Straw pledges tougher approach on employers' access to records

JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, has agreed to place stricter limitations on the access of employers to a new Criminal Records Bureau in response to complaints by a government watchdog that it would create a damaging "checking culture" in Britain.

The bureau is the Government's response to public concerns that paedophiles are able to obtain jobs working with children, and that violent criminals can find employment in the security industry. It will enable employers to vet prospective workers by checking their past criminal convictions for a flat pounds 10 fee.

Lord Haskins, the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, warned last May that the bureau could destroy the job prospects of many people from deprived backgrounds. The bureau risked creating a checking culture that could have harmful effects, such as unreasonably increasing the shortage of male teachers who are needed in schools as role models for boys.

Yesterday the Government said it accepted the task force's key recommendations and would review the way the bureau was to be regulated. It would also issue new guidelines to employers to ensure that it was not used unnecessarily.

A Home Office spokesman said it was acknowledged that there was a need to find a balance between protecting vulnerable members of the public from dangerous criminals and harming people's job prospects through over-regulation.

The existence of the bureau has been linked to planned new legislation to make it an imprisonable offence for employers to hire convicted child abusers for jobs that give them access to children.

Home Office ministers have already admitted that the bureau will not open for at least another three years because of fears of computer problems and the need for the new unit to be "fully operational from day one".

Yesterday Lord Haskins said he was pleased with the Government's response to the task force's criticisms, adding: "Many people are unnecessarily excluded from work because of convictions received many years previously or which are totally irrelevant to the job. This appears to work against other government initiatives, such as the New Deal, which is committed to creating job opportunities for ex-offenders."

The Home Office also accepted the task force's comments that it would be dangerous for employers to regard a criminal records check as a catch- all protection. It warned employers would also have to continue implementing other precautions, such as reference-taking.

"We will publish guidance on the role of criminal record checks, which will make clear their limitations and reinforce the need for good employment and recruitment practices," the spokesman said.

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