'Vulnerable at risk' in police fees

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 13/05/2013

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Predators and other criminals could more easily gain access to society's most vulnerable people if police plans to charge for vetting checks go ahead, voluntary organisations say.

Police propose charging for criminal background checks made on people in positions of trust, including teachers and caregivers who work with children, the disabled and the elderly.

They conduct more than 440,000 checks a year for 11,500 registered organisations, but say the checks are an "additional police service" that benefits private users.

The Government is considering amending the Policing Act 2008 to allow police to recover costs for some services - including the policing of concerts, airports, dealing with lost and found property, and providing diplomatic escorts - to free up funds for front-line policing.

"No decisions have yet been made," a spokesman said. "Police want to ensure any charges that could be put in place for certain services do not significantly impact on public safety and confidence in the services police provide."

The first proposal is to charge between $5 and $7 for a police vetting check, and up to $14 for an urgent check.

But the Teachers Council, Volunteering New Zealand, the IHC and Scouting New Zealand are among those concerned that this could prove debilitatingly expensive, dissuading smaller organisations from carrying them out.

IHC general manager HR and training David Timms said it did about 4500 checks a year, with a "good percentage" coming back red-flagging the applicant as a risk to the disabled.

"It certainly does concern us. It's a condition of employment that people don't get anywhere near anyone we work with until they've been cleared."

Charges would impose pressure on already stretched services, he said.

Police say there could be some exemptions for volunteers, registered charities or caregiver organisations working for Child, Youth and Family.

But Volunteering NZ chief executive Vanisa Dhiru said this would exclude employees of many of the 120-odd non-profit organisations it represented.

"That pressure of extra costs is going to affect budgets, it may have impacts on the number of employees and it could lead to service cuts."

There was a risk organisations that were not legally required to vet applicants might choose not to do so to save money, she said.

The Teachers Council gets the police to perform about 33,000 checks each year on new teachers, and those renewing teaching certificates.

Director Peter Lind said not only was this of significant public benefit, but was required by law. The cost to the council, which received only 4 per cent of its funding from Government, would be high.

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"Shifting the cost to the council would force teachers to pay for a service that benefits the general public . . . there is nothing in this proposal that will result in a more efficient and cost-effective system."

Police should focus on recovering the costs of policing commercial ventures such as concerts and sporting events before targeting the education system, he said.

Scouting New Zealand general secretary Murray Charlesworth said it vetted about 1000 people each year.

"This would be very destructive for us . . . it is absolutely vital, we have to be sure who we're letting in."

Wellington City Council, which vets about 350 people each year, including recreation and library staff, said charges would simply shift costs from the taxpayer to the ratepayer, and heavily disadvantage community groups.

Public consultation on the proposal closed in March. A police spokesman said 146 submissions were received, and Police Minister Anne Tolley would be briefed shortly.

WEEDING OUT

Vetting is used by organisations whose employees will have contact with vulnerable people, to perform a background check.

Only approved organisations can request a check. Many – such as Child, Youth and Family, the Teacher's Council, and the New Zealand Transport Agency – are legally required to.

Police performed 446,771 checks in the 2011-12 year.

Vetting checks are different to criminal record checks done through the Ministry of Justice. They can lead to information being released about violent or sexual behaviour that might not have led to a conviction, and allow police to "red-stamp" people who should not work with children.

- The Dominion Post

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