News and Comment

How can the Big Society work in a risk-averse culture?

Monday 8 November 2010


Twice in the last week I’ve overheard conversations about Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. The first time was last Sunday at a football match. In the row behind me, a middle-aged man told a story about how his CRB returned with a conviction after applying to volunteer at a primary school. The reason: drunk in a sports ground in 1996. The second time was yesterday on the bus. A man was talking on his mobile, comforting a friend who had been turned down for a job: ‘The CRB check? Well they’re ridiculous anyway. You need one of them to drive a friend’s kid to school. We need to get rid of them and get back some common sense.’

The last government introduced a set of stringent measures at the end its tenure designed to protect the most vulnerable in society – namely children and young people when under the care of adults – from being exploited. The policy was controversial as it included seemingly innocuous examples of contact, such as neighbours babysitting or offering lifts to school, within its definition of risk.

A difficult process

It was also seen as impractical. A CRB check is costly and onerous and can take months to process. The joke in the charity sector is that the CRB has put more people off volunteering than actually gained them entry.

I can vouch for the arduous process. I spent last summer helping employees from a top multi-national company fill in CRB forms for them to take part in a company-wide volunteering scheme with a national charity. What should have been a straightforward administrative task was painful and protracted. The CRB rejected application after application, not for criminal offences but for missing information or basic mistakes. Eventually I wrote additional instructions to highlight exactly which sections the employees should fill out, to supplement the already existing guidelines offered by the Home Office. The charity had to offer a second wave of volunteer opportunities for all the employees that missed the original deadline.

So, in an era of Big Society, where red tape and bureaucracy will supposedly be cut and ‘real people’ empowered to deliver local services, can we assume that the CRB process will be revised or removed altogether? Will volunteers be fast-tracked into roles quickly to pick up devolved power and be responsive to local needs? And if the Big Society does herald the ‘return to common sense’ then who and what is accountable in litigation terms? How is ‘common sense’ reconciled with risk?

The real problem

But the problem of the CRB check lies not in its intent, as the philosophy of providing a standardised and thorough criminal review of adults in charge of children and young people is entirely sound. Nor does it necessarily lie in the complicated and long-winded process of the application form, though much could be done to improve the process. In actuality, the problem of the CRB exists mainly in the inflexible interpretation of the CRB when an offence is returned.

There are numerous examples where the CRB works counter-intuitively, particularly where young people are concerned. As written elsewhere, volunteering opportunities are an excellent opportunity to gain skills and work experience, and some of the best peer-mentors are ex-young offenders. In this way, often those with the most to gain from volunteering are often denied legitimate opportunities because of an irrelevant conviction.

In this way, common sense should not replace the CRB entirely. Rather it should be exercised when comparing the previous offence with the opportunity applied for, to gauge whether the offence is a legitimate barrier to volunteering. The process should be supported by an investigative and non-judgemental recruitment process including interviews and collecting character references. In this way, the CRB alone should not determine the outcome of an application.

Common sense

I can’t say whether my fellow football fan should be allowed to volunteer with children with a conviction for being drunk. But common sense suggests that the conviction should not automatically mean he cannot. Therefore it is both the format of the CRB form and the process leading to the outcome of the check – especially if a conviction is returned – that must be revisited if volunteers are going to be recruited in numbers demanded by the ambition of the Big Society. Common sense comes with risk. But the process must be managed so that applicants with the most to gain from volunteering are allowed to do so. It may seem ironic but red tape is fundamental to successfully implementing the Big Society without risking or excluding the most vulnerable of our society.