Monday, 19 May 2008

Without due process

If your boss accuses you of theft or property damage, you'd rightly expect to be able to have your day in court. Well, this may be an expectation too far now that your employer can put you on a database of workers 'accused' of such misdemeanours.

BBC News reveals that later this month the National Staff Dismissal Register (NSDR) is expected to go live. Regardless of whether they have been convicted of any crime, 'suspects' can be added to an online database of workers accused of theft and dishonesty, which bosses can access when vetting potential employees.

Harrods, HMV, Mothercare, Selfridges and Reed Managed Services have already signed up to the scheme and by the end of May they will be able to check whether job candidates have faced allegations of stealing, forgery, fraud, damaging company property or causing a loss to their employers and suppliers.

Workers sacked for these offences will be included on the register, irrespective of whether police had enough evidence to convict them. Employees who resign before they face disciplinary proceedings at work will also be on the list.

Though the project attracted little publicity, the BBC News website reveals that trade unions and civil liberties campaigners are warning that it leaves workers vulnerable to the threat of false accusations.

Hannah Reed, TUC policy officer, says: "The TUC is seriously concerned that this register can only lead to people being shut out from the job market by an employer who falsely accuses them of misconduct or sacks them because they bear them a grudge. Individuals would be treated as criminals, even though the police have never been contacted.

"The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) already provides appropriate and properly regulated protection for employers. Under this register, an employee may not be aware they have been blacklisted or have any right to appeal."

James Welch, legal director of human rights group Liberty, says he is concerned that anyone falsely accused will not be offered sufficient redress: "This scheme appears to bypass existing laws which protect employees by limiting the circumstances when information about possible criminal activity can be shared with potential employers."

The initiative, set up by Hicom Business Solutions, is an Action Against Business Crime (AABC) initiative. AABC is "a Home Office supported body set up to help businesses better protect themselves against crime." The Home Office says it stopped funding the scheme last year, having granted it almost £1m during its first three years, but a Home Office spokeswoman says the register is a "commercial scheme" and it was not consulted.

Mike Schuck, chief executive of AABC and formerly of Scotland Yard, says that theft by members of staff costs the British economy billions of pounds each year and rejects the notion that the register is a blacklist.

He says that workers named on the AABC-maintained database will have the right, under the reputedly complex Data Protection Act, to change their entries if they are inaccurate. Should a dispute take place between an employee and an employer about whether an incident occurred, Mr Schuck adds, the worker will be able to appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which enforces the Act.

Is Britain sleepwalking into a dystopian nightmare of suspicion and fear, with society edging away from the burden of proof of guilt or liability towards a society where we are required to prove our innocence? The principle underpinning our legal system is that the citizen is free to go about his life without interference unless he is shown by due process of the law to have committed an offence. Only then can his liberties be curtailed.

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