Examination of Witnesses (Questions 107
MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2001
CLARKE MP, MR
107. Thank you, Mr Clarke, for making time to
come and see us. We do understand the difficulties of your busy
life. Thank you too for your letter explaining why the Committee
had not been told at the same time as the written PQ was being
answered. We were delighted, of course, with the decision which
has now been taken not to charge volunteers for checks, which
was one of the principal concerns not just of this Committee but
of those working in the voluntary sector, above all in this United
Nations Year of Volunteering. We welcome that.
(Mr Clarke) Could I reinforce that apology
to the Committee, Chairman? We had intended to make an announcement
during the course of last week before the hearings of this Committee,
to whom some credit is due for the whole process, but at the end
of the day sorting out the final detail was complicated in terms
of giving the answer, it happened at the last moment on that day,
and it was an oversight on my part entirely, for which I can only
apologise and hope you can understand in the circumstances.
108. You might just say to Ms Hetherington that
I am also a Member of Parliament; she forgot to acknowledge that.
(Mr Clarke) I will pass that on.
109. It did come as a very pleasant surprise
and a shock because only three weeks previously the Prime Minister
in reply to a question I put to him during Prime Minister's Question
Time denounced the suggestion that this charge should be free
as being something which would not happen. I am delighted that
all the efforts you obviously put in behind the scenes to convince
him of the error of his ways proved to be successful.
(Mr Clarke) The Government's policy was set out by
the Prime Minister in that exchange but, as I think he also acknowledgedI
do not have Hansard in front of mewe were going through
in some detail a consideration of the very large number of responses,
and I certainly put on the record on a number of occasions that
we had heard the various submissions by a wide range of organisations
and a wide range of Members of this House and we were considering
that very carefully.
Bob Russell: Chairman, I hear what the Minister
says, but that is not quite what the Prime Minister said in reply
to my question, but I am delighted the Minister here was able
to convince the Government his line was the correct one.
Chairman: The fact the Minister is persuasive
is no surprise to us.
Bob Russell: I am delighted that is the case.
110. Minister, you gave an answer to Mr Wyatt
on 6th February, last week, when you said, "Consideration
of the appropriate regime and structure for other users of jury
services ..."no, that is not the right quote but you
gave a non-committal reply.
(Mr Clarke) The answer we gave, I think a day later,
on the 7thI am speaking from memorywas pursuant
to that answer.
111. Can I put it to you, Minister, it seems
rather curious you should have given a very non-committal reply
on one day, following it up the following day with this breath-taking
announcement, and in your letter to the Chairman of the Committee
you say, "Matters moved rapidly yesterday, once we found
the way was clear to make an announcement". Can you share
with us the way in which matters moved rapidly at the Home Office?
(Mr Clarke) As the Committee will be aware, matters
always move rapidly at the Home Office, that is the way we like
to work, but the fact is in this situation we were very conscious
of the fact this Committee was meeting and was taking evidence
last week from the voluntary organisations, and this week from
myself and my colleagues. By the way, I have omitted to introduce
them, Chairman, and I would like to do that.
112. I should have asked you to do that.
(Mr Clarke) Bernard Herdan is the Chief Executive
of the Criminal Records Bureau, and I would like publicly to pay
tribute to the work he has done in bringing the project to this
particular point; he has been very committed to it and very successful
with it. Bob Wright is the Head of the Criminal Records Section
of the Home Office and is an official of the Home Office. What
happened was, we were aware we would be giving evidence this week,
and I think you are also taking evidence this week from the Data
Protection Commissioner, and we thought it was important we should
give youwe had been working on it for some timethe
most up-to-date information we could about this important matter
about which we had very substantial representations. So we had
been clear for sometime we wanted to make a final announcement
of the Government position before this Committee met, ie last
week. The reason why we had the rapid events to which Mr Howarth
refers is that we thought on reflection at the beginning of last
week that if we could make it clear to the National Council of
Voluntary Organisations, which was having its AGM last week and
had made many representations, as the Committee will be aware,
that would be a better way of proceeding than doing it towards
the end of the week. So we had substantial discussions within
the Home Office and also between the Home Office and other government
departments, particularly the Treasury, to see if we could secure
the agreements necessary to make the announcement we did, and
that is how the process
113. What I quoted to you earlier was not the
answer you gave on 5th February, I apologise, but you gave a very
non-committal answer on 5th February, only the day before, and
I am curious as to why your officials decided to answer that question
the day before, given they were working, as you say, very rapidly,
knowing that the NCVO conference was going to take place on the
(Mr Clarke) The point of non-trivial correction is
that I made that decision, not my officials. The reason I say
it is non-trivial is that certainly all the answers I give are
ones I personally approve at least, and sometimes amend and put
down. The reason I decided to do that was it seemed to me to give
anything other than a non-committal answer, when one was not in
a position to make a full statement, was mistaken; hence the non-committal
answer. The alternative is to delay answering the question entirely,
which I prefer not to do in generalthere are occasions
when it happens but I prefer as a matter of practice normally
to try and give an answer even if non-committal rather than not
give one. The reason why the first answer referred to making a
statement, as indeed it did, was an indication of the fact we
were hoping shortly to be able to make a statement, which is what
114. All frightfully plausible, Minister, and
of course it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the
Department got wind of the fact Mr Hague was going to make an
announcement at the NCVO conference to say the next Conservative
Government would not charge fees. That, of course, did not enter
your consideration at all?
