Sex offence checks not just for schools, lawyers warn

January 20, 2006

The employment of sex offenders in schools may have captured the headlines and dominated the political agenda, but universities cannot afford to turn a blind eye to concerns on their own doorsteps, legal experts have warned.

As Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, fought this week to save her political career amid the furore over sex offenders being given teaching jobs, experts told universities to also expect to find themselves in the spotlight.

All institutions should carry out a Criminal Records Bureau check on potential employees whose normal duties will include caring for or being in sole charge of minors. Taking on someone who is not allowed to work with children could lead to judicial action.

Further education colleges are more familiar with these issues because of the assumption that most of their members of staff will come into contact with students below the age of 18.

But in universities the whole area is much greyer.

Eversheds, an international law firm, said this week that universities had to be more vigilant because they were admitting more under-18s, as well as having more contact with them during summer schools, widening-access events and open days.

The company said higher education institutions often sought legal advice only when an emergency had arisen and they needed to eject a member of staff with a criminal past. Sara Sayer, a solicitor and education expert at the firm, said: "Universities are having to adapt to the culture that further education colleges have already had to adjust to and which they continue to adapt to."

She added: "Institutions cannot be complacent. The widening participation agenda has increased numbers of under-18s and vulnerable adults in colleges and universities, and institutions immediately have a heightened duty of care to individuals."

Many questions remain. Families hosting foreign students are not technically employed to work for a university but nonetheless have unsupervised access to students and may require checking.

There is some debate over whether builders and catering staff in an institution should also be subject to checks.

Students, too, may be a concern, with mature students living alongside under-18s in halls of residence.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application form encourages potential undergraduates to disclose any criminal records, but Eversheds pointed out that not everyone believed in full and frank disclosure.

Nick Saunders, an associate in Eversheds' student practice, said: "The Ucas form covers only non-spent convictions and does not cover cautions."

He added: "We do have concerns where the university sees that an applicant has ticked the (criminal record) box but does nothing about it. That is very worrying."

Lesley Paterson, an associate in the education law unit at Thorntons solicitors in Dundee, said: "All further education colleges should have some form of child protection policy. But in reality, some do and some don't. Some have taken the legislation (the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003) very, very seriously and are very advanced. Others have probably not even heard of it."

She added that an individual's name had to appear on the official sex offenders' list to ensure that they would be identified. "The problem is that ministers are involved in deciding who should appear on the list. This is where the system is flawed," she said.

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