Nearly 127,000 children forced to have criminal record checks each year

The number of children forced to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks has doubled in recent years in a dramatic expansion of Labour’s anti-paedophile vetting regime.

More than 125,000 teenagers are now having their backgrounds checked each year, official figures show, even if they just help younger pupils at school or volunteer as sports coaches.

Young people whose parents are childminders must also be vetted for criminal convictions because of the supposed risk they pose to toddlers being looked after at their family home, while some students on social work courses must pay to find out if they are deemed a danger by the state.

The number of under-18s undergoing criminal records checks will increase still further next year, when anyone who works or volunteers with the young or vulnerable is forced to register with the Government’s new safeguarding quango, the Independent Safeguarding Authority.

Josie Appleton, a civil liberties campaigner whose new Manifesto Club report discloses the scale of child vetting for the first time, said: “It is a sick society that CRB checks a young person as their first act of adulthood – yet their case only reveals the mistrustful assumption of the vetting laws, which equate ‘adult’ with ‘potential abuser’.

“CRB checks send a damaging signal to young people, who should be encouraged to take steps in caring for others less capable than themselves.

“CRB checks send an equally damaging signal to the rest of the adult population, who are defined as toxic and risky, and therefore discouraged from showing the responsibility that adulthood entails.”

Tim Loughton, the Shadow Children’s Minister, added: “There’s clearly something excessive about a system that treats hundreds of thousands of young people as potential criminals.

“The Government should be encouraging young people to volunteer, not putting bureaucratic barriers in their way. They urgently need to look again at this whole question.”

The CRB – a Home Office agency – carried out background checks on 3.9million people in the past financial year to see if they have previous convictions or cautions that should bar them from working or volunteering with young people or vulnerable adults. Enhanced checks also reveal “soft intelligence” such as unproven allegations of abuse held on police files.

Home Office figures disclosed in the report to be published on Tuesday, called An Education in Mistrust, show that in 2002-03, a total of 61,730 under-18s were subjected to CRB checks. Most of them would have been ineligible to vote, drive or buy alcohol.

Three years later the figure had topped 100,000 for the first time, to reach 106,795. Between October 2008 and September this year, the most recent figures available show 126,951 checks were made. In total, 730,164 checks have been made on young people since the CRB was set up.

The CRB says 18,000 people in total were banned from working with children or vulnerable adults in 2008-09, just 0.46 per cent of the 3.9m checks made. If under-18s were proportionally represented, which is unlikely because of their age, it would mean 584 of the 126,951 checked had been barred from jobs because of their offending history.

Research conducted by the Manifesto Club has found that teenagers are being vetted if they help younger pupils with reading practice, or take part in after-school homework sessions and mentoring schemes.

Young people who work as sports coaches or lifeguards at swimming pools are having to undergo CRB checks, as are those who volunteer at nursing homes, and sixth-formers who do work experience with vulnerable groups such as refugees.

One sixth-form college in Darlington, which is coincidentally the home of the new vetting agency, said: “Unless they [volunteers] turn up with photo ID and CRB number, they are turned away.”

A volunteer said: “Overnight, because I turned 16, I was viewed as a potential paedophile.”

Official guidelines state that children are “classed as adults” from the age of 16 when it comes to sports coaching, while a child protection officer for Badminton England told the Manifesto Club that “you can CRB someone from the age of 10”.

One former swimming pool employee said: “I remember feeling shocked when I was CRB checked for working as a lifeguard as I had only just turned 16.”

Childminders must register with Ofsted, the children’s services watchdog, and if they have any children of their own they must be vetted once they turn 16.

The son of a childminder asked: “Why when we were 15 was it OK to be in the house, but as soon as you turned 16, it was not? There was a shift from trust to no trust.”

Students on “vocational” courses in health or social care, such as the new diplomas or BTECs, must be vetted before they can take up work placements. Some must pay the £46 cost themselves.

Many more children will have their pasts scrutinised for sex offences under the terms of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which comes into force in July 2010.

Official guidance recommends that teenage volunteers or care workers sign up to the database, the largest of its kind in the world, “in time for their 16th birthday” or face prosecution.

By the time it is fully operational, in 2015, an estimated 11.3million people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to be vetted before they can start work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults.

The scheme has faced widespread criticism after it emerged that it will encompass parents who sign up to rotas to collect pupils from sports matches, and leading authors who give readings at schools. An urgent review of its scope was ordered by Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary, in September and is due to report back next week.

A spokesman for the Criminal Records Bureau said: “A person can be checked by CRB if their profession, office, employment, work or occupation is listed as an exception to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

“If an individual is under 18, they can be eligible for a CRB check if their employment involves working in regulated activity with children or vulnerable adults.

“The number of CRB checks for under-18s accounted for only 3.3 per cent of all CRB checks processed in 2008/09.”