Prison threat for hiring child abusers

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EMPLOYERS COULD be jailed for five years if they hire child abusers for jobs that allow access to children, under a new criminal offence promised yesterday by the Government.

The offence, which will also allow for the jailing of paedophiles and child beaters who apply for such jobs, is recommended in a report published today by a government working party. The Home Office minister, Paul Boateng, said last night that the offence would be made law at the first opportunity.

But Mr Boateng also disclosed that a new Criminal Records Bureau designed to help employers identify unsuitable job applicants is unlikely to open for another three years. Asked why it had effectively taken five years to set up an organisation which could have been incorporated into 1997 legislation, the minister said it was vital that the bureau was fully operational "from day one".

The new criminal offence will be based on a much wider definition of "working with children" that covers the public, private and voluntary sectors. It will be based on the concept of "role" or "position" rather than "office" and will cover those with access to children, such as swimming pool attendants, as well as those working directly with youngsters, like scout leaders.

People who will be banned from taking or applying for such work will include all adults convicted of specified offences against children which result in custodial sentences of 12 months or more. The list of offences laid down by the working party includes cruelty to children, kidnap and grievous bodily harm, as well as sex offences like indecent assault, possession of child pornography and encouraging child prostitution.

The list of people banned will not be as extensive as the Sex Offenders Register, which includes the names of suspected paedophiles and those given lesser sentences. Officials said that, because the register was essentially an intelligence tool for police, it could afford to be a more "blunt instrument".

Under the planned new legislation, offenders - who also face sentences of up to five years if found applying for or taking jobs with children - will escape prosecution if they can successfully argue that they were not aware that the work involved access to youngsters.

When the Criminal Records Bureau is established, probably in 2002, employers will be able to pay a fee of pounds 10 to carry out an "enhanced check", giving details of the job applicant's criminal record.

The introduction of the new legislation, with its wider definition of working with children, means that the bureau is likely to be swamped with inquiries from employers in the education, health, social care, leisure, religious and criminal justice sectors.

But Mr Boateng warned that the bureau was "not a silver bullet solution to the problem of paedophiles" and that employers should not be so reliant on the new organisation that they neglect other basic checks, such as following up job references. "Clearly [the bureau] cannot pick up somebody who has not come to light before," Mr Boateng added.

The proposals were welcomed by the NSPCC and the Scout Association.

But the Scouts warned the cost of checking the 65,000 adults it vets every year could be pounds 750,000 and called on the Government to fund the checks for voluntary groups.

The organisation added that although the Government said the checks would not be mandatory, parents and probably insurance companies would expect the movement to take every possible means to ensure it only recruited suitable people. The concerns were echoed by the NSPCC.

Mr Boateng said he was in discussions with voluntary groups, but ruled out any possibility that they would be eligible for free checks, saying the pounds 10 fee represented the cost of a haircut or three packets of cigarettes.