A recent political scandal in Scotland involving the SNP Finance Secretary and texts sent to teenage boys has seen renewed calls for disclosure checks for anyone taking public office. Although in the case of the SNP politician there has been no arrest, no charge and no prosecution, politicians from other parties have tabled a motion to add elected representatives into the list of people who require enhanced disclosure checks. Similar calls have been made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What has come as a surprise to most members of the public is that this isn’t done already.
What Checks Are Made in Politicians?
Currently, there is no legal requirement to do any background checking at all on people who put themselves up for election as a MP, local councillor or member of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Political parties of all persuasions have their own policies and procedures for checking up on candidates for election. They have the legal right to ask for basic disclosure checks only, which confirm a candidate’s unspent convictions or cautions. Some parties ask for basic disclosure checks, others don’t. Each has its own ways of background checking and internal vetting of candidates.
Standard and Enhanced Disclosures
The call for politicians to be included on the list of people who need a standard or enhanced disclosure raises all sorts of legal issues. At present, only people who work in positions involving looking after vulnerable adults or children, or some jobs in finance and law require a standard or enhanced disclosure. The law would therefore have to be changed to add politicians into the list. It also raises questions about how the system would work in practical terms – would all candidates be vetted and DBS checked before election, or would the disclosure checking be done after they win the vote?
Another important point to bear in mind is that a clear DBS check is no guarantee of any future conduct. If someone has a clear criminal record at one point in time, they may still go on to commit offences in the future. Similarly, someone who has distant criminal convictions from their teenage years may be a totally different person in their 40s. One way of ensuring that convictions are always up to date is to ask people to sign up to the Update scheme. This gives access to a live database, which is updated if and when any new information is recorded by the police.
It seems unlikely that we will be seeing any changes in the DBS system soon to require detailed background checking of all elected representatives. The requirement would add further pressure to the system and hold up checks for other key workers such as teachers or nurses. Many experts also believe that too much emphasis is placed on DBS certificates, which are only accurate at one given point in time. An approach which considers a range of factors to assess a candidate’s suitability is far more effective.