interviews (whether you call them that or not) we an essential  screening tool.

Supervision - ongoing regular supervision to check on the volunteer, what they are doing, what they are struggling with, what support they need etc. and to address issues that arise, whether formally or informally.

Appraisals - whether annually or more frequent, formal check points in addition to ongoing supervision were important to review the volunteers' place and role within the organisation and to flag issues if they have arisen since the last meeting.

User and volunteer feedback - looking for the views and opinions of service users and other volunteers, both on the whole programme and on the work of other volunteers.  This was/is formally enshrined by some in whistle-blower policies.

Above all organisations - whether they had access to police checks or not - employed a suite of tools to screen people wanting to volunteer with vulnerable clients.  They didn't do one thing, they followed a screening process, an ongoing process that didn't stop when recruitment finished.  Critically they spent time considering all these tools in the round to look for clues as to somebody not being a suitable volunteer.

In training I often quote an example of the importance of screening being a process and one where the different elements inter-relate and so need checking against each other (names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty).

I was once cross checking the police check application and volunteer application forms of a potential volunteer at Barnardo's.  All looked good at first glance.  Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that on one form the surname was Brown and on the other Browne.  The dates of birth were also out by a day.  We followed up with the person concerned and heard nothing more from them.  Now, they might have been totally innocent and never responded because they'd changed their minds about volunteering.  But, what if?  What if they had been deliberately trying to sneak through the system with misinformation, hoping nobody would spot it?  Without that close attention to detail cross-referencing the two forms we might never have spotted a potential risk to our clients.

So that's how things used to be.

Then, in 1997, the Police Act came into force.  Part five of the act provided the legislative basis for the Criminal Records Bureau to be formed and the introduction of CRB checks to a much wider range of organisations.  The CRB set out guidance and code of practice on checking volunteers that explained who could be checked and at what level.  These documents were seen as important both to ensure that checking was only done where appropriate and necessary and to set it within a proper context of the wider screening systems organisations should employ.

Yet despite this guidance, some organisations still seem to conduct checks on everyone who volunteers, not just those who should be checked because of their access to vulnerable people.  See this excellent blog from Jamie Ward-Smith on i-volunteer that sums up many people's experience with CRB checks.

Many organisations  appear to behave as if a clearance from the CRB is a guarantee that volunteers pose no risk to clients.  Many organisations seemingly fail to properly employ a wide range of screening techniques and seek to cross reference the information prospective volunteers supply in order to spot irregularities and possible causes for concern.

Instead we have a narrative around and a practice focus on volunteer screening that is fixated with CRB checks, almost always to the exclusion of any other screening method.  Don't get me wrong, CRB checks can be an important screening tool and we should have access to them, but their value is only realised if they are used as part of a comprehensive screening process, not if they are the screening process.

Yes there are organisations out there doing great work screening volunteers well and effectively safeguarding vulnerable people.  Sadly however, the overall picture of the last fifteen years appears to be one of more and more reliance on CRB checks.  Consequently I fear we've lost many of the skills and subtle understanding needed to properly safeguard vulnerable people as we've become more reliant on a single check that is out of date as soon as it is conducted.

In short, the trouble with CRB checks is that: we have become worryingly reliant upon them; we gain a false sense of safety by conducting them; and consequently we are less safe because of them.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

Have you got tips or stories to share on effective volunteer screening that goes beyond CRB?

Whilst the context of this post on CRB checks is very much my experiences in England I hope those of you from other countries will see your own parallels with the issues I raise.

Please use the comments facility below to share your own thoughts or experiences of criminal record checking, whether you agree with me or not.


  1. I agree totally with this. I'm aware of at least one instance where a CRB check had been done but as the person had never had a conviction it came up clear. The consequences were serious.

    On the flip side, as I've undertaken a significant amount of voluntary work recently and am also trying to change career path to work across a number of charities, I've lost count of the number of CRB checks I've had done in the past year - I think I'm up to 7 so far and one pending. The time and money that this involves across cash strapped, resource stretched charities doesn't bear thinking about.

    Equally, a volunteer may have a long term association with a charity- their propensity for wrongdoing is not only a risk at the time of recruitment - what about ongoing scrutiny and review? I'm concerned that this is often neglected as it's harder to to seek an objective measure such as CRB and methods need more creative thought.

  2. CRB checks should most surely only be used as one of the screening tools.Screening only gives limited information- good, well checked, references are essential - as are comprehensive application forms and interviews - we at people and places use all four checks and screens -
    and a word of caution - a youth charity exec once quoted horrifying figures to me about the average number of offences admitted by abusers of vulnerable adults and children before they were caught ( and ofcourse this applies only to those that are caught!) and it was over 16 separate offences - if this is true or even half true it's a bit of a blunt tool no?

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