Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



Mr Howarth

  180. What about the budget for 2001-02, can we have that figure?
  (Mr Clarke) I think we are again in exactly the same position. I am sorry to be unhelpful.

  Mr Howarth: Forgive me, Minister, but I must say, welcome as last week's decision was, this has got all the hallmarks of a panic decision either in advance of William Hague's announcement to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations or, indeed, such being the reputation of this Committee, in anticipation of your appearance here today.

  Bob Russell: Absolutely.

  Mr Howarth: We are trying to investigate this issue. It is not rocket science that we are looking at. It does appear that we just cannot get any information about the figures. We were told by the NCVO last week that Government has given estimations for the total cost of exempting volunteers and this varied from £48 million to £200 million. Nobody seems to have a handle on this business.


  181. Shall we start buying the Comprehensive Spending Review for the next three years, would that assist us?
  (Mr Clarke) I will tell you exactly where we are, Chairman. We are on a timetable to try to get the CRB up and running as fast as possible and as accurately as possible, which we are targeting in the way that we are. There is a substantial roll-out programme. The roll-out programme includes the work we have mentioned, for example on registered bodies, but it also includes the precise business planning arrangements to be able to establish where we are with all the points that Mr Howarth has made as we have gone through. We had not intended to bring this into the public arena, because we had not finished the work on all these points, at the point where we are now in early to mid February. However, once your Committee decided that it would meet, we felt that it was important to try to address what we understood from the terms of reference of the Committee was a key point that you had set out, which was the question of charging to volunteering. Of course, the Government was acutely aware of the very many submissions that had been made by many Members of the House on this question, so we endeavoured to get to an answer to that point earlier than we would otherwise have done, because of the meetings of this Committee. In that sense Mr Howarth is quite right, it is the tiger-ish reputation of this Committee which has caused the change, and I think the Committee should congratulate itself on its reputation and power in these areas.

Mr Howarth

  182. Sucking up to us will not do you any good but we like it all the same.
  (Mr Clarke) That is the fact. We are still not in a position, however, to publish in a coherent way all the various other financial elements which add up to the budget, the business plan, the fees and so on. We want to keep on our timetable to be able to do that in accordance with when we launch the document. There is work being done literally on a week-by-week basis to refine these facts and move them forward. Mr Herdan referred, for example, to estimates about the volume of enquiries that will come through which are drawn from the seminars of registered bodies. I am sorry if it is inadequate but I am loath to give any particular little snapshot of any bit of information which could be misleading, other than taken in the whole. What I am ready to do, and keen to do, is when we do have the full package to let you have an absolutely full statement of every aspect of it in every regard, but I could not guarantee what Mr Fabricant was asking earlier on, that we can do that within the passage of the time of this Committee.

Mr Fabricant

  183. I understand that you want to exercise caution, and you are right to do so, but you have undertaken to say what the pay back period will be. In order to produce a pay back period you know as well as I that you have got to know what the income is going to be. To know what the income is going to be you have to make projections as to demand. In order to get the final equation into it, or the final answer, you have got to know what the fee is going to be. Can I make this point before I go on to one final question. Businesses too have their budgets and you have got to be fair to them, so the sooner you can get this information into the public domain the better, because you are going on stream, as you say, late summer and businesses are trying to budget for next year and the year after and they cannot do so until the fee structure is made public. That needs to be done as soon as possible.
  (Mr Clarke) Chairman, I completely accept that point, it is a well made point and it is one that we accept. Mr Wright just had a point on some of the figures that were made earlier, can he just add a point in answer?
  (Mr Wright) You quoted some very wide figures of numbers of volunteers and income and so on and so forth. Can I just say that they were at a very early stage when the legislation was going through in 1996-97 and there was no clear idea as to how many volunteers there were and how many of them would apply at the different levels of certificates, different levels of fees and so on and so forth. That was very much "it could be as little as so and so, it could be as much as so and so", which was how that figure of 200 million-odd originated. That was way back in 1996-97 during the passage of the legislation.

Mr Howarth

  184. No doubt if the NCVO's information was based on more recent knowledge from the Government they will tell us, but otherwise I am happy to accept your point.
  (Mr Wright) I think the witness was quoting from the figures that were quoted at the time of the legislation.
  (Mr Clarke) Could I be helpful, Chairman, as always, of course. Would it be helpful if I gave a commitment to the Committee that we will publish to the Committee the information that you are looking for by the end of March this year and, therefore, well before any launch date and, therefore, meeting some of the points Mr Fabricant made? If I can give that commitment then I am happy to do that.


