Orders of the Day — Criminal Records (Access)

– in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 23 March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Labour, Lincoln 2:34, 23 March 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the important matter of access to criminal records for universities seeking to recruit lecturing staff. I have been pursuing the issue with Ministers as a result of a disturbing chain of events that took place at the Lincoln campus of the university of Lincolnshire and Humberside. My constituents and I take great pride in the many achievements of the staff and students and in all that the university contributes to our city as an integral part of the community.

The university in Lincoln regrettably came into the national spotlight last year in connection with the case of Russell Griffiths, a former lecturer who, following acquittal on a charge of raping a student, pleaded guilty to, and went to prison for, obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception. He had lied about his previous criminal convictions to get a lecturer's post and it transpired that he had unspent convictions, all relating to ex-girlfriends on whom he had inflicted threats to kill, criminal damage and obscene material.

I am sure that the House would agree, knowing what we now know, that Griffiths would not have been a suitable person to appoint to the trusted post of lecturer, a job that is performed with much professionalism and skill in universities and colleges across the country. It is important that we record our trust in the overwhelming majority of lecturers who do a first-rate job on our behalf. However, such a case must not be allowed to happen again. I am anxious that confidence among staff, employers and students is re-established and maintained.

I speak with the backing not only of my constituents, but of Universities UK, the national body that represents vice-chancellors, and the National Union of Students, which has joined forces with university staff to form CAMPUS-the Campaign for the Protection of University Students. To speak with one voice is a powerful and representative position from which to present the case to Parliament. I hope that the Minister will take account of the unanimous views on the matter.

I pay tribute to the leadership and clarity shown by key players at the university of Lincolnshire and Humberside, including Professor David Chiddick, the vice-chancellor, Verity Coyle, president of the students union, and Debbie Wilson, a senior lecturer. They have my appreciation and admiration for the way in which they have worked to look positively and constructively to the future and have brought their important colleagues on board.

I am pleased that the university in Lincoln has taken some important steps by strengthening its short-listing and interviewing procedures, including checks on references by telephone rather than relying on letters. However, the authorities are limited by legislative provision that prevents them from obtaining the level of checks on criminal records that they want. They eagerly await the establishment and operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, which will assist them greatly to vet prospective employees.

The establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau by the Home Office will improve access to criminal records and record checks for employment-related and voluntary appointment purposes. In particular, it will provide protection for children and others against those who may wish to harm them. I welcome the fact that the Government accept that the arrangements for access to criminal record checks are unsatisfactory. By setting up a single national contact point, they are helping us to bridge the gap.

I wonder, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you, like me, remember being 18 and being convinced that you knew everything and the world was out there waiting for you. Perhaps you did, and perhaps it was. I would not want to remove that quality, but at 18, only a few months—or, indeed, a few weeks—mark the divide between being legally regarded as a child and living at home and being a legal adult who is in a new environment with full responsibility for one's daily life, decisions and actions. We should support students in their new world of university by making it a place where they can learn and grow, both academically and personally, without fear of those whom they should be able to trust to guide and support them.

Professor David Chiddick wrote to me saying: I believe we have a duty of care to our students, even though they are legally adults, given the special circumstances and the unique relationship that exists between a lecturer and a student. I agree wholeheartedly. A lecturer is in a position of trust, responsibility and, indeed, power, and should not be permitted to take advantage of that.

Moreover, as the Government press ahead to widen access and participation in university education—something I very much endorse—the increasing number and range of background, age and experience mean that, as with any section of the population, the range of ability to deal with life's challenges will also widen and vary. Whether a student is more or less vulnerable is simply not the issue, as many students are more than capable of looking after themselves. It is the nature of the relationship between the student and the lecturer that we need to consider.

Of course, perfectly sound, morally acceptable and defensible relationships do exist between lecturers and students, as consenting adults. That is not the area of concern to which I refer. However, we need to bear it in mind that lecturers do not work only with young adults. At Lincoln, for example, a children's university for 12 to 16-year-olds regularly takes place, as do visits of school groups, which is very much to be encouraged. It also provides a venue for the Co-operative Kids Club. Such events enable lecturers to work, unsupervised, with those under 18.

I urge the Minister to work closely with the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that guidance and instruction is issued to universities on requiring a basic disclosure document, from the criminal records bureau, as a condition of employment. That would enable a full check to be made on unspent convictions. I should like to go one step further by asking the Minister to review the exceptions order in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and include university lecturers. They, like teachers, traffic wardens and probation officers would then be required to declare spent convictions according to the Criminal Records Bureau standard level of disclosure.

I quite understand and endorse the purpose of the 1974 Act—to allow ex-offenders to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Equally, there are some occupations for which I believe that that is not appropriate, which is recognised by the exemptions that have been made. I also appreciate that there is a delicate balance to be struck between giving ex-offenders the chance to contribute fully to society once again—and having a job is one of the best ways to include rather than exclude people—and ensuring the protection of those they work with, where appropriate.

The nature of the job of lecturer with its attendant responsibilities and requirements, needs careful consideration. I am in no doubt that if the case of Russell Griffiths is to have a positive outcome and scars are to be healed at the university in Lincoln, we must ensure, as far as possible, that such a case cannot happen again. We need to move that bit further to restore full confidence between students and staff and among each other.

