Criminal vetting for millions ofworkers

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The Independent Online
Up to eight million people seeking a job are expected to be vetted each year to check if they have a criminal record, under government proposals published yesterday.

Penal reform groups condemned the system, contained in the Police Bill, and which will cost pounds 5-10 an inquiry, saying it would make most ex-offenders unemployable.

The Home Office also published details of a national squad to help fight organised crime, and proposals to allow police to break into homes and plant electronic bugs.

The biggest surprise in the Bill is the scale of business expected to be undertaken by the proposed Criminal Records Agency. In the first year it is expected 2.5 million checks will be done, costing pounds 18m. It is expected to rise to 8 million a year, worth pounds 60m in revenue. The agency, with at least 400 employees, will provide three levels of checks, according to the sensitivity of the job.

The first, a Criminal Conviction Certificate (CCCs), will be issued to individuals and contain details of unspent convictions. The second, "full", or criminal-record certificates, will contain details of cautions and convictions, including offences that are spent - sentences of 30 months or less are wiped clean after a set period. These will be used for sensitive jobs such as those involving regular contact with children, and health workers. The highest level, an "enhanced" check, will be available only to people with regular, supervised access to children or for certain statutory licensing purposes, such as gambling and the lottery, and judges and magistrates.

The Home Office believes a criminal-records check could become standard practice for all new employees. People who try to use or make a fake certificate, or use one belonging to someone else, could face six months' jail or a pounds 5,000 fine.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Given the current competitive nature of the job market, the possibility that potential employees will need to obtain the certificate ought to ensure that most ex-prisoners will never work again. This is recipe for further crime."

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said increased access to criminal records would improve protection of the public.

The Bill also proposes establishment of a National Crime Squad, an amalgamation of the existing six regional crime squads, to support local forces investigating serious crime. It will work with the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is to become a statutory agency outside control of central government. Both organisations will be scrutinised by two new watchdog authorities.

The third aspect of the Bill is to make police and Customs guidelines involving secret surveillance operations part of the law. Chief constables will be allowed to authorise officers to break into properties and plant listening devices if they believe it is necessary as part of an investigation into serious crime.

The measures are opposed by the Liberty civil-rights group, which says they are open to abuse. John Wadham, the director, said: "Clearly our homes are no longer our castles when the police can authorise themselves to bug, burgle and trespass anywhere they like, without a court order."

It has also emerged that the Government is considering adding an amendment to the Police Bill which would enable evidence obtained by the police and intelligence services during telephone tapping to be admissible in court in cases of national security, such as terrorism.

But because of lack of time it looks increasingly likely that this measure will be shelved.

The main proposals

* Establishment of a National Crime Squad in England Wales.

* Set up an agency to supply information on millions of criminal records to employers and workers.

* Officially sanction police and Customs officers to break into properties and plant electronic bugs.

* Place the National Criminal Intelligence Service on a UK-wide statutory footing.