CRB backlog causes a recruitment crisis

The rush to vet new teachers and charity workers has put the troubled
Criminal Records Bureau under pressure and created further problems for charity
and public sector employees. Mike Broad reports

With teachers having returned to the classroom for the new school year, the
crisis over the delays in checking their criminal records has receded from the
headlines.

The Government’s u-turn in September allowed teachers waiting for clearance
to work at the discretion of their head teachers and diverted the media’s gaze
from the Criminal Records Bureau’s (CRB) failure to complete 22,000 checks on
school staff in time for the new term.

But the crisis has not ended. Many employers in the public and voluntary
sectors are suffering severe recruitment difficulties because of the delays in
processing disclosures. The latest figures show a backlog of 198,000
unprocessed checks, of which half are over three weeks old.

Before employers can appoint staff to work unsupervised with children or
vulnerable adults, they need an enhanced CRB check, but the long delays mean
that few employers can afford to wait for clearance.

Many employers are concerned that the resulting recruitment difficulties are
starting to damage the provision of services.

President of the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management Tracy
Myhill, said some members were reporting delays of between 12 weeks and six
months for the CRB to complete checks on new staff.

"This has led to delays in appointments at a time when we cannot afford
them," she says.

NHS hospitals in London, for example, are losing nursing staff at a rate of
up to 38 per cent a year, according to new research by the King’s Fund think
tank.

The delays are also damaging moves to improve the recruitment of social workers
following the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie.

David Wright, of the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS),
said: "Every local authority has suffered delays, but its effect depends on
their rate of staff turnover in social services. "For those with higher
vacancy rates, it is increasing the pressure on service delivery, and
represents a real risk-management problem."

A recent report by the ADSS, which has members in 150 local authorities,
says there is an urgent need to improve the recruitment and training of social
workers to prevent further tragedies.

Leonard Cheshire, a care services provider for the disabled which employs
7,500 staff, is currently losing a quarter of its new recruits because
processing delays are forcing people to seek alternative jobs.

Clare Smith, HR director of the charity, said: "We have sent 800
applications to the CRB since April and received 200 back. It is causing
serious recruitment problems."

The Government’s guidance to employers in these sectors has been that they
can employ people still awaiting checks, as long as they are continually
supervised. But most of the charities and public sector bodies concerned cannot
afford to pay staff to work in pairs, claims Valerie Smith, independent sector
adviser of the Royal College of Nursing.

"Care homes are already struggling to survive on the rates paid for
publicly funded residents, and are failing to meet their overheads," she
said.

"If you add the supervisory requirement, you need more staff at a time
when they are difficult to find. Homes will close because of these financial
burdens."

In the wake of the Soham tragedy ministerial demands for teachers’
applications first to be processed by the CRB provoked fears of further delays
for health and social care staff.

"The biggest reason for the current delays is that priority is being
given to teachers. I doubt whether anybody else is being processed – we are on
hold," says Leonard Cheshire’s Smith.

It means that most organisations dealing with children and vulnerable adults
are relying on their own risk assessment procedures when appointing staff.

Principal manager of children’s charity Barnardos, Bob Cook, said employers
must strike a balance between keeping services running and ensuring the safety
of beneficiaries.

"We are only recruiting where there is an absolute need for the service
to continue, and when we bring someone in there has to be a reasonable degree
of safety and compliance," he said.

Barnardos is using a range of internal safety measures in addition to the
CRB disclosures, ranging from CV checks to supervision, inspections and
whistle-blowing procedures. But in the short-term, striking this ‘balance’ has
implications for the scope of their service provision.

"If we are running a project for vulnerable teenagers who have been
involved in crime, but cannot appoint appropriate members of staff, then we
cannot provide the service. Without it, those teenagers might go back to doing
what got them into trouble in the first place," said Cook.

The CRB crisis is not only damaging the recruitment of paid staff in the
charity sector – volunteers are also being affected. Furthermore, the umbrella
bodies registered to process the checks for volunteers are charging between £6
and £15 for the privilege, despite Government assurances they would be free.

Director of public policy of the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations Campbell Robb, said: "There is a very real danger of
volunteers being deterred by a poorly-run CRB."

The Home Office claims the appointment of 100 additional staff at the CRB
has improved its performance.

"Ministers have acknowledged initial teething problems owing to
introducing such a large scale and highly complex process," said a Home
Office spokesman. "They have ensured both the CRB and Capita are
addressing these difficulties through a detailed service improvement
plan."

But many believe the problem could become worse on 1 April 2003, when all
existing staff working with children or vulnerable adults are due to be vetted
by the CRB.

Of the 458,000 applications received by the CRB since it opened in April
2002, 260,000 disclosures were issued by the end of August. When all staff have
to be checked, the CRB will receive up to a million applications from the care
sector, warned Leonard Cheshire’s Smith.

With service delivery expectations increasing and skills shortages now
affecting certain areas of the public and voluntary sectors, the CRB crisis
will continue to hinder effective recruitment.

As Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association
of Probation Officers, said: "The old system could take as little as a
couple of hours to check new recruits. It begs the question: why have we set up
this bureaucracy?"

The CRB story

– The Criminal Records Bureau opened
for business in April 2002. It has replaced the police in providing criminal
records checks on people working with children or vulnerable adults

– It offers three types of disclosure: basic, standard and
enhanced. It is the latter, which provides conviction details and police
intelligence on suspected criminal activity, that has been subject to long
delays

– The CRB is run by a private company, Capita, which charges
£12 for each check. Initially, Capita promised to respond to 90 per cent of
enhanced applications within three weeks

– Eventually, the CRB will offer all employers the opportunity
to check potential staff, but the date for this has been postponed. From 1
April 2003, all existing staff working with children or vulnerable adults will
need to be vetted

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