  185. If you found that you were able to do it a fortnight earlier then even better.
  (Mr Clarke) I will do my very best to do it before that but I am prepared to commit myself to the end of March.

Mr Fabricant

  186. One final area of questioning. We have spoken about the evidence in terms of soft evidence, but with regard to hard evidence that is going to be dependent, I believe, on the Police National Computer and Phoenix. As they say in relation to computers "rubbish in, rubbish out". The Data Protection Commissioner recently said "The current state of Phoenix data must call into question how well the Secretary of State, in the guise of the CRB, can discharge his responsibilities under Part V of the Police Act 1997 when issuing conviction certificates." Basically she is saying she does not think much of the accuracy of the PNC.
  (Mr Clarke) This is a major concern, Chairman, as Mr Fabricant correctly addresses. The Inspectorate produced data on this last year and the conclusion they drew in their latest report, On the Record, which was published in July 2000, was "Overall Her Majesty's Inspector considers the level and nature of errors, omissions and discrepancies found to be totally unacceptable", that is the phrase of the Inspectorate, "especially given that many of these same observations were made in the 1998 Report. They reflect an unprofessional approach to data quality by forces". That is a pretty serious set of indictments by the Inspectorate and it is one that we take exceptionally seriously because Mr Fabricant's observations about garbage in, garbage out are obviously right. Therefore, firstly, we are delighted that ACPO—the Association of Chief Police Officers—has produced a Compliance Strategy for forces to implement. That is an important first step to get us to a situation where all forces are prepared to comply with the basic requirements of data quality which not only the Inspectorate but everybody thinks are necessary. We are continuing to monitor what is happening there and to that end, as I said earlier, the Data Protection Commissioner has had a meeting with representatives of ACPO and the Inspectorate and colleague officials of mine in the Home Office to map out a plan of further action, which we hope will lead to a very significant improvement. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to say how much we welcome the positive attitude that the Data Protection Commissioner has shown and the co-operation that she has offered to help achieve the result that all of us want. As I said in answer to Mr Linton, we are faced with a very hard choice here. It is whether we say the data situation is so serious that we basically abandon the project or we say the other way around, that we are determined to improve the data to a level that we have to achieve. The combination of that and what we are trying to do in IT generally is the course that we have decided to follow. I am aware that is not a very satisfactory answer, Chairman, but I think it is the only truthful answer I can give, which is we recognise the problem and we are doing what we can to sort it out with the co-operation of everybody as rapidly as possible.

  187. Can you just give us some idea of time? The PNC record base will never be perfect, no record base is ever perfect, but you are aiming to improve on it, to get reasonable reliability, and yet you are starting this scheme at the end of the summer. How big an overlap is there going to be between the start of the CRB scheme and reasonable accuracy, if you like, from the PNC?
  (Mr Clarke) I will ask Mr Herdan and Mr Wright if they want to add to the situation. The Compliance Strategy was endorsed by the ACPO Council in spring last year, a considerable time ago, and it now includes performance indicators, which were also important for each force as to how they move forward. We do now have a plan of action, agreed on 9 February, to take it forward seeking a dramatic change in performance. The outstanding action plans will be expedited. The Data Protection Commissioner's office will discuss the action plans with ACPO, the Inspectorate will consult with ACPO regarding future auditing arrangements and PITO will be engaged on the development of the strategy to provide appropriate IT support.

  188. Have you set any time target for it to be completed?
  (Mr Clarke) No, we have not. We have set a process for it. I wonder if Mr Herdan could add anything on time to help Mr Fabricant?
  (Mr Herdan) I do not think so. It is a process of continuous improvement that we are embarked on, I do not think there is a hard and fast date where we can say "right, everything is now good enough that everything is going to be fine". I think it is going to be a continuous improvement process. HMIC will be involved in this with us as well.


  189. We had better have some, Mr Herdan, had we not, because in the File on 4 programme it was said: "In 1997, the Metropolitan Police compared computer records with the original documents held at a sample of 15 police divisions. The auditors found an overall error rate of 64 per cent and recommended an urgent programme of improvement. Last year the Met returned to the same police divisions and found the records had become even more inaccurate." On that evidence this is not an improving record at the moment, is it?
  (Mr Herdan) There is a lot to be done but, of course, these large percentages—I do not wish to diminish the significance of the problem—which are quoted by the media, 60/70/80 per cent errors, are every kind of error or omission, including the colour of people's eyes and the fact the postcode is missing as well as the things that are very important.

