Fear 'it could happen again'

The Soham murders raised serious questions about the system used to vet people working in schools.

The checking process has undergone a major overhaul since Ian Huntley was appointed caretaker of Soham Village College in November 2001 despite a rape charge three years earlier.

But loopholes still exist that could allow someone with his background to be employed in the education system.

Bev Curtis, a director of Educational Personnel Management, the firm employed by Cambridgeshire County Council to administer checks on staff, said the Home Office had to address the issue of how "soft intelligence" about school staff could be used.

The "soft intelligence" on Huntley was such that Soham Village College principal Howard Gilbert said: "It is so extreme that any head would have said goodbye. You couldn't have anybody with that background."

When Huntley started at the Cambridgeshire secondary school, all teachers and support staff had to undergo a double clearance before they could work with or near youngsters.

Their names first had to be checked against List 99, the secret Department for Education dossier of people convicted or suspected of child abuse.

They also had to have their criminal records scrutinised, a process that could take some time as they may have worked in several different police force areas, which all had to be contacted.

Neither check ensured that an employer would find out about Huntley's background.

List 99 only included details of child abuse crimes or allegations from those working in the education system at the time, which ruled out Huntley who was not a caretaker when he was accused of rape.

Local authorities could also write directly to police forces to check for any other relevant information - such as dropped charges or cautions - but it would be left to the discretion of senior police officers to decide what to release.

In an attempt to tighten the vetting process - and speed it up - the Government launched the Criminal Records Bureau, a "one-stop shop" for both List 99 and criminal record checks.

There are now two levels of checks: Standard,

which shows all prior convictions, and Enhanced, which includes all convictions, cautions, reprimands, warnings and - crucially - dropped charges.

All teachers have to undergo an enhanced check, in which they must provide four pieces of identification to ensure the system picks up all previous identities.

A Home Office spokesman said: "It is very comprehensive. The enhanced check is incredibly detailed. Every single thing that you need to find out about an individual is there."

But it is not compulsory for local authorities to run the enhanced check on caretakers, meaning that someone like Huntley with a previous charge of rape against them could still get a job working in a school.

Mr Curtis said: "It is a matter for the police what soft intelligence they disclose to us.

"Had the soft intelligence we now know exists on Huntley been made available to us, technically we would not have been allowed to use it to dismiss him. That's the problem.

"This is something that the Home Office has got to deal with. There is a real dichotomy here between data protection and human rights and child protection."

Mr Gilbert said: "The short answer is that had I known then what I know now about Huntley, he would have gone straightway. If that information had been available, I would never have taken a risk.

"But there's a longer answer. The problem is that technically you cannot speak to the employee about soft intelligence and you cannot act on it. It's there for your information only.

"Nevertheless, given the scale of the intelligence we now have on Huntley, it would have been difficult to imagine him staying in school.

"I would have had to get rid of him and I would have done. But I would have been in breach of employment legislation.

"In Huntley's case, it is so extreme that any head would have said goodbye. You couldn't have anybody with that background. It's probably more in the greyer areas in the middle where heads would need to use their discretion.

"If a system could be set up to allow heads to use soft information, start a dialogue with the candidate and use their judgment, that would solve the problem."

Kerry Cleary, from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said the CRB checks should not be regarded as a foolproof indicator of whether people were suitable to work with young people.

"People look at the CRB as a guide to say that if they are clear, they must be fine to work with children and that is just not the case at all," she said.

She said the authorities had a duty to continually assess those working with children to ensure they did not become a risk.

Ms Cleary added that she would probably not employ someone who had been accused of rape to work with children, even if it turned out to be an unproven allegation.

The CRB struggled to cope with demand when it launched in March last year and for several months there were long delays in completing checks.

The problems would have made no difference to Huntley's application as he started work at Soham Village College four months before it was introduced.

The Home Office said 90% of CRB checks are now carried out within two weeks, meaning that employers are not put in the awkward position of discovering earlier allegations made against staff after they have started work.

But the question of how much information should be available to employers - and under what circumstances it should be made available - is a complex issue with implications for the basic human rights of individuals.

For example, should people who have been falsely accused of rape have their careers blighted?

Barry Hugill, of the civil rights campaign group Liberty, said "non-conviction" information - such as allegations or dropped charges - was relevant for people working with children or vulnerable people.

But he stressed the importance of allowing people the opportunity to rebut any allegations which may appear on an advanced criminal checks.

"It is a difficult and important balance and it is tough to get right," he said.

"There is an obvious need to have some non-conviction information for those higher levels of checks.

"At the same time, it is really important that the CRB handles this information with special care and people should have the chance to challenge non-conviction information.

"That is not to say the information should not be there, because there is an obvious need for it - we are talking about the protection of children."

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