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February 26 2020

Royal college failed to carry out hundreds of background checks

The Royal College of Psychiatrists suspended some activities last year after it realised it had not carried out background checks for more than 350 staff and patient representatives, reveals the HSJ.

HSJ understands the college had to put meetings of several of its committees on hold in September, while it carried out Disclosure and Barring Service checks on 374 people, including employees and patient and carer representatives.

Emails seen by HSJ show the college contacted its patient and carer representatives — often current or former mental health patients or carers it pays to help form policy and visit providers as part of accreditations — in October and November last year, asking them to fill in application forms for DBS checks.

The checks are ongoing but it is unclear how much of the college’s work remains suspended.

Some of the representatives had been working with the college for several years and been in contact with other vulnerable people at its committees or focus groups around the UK, HSJ has been told. 

The college confirmed to HSJ it was carrying out the outstanding background checks, but declined to say why they were missed, which staff groups were affected, and which activities had been suspended.

Robert Walker, who co-chaired the RCP’s now-disbanded “patients committee” for two years, told HSJ he did not have a DBS check in the five years he worked as a patient representative.

Mr Walker said: “As a vulnerable person I was amazed that a leading royal college or charity involved in mental health had not met the core principles of safeguarding.

“It’s a major issue because any vulnerable person with a physical or mental illness should be given appropriate safeguarding to protect them from psychological or physical abuse. The effect of them not applying checks is that it can put people at risk.”

The issue delayed the college’s plans to reform the role of its patient and carer representatives. These involve halving the number of representatives it uses from 300 to 150, but formally recruiting them as college employees and increasing their standard day rate from £100 to £140.

On 11 October, the college wrote to representatives to say that “in the light of updated guidance from the Charity Commission, we decided that only staff and patient and carer reviewers who have the minimum required DBS checks would be able to undertake college activity that brings them into contact with children and vulnerable adults”.

The email continued “administrative challenges… meant that we have been unable to carry out the checks as quickly as we would have liked”.

On 20 December, the college chief executive Paul Rees said in a further email that 120 of the 374 checks were completed, but the DBS checks meant the move to employed representatives was “unfortunately delayed”.

A Royal College of Psychiatrists spokeswoman said: “We are currently in the process of carrying [out] our DBS checks in line with recommendations with the Charity Commission for all our staff, patient and service user representatives and are due to conclude this work imminently.”

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “We previously engaged with the Royal College of Psychiatrists in May 2019 in relation to a safeguarding incident. The charity did the right thing when they reported the incident to the Commission and the trustees confirmed they were making a number of changes to their policies, including around DBS checks for patient and carer representatives, at the time. We followed-up with the charity on these changes, and based on the information provided to the Commission at the time, did not find further cause to engage. Should any further concerns come to light we would assess them.

 “More generally, protecting people from harm should be an absolute governance priority for all charities – this starts with having robust safeguarding policies in place and, crucially, ensuring they are followed.”