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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 July 2002

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Criminal Records Bureau

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Caplin.]

9.30 am

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The Police Act 1997, which established the Criminal Records Bureau, came into force some two months before the 1997 general election. The decision to create a centralised criminal records bureau was well received. The National Association of Clubs for Young People wrote to me at the end of last week to say that it fully supports the principle of the CRB.

Hon. Members have signed several early-day motions, including early-day motion 1335, which 75 hon. Members signed. Before the motion begins its complaint, it states:

Early-day motion 1273, which some 63 hon. Members signed, also states that.

The Protection of Children Act 1999, a private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) with Government support, provided a list of all individuals who are unsuitable to work with children. It also provided for the CRB to administer checks against that list with an obligation on organisations to carry out checks on new recruits and volunteers. The CRB thus became the central access point for all organisations for information on convicted or suspected child abusers.

The CRB issues three levels of criminal record certificates of disclosure. The first is the standard disclosure, which is primarily for posts that involve working with children or vulnerable adults, but includes one or two legal professions and the accountancy profession. It provides details of all convictions on the national police computer, including spent convictions, cautions, reprimands, and names held on lists kept by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills.

The second level of disclosure—the enhanced disclosure—is for those who will have a greater degree of contact with children, such as teachers, scout masters and guide leaders. It, too, provides the information under the standard disclosure, but adds a check of local police records.

Finally, the basic disclosure is available for all types of employment, including voluntary positions. It lists unspent convictions under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and is applied for, and issued to, the individual concerned. It is up to the individual to choose whether to show it to their employer. It is a passport for employment in some professions, such as the care home industry. However, the procedure for seeking a standard or enhanced

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disclosure is different from that for the basic disclosure. An organisation is required to register for a standard or enhanced disclosure, which costs some £300 plus £12 to register any counter-signatories. Each further disclosure will cost £12, although that fee is waived for volunteers. Requests for standard and enhanced disclosures must be counter-signed by a registered counter-signatory. As expected, organisations have used the umbrella organisations of which they are members and to which they are affiliated to secure registrations on their behalf. A school seeking a disclosure will use the local education authority to seek that on its behalf as the registered body. That sounds fine in theory, but I have one or two observations about the costs and performance of the CRB.

On the cost, early-day motion 1326, which began life on 16 May, states that

Similarly, early-day motion 1273, which began life on 9 May, notes

Early-day motion 1335, which began life on 16 May, urges the Government

That extraordinary situation has arisen despite the assurances given by Ministers.

In February 2001, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment said:

At that time, a Minister of State at the Home Office said:

In one respect, they are issued free of charge to volunteers, but the volunteers nevertheless have to pay for them. The announcement by Ministers of an intention is not sufficient to deliver the reality on the ground, so what has gone wrong?

The Government pledged that no volunteers or voluntary organisations would be penalised financially. They pledged that volunteer checks would be free and, as I said, in one sense they are. However, volunteers cannot apply directly to the CRB; they must go through a registered body. Voluntary sector bodies will seek recompense only for their own costs as registered bodies, but commercial companies are free to charge what they like for the service. As a result, volunteers pay anything from £10 to £25 to have a check done. As I

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said, the CRB makes no charge with respect to volunteers, but with regard to registered bodies, the service is not free.

The National Association of Clubs for Young People, which estimates that it will process 8,000 applications a year, anticipates costs of £60,000 a year. It has sent me the costing, and I have looked through it. The headline figure of £60,000 to process 8,000 registrations might strike people as expensive, but having looked through the costing—I am happy to send it to the Minister—I can say that the costs seem perfectly reasonable. I am referring to the costs of the clerk to do the work, the rental of the office space, IT support and so on, which mount up.

A body such as that association cannot be expected to bear that cost; it must pass it on to the volunteers. We should bear in mind the fact that the association represents about 400,000 club members, 75 per cent. of whom are drawn from the three lowest socio-economic groups. We are not talking about the Hurlingham club—it is more a case of the Boys' Brigade. Many of those club members come from our most vulnerable communities. The Government will have to deliver their pledge of a free service because the reality is that organisations will have to bear enormous costs or volunteering will be penalised by the payment.

The CRB has been criticised for running about six months behind schedule. How will it handle the volume of anticipated inquiries? What is the backlog of teacher applications? Applicant checks are to be slimmed down, with a check against only the so-called list 99 before a teacher is employed and full vetting being completed after he or she has started teaching. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case and, if it is, the implications of that, and when a normal service will be resumed or initiated?

My attention was drawn to the problem of delivery by the chief executive of New Forest district council, Mr. Dave Yates, who wrote to me about taxi drivers in his area. He said:

In other words, those individuals have not been able to work. I have had a helpful correspondence with the chief executive of the CRB; he has outlined to me in detail his action plan to deal with problem professions, including taxi drivers, about whom I am particularly concerned. He even helpfully gave me a telephone number that taxi drivers experiencing a problem could ring to expedite their applications. I thank him for that. However, what confidence can the Minister have that those are merely teething problems and how can we be assured that they are, without knowing in detail what they are? What is the cause of the problems?

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Like my hon. Friend, I have pursued the issue as a consequence of letters from a district council—in my case, Cambridgeshire county council. The council was naturally concerned about its failure to get timely checks

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on people who sought work with children and vulnerable adults. I felt particularly strongly about that when, as a member of the Standing Committee on the Protection of Children Bill, in 1999, I moved amendments that were expressly designed to provide that the CRB would have to obtain criminal record checks and enhanced disclosure within a calendar month. That is consistent with the target times that are being set, but it is clear from my correspondence with the CRB that within weeks of its establishment, and after three years of preparing to be established, it is not meeting even the targets set by Ministers at the outset and is having to take all sorts of remedial measures—

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. That is too long for an intervention.

