Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 120-139)



  120. No, I am not suggesting by hook or by crook. Clearly, if the Home Office made a decision which is negative, and there is an appeal, the presenting officer will obviously be coming along, as will hopefully the appellant's representative, and the presenting officer will present the case why the Home Office has made the decision, and cross-examine, as in a court, the appellant. It is not a question of by hook or crook; I am not suggesting that.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Exactly that will happen, but occasionally, because this is a large organisation, and we are taking 95,000 decisions for example, the previous year, if a presenting officer concludes when examining things at that stage that that was a bad decision, we may well give in at that stage and not seek to pursue the appeal, and although the number of cases like that is small, happily, if they happen, that is what we will do.

  121. From my experience of some years ago, acting as appellants' representatives when I was out of the House, I did not find any desire or any reluctance on the part of the presenting officer not to present as strong a case as possible for the Home Office decision to be upheld. That was the duty and responsibility of the presenting officer.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Indeed. As long as that is a fair and well founded argument, then that is what he seeks to do.

Mrs Dean

  122. First of all, following the question about the IND, in the non-asylum cases it seems to me there are still times when the correspondence cannot be located easily. Can you explain why that is and what can be done to improve the situation?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It certainly is the case. It is the case in a diminishing number of instances. We are dealing at the moment in the non-asylum and non-nationality area with the upper 200,000 applications a year, 285,000 decisions in the previous year, which was a huge growth on the year before that. It is certainly the case that in some instances either letters get lost or that they are not linked to the file in time. We have made a number of procedural changes that we believe will improve that. Fundamental to them is the introduction of new IT, a case information database, as it is called, which means that everything now coming in is logged, and the exact location of the material, the status of the case, whether it is pending decision or a decision has been taken but not transmitted back to the applicant, whatever that may be, is all recorded and available to anybody anywhere in the organisation. But we still have a tail of cases that date back to the old days before we were able to make those changes, and I have to acknowledge that passports will still get lost, letters will still get lost, which does not really mean that they are totally lost; they often turn up again but too late for practical purposes, and we have to acknowledge our mistakes if that happens.

  123. Why is it necessary for my constituents and others to have to use Recorded Delivery and to have to be able to give a Recorded Delivery number to be able to locate anything?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Recorded Delivery both inwards and outwards enables us to track the material from the very moment of arrival, before it has got on to the database, so that if material comes in, the Recorded Delivery envelope has a bar code, and from that moment on it can be tracked through the system and then entered into the database. With the huge numbers of letters arriving—in Croydon the post room receives 25,000 letters a week and sends out a similar number—when you are dealing with those numbers at that speed, anything that facilitates identification is valuable.

  124. Turning to Mr Gieve, what lessons have been learned from the problems experienced during the implementation of the National Probation Service computer system?
  (Mr Gieve) Quite a lot of lessons. Firstly, this is not the worst computer system even within the Home Office. It exists, and probation officers up and down the country have IT, but one particular application which was an important part of the original scheme has never really worked satisfactorily, and that is the case management system. I think there are three big lessons I would draw from that. The first is that scaling up—this is something other people have learned too—is a lot harder than it sounds. This was a system that was said to work very well in Northumbria, but did not easily scale up to cover the rest of the country. Secondly, you have to invest a lot in the management of major contracts of this sort, and I do not think we did invest enough. We did not have a strong enough team through the critical parts of the contract, which is now quite a long time ago, when we had a lot of discontinuity of staff, and we rather left it to the contractors to get on with, and we needed to be right on top of them much more. The third is that it is very difficult to do this on a federal basis, to do a single scheme on a federal basis. When we started on the probation IT we were dealing with 54 separate probation authorities in effect, and we were trying to do it by consensus and so on, and that introduces a lot of additional complications in contract management.

  125. Will you be able to ensure that does not happen again with other systems such as the Home Office accounting processes, which you have to have in by April next year, do you not?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes, I hope we will, but I am not guaranteeing that nothing will go wrong with our other projects. On the probation front, as you know, we now have a national service, and they have concluded a new agreement and they have very much beefed up their IT capability, and I am pretty confident—touch wood—that that is going pretty well. We are taking external advice through the Office of Government Commerce and so on at regular moments. Elsewhere in the Home Office, the Criminal Records Bureau shows that we still have some lessons to learn.

