Jacob Williams
Monday 31st December, 2018

Full disclosure?

Full disclosure?

Following on from yesterday’s article (Terrible with names), this is the other blogpost I never got round to publishing this year.

The conviction and lengthy jail sentence handed down this summer to Pembrokeshire county councillor Dai Boswell for historic child sex crimes sparked much discussion and misunderstanding about DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks on councillors.

Formerly and colloquially still known as CRB checks, DBS checks allow employers to establish if workers or volunteers have any criminal history which should rule them out of a position on grounds of trust.

Perhaps more accurately, it prevents people lying about their criminal history to their bosses – and in that respect it’s foolproof, because it puts the employer in possession of a copy of the subject’s rap sheet.

Of course, if a person has never even been questioned over, never mind convicted of crimes they in fact committed, the check will reveal nothing untoward against even the most hardened criminal.

Another obvious element to a DBS check is that it’s only good for the day it’s issued.

If a trainee bank clerk is convicted of theft the month after she was employed off the back of a squeaky clean DBS disclosure, it couldn’t possibly show up until a subsequent disclosure, possibly years later.

These two concepts are widely understood, but as far as public figures are concerned, there’s a misconception that, the mere undertaking by a councillor to agree to be subjected to a DBS disclosure is in itself capable of offering reassurance.

Some are surprised to learn that there is no requirement for councillors to undergo a DBS check.

It is a fact that many councillors serve as school governors – but they’re not automatically governors by virtue of their elected position.

Councillors’ governor appointments require a DBS disclosure in the same way anybody wishing to be a school governor, employee or volunteer would have to.

But a DBS disclosure is not an achievement, nor a clearance. It isn’t even a good indicator – it is merely the process of a person’s criminal history having been requested by and presented – with the subject’s agreement – to the employer.

In the case of Pembrokeshire County Council employees and councillors this would be the human resources department.

PCC’s website reveals on each councillor’s profile if they’ve been subjected to a DBS disclosure and, if so, the date it was issued.

Some residents are reassured to learn that their councillor has had a DBS check, wrongly interpreting this fact alone to reflect well on the elected representative’s character and clean history.

But knowing your councillor has had a DBS check is no indication that his past is squeaky clean, that he’s a notorious rogue, or anything in-between.

All it reveals is that he has allowed his criminal history (or lack thereof) to be shared with the council’s HR department – who have no legal ability to sack a councillor even if it revealed the most horrendous crimes against humanity.

The only important thing about a DBS disclosure as far as public reassurance is concerned is: what is disclosed, to whom it is disclosed, and chiefly what decisions and actions it leads those individuals in receipt of it to take.

Since none of this is publicly revealed, the amount of public reassurance is, therefore, paradoxical – reliant on trust in proper processes happening as a result of the disclosure.

In other words, to be effective, the disclosure must be shared with the right people who can, if necessary, take action to prevent bad people being in places they shouldn’t.

So it’s these human responses to the disclosure – which we probably won’t ever know about – which are capable of protecting the public, not the disclosure itself.

Consider the fictional example of a newly-elected councillor. Let’s call him Fred Wrongun.

Fred is the worst kind of criminal, but nonetheless this former jailbird was democratically elected and, following the election, he doesn’t have to but he volunteers to undergo a DBS disclosure.

Cllr. Wrongun’s profile on the council’s website is then updated, quite rightly, to say – and I quote the actual template wording used by PCC’s website administrators:

“Councillor Wrongun has an Enhanced DBS Certificate – regulated activity – children. This was issued on [day/month/year] and will expire on [day/month/year.]”

The idea that this fact alone offers public reassurance that Fred is an upstanding chap is nonsense, because all it means is that his lengthy rap sheet has been shown to the HR department.

The public is no closer to understanding if he’s a good egg or rotten to the core.

If I can put it in a way my fellow petrolheads might appreciate, we’ve probably all at some point had the dreaded MOT anxiety come the time of our car’s annual test.

Even though you’d trust your ageing jalopy with your life, even though she presents no ill symptoms or deficiencies, emits no untoward clunks or leaks, in the back of your mind lays unease that something expensive is lurking, waiting to be found by the clipboard-wielding test inspector.

You drop it off at the garage, say three Hail Marys before handing over the keys with everything crossed, and await the subsequent telephone call.

