At least 20,000 people have been wrongly labelled as criminals or accused of more serious offences because of blunders by the police and the Criminal Records Bureau.
By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
6:20AM GMT 02 Feb 2012
The errors are contained in vetting checks meaning many may have been unfairly turned down for jobs or had their reputations shattered.
In at least 3,000 cases the police record of an entirely different person was passed on while more than 3,500 people discovered their entries on the police national computer (PNC) were inaccurate.
It means people are linked with crimes they never committed or have more serious offences than put against them than they committed.
It also raises the prospect that genuine criminals slip through the net if incorrect records are attached to their names.
Background checks are regularly carried out for employment applications and details can be sent directly to current or potential employers.
Those wrongly accused will almost certainly include people applying for posts such as teachers, nurses and care homes.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers who want to work with children or vulnerable adults will also have been affected.
The true number of people who were wrongly linked to crimes or misrepresented is ten times greater than annual Home Office figures suggest, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
The scale of errors made in background checks was only revealed through Freedom of Information requests.
Annual error statistics published by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) regularly suggested around 200 people are wrongly accused each year.
However, those figures only refer to errors made directly by CRB staff when carrying out checks and disclosing information.
Once errors made by other agencies who contribute to background checks, such as the police and education officials, are included, the figures run in to the thousands.
Since 2003, a total 19,551 disputes over inaccurate CRB checks have been upheld.
For 2010/11, the official inaccuracy figure stood at 172, but the new statistics show the true level of error for that year was 2,343.
In the last four years, it has been found that 3,509 people had inaccurate information on the PNC and 2,918 had the PNC record of the wrong person disclosed in a background check.
In another 3,547 cases wrong information had been recorded or passed on by police at a local level.
Errors will also include inaccurate or misleading details on cases where there was no conviction, such as someone being questioned for an alleged offence but never charged.
Some innocent people could have been labelled a threat purely because the police held inaccurate suspicions about them.
Cases of inaccurate data being passed on by the education vetting databases, which are also used in CRB checks, were also not counted in official figures.
Other errors will relate to inaccurate personal details such as the wrong spelling of a name or address.
The figures only go back to 2003, but the CRB was set up in 2002, suggesting that the number of blunders could be more than 20,000.
In 2008, a report for Civitas, a think tank, said the increasing use of such checks had created an atmosphere of suspicion among parents, many of whom were volunteers at sports and social clubs, and who found themselves regarded as “potential child abusers”.
In 2010, the Coalition scrapped Labour’s controversial plans for a new vetting and barring scheme that would have meant up to nine million people undergoing criminal record checks.
Even those just visiting a school, for example an author or politician, would have been vetted.
Ministers abolished the proposals as part of the new Government’s commitment to rolling back the surveillance state and restore some common sense to the vetting regime.
Josie Appleton, of the campaigning Manifesto Club, said some people would “almost certainly” have missed out on jobs as a result of the blunders.
“We know of cases of people being refused courses or jobs,” she said.
“It can take months for someone to clear their name and get the police to change basic errors. Companies will not wait months and will hire someone else instead.”
Ian Readhead, the spokesman on criminal records for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “There are tens of millions of criminal convictions on record.
“Each individuals record carries a vast amount of information and can be extremely complex.
“While we regret there will be some errors made, as a result of a number of inquiries including the Bichard Inquiry, and advances in technology, record keeping and data collection is far better and on the whole the accuracy is very good.”
A CRB spokeswoman said: “The CRB’s first priority is to protect children and vulnerable adults by helping employers recruit people into positions of trust. In the past four years, CRB checks have prevented 130,000 unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups.
“The inclusion of any incorrect information on certificates is clearly regrettable but only affects a very small minority of more than 4 million checks carried out each year. When a dispute is raised by an applicant, the employer is advised immediately so that no employment decision is taken based on the original information contained on the certificate.”