  190. The colour of somebody's eyes could be absolutely critical to making sure we have got the right person.
  (Mr Herdan) Probably not to the CRB in fact.

  191. Somewhere I saw a case of somebody contesting the police record precisely on that basis.
  (Mr Herdan) The point I was making—

  192. The suspect had got brown eyes and the applicant had got blue.
  (Mr Herdan) The point I was making, which is not quite the best example, was many of the details on those police records will not affect the accuracy of our service, but clearly there is still a lot to do and we need to work with the police to achieve that.

  193. It goes on to say "In one police division, Vauxhall," which is a part of London, I think, "the error rate was found to be 100 per cent". That is pretty substantial.
  (Mr Clarke) The Home Office certainly does not have a defence against the charge that the police records system is seriously inadequate, that is why I quoted at the beginning the Inspectorate of Constabulary's Report. This has been the case consistently for a very long period of time and it is exacerbated by the fact that we have hand data collection so that, for example, basic data about you or I in a police station is filled in by hand at a series of points and we have not got proper IT connections and all the rest of it. It is a very bad state of affairs and it is one the Government gives a very high priority to solving.

  194. It is not just that, Minister, because this goes on to say "The delay in entering court results into the police computer system varies from 25 days in the best force" and that is long enough, is it not, "to 413 days in the worst", that is over a year?
  (Mr Clarke) It is the same thing—

  195. This is between the courts and the Police National Computer.
  (Mr Clarke) As I said earlier, Chairman, you have got six agencies here—police, prisons, probation, crown courts, magistrates' courts, CPS—all of which are seriously under-invested historically with the proper information technology and which are not properly connected in the way that they operate between themselves. That is why these mistakes have arisen, because the data is being collected by a wide range of different people in different ways, by hand and not inter-connected. We have a major programme on hand, called the NSPIS Casework and Custody System, to address that and sort it through, not to do with the CRB points in particular but because we need a far better system right across the whole system.

Mr Fabricant

  196. Should you not get a grip and set some targets, you are the Minister?
  (Mr Clarke) Mr Wright is going to say something.
  (Mr Wright) The first piece of action that is being taken is, following the Inspectorate Report, each of the 43 forces was asked to produce an action plan by this month to set out how it was going to implement the ACPO Compliance Strategy, and those reports are coming in now. The Inspectorate of Constabulary will itself assess and evaluate those reports. Not all of them are yet in, so one of the first pieces of action will be to chase those which are not. The Compliance Strategy includes quantified performance indicators so, to pick up the particular point about entering court results on to the system, the target will be 100 per cent within three days of receipt of the information from the courts. That is the target they will be working towards and the Inspectorate will be looking—

  197. But no target when it is to be achieved, that is the problem. There is no target about when we should be getting reasonable accuracy and no target as to how quickly it can be entered?
  (Mr Wright) There are also a number of targets about accuracy, although gauging, measuring and monitoring accuracy is more difficult. If I can just pick up a wider point. The Phoenix application is a wide-ranging application which is intended for police operational and investigative purposes as well as for logging information about convictions. So a lot of the information is on there which is critical for investigative purposes, like colour of eyes, although I think many policemen would doubt whether the colour of eyes is critical when you are dealing with a crime on the street.


  198. Sure.
  (Mr Wright) I understand that the Inspectorate found that most of the errors or omissions were about things like colour of eyes, height, colour of hair and so on and so forth, and not about conviction data, which is the sort of data that the CRB will be drawing off the system. That is not to minimise the problem, if there are problems there they must be addressed. One of the worst problems is the problem of delay in getting information on to the system in the first place. As I said, there is a quantified target that forces have got to work towards.

  199. Do you want to add something, Minister?
  (Mr Clarke) Firstly, it is right not to minimise the problem but it is also right, on the other hand, to say that we are trying to change and transform a culture which has become well established through the whole criminal justice system over a very long period of time, and that is down to management leadership, it is down to providing resource for the technology which can help solve these problems, and changing work practices in a wide variety of different ways. I quite understand Mr Fabricant's drive for targets, I do not think the Government can be criticised for a lack of targets in the way it seeks to manage things through in a variety of different ways, but the truth of the matter is we are talking about such a big area here that we have to make sure we get it right and that is why the Compliance Strategy that Mr Wright was referring to is so important.

  Bob Russell: Chairman, Mr Fabricant has covered this area very extensively but 8.5 million checks a year are being talked about, I believe. How many bad guys and girls do you expect to find in that 8.5 million?

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