Mr. Swayne : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right. It is a matter of debate who showed the greater prescience when he moved his amendments: he in spotting the problem, or Ministers in rejecting the amendments knowing that they would not be able to deliver on the demands made in them.

Mr. Lansley : I shall try not to strain your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To be fair to Ministers, they said at the time that they would set targets. The point is that they are not meeting those targets because they did not put satisfactory measures in place when establishing the Criminal Records Bureau.

Mr. Swayne : My hon. Friend is right. In a parliamentary answer to me on 27 June, the Minister said:

Will the Minister give us some grounds for sharing the confidence that he shows in that parliamentary answer? Will he tell us that the problems will be resolved and how that will be done?

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I was reluctant to intervene because I have been listening with great interest. Does my hon. Friend have any idea of the reasons for the problems and the failure to meet the targets? Is it because of a lack of resources or people in the CRB?

Mr. Swayne : I understand that additional staff were taken on after the initial problems were experienced, which suggests that the organisation was under-resourced when it began. However, I shall look to the Minister to explain the reasons, because I can only speculate and rely on my correspondence with the CRB, which sought to hide nothing but concentrated on how it was addressing the particular problem with taxi drivers to which I drew attention. I was grateful for that, but the CRB did not go into great detail on the wider problems.

Mr. Lansley : I promise my hon. Friend that I shall not interrupt him again. He said that nothing was being hidden by the CRB. I am sure that that is true, but in

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correspondence with me, the chief executive made it clear that it had a service standard of meeting 90 per cent. of enhanced disclosure applications within three weeks and 90 per cent. of standard disclosures within one week. However, he did not provide me with information about the bureau's performance compared with those standards.

Mr. Swayne : I agree entirely. If I had been more efficient and diligent, I would have tabled written questions to elicit that information, but I am sure that the Minister will tell us today.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Does my hon. Friend accept that one problem is that the CRB does not seem to know when it has received applications? Dorset county council has sent in applications that the CRB has consistently denied receiving.

Mr. Swayne : I have experience of that too. I know of taxi drivers in my constituency whose applications were never received, which is frustrating for the individuals concerned. However, that problem is not exclusive to the CRB. Constituents have told me that they have been unable to establish whether their passports, which they sent by registered post, arrived at or were processed by the UK Passport Service. Many constituents complain that they have not received a reply to their letters to me although I was never aware of having received them, so it is sometimes difficult to apportion blame.

Finally, I shall give the Minister what might be described as a hospital pass. It is a question that I am sure that he will be unable to answer, but I would be happy if he passed it on to the appropriate Minister who can answer it. I have received many representations from an organisation called Hampshire Care. One of its complaints has been the number of staff waiting to have their own disclosures processed. The key question for that organisation is the proper lifespan of a criminal records disclosure, by which I mean the lifespan that the registered person should apply to the validity of the document.

There is a great deal of labour mobility in the care home industry—people move from one care home or employer to another—and using their basic disclosure they are able to show the certificate that they acquired from another employer. The key question for the care homes organisations concerns the point at which they should seek a new disclosure. Those organisations asked that question of officials at the Department of Health on 14 February, and again on 11 March, 30 April and 30 May, but have not yet had an answer. I do not expect an answer today, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to supply me with one at some point.

Mr. Chope : Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister how the accuracy of the information that comes from the CRB will be ensured? I have a constituent who is a distinguished former RAF officer, who has found that he has—allegedly—a criminal record going back to 1990. Obviously that is not the case, but he is being required by the CRB to disprove that conviction.

Mr. Swayne : I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that we have not turned the principle of

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English justice on its head by requiring people to prove their innocence, and that the CRB will take a more pragmatic approach in such cases.

9.51 am

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing the debate. I have attempted to table an Adjournment debate on this subject for some weeks. My hon. Friend has spoken elegantly and effectively, and has drawn attention to the problems of which we have become aware over recent months.

I initially tabled early-day motion 1335 with support from two Labour Members, one Liberal Democrat and one nationalist, which now has more than 70 signatures of support. It was based on concerns expressed to me by the National Association of Clubs for Young People. I pay tribute to that association for highlighting those concerns, and for demonstrating so graphically their effect on people and similar organisations. None of us disagree in principle with the fact that there should be checks of this type, and we must be certain that those who are working with children and vulnerable people do not have backgrounds or records that would make them unsuitable for that work.

None of us seeks to suggest that those checks are inappropriate. We are concerned about the practical implications, and how the CRB is working. The Home Secretary, when he was Education Secretary, estimated that the voluntary sector would need to make at least 1.5 million checks per year, and said that the Government wanted to ensure that organisations such as scout groups, playgroups and Sunday schools would not have to bear the cost of ensuring that volunteers had undergone the essential criminal record background checks. That statement was endorsed by the current chairman of the Labour party, when he was Minister of State at the Home Office. He said:

Organisations such as the National Association of Clubs for Young People want the Government to honour that commitment. A discrepancy has arisen because of the costs of the checks that have to be carried out by registered bodies, which include the voluntary organisations, and profit-making organisations that can charge significantly higher sums of money. The National Association of Clubs for Young People has given us a detailed breakdown of its grounds for believing that the cost will be about £80,000 in a full year for that organisation alone to check the record of its volunteers. It reckons that it needs about 8,000 new volunteers annually. That is not an extravagant figure; it works out at only three new volunteers per club throughout the country. Those people are not in a position to afford the charges; not only do the overwhelming majority of people who are supported by the clubs come from the three lowest socio-economic groups, but so do the volunteers, therefore they will not be able to afford significant charges.

