Last reviewed 17 August 2015

As recently as 13 years ago, any checks made on people who spent their lives working with children or vulnerable adults were handled in a very casual fashion. Following a number of high-profile abuse cases that drew attention to serious deficiencies in the checking process, ongoing improvements were made, eventually resulting in the formation of the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). In this article, Michael Evans, education consultant, looks at the work of this important agency and how it is likely to develop over the next few years.

What the DBS does

The DBS is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) sponsored by the Home Office and reporting to Home Office ministers. It has a staff of 750 and operates from two sites, in Liverpool and Darlington.

Its function is to provide information to help employers and other organisations make informed decisions to prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable groups.

In order to achieve this, two lists are maintained.

  • People barred from engaging in a regulated activity with children.

  • People similarly barred from working with adults.

The DBS is responsible for deciding whether persons should be included on one or both lists, or whether their names should be removed.

Two levels of criminal record certificate are issued by the DBS: standard and enhanced. These are commonly known as “disclosures”. An Update Service has been developed and this has enabled portability of certificates. This is of particular use for people such as supply teachers and those who work for a number of employers. The Update Service continually checks and updates criminal record data.

Structures are in place to control who has access to sensitive information and a register is maintained of organisations permitted to submit applications for certificates.

There is a close relationship between the DBS and the 52 UK police forces and other law enforcement agencies, including those in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Individual forces are responsible for determining the relevancy of information for inclusion on enhanced certificates and providing information that will enable the DBS to make barring decisions.

The statistics are mind-blowing.

  • Over 57,000 individuals are now on the adults and/or children’s barred list.

  • Every year around 4.1 million certificates are issued and over 800,000 applications for volunteer positions are processed.

  • Around 24,000 automatic barring (or autobar) cases are considered each year, along with more than 6500 discretionary referrals.

Referrals and autobar cases

Discretionary referrals can be made to the DBS by any member of the public. However, most come from employers or regulatory bodies where there is a legal duty to make a referral to the DBS, following harm or risk of harm to a child or vulnerable adult by an individual. This also applies if the individual concerned has been dismissed, or would have been dismissed if they had not previously left.

Once a referral has been made, there is a detailed process to establish whether or not it is appropriate for the individual to be barred from regulated activities. A major consideration in the final decision is whether a reasonable member of the public, given full knowledge of the facts of the case, would accept the ruling as an appropriate outcome.

Autobar cases occur where a person has been:

  • cautioned or convicted for a “relevant offence”; or

  • issued with a “risk of sexual harm order” by the Home Office.

Legislation dictates that in these cases the DBS must automatically consider including the person in the barred lists.

Relevant offences are defined in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 and a number of subsequent statutory instruments. There are a great many of these relevant offences and they chiefly involve sexual activity or violence.

There are two kinds of Autobar cases.

  • Barring without representations — where the offence is very severe, in which case, barring will be automatic with no right to appeal.

  • Barring with representations — where an individual might feel that it would be inappropriate or disproportionate to be included in one or both lists.

Since barring can be for life, it is usually in the individual’s best interests to make representations where possible. These representations can include:

  • the judge’s summing up

  • an explanation of the offending behaviour

  • any mitigating factors

  • medical reports

  • professional references

  • character statements.

The DBS will then review the evidence and consider whether the person might in future engage in regulated activity. Where there is doubt, further evidence can be sought. This is a four-stage process and, at any stage, it might be decided to close the case without adding the individual’s name to the list.

Although the large majority of cases will be determined at caseworker level, a small number of complex cases will go before the DBS Board Quality Standards Committee for a final review. Unless an individual has been barred without representations, a barred person can appeal on the grounds of “error of fact” or “error of law”.

A barred person has the right to request a review after a minimum period has elapsed. For those under the age of 18 when barred, this period is one year; for those aged 18 to 24, the period is five years; those aged 25 and over must wait for 10 years before they can appeal.

Future developments

As part of the DBS’s three-year strategic plan, improvements in technology will aim to use less paper, thus reducing cost and risk and hopefully allowing staff to manage cases faster. A web portal is also to be introduced that will allow the DBS to issue digital certificates and notifications. Authentication will be simplified and online payment systems will be offered.

The DBS is entirely self-funded by fees from criminal record checks and receives no government grants. It aims to ensure appropriate cost recovery across all of its products. The Home Office is keen to offer the DBS service provision for delivery of other disclosure and barring-related services across the whole of government.

Although the DBS is yet to reach its third birthday, it is obviously an NDPB that is destined to grow and grow.