18 February 004 New guidelines on the Data Protection Act are being drawn up by the Home Office in a bid to prevent a repeat of the mistakes that led to the Soham murderer Ian Huntley landing a job as a primary school caretaker.
The so-called “soft intelligence” on people unconvicted of serous crimes will be retained and made available through a national database system for at least 10 years. A second database will then place a “flag” on the police national computer beside people about whom soft intelligence is available, according to reports.
Huntley was sentenced to life imprisonment in December for murdering school girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, after landing a job as a caretaker at a Cambridgeshire primary school. This was despite having been accused of nine sex crimes, including four rapes and the indecent assault of an 11-year-old girl, in Grimsby on Humberside.
Humberside Police was criticised for deleting information on Huntley because it believed that holding such data on unconvicted people breached data protection laws. Huntley was able to exploit this to apply for jobs with children elsewhere in the country, without potential employers being warned when they conducted background checks.
“The Huntley case has suggested the need for additional, and clearer, guidance to forces on the implications of the Data Protection Act on the retention and the use of criminal conviction and local intelligence information,” stated a memorandum to an inquiry on the failure of police intelligence in the Soham case.
However, calls for easier access to such intelligence has also provoked a response from trade unions and civil liberties groups, which are concerned that it could result in false and malicious claims against innocent individuals.
“Teachers are vulnerable to false, exaggerated and malicious allegations,” said Eamonn O’Kane, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT. “The procedures must not be such that they give credence to the view that an allegation is itself proof of guilt.”
Through the new databases, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) will be able to more thoroughly check the backgrounds of people who apply for jobs with children and police will able to identify patterns of criminal behaviour and more easily target likely offenders.
A pilot scheme is currently underway among police forces in the West Midlands, West Mercia and Staffordshire.