The voluntary organisations say that there are direct consequences of the proposal: a reduction in volunteers would mean that the programme would be reduced

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almost immediately and the smallest clubs, often serving deprived rural areas and, typically, maintained by the efforts of two or three volunteers, could be forced to close. We are talking not just about the costs but about a real possibility that the voluntary organisations that provide the services so effectively will have to close down, with the loss of those services.

Mr. Chope : Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a further problem? The Government are profiting from the process because value added tax is payable on the charges imposed by the club.

Mr. Hendry : I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. I was going to come to it later in my speech, but I shall deal with it now. If the Home Secretary is right in his estimate that 1.5 million record checks a year will be required and that the average cost of each one could be about £10, the cost in total will be £15 million or more. That means that the Government stand to make £2 million, £2.5 million or £3 million a year from something that they said would be free. That is immoral. My hon. Friend tried to make changes to the Finance Bill to take that into account, but they were not acceptable because of the nature of that measure. It is completely wrong that when the principle is that the checks are free of charge the Government should profit from them through VAT. I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's comments on the matter.

I have contacted a range of other organisations that will be significantly affected. The Central Council of Physical Recreation, for example, which covers some 110,000 voluntary sport clubs, has a network of 1.5 million volunteers, and new volunteers coming on-stream will involve 30,000 checks a year, which is a phenomenal number. The CCPR reckons that the minimum cost will be £150,000 to £200,000 a year, money that could be spent on improving sports facilities, bringing in more volunteers or helping to run things more effectively, but instead it will be spent on paying charges simply to allow people to volunteer in the first place. The CCPR has decided that because of the costs involved it will not apply to become a registered body for processing applications. That means that those who want to volunteer to work with sports clubs and clubs for young people will often be driven to those who do such work on a profitable basis. One does not criticise that, but their costs will be higher than that of clubs run by a voluntary organisation.

The Scout Association says that it expects that 70,000 applications will have to be checked every year. It is already spending £25,000 on extra staffing to handle the applications and, as the year moves forward, it is possible that the cost will double to £50,000. The association believes, understandably, that that will put people off applying to become volunteers with the scouting movement.

The Church of England will be affected. Representations were made to me at the weekend by someone who was concerned by a notice from the diocese in Derby. There was concern about the cost even of a lay preacher, for example, who would have to undergo checks. The cost to the Church will be significant if it is to meet the legal requirements.

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None of the organisations are in a position to bear the costs. The Prince's Trust thinks that the cost to them could be as much as £100,000 a year. These are phenomenal figures for organisations that do so much good work, often with the most vulnerable and insecure people in society, so I hope that the Minister can reassure us on the matter.

The Girl Guides tells me that it faces extra costs in handling the applications, and in training. It speaks of

Will the Minister explain how best we can help organisations such as the Girl Guides to cope with associated costs?

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, there are two ways forward: either the costs have to be borne by the voluntary organisations themselves, reducing the scope of their work, or the costs have to be passed on to volunteers, which will discourage them. According to the Girl Guides, that is already happening. It says:

The number of applications of people who want to work with Girl Guiding UK is diminishing because of the complicated procedure.

Some organisations say that the change will not be retrospective and claim that they will be all right because they deal only with a few volunteers. However, I understand—I hope that the Minister will confirm this—that it will be retrospective in its application to all those currently working with young or vulnerable people. The costs will be infinitely greater than many organisations currently recognise. I hope that today's debate will draw attention to such problems.

My hon. Friend also referred to delays, which are becoming extraordinarily serious. Girl Guiding UK states:


The CRB claims that it can more closely meet the target that it set itself: does that apply only to current applications, or to historic applications as well? Will processing current applications more quickly create worse problems for applications submitted some months ago? Barnardos tells us:

It continues:

Twenty-six per cent. is more than a quarter of the applications. It is clear that organisations such as Barnardos are feeling desperate at the prospect of such a substantial backlog.

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Representations have also been made about the different forms that need to be completed. The Central Council of Physical Recreation says that it would prefer the system in Scotland, where a central registered body handles all the applications for voluntary organisations free of charge. The Scout Association has expressed frustration that it has to complete different forms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, adding further to the bureaucratic problems. A range of issues is not being dealt with adequately.

My final point concerns the costs of the CRB. Whether the CRB is under-resourced has already been discussed. A vast increase in anticipated costs has occurred. Three weeks ago, I tabled a question to the Minister, requesting a reply by a named date. I should have received a reply three or four days later, but I have not yet—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. May I draw the attention of hon. Members to the fact that the only Member standing should be the one who holds the Floor.

Mr. Hendry : The question I asked the Minister concerned the initial anticipated costs of the CRB in comparison with current estimates. Capita, which has the contract to operate the CRB, issued a press release in July 2000 stating that the value of the contract was estimated to be around £400 million over 10 years. However, I understand that the Home Office said last month that current forecasts suggest that operating and overhead costs are estimated to be £940 million during the first 10 years of the project. That is a doubling of the estimate in two years and, by any calculation, it is a massive miscalculation. I hope that the Minister can give a clearer explanation than the information that we already have.

Those who work with young and vulnerable people are asking only that the Government should honour their clear pledge. The organisations involved took that pledge at face value and were grateful that they would not be charged by the CRB for carrying out checks. However, they did not realise how enormous the cost of preparing the forms for processing would be. The Minister will understand those concerns and I hope that he can address them this morning.

