NHS employers should be aware of new rules on vetting people who work with children and vulnerable adults. Rachel Heenan explains

Margaret Flynn, who conducted the inquiry into the murder of Steven Hoskin in Cornwall in July 2006, made a valuable observation in her article on hsj.co.uk. Because the agencies involved were focusing on single issues within their own sectional remits, they overlooked important connections that could have helped them protect Steven, who had previously been identified as particularly vulnerable.

Despite the multi-agency adult protection guidance published by the Home Office and Department of Health in 2000 to prevent such failures, the same flaws are also implicit in the current vetting system. These flaws were highlighted by the conviction of Ian Huntley who, despite being vetted, had various previous allegations against him that were not disclosed.

The Bichard inquiry that followed the case recommended a central vetting process, built in partnership with the Criminal Records Bureau, for those working with children or vulnerable adults.

Flaws in the current system

The current system consists of several lists, including the Sex Offenders Register, List 99 and CRB checks. Unfortunately, these are compiled to slightly different criteria, making cross-referencing a lengthy process. For example, List 99 does not register cautions and these may only come to light after the CRB check. Further inadequacies came to light in 2007, when a BBC survey found that 68 per cent of trusts did not routinely check staff who began working before the CRB was set up in 2002.

The Bichard inquiry's recommendation for a central vetting process has now been accepted and the Independent Safeguarding Authority's scheme under the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 will go live from 12 October 2009.

The new system will apply to all employees and volunteers carrying out "regulated activity". This covers most activities that involve working directly with children or vulnerable adults, or data related to them.

Employees who carry out a "controlled activity", such as cleaning or catering, will not be required to register, but statutory guidance will be in place to clarify additional safeguards to monitor these employees. The nature of this guidance will be critical. It will not acceptable for the usual "woolly" text to be produced. It will need to be clear, practical and provide straightforward answers so people know where they stand. Too often, such guidance is as hard to interpret as the legislation itself and employers are deterred from properly vetting staff on cost and time grounds.

The 2006 act will introduce several key measures: a new centralised vetting and barring system to ensure all information is in one place, new barring criteria, online real-time checks against a single centralised list to replace paper checks, barring decisions to be made by an independent board of experts in the Independent Safeguarding Authority, and police monitoring and updates to be given to employers.

Practical implications

Those who carry out "regulated activity" will all need to apply to the CRB for Independent Safeguarding Authority registration. Registration is only required once and is set to cost£64. The CRB will collect all relevant information and the police will monitor the applicant.

Employers will be able to check the status of all those who are applying to work or already work with children or vulnerable adults online. If an employee becomes barred, the employer will be notified. The employer is legally obliged to report when an employee is dismissed because of evidence that he or she is a risk.

It will be an offence to employ someone to work with children or vulnerable adults who is barred from the register or who has not been through the new vetting process. Employers who ignore this could face a fine of up to£5,000.

Employees or volunteers who seek, offer or engage in "regulated activity" work despite being barred or having not been vetted risk five years in prison or a£5,000 fine.

Whether the new system will be an improvementremains to be seen. More workers will need to register under the scheme before obtaining employment. However, a centralised system where applicants will be checked against new criteria set by the Independent Safeguarding Authority before they can work with vulnerable people and the use of ongoing police monitoring should be a vast improvement on the current system. This is as long as there is consistency about the decisions that are made and clear and straightforward guidance is provided to employers so they can understand their new responsibility.