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Some criminal records checks of B.C. civil servants improper, says privacy commissioner

Jul 26 2012

Some B.C. government employees are being subjected to illegal criminal record checks, the province’s privacy commissioner says.

An investigation by Elizabeth Denham’s office concluded Wednesday that the government is collecting too much personal information on prospective candidates, conducting criminal record checks for too many positions and failing to properly notify employees.

“This investigation is quite detailed, quite nuanced, but what we found was that the government was overly broad in its requirements for criminal record checks, and government was subjecting too many employees to re-checks,” said Denham, the independent information and privacy commissioner.

The province has repeatedly broken the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and must make changes to comply within a reasonable time, Denham said.

But the government brushed aside her claims.

“In striking a balance between the privacy interests of government employees and applicants, and the interests of citizens, government will side with protecting British Columbians and maintaining the public trust,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

“Government has a responsibility to ensure the citizens of British Columbia have trust and confidence in public service employees.”

The government strengthened its criminal record check policies in 2010 after the case of Richard Wainwright, a supervisor in the children’s ministry who was caught forging his criminal record check form with a fake name to cover up previous criminal convictions.

Wainwright was later convicted of forgery and defrauding the government, but the case became a scandal that led to more civil servants being subject to criminal record checks, in some cases as often as every five years or when they were promoted.

“One specific case can make bad policy,” Denham said.

As many as 85 per cent of the government’s 33,500 employees must now submit to criminal record checks, sometimes repeatedly.

That is too broad, said Denham. It is acceptable to check some employees in sensitive jobs, such as law enforcement officials, people with spending authority, senior executives, and those with access to sensitive and confidential information.

But it is not right to force checks upon workers who are “responsible for accessing personal information” because that can apply to virtually all government employees, Denham said.

Also, the government should not ask employees for new checks when they get transferred and does not have the authority to force repeated checks every five years, said Denham.

Copies of the fraudulent criminal record check form Wainwright gave to the government were introduced as evidence at his trial.

But Denham said the government should not keep that kind of information for longer than a year, and should not even hold on to copies of a person’s identification.

“There has to be a balance between an employer’s needs and an individual’s privacy rights,” said Denham.

“Although I completely understand and support the need for an employee to be clear of related criminal charges and convictions related to the job they are performing, I don't think there’s any special category for public employers versus private employers.”

Denham said she will next begin investigating the use of criminal record checks in the private sector, which may involve even more intrusive checks of a person’s police contact history that goes beyond criminal charges.


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