10.6 am

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). He expressed his concerns eloquently and touched on serious issues.

The hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) spoke about the costs falling on volunteers, so I shall not spend time on that, but I endorse his comments because the strong concerns about the matter are important.

Of course, checks must be made and we must have an assurance that they are adequate, but there are many questions and issues about the current situation and we all hope that the Minister will address them today. I want to touch on three areas: the failure to attain targets for disclosures, the accuracy of information and the future marketing of services.

On the targets for disclosures, I want to touch on an issue that is close to my heart. I wanted to ask the Prime Minister about it on Wednesday because it is vital.

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Many checks have not been carried out on volunteers who want to participate in and help to run holiday play schemes and other activities. We are all concerned about antisocial behaviour and know that diversionary programmes are necessary, but many have been held up. Have the Government put in place a fast-track system of checks so that play schemes and so on can go ahead? They are vital and one of our greatest concerns in society at the moment.

On delays, I have received, as has the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), copies of representations from Dorset county council. The leader of the council, in a letter dated 26 June, states:

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is not clear that there was knowledge that those had been sent back by the bureau, which adds to the confusion.

The leader of Dorset county council is particularly concerned about performance standards and said that the National Care Standards Commission has instructed that potential employees must not be allowed to start work in children's homes prior to clearance being received—we all agree with that—and that the situation prompts the question whether, because of the poor service, the bureau will indemnify the county council for possible consequences of an unsuitable interviewee being put in post and harm arising therefrom. A number of bodies want reassurance because they are being asked to take risks or not to provide vital services. That is the choice before them. The service costs a lot, or perhaps I should say the lack of service.

Mr. Chope : The county council also says that the system that it used to operate when it obtained information from the local police was much more efficient than the new system. The new system is not only more expensive, but much less efficient.

Mrs. Brooke : Certainly, that point is being made strongly in representations to us. It shows what a long way the new service must travel before it can offer what the public deserve.

On accuracy, the data inputting has been outsourced to India and I have been informed of estimates that the data entered are only about 80 per cent. accurate. That means that some people are being wrongly identified as having a criminal record. If that is true, it is horrendous. I should like the Minister to clarify the matter, but the claim has been made to me that such people are having to prove their innocence. That seems bizarre in our system.

We have heard about the problems of escalating costs and we are aware that as the scheme is a partnership with Capita, profit must come into the equation at the end of the day. Although we all want organisations to be cost effective, I am concerned about how finance might be raised in the future. The CRB's business plans show that when it gets round to basic disclosures, which I think will be some time in the future, it has plans to

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market the usefulness of basic disclosure checks on a wider group of individuals. To cover its costs, the CRB needs to look into about 6 to 9 million basic disclosures and whether it will remain financially viable if it does not hit that target is questionable. However, if it is marketing those checks, is it possible that many organisations will be inappropriately probing people's backgrounds?

A balance is needed. Of course we want security and safety checks, but the plan smacks of Big Brother if its drivers are financial rather than caring. That is what concerns me about profitability. The scheme must be cost-efficient, but should not seek profit at the expense of people's lives. That is particularly the case because we know that we need to rehabilitate offenders and bring down re-offending rates. Disclosures are appropriate in some circumstances, but we must get the balance right if we are to get people back on the right track. I should be very grateful if the Minister would address some of my concerns.

10.12 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I begin, Mr. Cook, by warmly congratulating—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I would be remiss were I not to remind hon. Members that when the House took the decision to have this parallel Chamber, it also decided that the four senior members of the Chairmen's Panel were to be referred to as Deputy Speakers when occupying this Chair.

Mr. Chope : I apologise profusely for having addressed you incorrectly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on having introduced the debate so ably. It is significant that we have had contributions from the Opposition parties but none from Labour Back Benchers. Perhaps they are embarrassed by the failure and performance of their own Government.

Mr. Swayne : They signed the early-day motions.

Mr. Chope : As my hon. Friend says, that is despite the fact that they signed the early-day motions.

I shall not repeat many of the points that have already been so ably made, but let is be said that, on this matter, the Government have broken their promises to an important part of our community—the volunteers who make the world go round for so many young and elderly people in our localities. An intolerable burden is now being placed on those volunteers, a burden not just of cost but of inefficiency.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the case to which I alluded briefly in an earlier intervention, that of a very distinguished retired Air Force officer who lives in my constituency and is the victim of inaccurate data. The Criminal Records Bureau now requires him to prove his innocence. I hope that the Minister will take that issue seriously because it has severe implications for the issue of identity cards that use microchips, and what can happen when someone is falsely accused of having a criminal record.

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My constituent writes:

He has not passed the name of the person on to me for reasons of confidentiality, but he continues:

He telephoned the CRB

There were obviously a very large number of allegations of false identity, hence a pro-forma letter.

Why should my constituent be required to complete a fingerprint consent form? Why should he be put in the position of a suspect or a convict when he is the victim of mistaken identity, and perhaps bad data and record keeping? His letter continues:

He is not prepared to go to the time and expense of correcting CRB data.

My constituent says that he presumes—I am not so sure until we hear from the Minister that his presumption is correct—that the CRB has a responsibility to ensure that its data is correct, otherwise it is not worth having. He says that he has received another reply from the CRB. It seems that the CRB is quite good at dealing with correspondence, but it does not have the time to process the applications made. The CRB claimed to have rechecked its data, which showed that the convicted man had used my constituent's name, and date and place of birth as "an alias for conviction". My constituent says that he did not understand exactly what that means. He has a relatively unusual surname, so he finds it hard to believe that someone picked on that surname for part of a false identity. He will write to the CRB again to explain that he will not send photographs or have fingerprints taken, as it is for them to establish who is who for their records.

