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March 2, 2018

Do charities believe in the principle of rehabilitation?

The reputation of aid charities has had a terrible battering recently. They are wounded and need to restore trust. So they are looking at ways they can show they are addressing abusive behaviour. But in looking for publicly popular solutions are they reducing safeguarding to a tick box list?

We don’t know quite what happened in Haiti but we do know that Oxfam staff were dismissed or asked to move on. None of them to this day have criminal records (I think). Nor probably do most of the staff who have been dismissed by other aid agencies for abuse. It seems that many have gone on to jobs in other organisations.

This is poor practice and the culture in these organisations needs to change. References need to be more honest and better checked. But I am worried by the big charities’ assumption that criminal records checks are the answer – both to safeguarding and to charities’ reputational concerns.  Their leaders seem to want to increase the number of DBS (full criminal records) checks they do: “we will work with the Government to ensure that we can overcome the legal and institutional barriers to rigorous background checks in the UK”. But why? Everyone who has been convicted of a crime already has to tell prospective employers about their record within the “rehabilitation period” immediately after conviction. You already have to produce a DBS check if you are applying for any job which involves working with vulnerable people. This can reveal very old and quite minor convictions – so if you were convicted of shoplifting twice aged 12, that information will come up on your DBS check when you are 50.

Clearly DBS checks are needed for some jobs, but historic childhood convictions don’t really help in the recruitment of mature adults. Yet Oxfam are proposing that all their store managers need such a check! Many (most?) people who have done something wrong, or who might do something wrong, do not have criminal records. Besides which, international NGOs recruit lots of foreign nationals. European countries have much more progressive criminal records regimes than us – they prosecute fewer people and do not retain their records so long. So if the NGOs try to do criminal records checks on candidates from different countries they will get very different kinds of information.

Wanting to do criminal records checks on everybody is understandable, but both misguided and damaging. It implies both that criminal records checks are the foundation of safeguarding, and that people should be judged according to their past. Many people make stupid mistakes when they are young. People commit serious crimes but do their time and move on. Criminal records checks are one of the biggest barriers to rehabilitation since they imply that once a criminal, always a criminal.

Thankfully enlightened employers will still consider taking on candidates with a colourful past. But Vicky Browning, the chief executive of ACEVO said the other day that no-one who has been dismissed by a charity for inappropriate conduct should ever be allowed to work for a charity or public body again. This seems inhumane and misplaced. In the end, people are protected by good management, a culture of vigilance, good feedback mechanisms and staff who feel confident to report concerns. Organisations should investigate allegations properly and transparently and refer serious issues to the police. But once someone has been punished and made amends, they should be supported to move on. We need criminal records checks for some roles and to improve safeguarding but, in so doing, lets not throw everyone on the scrapheap who has ever done anything wrong. There by the grace of God….