  126. What lessons have been learned from the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report in May of this year, in which he described the Home Office's lack of cooperation with his inquiry over the alleged conversations between Peter Mandelson and Mike O'Brien?
  (Mr Gieve) The Hinduja affair? Two lessons really. In the end in that case we agreed with the Ombudsman, and we did what he wanted us to do, but there were long pauses in between, some of which were because the Government took the view that the Hammond Inquiry should be allowed to run—the Ombudsman did not wholly agree with that—but some of which were due to the lack of coordination between us and the other departments concerned. The second lesson is that when we offered the Ombudsman access to our files, and he came to look at them, he found that they did not have all the papers on them. That has given us a more immediate lesson about keeping our files up to date in the Immigration Department.

  127. That has been done now, has it?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.

  128. Can I turn to resource accounting. What were the main difficulties you experienced in producing the 2000-01 resource accounts?
  (Mr Gieve) Our accounts were qualified in the end for a number of reasons for 2000-01. We had difficulty on consolidating all the parts of the Home Office that we were supposed to consolidate, and we also had difficulty in dealing with suspense accounts, which had been very common in the old cash accounting system, but which needed to be dealt with differently. We also had some problems in providing the right sort of certificates from the police, for example, to satisfy our auditor that they had received the money. They had, but nonetheless, their auditors did not think that they had to produce a certificate and so on. So we had a number of difficulties. That is one of the reasons for qualification. In process terms, I think we under-invested in accountants, and we got off to a slow start on resource accounting, and some of these difficulties could have been overcome if we had started earlier with better qualified staff, which we now have.

  129. Are you confident that you will be able to produce unqualified accounts for 2001-02?
  (Mr Gieve) I am hoping we will.


  130. It is a target?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.

David Winnick

  131. Identity cards. There is going to be a six-month consultation exercise, is there not? Does that consultation exercise include consulting with other Whitehall Departments?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.

  132. Some of them apparently are not over the moon with delight at the idea, or would that not be an appropriate description of their response?
  (Mr Gieve) I think there is a range of views on identity cards or entitlement cards.

  133. Within Whitehall?
  (Mr Gieve) There is a range of views on everything within Whitehall.

  134. I have seen a report in one of the newspapers which states that a Whitehall source—whatever a Whitehall source may be—has said following the Home Secretary's statement in the House, "The Department of Work and Pensions will oppose the idea. It believes this is a solution in search of a problem," and the source adds, "If people are going to work and claim benefit, an entitlement card is not going to deter them. They will just turn up, show the card, and carry on working." Would you describe that as an accurate reflection of the Work and Pensions Department's view?
  (Mr Gieve) I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers. You would have to ask the Department of Work and Pensions but I would be very surprised if they gave that answer.

  135. So this Whitehall source may well be misleading us.
  (Mr Gieve) You will have to ask the Department, but I expect they can see advantages and potential costs in this proposal.

  136. We would be right to draw the conclusion from your earlier answer that there are a range of views about this entitlement card or identity card within Whitehall?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes, and this is a very open consultation. This is fairly well trodden ground, and there are differing views round the country and in different institutions. The reason for coming back to this is partly technology moves on, and partly a question about whether the holding of cards is becoming more acceptable to the public and more useful, and partly is to do with new problems which it might help us on, including illegal working and identity fraud.

  137. It is not to be compulsory. Is that the situation?
  (Mr Gieve) A scheme is set out in the document, as a focus for the consultation rather than as a firm proposal, and that is a universal card, that is, all residents would have one, but they would not have to carry it with them and they could not be challenged to show their ID card by the police, so not compulsory in that sense.

  138. So the distinction is really between the fact that it will be required that all lawful residents in the UK over a certain age will have to register. That will be compulsory, will it not?
  (Mr Gieve) They will all have to register, yes. That is part of the scheme.

  139. So that element is not optional; every lawful resident in the UK over a certain age, presumably over 16, will have to register, and not to register will be illegal.
  (Mr Gieve) It is a universal scheme, yes. The scheme would not work unless all residents were in it, yes.

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