Vetting staff: keeping them safe

A new agency, charged with ensuring that tragedies such as the murders of school girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham six years ago are never repeated, has received a positive but wary response from HR leaders a year before it begins operating.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) was the main recommendation of the Bichard Inquiry, which was set up following revelations that the girls’ murderer, school caretaker Ian Huntley, had also been accused of sexually assaulting underage girls. The inquiry was commissioned to look at exactly how employers recruit people to work with children and vulnerable adults and how this process could be made safer and more reliable.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which became law in 2006, recognised the need for a single agency to vet all individuals, including volunteers, who want to work with children or vulnerable people. The ISA will begin operating in October 2009.

So what exactly is the ISA? How will it operate and what challenges will it bring for HR managers? Essentially the new arrangements require people wanting to work with children and vulnerable adults to be registered. These will be workers who work in regulated activities. There will be a single list of people barred from working with children and a separate, but aligned, one for those barred from working with vulnerable adults.

The ISA will run an independent barring board that will take all barring decisions on individuals and update these when relevant new information becomes available. Employers will be able to do an online check of an individual’s status in the scheme. There will be criminal sanctions for employers who recruit people who are not registered (see box).

Solicitor Sarah Erwin-Jones of Browne Jacobson says recruitment will now be stronger with the ending of “the three separate, inconsistent and overlapping barring lists, namely List 99, POVA and POCA“. POCA and POVA lists those considered a threat to children and vulnerable adults, while List 99 notes those who are barred from working with children.

However, despite the structure of the ISA being known by employers, Erwin- Jones believes the wait for guidance to support the new legislation means they are still “feeling their way”.

She adds: “Consultation closed in February. There is still a lack of operational detail. What employers need to do now is to look at the definitions in the act and all the roles in their business and see which ones fall into regulated activities.”

She stresses that the scheme is not a guarantee for safe recruitment. “Employers will still need to make decisions based on Criminal Records Bureau checks, soft information, references and interviews. This does not obviate sound recruitment procedures. The ISA does not remove that onus,” she says.

NSPCC HR director Liz Booth agrees that this is a vital point. “We have high standards of safeguarding practice in place. There is no substitute for great, although rather tedious, checking procedures to ensure that people are who they say they are and have suitable references. CRB checking is the icing on the cake and not the cake and the new ISA registration is the same.”

She is stressing to her HR team the importance of maintaining these practices. “I don’t want any change there. We will still concentrate on those elements that are important.”

The NSPCC already carries out CRB checks and re-checks its employees where it is lawful. Booth believes the continuous monitoring of registered individuals by the ISA will make this process easier.

However the cost of the ISA registration will be an issue. Booth will encourage her employees engaged in regulated activities to be registered. “We want to be ahead of the game, but there is a question of who pays for the registration. We are talking about 2,200 employees and the charge of £64 each is not a small amount of money.”

Booth is preparing for next October by talking to the NSPCC’s staff representative bodies so they understand and engage with the process of getting employees registered. “We will provide support and help there,” she says.

Booth is hopeful that ISA’s introduction is being delayed because they have thought through how to do it. “We endorse this as a piece of legislation but I’m concerned that the ISA needs a lot of credibility. If it makes mistakes early on and it is not clear about why it has barred people and what the criteria are its credibility will be damaged.”

She is keenly anticipating the arrival of sector-specific guidance. “We want to press for that so we can talk to our staff and ensure everyone knows what is going on and we can discuss the issues.”

Helen Giles, HR director at homelessness charity Broadway London, is also eager for more information from the government. “We are not sure of the full consequences of the act yet,” she explains. “However, the cost of registration will be an issue.”

Despite this, Giles supports the ISA. “Employment screening in the social care sector is lamentable. The mad, bad and dangerous to know get about our sector. If we don’t cover up the cracks devious people can slide in. We work hard to fill these gaps. We see forged references but we can spot them. Hopefully the work of the ISA will make recruitment easier.”

A spokesman for the HR team at Islington Council says the introduction of the ISA will strengthen the work it does in ensuring that unsuitable people are not recruited for working with vulnerable groups. “These regulations have the potential of affecting a wider group of employees. It could include cleaners, drivers and those with access to sensitive databases. Each job will need to be reviewed and the amount of engagement with vulnerable groups considered. This will result in extra work for the HR team as a result of another level of checking being imposed,” he says.

The council says it will meet the cost of existing employees who need to be registered but new employees will have to be ISA-registered before they can apply for a post working with children or vulnerable adults. “This will put more pressure on us during our recruitment to ensure all relevant employees are ISA-registered. Also, all job descriptions will need to be reviewed to ensure compliance with the regulations looking at the frequency and intensivity of the activity and not just the job title,” the spokesman explains.

The HR team at Islington has held a series of briefing sessions with senior managers to inform them about the regulations and it has been in contact with its partner organisations to advise them of the changes. “Many were not aware of the impending requirements,” the spokesman says.

This is a pressing concern for Bridget Holland, independent trainer and HR consultant. “I’m not sure employers understand what the ISA registration means. I think they believe that is all they have to do with employees. They do not realise that in some sectors it will still be mandatory to carry out CRB checks. There is a lot of scope for confusion and misunderstanding and potential for employers being charged with a criminal offence,” she says.

She urges HR managers and teams to ensure they know the exact implications of the changes. “Ensure you give out a clear message to all your staff so they understand what the requirements are. HR managers have an important communication role to play,” she says.

ISA summary

The aim of the scheme is to bring in a safeguard to any situation where a relationship of trust between a worker and a child/vulnerable adult could be built up and exploited by a potential abuser.

The ISA, in partnership with the CRB, will gather relevant information on every person who wants to work or volunteer with vulnerable people. Only those people who are ISA-registered can be recruited by employers. If an employer knowingly employs a barred individual there is the potential the employer can be prosecuted and jailed.

Employees in regulated activities that involve contact with children or vulnerable adults on a frequent/intensive basis will have to be registered. Those in controlled activities, such as support workers and those with access to sensitive records, will have to have their status checked by an employer.

Some jobs that were not previously covered by CRB checks will have to be ISA-registered, including prison officers and people working in non-regulated care homes.

Employers in some areas – including the teaching, social care and health sectors – will still have to carry out enhanced CRB checks on employees after October 2009. The ISA scheme will not change any of the existing requirements for employees/employers to obtain regular CRB checks.

Both new and current employees will have to be registered with the ISA after October 2009. All new employees and volunteers will be registered from 12 October and the existing workforce will be phased into the new scheme over a five-year period.

The cost of registering with the ISA will be £64 per person and free for a volunteer.

A Home Office spokesman says more guidance will be available for employers, although no dates have been set for publication.

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