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

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 £12 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 £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 84 per cent of punishments and convictions entered on criminal records did not tally with the real punishments and convictions on court records. Three-quarters of the errors were so serious, the Met might face demands for compensation from incorrectly listed people if the records were released.

Now the government was preparing to release the records. Indeed it was about to make the careers of millions of people dependent on their veracity. The Met report was leaked. Despite strenuous efforts by senior officers to pretend its findings did not matter, the House of Commons home affairs committee began an inquiry. The launch of the Criminal Records Bureau was put back. Capita, parliament was told, would begin issuing "enhanced certificates" for people working with children in July 2001 and "basic certificates" for everyone else in 2002.

The committee found that the police records Capita would be relying on were in a dreadful state. "The manifest levels of Police National Computer error make us doubt whether it can support a system of criminal record certificates," it concluded. A wise government would have pulled the plug and accepted a few days of bad headlines. Instead, with the police promising to clean up their act, new Labour pressed on. Ominously, the minister in charge was now Lord Falconer of the Millennium Dome.

Mistakes in records can protect the guilty as well as libel the innocent, as Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, showed when he put a question to two of his members. "Off the top of your heads, can you think of any recent court cases involving criminals with form whose records were clean?" he asked. They came up with 13, including one man charged with wife-beating whose previous conviction for incest was unlisted and another man accused of attacking women whose previous convictions for sexual assault were missing. The computer had even mislaid convictions for paedophile sex.

As Whitehall wrestled with the problems of mass surveillance, the demands for vetting grew. There were stories in the papers about nannies hurting children, traffic wardens dealing in heroin, and minicab drivers doing both. Everyone from the Greater London Authority to the Daily Express was demanding vetting and demanding it now. The strain was too much. The launch of "enhanced" certificates for people working with children was pushed back from 2001 to 2002. The launch of "basic" certificates was postponed to 2003.

Seasoned observers of Capita were surprised when it managed to begin issuing "enhanced" certificates on time in 2002. Soon, however, they were back in the familiar rut of abject failure.

Vetting people working with children sounded simple enough: once you have checked the teachers and the children's home assistants that should be about it. Not so; on closer inspection it turned out that 3.2 million people worked with children. MPs began to receive complaints. The National Association of Clubs for Young People said it needed about 8,000 new volunteers annually, and wanted to know where it was to find the money to pay for vetting. The same question occurred to the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which depends on the help of 1.5 million volunteers. Going through the pasts of 400,000 teachers was a great bureaucratic task in itself, a task Capita couldn't manage. In the autumn term of 2002 schools could not open because the bureau had not yet positively vetted new staff. The demand for total security was putting lives at risk. Bob Russell, MP for Colchester, said that the vetting form sent in by a lollipop lady at Friar's Grove Junior School had languished unprocessed for six weeks. The school's head considered telling her that as he didn't think she would beat children to death with her lollipop she should just return to work. The council warned him he could be sued if he did.

The closure of schools created a scandal, and all Capita's resources were thrown into clearing the backlog. As one fell, another grew, and in September 2002, 102,000 "enhanced" checks on children's home staff, hospital paediatricians, social workers and probation officers were outstanding. Two months later the Home Office abandoned checks on nursing home and care home staff, as the bureau couldn't handle the demand. At the beginning of this month, the government quietly slipped into its bill for foundation hospitals proposals that would limit the requirement on the NHS to run "enhanced" checks on NHS staff.

Meanwhile the launch of "basic" checks on was postponed from 2003 to sometime-never. "Everything we predicted would go wrong, has gone wrong," said Fletcher. "And a lot of things we didn't predict would go wrong have gone wrong, too."

For Capita, the fiasco is a commercial disaster. It makes no money from the complicated "enhanced" checks, which run to 20 pages. These were meant to be loss-leaders for the routine but profitable "basic" checks, which have now been postponed indefinitely. Its managers now talk about pulling out of the contract. To keep them happy, Lord Falconer will have to go to Gordon Brown and beg for money to bail out Capita. If that prospect is too scary, he could always increase the fees people pay for a certificate to £20 or £30, or whatever it takes to give Capita a profit.

The remaining option is for the bureau to be abolished. Radio phone-in hosts will have attacks of the vapours, but then they don't have to pay the bills. Britain could then return to the system where head teachers talked to police officers, and Girl Guide leaders double-checked with friends of friends, and people in general found ways of coping with risk as best they could.