Care Home Workers Go Unchecked, Police Warn

Tens of thousands of migrants are working with vulnerable elderly people in care homes without undergoing full criminal record checks, The Times has learnt.

Senior police officers have alerted Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, to the scale of the problem in a report detailing the impact on the UK of migration from Eastern Europe. The introduction of a watchdog next year to vet care workers will not address the problem, they add.

It is estimated that about 400,000 elderly people are being looked after in care homes. This figure is expected to reach 750,000 by 2031 as more and more people live longer. Many of the homes would be unable to operate without employing foreign workers, as British workers are unwilling to take the jobs.

Ms Smith has been told that tens of thousands of migrants are being employed in care homes and other areas of social care without being fully checked because the authorities cannot access foreign criminal records.

An estimated 240,000 foreign-born people were employed in the care-related sector in 2006. They include more than 105,000 care assistants and home carers. A further 23,000 people were working as childminders and 23,000 as nursing auxiliaries.

More than 20,000 workers from Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have registered as care workers since their countries joined the EU in May 2004.

Since 2005 the EU has been trying to set up a system for the exchange of criminal records, but progress has been slow and the Criminal Records Bureau in Britain is planning only pilot projects with four countries.

The directive does not address the issue of checks on migrants from countries outside the EU.

Senior police officers have warned the Government that even after a register designed to prevent unsuitable people from working with the vulnerable comes into force full checks on migrants will still not take place.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), which will begin operating next year, will decide who should be barred from working with the vulnerable by using existing government-run barring lists and a Criminal Records Bureau check which shows whether a person has offended in the UK.

An estimated 11 million individuals will have to pass through the authority’s checking procedures in the first five years of operations, but police are saying that the system is not foolproof.

A report by Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Cheshire, and Grahame Maxwell, Chief Constable of North Yorkshire, gives warning of the huge cost implications to police of having to carry out checks on behalf of the new authority, set up under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.

It adds: “The Act will additionally have huge implications for migrants working within the NHS, care homes, social services and most public services due to checks against nonUK nationals being unachievable due to the data not being held by their country of origin.”

The report on the implications of migration from eight Eastern European states was prepared for the Association of Chief Police Officers and it was discussed later at a meeting between Ms Smith and senior officers.

Last night Paul Bates, of Help the Aged, said that it was extremely important to ensure that all people working with vulnerable adults should go through strenuous and extensive background checks to ensure their suitability to perform what is a difficult task.

He said: “As a charity, we would be extremely disturbed if these checks are not made and people slipped through the net,” he said. Every ‘i’ should be dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.”

The police report highlights a loophole in both the existing checking system and the one that will begin operating next year.

Care homes and agencies supplying foreigners to work with the elderly and sick can get a check from the Criminal Records Bureau. But this will only indicate whether the authorities have intelligence suggesting unsuitability to work with vulnerable people.

Peter Cullimore, chairman of the nurses’ and carers’ sector of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “For many of the countries, and certainly the East European states, I cannot see any chance of setting up arrangements with them so we could get checks done.

“We have no way of finding out whether they have criminal records before they came to this country.”

Migrants from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia make up another substantial proportion of workers in the care sector, according to Mr Cullimore.

He said that many migrants from those states worked as private carers in the homes of elderly people rather than in nursing and care homes and that, because agencies were unable to have full checks carried out on migrants, interviews were crucial.

“We rely on face-to-face interviews and checking references and recommendations,” he said. “The interview is so important because we can pick up on an applicant’s background, looking at their work record. There is no foolproof method.”

He said that employment agencies wanted the Government to take urgent steps to ensure that the Criminal Records Bureau could gain access to police records in other countries. An EU directive requiring each member state to establish a central officer for information-sharing on criminal records was agreed in 2005.

While Britain receives some conviction details, the Criminal Records Bureau admits that coverage is patchy. It advises foreign workers to seek certificates of good behaviour, but within the care industry it is privately admitted that many people are working without full checks.

A spokesman for the Independent Safeguarding Authority said that work was under way to get access to overseas criminal convictions.

“The ISA’s partners in the Criminal Records Bureau remain committed to improving access to overseas criminal convictions data and last year began working towards exchanging information for employment vetting purposes across borders.

Pilot projects are being planned with the Republic of Ireland, France, Poland and Australia.”

He added: “The UK already has one of the most advanced systems in the world for carrying out pre-employment checks. The introduction of the ISA from October 2009 will be a crucial step forward, creating a constantly updated single central record of more than 11 million people who work with children and vulnerable adults. It will also contain information from employers about workers’ behaviour or suitability. We have always said that further job-specific checks may still be needed and employers should always follow good practice when recruiting.”