He draws to my attention and asks me to raise the issue that

He asks:

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He goes on to ask what will happen if we get identity cards—or entitlement cards in Labour newspeak—that could have in a microchip containing all the person's data including their criminal record. If that happened, he asks:

I hope that the Minister will express his concern and tell us what the Government will do to ensure that similar injustices do not occur.

Perhaps because of my constituent's background in the armed services he does not say that he wants compensation. He is not suing for defamation—I am sure that he is entitled to do that, because he has been defamed by the CRB—but he seeks a system that is reliable and that can be used to ensure that information on people who have criminal records is available to those who need it but that those who do not have criminal records can remain free and at liberty.

10.20 am

Bob Russell (Colchester): The Criminal Records Bureau is turning out to be this Government's Child Support Agency. It seemed like a good idea at the time, it had all-party support and everyone believed that it would be the answer to what was perceived to be a major problem, namely, preventing those with a relevant criminal record from working in paid employment or as a volunteer with children, young people or vulnerable adults.

However, the reality is not what was expected or what was promised. I accept that the CRB is still a new organisation, but the stark position is that it has failed to meet any of its targets since it was set up, according to an answer to a question that I put at last week's meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Teething problems are one thing, but the failings cannot all be explained away with such a lame excuse.

Of particular worry is the prospect that the applications of some new teachers will not be processed in time for them to take up work in schools this September. Last Friday The Times reported:

That report contradicts a written answer to a question that I put on the subject to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. I was told that contingency arrangements had been made and that

Will the Minister clarify the precise position? The CRB, an executive agency of the Home Office, is based in Liverpool. Will the Minister tell us how many people are employed by the CRB and by its private sector partner, Capita? Do Ministers accept any responsibility for what is happening? Should we blame the CRB or Capita, which, according to a media report, has been subjected to an investigation into its activities? Apparently, Capita has been accused of improper accounting, and there are rumours that the Home Office

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plans legal action against it for consistently failing to meet its performance targets under a £400 million contract with the CRB. Would the Minister care to confirm, clarify or deny those serious points?

The situation at the CRB is dire. Many applications are now being processed in India because Capita and the CRB cannot cope with the huge backlog. In the light of such revelations, how confident can we be about the CRB, which is a sister organisation of the UK Passport Service? An example from my constituency illustrates the shambolic state of affairs. An application by a lollipop lady has languished with the CRB for six weeks. Every day throughout that time, hundreds of pupils who attend the Friars Grove infant and junior schools in Colchester have had to cross a busy road without the assistance of a warden. The schools break up today for the summer holidays. I hope that the CRB will have got its act together by the time pupils return in September.

I submit that the safety of every youngster has been put more at risk by the CRB prolonging the absence of a lollipop lady than the realistically non-existent threat posed to a single one of them by the highly unlikely possibility that the lady in question might have a dodgy past and would molest a child. I am told that the schools were prepared to engage her but were advised that, legally, they would be in breach of the legislation if it were subsequently found that she had a criminal record. They were not prepared to put themselves at risk in the eyes of the law, however remote the possibility.

The upshot is that the CRB—an organisation whose whole existence is supposedly for the purpose of protecting young people—has put children's lives and safety at risk because it has not processed a lollipop lady's application in the six weeks since Essex county council submitted it for clearance. She has lost six weeks' wages. People are not queuing up to become school crossing wardens—there are many vacancies.

That is not an isolated incident. Last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) recounted to me a case in his constituency where someone had a job offer withdrawn because the CRB had taken too long to process the application. Youth organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers, and lengthy delays by the CRB in processing applications for clearance are making the position even worse because potential volunteers can lose interest and find other things to do.

The CRB's annual report was published last Thursday and contains lots of ticks where performance tasks have been achieved. It boasts:

Experience thus far is not encouraging.

The CRB admits that it exceeded its budget last year by more than 10 per cent., but failed to deliver what had been expected and promised. How much of the overspending went to Capita? The annual report observes that the

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Last year the Home Affairs Committee, which predicted troubled times ahead, said:

The Committee's reservations seem to have been realised. The Home Office's annual report shows that the CRB missed its target to commence the issue of standard and enhanced disclosure certificates by November 2001, and instead began processing such applications only in March 2002. The CRB did not become fully operational until 11 March 2002. During questions to Lord Falconer on 1 July he confirmed that the precise number of enhanced disclosures currently being made within three weeks was not known, but that it was dramatically below the target.

I have asked many questions about the CRB from before it was set up to the present. In my research for today's debate the earliest question that I could find was from January 1999, and my most recent questions led to five written answers that I received last night. I may have asked more parliamentary questions about the CRB of the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—in respect of sport—than any other Member, which may not come as a surprise to the Minister.

On 17 January 2001, I challenged the Prime Minister directly about the Government's intention to impose a tax on new volunteers by requiring them to pay a £10 fee to be checked out by the CRB. I followed that up with an Adjournment debate, and the Home Affairs Committee commenced an inquiry, which had only just started when there was a welcome U-turn by the Government, who agreed to scrap any fee, as the nation's voluntary youth organisations and I had requested. I suspect that the pending general election had something to do with that change of attitude.

The Government have said that clearance checks by the CRB will be free to volunteers, but the reality is that the establishment of the CRB collectively costs the nation's voluntary youth organisations several million pounds every year to service applications from new volunteers. My attempts, and those of others, to get the Government to reimburse organisations for their operating costs have proved unsuccessful. The loss of such money is to the detriment of our youth organisations, which consequently have fewer resources to invest in our young people.

