Most employers assume there are stringent procedures in place to ensure that criminal records checks are always performed correctly. With such checks being carried out by a government run body, it’s a fair assumption to make – if you apply for a replacement driving licence, the DVLA have tight safeguards to ensure that you are the person you claim to be.
Unfortunately this does not apply with criminal records checks. Identity checking is vital, and it’s something which the Disclosure and Barring Service, or DBS (formerly CRB) leaves to others to be carried out.
Although the DBS has issued guidance on what forms of documentation should be required before an application is submitted, it is still the case that when a DBS check is conducted, the check is simply carried out against the identity provided on the application. The identity is taken at face value. This leaves a gap in the vetting process – without fully verifying a candidate’s identity prior to requesting a DBS check, there is the risk of having the wrong person’s criminal history being looked into. It seems an unusual risk but it is one that, particularly in the case of schools, could carry grave consequences.
In 2012, a man by the name of James Ekpa obtained a false passport and a fake national insurance card in the name of Kevin Ntini, claiming to be a South African national. Mr Ekpa’s successful use of fraudulent documents meant that when he applied for work, his prospective employers carried out enhanced criminal records checks on Mr Ntini, which came back clean. As a result, Mr Ekpa obtained work at two separate special needs schools for over three years. It was only when caught shoplifting that his true identity was revealed – indeed he may have gone undetected had he not committed this particular crime. Thankfully, in this example, Mr Ekpa was only concealing the fact that he did not have the right to work in the UK (and nothing worse), but it acts to demonstrate how serious identity fraud can be when it comes to hiring staff in schools.
Stringent identity checking is therefore crucial. It is estimated that there are 20 million false identities in circulation in the UK, with false identity documents easily obtainable and often indistinguishable from the genuine article. It is not unusual, for example, for stolen passports to be altered to provide someone who is not a British citizen with a ‘genuine’ document.
It’s important that schools ensure that they either have specially trained staff and specialist equipment to carry out checks, or use specialist external bodies to carry out such checks for them. As a matter of strict legal compliance, a school does not have to take these extra measures – it will not be liable if it has taken reasonable steps to verify the identity of an employee. When the safety of children is at stake, however, you would expect that institutions such as independent schools would hope to achieve more than “strict legal compliance”.
As a matter of reputation, too, it seems unlikely that an independent school insisting that it had taken “reasonable steps” would satisfy many fee-paying parents. It is therefore unsurprising that identity checking is becoming a hot topic, with plenty of schools now beginning to carry out thorough identity checks at the start of the vetting process. This confirms that the applicant is who they say they are, and allows the school to continue safe in the knowledge that they are carrying out subsequent checks on the correct person.
Eamon Jubbawy is a cofounder of Onfido, an employment screening company that helps employers reduce risks in the hiring process.