Why do so many misunderstand DBS?

The Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) check, formerly Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), is widely used throughout the voluntary and community sector to involve volunteers but I never cease to be surprised at how often it is misused, either through misunderstanding or deliberately.

At the Hammersmith & Fulham Volunteer Centre, we are an authorised umbrella DBS checking service and also provide advice and support to volunteer involving organisations around DBS. We work with DBS needs and questions every day.

I was in a meeting the other day with a range of organisations and stakeholders who provide support and education services to children. The topic of DBS came up and the over-cautious nature of lots of organisations who require unnecessary DBS checks. One person in the meeting correctly said that is actually unlawful to ask for a DBS when it is not required as you are breaking the person’s human rights. Another person then said yes but that they always ask for it for any volunteer role. Even though it’s unlawful? Asked the first person. Yes, absolutely.

This happens a lot. I mean, really a lot. I should not be shocked by this, but I was still was. Not by the point of view, as I’ve heard it often, but the audacity and brazenness of saying it so openly to a large number of other professionals.

Working in our sector, I have heard so many excuses and reasons about why an organisation is requesting a DBS when actually they should not do so. A trend I’ve experienced is that the larger the organisation the more likely it is ask for unnecessary DBS checks. This is probably explained by the more litigious-aware these larger organisations are.

The normal expectation is that a larger organisation should better understand DBS requirements, but many do not and offer up ripostes like the following to counter us saying a DBS is not necessary:

  • “It’s our policy that DBS are needed” – even though it’s unlawful and you are breaking someone’s human rights? Yes, apparently. Sorry to break it to you, but the law trumps your policies.
  • “Our insurance says we need it” – when people say this they expect an end to the discussion and so are surprised when we challenge this. Often insurances do not actually require it, but the person whose in charge of arranging insurance for the organisation requires it. This is fine if they know when a DBS is needed but often they do not and take a zero risk approach. You can understand this, but the zero risk approach is against DBS eligibility rules.

  • “If there is even a potential that a person might be left alone with a child or vulnerable person, then we cannot take that risk” – There is a lot of hysteria around DBS and people mistakenly believe if you spend or could possibly spend 1 second alone with a child or vulnerable person you need a DBS. I recently received an email from a large organisation that said, ‘We will not allow anyone who is not DBS checked have any interaction with members of the public in any circumstances.’ This is simply wrong. You need to take a practical approach, rather than an unlawful overkill DBS approach. If I was alone at a bus stop on a quiet street with a child or vulnerable adult, would I need a DBS. No, of course not.

So why do we have this problem? Yes, DBS is a little complicated and open to interpretation but at the root of the issue is organisations and people covering their bottoms … or risk management in polite terms. Requiring DBS checks means an organisation reduces its risk if one of its staff or volunteers violates or abuses a vulnerable person. When I say reduces the risk, the main risk concerned is how much they might be sued and their reputational risk. If they can say they carried out all the good practice to reduce the risk of it happening then they can reduce the damage as if they do not, it could be game over for that charity.

So, does a DBS actually reduce the risk of something actually happening? Probably a little, if you believe people who offend are likely to offend again. Reoffending rates are always open to interpretation but overall government reoffending rates are at about 30%.

But here are some things to consider about DBS checks and what they actually give you or rather do not give you:

  • Just because someone has a clear DBS does not mean they are not a risk, they could have done criminal acts but never got caught. To give an extreme example, Jimmy Saville would have got a clear DBS check.
  • A DBS check is only good at the point the check was taken. Someone could have done something afterwards. So how often do you check? There is no legal requirement but good practice suggests every 3 years. DBS checks do not have an expiry date.

  • If someone does not have a clear DBS check, then you cannot discriminate because of a conviction or other information revealed. Check here for government guidance and a sample policy on recruiting ex-offenders

At the bottom of this article I have given information and links for the three levels of DBS checks and where to check for eligibility.

North Yorkshire Council have a great new emergency volunteer project (Ready for Anything), funded by Nesta and DCMS, that deals very well with DBS issues. As you might imagine, Emergency Management teams are ‘super’ risk averse as they will not do anything that risks extra trauma for those affected by an emergency. They are great teams that really do fantastic work and I have been super impressed with what they do as we deliver our own emergency volunteer programme CAMERA. However, my experience is that these emergency management teams do not know DBS rules well so they take the zero/minimum risk option and say DBS must be required for all volunteers, even if it is not necessary.

Well not so in North Yorkshire! They have spent a lot of time investigating and clarifying the need for DBS and insurance arrangements. The emergency volunteers will be involved in ancillary roles, e.g. in a rest centre, making cups of tea, directing people, giving out information, sorting out donations and helping to tidy up. They will never be alone with anyone and always supervised by a manager who is trained and DBS checked. Therefore, no DBS is required and so will enable more local people to be involved in supporting when an emergency takes place. This approach is how it should be. They are taking a very realistic and pragmatic approach to managing the risk.

If you are not sure about DBS then check the government guidance or speak to an authorised DBS umbrella body. The Hammersmith & Fulham Volunteer Centre is a DBS umbrella body and can offer DBS help and advice for volunteers, VIOs and employers.

Also be aware that the DBS service will likely change at some point after it lost its appeal in January 2019, where the Supreme Court ruled the service breached human rights. See BBC article here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47054647

The three types of DBS check:

Basic DBS

This check will only show convictions that are not ‘spent’, for example some types of caution will disappear after 3 months.

Basic DBS checks can be used for any position or purpose, however certain roles may require a higher level of check. Basic DBS checks cost £25 for all applicants including volunteers and can be carried out by the person/applicant here (https://www.gov.uk/request-copy-criminal-record).

For anything above a basic check, there are strict eligibility criteria and the government provides guidance and eligibility checker tool here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/dbs-eligibility-guidance


This check shows spent and unspent convictions, cautions, reprimands and final warnings.

This check needs to be carried out by the volunteer involving organisation (VIO) (or through a DBS umbrella body like the Hammersmith and Fulham Volunteer Centre) and cannot be carried out by the volunteer themselves.

There is no cost to the volunteer for having this check carried out, but the VIO will need to pay for the administration of this check.


This shows the same as a standard check plus any information held by local police that’s considered relevant to the role.

In rare occasions, there is also an enhanced check with a check of the barred lists, which shows the same as an enhanced check plus whether the applicant is on the adults’ barred list, children’s barred list or both. This article helps for when a barred lists check is required: https://www.ucheck.co.uk/the-dbs-barred-lists-when-to-do-a-check/

This check needs to be carried out by the volunteer involving organisation (VIO) (or through a DBS umbrella body like HFVC) and cannot be carried out by the volunteer themselves.

There is no cost to the volunteer for having this check carried out, but the VIO will need to pay for the administration of this check.

Published by Dominic Pinkney

Expert on volunteering, CEO of Camden and Hammersmith & Volunteer Centres as well as not-for-profit social enterprise Works4U

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