When Big Brother Just Can't Cope: The Criminal Records Bureau Was Meant to Make Us Safer by Checking the Pasts of Teachers and Social Workers. Now It's a Multimillion-Pound Disaster. (Features)

Article excerpt

By the end of the summer one of the most hubristic attempts at mass surveillance ever seen in this country will either be bailed out with tens of millions of pounds of public money--paid directly by citizens or indirectly, through the Treasury--or else it will be abandoned at a cost of hundreds of millions. The record of the Criminal Records Bureau is at one level a shocking tale of waste, but for civil libertarians it carries the consolation that, however scary the authoritarian laws pouring out of parliament may be, Whitehall is usually too inept to make them work.

The story begins in 1996, when the then Conservative government was being outflanked on the right by new Labour. Michael Howard, the home secretary, hit back with a string of hard-nosed crime policies. Alongside plans to impose curfews and fit electronic tags was a grandiose scheme to make millions of workers prove to their employers that they weren't criminals who might seize the scissors from the secretary and slaughter the marketing department.

The Criminal Records Bureau would provide "enhanced certificates" for people working with children, and "basic certificates" for the rest of the workforce. Eleven million people each year would be required to show that they were of good character by producing a piece of paper stating what crimes, if any, they had committed.

Howard's scheme received the support of all parties. A criminal conviction was a public event, they reasoned. In the days when local papers had the staff to cover magistrates' courts, everyone in the community knew if so-and-so had blotted on his copybook. Now they didn't, but maybe this was a substitute.

Outside parliament there were doubts. Prison reformers wondered how cons were meant to go straight if they had to admit to possible employers that they had a thieving past. The National Association of Probation Officers pointed out that informal networks already protected children. If head teachers or directors of social services wanted to reassure themselves about a potential employee, they could ask the local police to run the name through the Police National Computer or check to see if the employee's name was on a Whitehall blacklist, known as "List 99".

There was also a philosophical problem. English common law runs on the principle that the citizen is free to do whatever isn't illegal. Contrary to what you read in the press, most people are not criminals. Why should they have to pay a fee of [pounds sterling]l2 to obtain a certificate proving their innocence?

Such concerns troubled lawmakers as little in 1996 as they do today. The war on crime was raging and internet mania was starting to grow. If people with records couldn't get jobs, the prospect of unemployment would be a deterrent. Computing power would allow the state to show that it had its eye on everyone. Those who were nervous of crime would be comforted. Those who were tempted into crime would think again. There would be no escape route and only villains and their "airy-fairy" libertarian friends would wish to find one. The Criminal Records Bureau would begin issuing certificates in 1999. Capita, a support services company that has grown fat on the commercialisation of public service, was given a ten-year contract, worth about [pounds sterling]450m, to run it.

The power of new technology is limited by the "rubbish in, rubbish out" principle. Techno-utopians forget it at their peril. Their perennial error is to assume that because information is on screen it must be true. Perhaps their insouciance was forgivable in the case of the criminal records on the Police National Computer. After all, they were were among the gravest and most important data the state collected.

A secret internal audit by the Metropolitan Police in the spring of 1999 would have dispelled complacency if the Met had condescended to inform the public of its conclusions. It found that 84percent of punishments and convictions entered on criminal records did not tally with the real punishments and convictions on court records. …