In a written answer of 22 July 2002 the Minister said:

It is difficult to reconcile that refusal to help our voluntary youth organisations, sports clubs and other groups with the Government's claim that they want to encourage volunteering and promote the excellent work that the nation's youth organisations undertake.

In conclusion, I should like the Minister to consider how much it costs to lock up one youngster in a young offenders institution, and how many millions of pounds

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are spent each year dealing with the consequences of vandalism, antisocial behaviour and criminal activities. What about the cost to the national health service caused by the deteriorating collective health of the country's young people? That deterioration has been caused, in part, by the inadequate physical education that they receive in school and the lack of sports facilities outside school. If, rather than penalising volunteers, more was invested in organised youth activities, the public would receive better value for money. The Prime Minister says that he wants an extra 1 million volunteers to be recruited. The performance of the CRB is not helping to achieve that.

10.29 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing the debate. I listened with great care to what he said, and also to the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). It is customary for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to come armed with statistics to back up the points made by the Member who proposed the debate. I have, however, rarely heard a more comprehensive and clear-cut litany of statistical evidence in a Westminster Hall debate. That evidence clearly shows that the CRB is not functioning. I will not repeat those facts to the Minister because I want him to have sufficient time to make the detailed reply that I am eager to hear.

The Minister should consider two issues of principle. There was universal approval across the House for the principle behind the introduction of the CRB and the vetting procedure. As the Minister knows, however, it was clear from the outset that there was considerable concern about the extent to which costs would be borne by voluntary organisations. The Government constantly reiterated that measures would be taken to ensure that that did not happen, but that has proved to be nonsense. The matter demonstrates, I fear, the law of unintended consequences. Departments consider a problem and identify what seems to them to be a solution—in this case, it was decided that volunteers would not have to pay to get the information—but, in fact, huge administrative burdens are created. I appreciate that the Government will say that those burdens will have to be shared to an extent, but there is a public policy issue.

I want to pick up on points made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friends, which demonstrated the extent to which the vast bureaucratic system will have the unintended consequence of penalising and preventing volunteering. That will be to the detriment of society, even though the measures were intended to have an advantageous effect by preventing unsuitable people from gaining employment.

The other issue is performance. Performance is lamentable. The Minister will have to accept that. The CRB's own report shows that it has enormous problems. The evidence that shows that CRB's information is occasionally inaccurate—I have seen that in my constituency—is particularly worrying. I want the Minister to tell us more about the system by which the CRB operates. We have the impression that a structure has been set up. One asks a question of the structure and

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it comes up with an answer. It may not deliver it as quickly as it should, but it comes up with the correct answer. My hunch—perhaps it is more than a hunch, I think that one can detect this—is that the system is far more ramshackle than the existence of the CRB as an institutional agency suggests.

The recent publication relating to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, "Breaking the Circle", introduces a new topic that I will not touch on—although I remind the Minister that this valuable document contains interesting material. Paragraph 1.19, entitled "Approaches to disclosure", is about the background to the changes to the 1974 Act, which are intended to increase public protection while minimising the burden on those who should have their convictions treated as spent, thus changing the categories under which the CRB operates. It states:

It then describes the three different levels of disclosure.

I was struck by that passage. Hon. Members may care to note its tone. First, it is clear from what is said that the CRB has not completed the shifting of that burden to a one-stop-shop service. Secondly, it highlights that in the initial stages of disclosure, the local police forces on which demand fell in practice were overwhelmed. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what stage we are actually at. Does the CRB yet have all its data, or is it, in fact, having to shop around in a multiplicity of records? Since my time as a barrister, I have always taken the view that the criminal records system has been rather less centralised than some people may imagine. What are the procedural and logistical difficulties that the CRB must overcome to assure itself that it has all the information it needs?

My questions are genuine; they are not loaded and I do not know the answers to them. However, I have a feeling that matters are far less simple than the existence of the CRB may have led people to expect, a fact that struck me as I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch describe the case of his constituent. Sources of information seem by no means clear cut and could be open first to mistakes and secondly to a lack of confidence that the CRB is able to gain access to the information that it needs to supply the right reply. If I were working for the CRB, I would be rather anxious about giving somebody a cleared vetting when I know from the multiplicity of sources that the bureau taps into that it does not have the confidence to do that. I wonder if that goes some way to explaining the problems. What are the Government and the CRB doing about that?

As I said, I want to give the Minister every opportunity to reply. The Government have our absolute support in wanting to make the CRB work. However, the comment that it has the same feel about it as the Child Support Agency is correct in my view. We must get the system up and running and ensure that it is cost-effective, that the burden does not fall disproportionately on voluntary organisations and that answers come through accurately and quickly.

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10.38 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn) : I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) for raising this important issue. I am only too aware of the difficulties and problems about which he and other hon. Members have spoken in today's debate.

I shall begin by saying something simply and clearly: the Criminal Records Bureau is not currently providing a satisfactory service. I want to apologise to hon. Members for that fact. The CRB and its staff are aware that a satisfactory service is not being provided and they are working hard to put things right as we begin to deliver this important new service, which is, after all, aimed at improving the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

Before I try to respond to as many as possible of the questions that have been asked by hon. Members, it may be helpful if I set out the background. I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and other speakers that there was and is widespread support for the creation of the CRB under part V of the Police Act 1997. As we heard, the CRB issues three levels of criminal record certificates, or disclosures. Anyone will be able to apply for the lowest level of certificate—the basic disclosure—when it becomes available early next year. However, access to the higher levels—the standard and the enhanced disclosure—is restricted to those applying for positions that are exceptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. That is intended to ensure that spent criminal record information is revealed only where necessary because of the sensitivity of the post for which an individual is applying.