Later in the day the garage telephones you. Their only words to you are: “your car has been inspected.”

By now with a cold sweat and racing heartbeat, your next contribution to this phonecall will certainly be the question: “did it pass?”

And that’s the point.

The sole knowledge that your councillor has agreed to undergo a DBS check is like knowing your beloved banger has gone through a thorough inspection by a government-regulated MOT tester.

Without knowing what the inspection revealed, or what action it necessitates or leads to, it’s absolutely meaningless information.

Not just meaningless as far as public reassurance is concerned, but meaningless full stop.

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  • Former foster carer

    It’s actually worse than that Jacob, let’s say your Councillor Wrongun was a devious sort and had successfully concealed a past, or had a string of offences abroad which had all duly been published and existed on a database to which the UK has no access.

    Worse still, let’s suppose the DBS themselves make a mistake and fail to find a UK offence. There is no comeback on the DBS for failing to find and share the information. What’s written on the back, the list of exclusions and denials of responsibility, renders anything on the front valueless.

  • Goldingsboy

    Nor will it show that a criminal investigation into the activities of an individual is, contemporaneously, under investigation by the police.

    After all, the enquiries into the grant scandal at Pembroke Dock is still “ongoing”, even though it began FIVE years ago.

  • Pembs. Exile

    I was full of anticipation when I opened your latest blog “Full Disclosure”.

    At long last I thought I could read:

    (a) Why it had taken the Chief Executive five weeks to action a resolution of the Council?

    (b) What the response, of the Council, was to the Chief Constable, when an underling had the temerity to question the right of elected members to ask why an investigation was taking such a long time.

    (c) Why an opportunity to appeal a decision was lost?

    (d) Had any investigation taken place to determine whether an attempt was made to nullify the legitimate question of a member to Council?

    (e) Why important council information contained on a laptop needed, it now appears, to aid the police investigation, had not been backed up?

    (f) When was the laptop lost? When and to whom was the loss first reported?

    (g) Why the apparent inaction to fully investigate alleged comments, made public, made by a senior officer concerning a member of the public?

    I’ve reached the end. It appears that like many other episodes in the life of Pembrokeshire County Council I must go on anticipating a resolution.

    A Happy and I hope another revealing year ahead.

  • Michael Hart

    Jacob, this is a very fuzzy area. You make a very good point about the DBS certificate being only as good for the day it was issued. It will probably need primary legislation, an act of parliament, to be amended to change that situation.

    At least you know that the councillor cannot be candidate if he has “been sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three months or more (including a suspended sentence), without the option of a fine, during the five years before polling day”.

    The weak area looks like the child protection and vulnerable adult area. The rules for candidates seem to be focused on bankruptcy and imprisonment rather than the protection of the public.

    Whilst I would not want to ban a person from becoming a councillor just because of any offence, I do think as electors we should at least be entitled to know who we are voting for.

    This is a very public office after all and we are effectively employing the person. The only lawful way at the moment is to obtain this information is via the DBS or in exceptional circumstance the Chief Constable will inform the Chief Executive to enable the public to be protected. But that information is not available to the electors.

    However any changes will need primary legislation that is very very carefully framed to avoid breaching the human rights act, something I am personally passionate about.

    In the case of a school governor you can work out what he hasn’t done by the regulations but finding this information out is not readily available to electors. If he then is arrested whilst in office for an offence involving a child the CLDP Chief Constable to Chief executive system should kick in. The problem is the public need confidence it will and hiding these arrangements in dark corners does not help.

    I think it is very odd that on the one hand our public authority wants an employee to have to disclose to it any cautions, which is a private matter (and not allowed) yet in an area where another type of employee, a member exists, they do have powers to protect the public via the CLPD but these were not fully understood and at best clumsily applied.

    I would like to recommend to your readers the democratic process Jacob and fellow members have put in place to have such measures discussed in council. I was granted the opportunity to speak to the policy and pre-decision scrutiny committee on a matter related to this.

    I would like to put on record my thanks to the chairman Guy Woodham, cabinet member Neil Prior, the committee members and the committee staff who were so supportive when allowing me to put my views before them and to the way the committee listened to them.

    If you have a point to make that is relevant to council matters please do not be afraid to ask for this opportunity. It can only enhance our democracy.

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