Database to list unproven charges provokes fears

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The Independent Online

A national database containing the details of people accused of unproven allegations, and the subjects of failed police investigations, is to be set up in the wake of the Ian Huntley debacle.

Teachers' leaders and civil liberty campaigners warned the move could cause false and malicious claims. In one scheme piloted in the West Midlands, police have listed names and addresses of all suspects who have been accused of wrongdoing, but have not been convicted.

The retention and availability of so-called "soft intelligence" was among police failings highlighted after the Soham case. Huntley, sentenced to life for murdering Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, was able to work with children despite having been accused of nine sex crimes, including four rapes, and the indecent assault of an 11-year-old girl. Humberside police were criticised for not retaining information on him, and were accused of misunderstanding the Data Protection Act. The force destroyed the intelligence on Huntley, saying all the allegations were unproven.

But the Home Office is working on two national database systems, and is reviewing police practice, to ensure such a mistake is not repeated. Different police forces operate different policies on what information is kept, and for how long. The guidelines say information on unconvicted individuals accused of serious crimes should be kept for at least 10 years.

The data is crucial in allowing the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) to check on people who apply for jobs with children. Police also use the information to identify patterns of criminal behaviour, arrest suspects, and target likely offenders. But ability of the police and the CRB to access a central list of suspects was greeted with caution by teachers and civil liberty campaigners who fear malicious allegations may be included. Teachers' unions say their members' careers could be blighted by an unsubstantiated pupil complaint.

In the pilot scheme, the West Midlands, West Mercia, and Staffordshire police forces, are keeping a database which could form the model for a national database. The second system being considered involves every force placing an indicator, or "flag", on the police national computer beside individuals about whom "soft intelligence" is available. The CRB or an investigating officer would contact the individual forces for the details of the allegations.

The Home Office is examin-ing new rules or guidelines in the Data Protection Act. The department is also considering new legislation that would result in people in sensitive professions working with children, such as teachers, having their backgrounds vetted more regularly. Details of possible reforms were provided by the Home Office to the inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael Bichard, investigating how Huntley got a job as a school caretaker. Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, said yesterday: "I was very concerned that there appeared to be a lack of clarity in the interpretation of the provisions of the Act. We need to make sure this is crystal clear, that there is no room for misinterpretation, because if this information slips through the net, it can have disastrous results."

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the teachers' union NASUWT, said: "Teachers are vulnerable to false, exaggerated and malicious allegations. The procedures must not be such that they give credence to the view that an allegation is in itself proof of guilt."

Gareth Crossman, policy director of Liberty, the civil rights group, said their main concern was confidentiality and the possibility of unproven allegations become public.