The Police Act further restricts access to the highest level—the enhanced disclosure. Part V of the Act was amended primarily by the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the Care Standards Act 2000, which set up a single arrangement through which standard and enhanced disclosures reveal whether the applicant is included on lists of those who are unsuitable to work with children, which are held by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills.

It was always recognised that the programme for establishing the CRB was highly complex and challenging. As we heard, the CRB replaced the previous arrangements involving separate checks with each local police force and against departmental lists. It should be remembered that the time the police took to carry out those checks under the previous arrangements varied enormously. Some checks were carried out quickly within two weeks; others took as long as three months, depending on the police force and the time of year. The creation of the CRB has thrown into sharp relief a single standard of performance compared with the previous performance of all the different police forces.

Switching from the previous arrangements involved 43 police forces, and the integration of a major central computer system and other Departments' databases. It was a massive undertaking but allows the CRB to offer a single route of access to local police force intelligence, information held by the police national computer, and lists held by the Department of Health and the

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Department for Education and Skills. Drawing those sensitive databases together means that, for the first time, standards can be used for assessing the suitability of personnel who might be recruited into positions of trust.

The legislation under which the CRB operates requires registered bodies to countersign applications for higher-level disclosures, thereby confirming that the applicant's identity has been checked and that the higher level of disclosure is appropriate to the post or work involved. I will return to the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in a moment. These bodies may be employers or, in the case of volunteers, one of the large number of registered "umbrella" bodies. Following a major exercise, a total of 6,096 bodies have registered to date, of which 917 are umbrella bodies—an important point that relates to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) and others about the impact on the voluntary sector. Of those 917 umbrella bodies, 442 are—in the jargon—open umbrella bodies that are prepared to take applications from outside their sector.

The CRB became operational on 11 March this year. Since then, more than 276,000 disclosure applications have been received and more than 119,000 disclosures have been issued. The number of disclosures currently being issued is already greater than that achieved by the old police checking system. The police carried out about 1 million checks a year; the CRB's current workload suggests that the annual rate for the first year will be about 1.5 million checks. However, as hon. Members forcefully pointed out, performance to date has not matched the service standards to which the bureau aims to work. There have been delays in processing disclosure applications, which I regret. The CRB is typically taking six weeks to process correctly completed disclosure applications. I emphasise the words "correctly completed", because one of the principal reasons for the delay is the introduction, following consultation with customers, of a paper-based application route—filling in a form—alongside the telephone route, which was originally envisaged as the principal application route. That is an experience with which hon. Members will be familiar in many other areas: if one wants to renew insurance, for example, one rings a number, gives the details and is then sent a piece of paper to sign.

A question was asked about the cause of the current difficulties. The bureau had anticipated a much higher level of telephone applications; about half the disclosures are issued within three weeks by that method, compared with the paper application route, which achieves that target for about 10 per cent. of disclosures. The contrast between the two routes is obvious. Paper applications contain very high rates of error and omission. Many forms—as many as almost half of those sent to the CRB—have had to be sent back because information was missing from them. Changes were made to accommodate paper applications; processing times are affected by incomplete applications. In addition, measures taken to overcome the early operating difficulties have led to delays in processing applications.

I am sure that hon. Members appreciate the great importance of ensuring that the CRB has the right information to make a check, because if a check is not

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done correctly—this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch, to which I shall come in a moment, about the identity of his constituent—we would have a different debate, in which I would be criticised because the system had failed. The purpose of the process is to ensure the protection of children. We therefore need to ensure the proper collection of information and completion of applications. If that is done over the phone, an operator gets all the necessary information so that a form can be sent for the applicant to check and pass to his or her employer or registered umbrella body for counter-checking. That is the best way of ensuring that errors and omissions do not occur.

Mr. Hendry : Does the Minister agree that there is a third option, which is for applications to be processed electronically? Many voluntary organisations would welcome that because it gets round the problems of postal applications—although they recognise that there are difficulties with electronic signatures. Could more applications be done electronically, to speed up the process?

Hilary Benn : I do not know the answer to that but I shall inquire and write to the hon. Gentleman. We set up the CRB with the expectation that the vast majority of applications would be dealt with by telephone, which is a way of providing a service with which citizens are increasingly familiar and which, as I have tried to explain, has distinct advantages over the paper-based route in terms of making the system work more efficiently.

Many points have been made and I shall try to respond to them as extensively as possible in the time available. The hon. Member for New Forest, West asked about the life span of a criminal disclosure. That is a pertinent question but it is not an issue for the CRB. It has been suggested that checks should be made every three years, but ultimately it is the responsibility of the employer or the voluntary body to decide what is appropriate. If someone moves from one employment to another and says to the new employers, "Here's the check I received 12 or 15 months ago", the onus is on those employers—who are, after all, taking on the person—to decide whether the check is sufficiently up to date to satisfy them that the individual is safe to work with those for whom he or she will have responsibility or whether to request a further check.

Bob Russell : I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. What advice would he give a voluntary organisation such as the Scout movement, which has tens of thousands of uniformed and non-uniformed volunteers?

Hilary Benn : The same advice would apply, because in the end the voluntary organisation faces the same responsibility. What other reassurance can one give? It is the employer or voluntary organisation that is responsible for taking on the person, whether in a paid or voluntary capacity, and it must decide the appropriate action to take. We all recognise that the CRB must be quicker in responding and issuing the disclosures, but the responsibility cannot be taken away from the organisation that takes on the person.