I hope that this case, which sent shock waves throughout the Lincoln campus, will not have happened in vain. I thank the Government, particularly the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who has been most helpful with this case, for the progress that has been made so far in establishing the Criminal Records Bureau. That is a responsive measure, and will prove highly effective. However, I ask that the Minister seriously consider the request that I have made, on behalf of my constituents, for the benefit of the university community and their friends and families across the country.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 2:44, 23 March 2001

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) for raising these issues. Clearly, the case of Russell Griffiths is very disturbing. It gives rise to an important issue of principle—I shall come to that in a moment—but it is essential that the issue is seen in its wider context. I should therefore like to begin by setting out the background in relation to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974—a key consideration in this matter—the current arrangements for police checks, and the new arrangements that we are putting in place through the Criminal Records Bureau. They are due to come into effect during the latter part of this year and the start of next year.

It has long been accepted that it is important for those who offend to be able to reform, to pick up their lives again after paying the penalty, and to have a fresh start. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 has been the key legislation in that respect for more than a quarter of a century, and it will continue to be so under the new arrangements that the Criminal. Records Bureau will operate, to which I shall come shortly.

The principle underlying the 1974 Act is that once a conviction has become spent it is stale, and a person applying for a job should not need to declare it to an employer. However, the need for rehabilitation must be balanced against the risk to society, particularly its most vulnerable members, from the ex-offender. That is why, for as long as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has been in place, there has also been a list of positions for which someone can be asked about spent convictions. People asked about spent convictions have to tell a potential employer what those convictions were for before obtaining the job.

It is crucial to get that list of positions right. We must protect the vulnerable, but we must not make the list such that an offender who has put his past behind him is disadvantaged if that is not necessary for the demands of the job.

Employers do not currently have access to police checks. If they ask a job applicant whether he has a criminal record, they have no way of verifying what they are told. That situation is partly a reflection of the sensitivity with which we treat information about a person's criminal record. However, there are also police resource constraints.

Prioritisation has been essential. The largest demand is for checks to be carried out in cases to which we would all give the highest priority—the protection of children from those who are in the strongest position to do them harm, such as those in positions affording substantial unsupervised access to children.

Most people working with children in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors are not routinely subject to police checks, and nor are people working with vulnerable adults. Frankly, the situation regarding checks on people working with children and vulnerable adults and the resourcing constraints of the police is not satisfactory.

The establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau is a major part of a much larger package of measures designed to provide additional protection for the vulnerable. Moreover, the CRB will be specifically resourced to undertake the task, and to do so to high service standards. Although protection of the vulnerable will be the primary purpose of the CRB, its service will be broader. The bureau will provide three different levels of certificates—or disclosures, as they will be known: the basic level of check will apply to the broad generality of jobs, and the other two types will relate to posts, positions and professions that attract greater sensitivity. The key gateway will be the exceptions order under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The higher level checks will include people working with children and with vulnerable adults. The highest level will relate principally to those working most closely with children and vulnerable adults.

I now come to the particular case that my hon. Friend has raised. Let me say at the outset how disturbing I found this case, just as she did. As I said, we must take great care to ensure that we strike the correct balance between protection of the individual—the potential victim—and the rights of a potential employee to be able to live down the misdemeanours of his or her past

We must be conscious of the danger that our reactions to a particular case could lead us to a position that would upset a careful balance. In the case to which my hon. Friend referred, it was possible for information about previous convictions to be concealed. Under the present arrangements, the university authorities did not have access to police information that would have revealed those convictions. The position will be wholly different once the CRB becomes fully operational. Under the arrangements for criminal records checks that the CRB will operate, the authorities could request that a check be carried out at the basic level. That would have revealed the unspent convictions of Russell Griffiths.

I understand that officials from the Department for Education and Employment have met representatives of Universities UK—formerly the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals—to discuss arrangements for criminal record checks. Universities UK is considering issuing guidance on strengthening existing recruitment for university staff. It is likely to emphasise the need to verify qualifications and obtain independent references, and to advise universities to obtain a basic disclosure from the CRB, when available, as part of their recruitment process.

It would be a very large step to contemplate bringing university staff within the scope of the higher level checks that will be available from the CRB. The main practical effect would be to open up to scrutiny any stale conviction that might lie in a person's past, but which, under the tests set in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, should not be revealed unless there are exceptional circumstances. It would also bring to light a caution, reprimand or warning to a young offender. At the very highest level of check conducted by the bureau, it would mean a search of local police records.

Such information is clearly more sensitive, and making it available remains an exceptional measure under the scheme that the CRB will operate. To warrant such disclosure, the circumstances must be such that the interests of protecting the victim would require that the scales be tilted further in that direction. That has clearly been considered justified in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our society—children, and the most vulnerable adults.

In an area where striking the right balance is so important, I do not have a closed mind, but would have to be convinced that we need to tilt the scales by making university staff subject to higher levels of checks from the CRB. We take the view that the basic checks that would be provided by the CRB would be likely to be adequate, but we are willing to listen to any argument made by my hon. Friend or others to suggest that we need to go to a higher level. We shall listen to such arguments, but we remain to be convinced by them.

I have listened with great care to my hon. Friend. She has raised important issues, and the Government will reflect carefully on the strong points that she made. She asked me to review exemptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. That will take some time to arrange, but I hope to be able to do it in the summer, and we shall consider her arguments when we do so. 1 cannot prejudge the outcome of that review, and it would require an affirmative resolution of the House if we were to change any of the exemptions. If that becomes necessary, the House will require a further debate at which my hon. Friend could comment further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising an important issue. I hope that we can respond in a way that ensures that the sort of problems that arose in the case of Russell Griffiths will be prevented from causing distress to universities and students in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock.