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Making me violent

What happens when the Criminal Records Bureau gets things wrong

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

When the Criminal Records Bureau says you’re a violent criminal, it’s not easy to put the record straight. Recently, I decided to volunteer with The Samaritans. It won’t surprise you to hear I found out a good deal about myself in the process. What might surprise you is that what I found out was that I was a violent criminal.

The revelation came after I’d sent off my details for what is know as an ‘enhanced disclosure’ check by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). Anyone who applies to work with children or vulnerable adults is usually checked, so I wasn’t anxious about it at all. In fact, by the time the results came back, I’d already passed the selection process, completed the training and done a few shifts taking calls from vulnerable people. Then the CRB came back. The enhanced disclosure for me contained the following conviction details. ‘Threatening abusive behaviour to cause harassment/alarm/distress on -Public Order Act 1986 S.4A(1)’. This -conviction was recorded, according to the CRB, in Criminal Court Number 1 in Alicante, Spain on 1 October 1990. In the field marked ‘Disposal’ are the words: ‘Imprisonment 1Yr.’

This was a shock. I have never been convicted of any crime and never been in prison, in Britain, Spain or any other country. And a number of distinctly peculiar facts surrounded the whole affair. First, I had already had a CRB check relatively recently, carried out for Kingston Council when I volunteered for a child mentoring scheme, but no one spotted my ‘conviction’ then. What if I had been a violent convict with a genuine record? How did I ever get to be left alone with vulnerable children? And if the conviction had appeared afterwards, how come it had been backdated to 1990?

Another odd fact is that I have been to Spain several times since 1990. Spanish immigration clearly had no reason to stop me entering the country on two separate press trips this year. So the Spanish don’t seem to have a record for me. It also seems odd that a Spanish court would have handed down a sentence quoting the UK Public Order Act of 1986.

But almost more baffling and shocking than my new criminal status was just how difficult and frustrating it was to get the police to acknowledge and correct their mistake.

If and when this happens to you, clearing your name isn’t easy. Once you have a police record, the burden of proof is on you to prove your innocence — which is difficult when the crime took place two decades ago in another country. I pointed out to the police that I had in fact been working as a communications officer in a London police station at the time that the CRB said I was in prison in Spain — but they would not consider this ‘evidence’. So much for ‘working together for a safer London’.

Next I tried calling the official 0870 disputes line. The call centre staff made me repeat my story several times over — ruinously expensive from a mobile phone. But calling from the office landline wasn’t an option, and the ironically named ‘customer services’ email address listed on the website doesn’t work.

Name? Date of birth? Last four digits of your criminal record? Are you saying your criminal record isn’t accurate? Whose is it? The call centre operator assumed I’d know whose criminal record I had inherited. Why? Perhaps because all us criminals all know each other.

Eventually, I was told to fill in a four-page dispute form. In Form AF15 I set out the reasons why I wanted to dispute the CRB record, forked out for three passport photos and packed all the relevant documents off to the Data Source Disputes department at the CRB address in Liverpool. Then I waited. For months.

It’s awful having a record, even a bogus one, hanging over your head. When I heard nothing back from the CRB, I took matters into my own hands and consulted my MP, Ed Davey. He fired off some letters. But all he got back was what looked like standard responses explaining how the CRB works.

Eventually, several months after I started the process, I phoned Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show to confront the Met Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who was appearing as a guest. Was it a coincidence that two days later, in November 2011, someone from Scotland Yard phoned and asked me to pop into my local police station?

The forensic officer at Kingston police station couldn’t understand why I was upset about the CRB mistake. She kept saying things along the lines of ‘Never mind, you can appeal’ and ‘they probably just typed up your records wrongly’. As if a specific allegation, quoting a specific public order act, could be a typing error. Nice to see a forensic mind in action. But at the time I was too concerned about clearing my name to quibble.

On 1 March 2012, the CRB wrote to say that ‘We agree that the disclosure is inaccurate.’ Also attached was a narrow strip of paper, which was an extract of a letter that had been severely redacted to prevent me seeing most of the details and even the author. Fingerprints were requested from Spain, said the extract. ‘Since a response was received that no picture or fingerprint material was available, a decision has been to remove this conviction from the Police National Computer. We now consider this dispute closed.’ No admission that the record was false, just a grudging acceptance that they’d have to change their record — for all the world as if I were a criminal who’d got off on a technicality. Certainly no apology.

And it’s not as if my case is an anomaly. Last year 172 people discovered that they had been wrongly given criminal records, according to a disclosure that the CRB made to the Daily Telegraph. And the forensic officer who took my prints breezily told me I was the fifth person she’d seen that week. It’s an incredible attitude: this casual approach to potentially life-ruining mistakes.

I thought we were all supposed to be encouraged to volunteer in these cash-strapped times. What about the Big Society? I will think twice before sticking my neck out again. Another thing: given that the police got my records wrong, how many violent sociopaths have they given the all-clear to work with children and vulnerable adults?

Well, in the meantime, my record with the CRB must have been amended, as I’ve just been summoned for jury service at Kingston Crown Court. The problem is, I’m not sure I’ll be able to believe anything the police say.

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