Mr. Grieve : I am sure that the Minister will see the difficulty that that poses in practice. It is one thing to vet

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a stranger who comes along and says that they want to work in an organisation, but a slightly unusual thing to tell someone who is a permanent part of the organisation that they will have to reassure the organisation every three years that they have not secured a criminal conviction somewhere else. This is when I start seeing elements of unreality creeping into the system.

Hilary Benn : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but in working for the protection of children and vulnerable adults, we are balancing risks. We must balance how organisations run against what would fall down on our heads from a great height if someone got a criminal conviction somewhere else and did not tell their employer or the voluntary body with which they were working. That is what we are dealing with, and we are imposing the requirement because as a society we want systems in place to minimise the chance that people are put at risk. There is a cost to that and a balance to be found.

The hon. Member for Wealden spoke about the complicated procedure. While informing myself, I looked at the application form. It requires a certain amount of information, but that is necessary to enable cross-checks to be made. If the CRB does not have those full data, it will find it much more difficult to issue a disclosure confidently. I was asked whether the system is retrospective. There is no obligation, and it is up to voluntary organisations to assess the potential. On the cost, the contract with Capita was valued at £400 million over 10 years. That is an element of the overall cost of the CRB, which, including the agency, non-Capita costs and the police, is estimated at £930 million over 10 years.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) asked about summer play schemes. Fast-track arrangements are in place, but if she is concerned about particular schemes, I would be grateful if she could draw them to my attention. The summer splash schemes organised by the Youth Justice Board have been fast-tracked, and I am aware of the point, made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), about the importance of other activities in ensuring that young people do not engage in criminal activity.

The hon. Member for Christchurch cited an important case, and I understand his concern. I am advised that fewer than 10 of the 119,000 disclosures have been disputed. If he gave me further details about the case, I would be happy to investigate and write to him. Indeed, I was interested in his description of the unfortunate circumstances in which his constituent finds himself—and it appeared that someone else had used his constituent's identity. We should pause for a moment to reflect on that. In those circumstances, the onus is on the CRB to satisfy itself about who it is dealing with.

I understand why someone who has not got a criminal record would ask why they should have to prove that they have not done something, and hon. Members asked about the process. Someone has a name and a date of birth, but people with a common name may share the same name and date of birth. If the CRB checks its various sources of data and finds that someone with that name and date of birth has a criminal record, it must ask itself whether it is dealing with John Smith of this date who has or John Smith of this date who has not. Those

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are the difficulties that arise, because people use aliases, with all the things that can be found on the police national computer and local police intelligence records.

The CRB has the duty to check. I appreciate the difficulty raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch, and I understand his constituent's concern. However, one could see the problem in a different light if, in another case, a person had committed an offence but had used an alias and applied under that name. That is why the CRB must be satisfied about who it is dealing with. However, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details, I shall be happy to look into the case.

The hon. Member for Colchester asked about the number of staff: 700 staff are employed by Capita and there are 400 core staff. On the matter of voluntary organisations, the Government responded to the anxiety originally expressed about imposing a cost on the individual volunteer. I understand that it is possible for volunteers to apply by telephone and—I am thinking through the process—if they do so and give all the information required, the CRB will send them a form which they will have to sign and present to the umbrella body, saying, "Here is the evidence that shows I am who I am. Can you sign it?" The umbrella body will check their identity and countersign it. That might be a way to address the cost of the process.

In the time available, I want briefly to move on to the steps that the bureau is taking to deal with the problems that have been identified. First, incomplete forms are now removed from the mainstream processes to try to increase the efficiency of processing correctly completed applications and the exceptions. Incomplete or incorrectly completed application forms are now being returned to the registered body for correction.

Secondly, there is a programme of training and communication for registered bodies to try to reduce the main sources of errors and incomplete forms. If they can get the applications right first time, the CRB will have a better chance to deal with them than if they have to send them back. Additional staff have been taken on, including in the call centre, where last week 88 per cent. of calls were answered within the 20-second response time set down in the service standard, compared with under 30 per cent. at the end of May. That is progress, and we should acknowledge it.

Additional data entry capacity has been taken on by Capita using Hayes plc India, and new data entry systems involving fast keying and scanning optical character recognition systems are being utilised. The disclosure application forms have been reviewed and redesigned to try to deal with people's experiences as they fill them in. All of these steps form the CRB's improvement plan and if the agreed time scales are kept to, it will progressively achieve a reduction in the backlog of unprocessed work in the coming weeks, and achieve service standards by the end of the summer.

Mr. Grieve : Will the Minister answer my query about the CRB's ability to access information?

Hilary Benn : I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not responding to his question. If he is content, I shall write to him about it as he raised a very important point about the systems and the processes. We need to look at that if they are creating difficulties.

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The hon. Member for New Forest, West mentioned taxi drivers at the beginning of the debate. Special arrangements have been made for them, as I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged in his response. I hope that they are working, in particular to deal with issues involving loss or distress. The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned teachers. The bureau has introduced contingency arrangements to enable teachers to be offered placements on the basis of a check of the Department for Education and Skills list 99, in advance of the full disclosure. That meets the legal requirement, so it will not result in the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman feared. For care home staff, the CRB is talking to the Department of Health about fast-track procedures.

It was perhaps inevitable that a project of such a size would encounter problems. Hindsight is perfect; the CRB is not yet. The problems, however, have made the staff at the bureau even more determined to offer a higher standard of service in future. They want to get things right.

I conclude where I began: there cannot be short cuts in trying to get things right. This is not just a mindless administrative process—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.

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