(Mr Clarke) I think you sum up the position quite
accurately, as a matter of fact. What we had got wind of was two
Government Ministers at least were participating in the eventmy
Rt Hon friend, the Secretary of State for Education and my Rt
Hon friend, the Minister of State dealing with volunteering, Paul
Boateng, as indeed was the Leader of the Opposition, I subsequently
discoveredand we felt it was important, as I said, that
at the NCVO event we were able to set out the position clearly.
I did not know quite frankly whether we would be in a position
to make the position as clear as we could before the NCVO event,
but I was keen that we should if we could.
115. Did you know at that point William Hague
had intended to make this announcement?
(Mr Clarke) I personally discovered the Leader of
the Opposition was going to be at the NCVO event at the beginning
of that week; last week. I saw press speculationI cannot
remember whether there was press speculation but certainly speculationhe
would make an announcement around this particular aspect before
we finally made the announcement at the end of the Tuesday. As
I say, the principal concern was we always were going to say whatever
we were going to say, if I can put it like that, before the meeting
of this Committee because it was important to do that. We decided
to try and see if we could get to a final decision before the
NCVO event because a large number of organisations there were
the ones who were motivating the whole process. Obviously you
can suggest it was because Mr Hague was making a speech that we
did that, and I understand you are making that suggestion, but
I can tell you as a matter of fact it was not the single fact
of Mr Hague attending and speaking in whatever way he was going
to, it was the fact that the NCVO event was taking place which
led us to work hard to try and make the situation clear by that
point. But in any event, we would have made the position clear
by the end of last week in order to be able to inform the meeting
of this Committee.
Mr Cawsey: He does change his policy quite a
lot, so you would have had to do a lot of work if you were going
to change your policy in line with his.
116. I am not anxious to start this sort of
(Mr Clarke) I know, Mr Corbett, you are a non-political
117. This is not an attempt to score a political
point, but it is a legitimate point, I hope, Minister, that William
Hague had a prepared speech in which it was stated that the next
Conservative Government will abandon these charges in respect
of voluntary organisations, you then give a wholly written answer
which is entirely non-committal, all of a sudden you rush out
this statement, you fail to tell this Committee, you then have
to send us a letter of apology which is not signed by you but
by your official, and I do put it to you, Minister, that even
though there were ministers going to be present and you wanted
to try and make an announcement, I suspect this was all rushed
out the night before simply to spike the guns of the Leader of
(Mr Clarke) Firstly, I apologise if the lack of personal
signature was offensive. In fact it was not possible for me personally
sign it at that event, but it was specifically not only authorised
by me but briefed by me, agreed with by me in every respect, and
I am sorry if it gave offence, and I do not think that the fact
that I did not sign it personally in those circumstances should
have given offence. I have never seen, and to this day have not
seen, any draft speech released from the Leader of the Opposition
on this matter. As I said, I heard speculation about what might
be in it but I have never seen any text or any proposal. You are
entitled to your cynicism about it and I cannot contest that at
the end of the day, except to say that I think even a Conservative
Government might have thought it was at least as important to
inform the voluntary organisations of these things as it was to
try and score a party political point in a particular context.
Mr Howarth: That is why Mr Hague, of course,
made it. Anyway, the fact is both political parties are agreed
now that this is the right way to proceed.
Chairman: It is better than that because the
Liberal Democrats are agreed as well, are they not? Can you speak
Bob Russell: I can indeed. I can assure this
gathering that this was going to appear in the Liberal Democrat
party manifesto. Presumably it need not now because the Government,
not for the first time, has seen Liberal Democrat policies are
the right way forward.
118. So we are all unanimous on this. May I
now ask you, Minister, you repeated the point in that written
answer that it remains the Government's intention that the Bureau
should be financed by means of the charges it makes. Does that
mean that those who are employed, paid, to work with children
and vulnerable adults will face higher charges to subsidise those
who are being offered free charges in the voluntary sector?
(Mr Clarke) It does mean they will face higher charges
in the sense it is free for volunteers and not free for employees.
The question of subsidy or not is still a matter which is finally
being resolved, about the extent to which there is direct funding
for the overall funding of the proposition, and the extent to
which fees might otherwise be slightly higher than they would
otherwise have been. I think it would be frank to say to you that
I would anticipate there will be a slightly increased fee for
employees, for example, than there would otherwise have been as
a result of the change we have made, but only a slight increase.
119. Minister, you and I have been around long
enough to know that when you draw a line there is always somebody
you did not mean to be on the wrong side of it who ends up there.
The National Childminding Association told us last week that the
average net income of child minders was £106, more realistically
was about £160, but in homes with adults over the age of
16 they would all have to have checks on their criminal records
for them to become registered. So with one hand the Government
is, where we are now, saying, "You have all got to pay whatever
it is to have this check done", but with the other hand,
quite properly, it is giving start-up grants for childminders
to get into the business because of the growing need for them.
Is this something that you are willing to take another look at?
(Mr Clarke) No. The entire motivation for the policy
decision that we announced last week was because of the Government's
very strong commitment to encouraging volunteering. We believe
that volunteering, for reasons which I will not bore the Committee
with, ought to be an important stream of public policy and that
was the thrust of many of the representations made to us, both
by Members of Parliament and by other organisations. We acknowledged
that once you go over the line, you are into the more difficult
area of the poverty or otherwise of people in meeting particular
needs, but the Government remains of the view that even in the
context of the relatively low paid people you are describing,
the kind of order of fee we are talking about is not prohibitive,
and if at the end of the day individuals decide to go into business,
because that is what it is, as a childminder and to charge for
their services, one of the things they ought to be prepared to
pay for is the not very significant charge involved in ensuring
they can demonstrate they have no related or important convictions.
So we are not thinking of changing that position.