The CRB was established under the Police Act 1997 following public concern about the safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults. It was found that the British police forces did not have adequate capability or resources to routinely process and fulfil the large number of criminal record checks requested in a timely fashion, so a dedicated agency was set up to administer this function. In 2007, the CRB processed 3.4 million checks.
An organisation which is entitled to ask exempted questions (under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974) must register with the CRB before they can request Disclosure data about an applicant. The individual applies to the CRB with their application countersigned by the organisation. The applicant's criminal record is then accessed from the Police National Computer (PNC), as well as checked, if appropriate, against lists of people considered unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable people maintained by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and others; these include the Protection of Children Act list (POCA), the Protection of Vulnerable Adults list (POVA) and List 99). Copies of completed disclosures are sent to the applicant and the countersignatory organisation.
The Standard Disclosure is primarily for positions involving regular contact with children or vulnerable adults, but can also be used for some other professions of high responsibility (for example, accountancy). Standard Disclosures reveal details of any convictions, cautions, reprimands and final warnings the applicant has received, regardless of length of time since the incidents; together with details of whether that person is banned from working with children or vulnerable adults (if these details have been requested). The CRB aims to issue Standard Disclosures within 10 days of receipt of the application.
Enhanced Disclosure is for positions involving greater contact with children or vulnerable adults (for example, doctors, social workers, nursing home staff and even medical students) and for certain additional professions (for example, judicial appointments). In addition to the information provided on a Standard Disclosure, the Enhanced Disclosure involves an additional check with the police, who check if any other information is held on file that may be relevant (for instance, investigations that have not led to a criminal record). The police decide what (if any) additional information will be added to the Disclosure. In rare circumstances the police may write to the employer separately giving confidential information about an ongoing criminal investigation into the applicant. This information may not be released to the applicant and the employer cannot reveal it to them. The CRB aims to issue Enhanced Disclosure within 28 days of receiving the application, however the involvement of local police forces can affect the time taken to process an Enhanced Disclosure application.
Employers and temporary staff agencies have bemoaned the time it takes it takes for a worker to be cleared by the CRB and in an effort to cut waiting times the government allowed the establishment of "POVAFirst". Registered bodies may check whether an applicant appears on the POVA list through this online checking system, which takes around two working days to turn around. If the check is clean the body may provisionally employ the applicant, subject to an increased level in supervision, until the return by post of the full disclosure.
A third form of disclosure, the "Basic Disclosure", is not currently available, but is intended for individuals to obtain copies of their own criminal record, though members of the public can currently do this by requesting 'subject access' under the Data Protection Act from any British police force, regardless of where the subject lives.
One of the main reasons for the formation of the Criminal Records Bureau was to reduce the risk of organisations being sued for employing convicted criminals who went on to abuse vulnerable people while in the course of their duty, as the 1990s saw an increase in the American-influenced compensation culture across Britain.
The CRB was criticised for ineffectiveness in late 2003 following the Soham Murders trial. Ian Huntley, a former caretaker found guilty of murdering two girls of a Cambridgeshire secondary school, was found to have been suspected of a string of offences including rape, indecent assault and burglary. His only conviction before the murders was for riding an uninsured and unlicensed motorcycle, but a burglary charge had remained on file. The CRB, as well as Humberside and Cambridgeshire police forces, came under heavy criticism for their failure to stop Huntley from slipping through the net.
Sociologist Frank Furedi has stated that CRB checks cannot provide a "cast-iron guarantee that children will be safe with a particular adult", and that their use has created an atmosphere of suspicion and is "poisoning" relationships between the generations, with many ordinary parents finding themselves regarded as "potential child abusers". The restrictions imposed by the CRB check process have contributed to a shortage of adult volunteers in organizations such as the Girl Guides.
From 2009, the newly created Independent Safeguarding Authority will require all adults who work or volunteer in positions where they come into contact with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted, a group which is said to comprise 11.3 million people (a quarter of the adult population).
The equivalent agency in Scotland is Disclosure Scotland