Examination of Witnesses (Questions (1-19)
WEDNESDAY 18 SEPTEMBER 2002
1. Can I welcome the Home Secretary and Beverley
Hughes, a former member of this Committee. Can I say that in this
era of New Labour targets we have set ourselves a target today:
I have sworn to the Home Secretary that he will only be here for
two hours, and I propose to deliver on that promise.
(Mr Blunkett) I am very grateful. I hope
I can make the same commitment on targets in the department.
2. That means he will depart here at 12.34.
The main purpose of today's session is to discuss asylum and immigration
but we have a number of other matters we also wish to raise. In
order that we can focus on asylum and immigration I propose to
deal with the other matters first, if that is agreeable. I may
be fairly ruthless about moving things along. Can I appeal for
short questions and short answers, please. Perhaps I can start
the ball rolling, Home Secretary, by asking about the outcome
of the spending review. I am told you are not very keen to talk
about it. Why is that?
(Mr Blunkett) Because I have not determined the allocation
within the overall figures that were announced in July. I am in
the process of doing that. I will have to give notification in
relation to the police budget because of the revenue grant and
the associated standard spending assessment for the announcement
by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in November, and I
will do that shortly. However, we are undertaking a root and branch
efficiency review within the department in terms of the allocation
of both baseline resource and the new allocation, and I want to
be able to reconfigure the way in which we do our budget. We have
some very new senior staff on the finance side in the department.
Margaret Aldred came across from the Treasury at the end of last
year and she has been working with us on both the application
through the spending review process and now on the key issue of
not simply providing incrementalism where we simply add to what
we have already got, irrespective of how well we are performing
on the baseline and whether or not we are actually delivering
the resources in the right area. So forgive me for that, it is
a genuine exercise in reconfiguring the Home Office's budget to
meet the new priorities.
3. When do you anticipate you will be able to
give us a definitive statement on that?
(Mr Blunkett) On the police budget I will endeavour
to do so within the next three or four weeks. The issue of the
reconfiguration I hope to have been able to make some progress
on by the end of the calendar year and certainly into the beginning
of next year because people will want to know the three-year picture
at least in broad terms, and I accept and understand that.
4. What are the problem areas? Asylum? Prisons?
(Mr Blunkett) On asylum we have a ring-fenced amount
for this coming year, an additional amount to the totals that
were agreed in the previous review. I choose my words carefully
because I seem to remember the last time I was with you I did
point out that we were in a situation, not of my making, where
we had an interim allocation in the 2000 review which then had
to be topped up immediately because the year-on-year outturns
for 2000-01 and 2001-02 were considerably higher than the original
allocation of £400 million for asylum purposes, added to
the existing broader IND activity. That has been at least substantially
rectified in this current spending review, so the £641 million
(if my memory serves me correctly) for the coming year is ring-fenced.
We still, obviously, have to decide whether there are other areas
in terms of what we are doing in strengthening our border controls
or our bilateral relationship with other countries which would
require an approach demanding additional resources, and I need
to look at that.
5. When Martin Narey came here on 18 July and
we asked him how he had done in the spending review, he said "I
do not know yet, I hope to have a picture in the next few days".
That was 18 July. Is he likely to be able to tell us now if we
were to ask?
(Mr Blunkett) "The next few days" has extended
into a substantial review of correctional services, so I do not
want to allocate the budget purely to the Prison Service over
and above what they have already been allocated, not least in
the April 17 budgetbecause I think you should, if you would,
Chair, take the April 17 budget together with the spending review,
because unlike other departments we did have a substantial uplift
both on the street crime initiative and on prison places; the
2,300 additional places for correctional places were announced
and are being implemented. I have said to the Head of the Prison
Service that clearly he will need to know very rapidly how we
fund the immediate requirement for those on-going places and we
will do that, but we have set up a review with independent members
now joining the Correctional Board that we have established and
that review will take a look at both the pressures and, also,
the opportunities for reconfiguring the balance between the parts
of the correctional servicecommunity sentencing, long-term
sentences for dangerous, sexual, violent offendersand we
want to ensure that we have got a picture that is robust enough
to convince others that we have a case for substantial additional
resources, which of course come at a price, because the money
you spend on additional prison places is money you cannot spend
on interventions which avoid re-offending.
6. Are you worried that you might get pressed
by the Treasury into setting unrealistic targets? It has been
known, has it not?
(Mr Blunkett) We have been in the forefront of suggesting
that we need fewer, more robust targets, and I believe that very
strongly. I think that the emphasis that I am placing for the
three years ahead is on delivery, and to be able to deliver you
need targets that are within reasonable bounds and understandable
to both the public and Parliament and, therefore, to allow you,
as the Committee here, and Parliament as a whole, to genuinely
scrutinise whether we are making progress rather than merely scoring
7. Are you having that argument with the Treasury?
(Mr Blunkett) No, I do not need to have the argument
because the discussions have been extremely friendly, as you would
8. Home Secretary, by all accounts it has been
a shambles in the summer in the lead-up to the new term in schools.
When did you first realise there was a problem at the Criminal
(Mr Blunkett) I knew there were major challenges when
I visited the Criminal Records Bureau on 1 March. I was aware
that what had been expected of them was extending the capability
of any organisation to deliver. You will recall, because you will
have the history, that it was this Committee which recommended
that there was something like the Criminal Records Bureau established
in their report of 1990 and there was then legislation just before
the 1997 General Election. That was then carried into effect,
starting in the August of 1997 and eventually the contract was
let in August 2000. Subsequent to that, the Office of Government
Commerce had two separate what are called "Gateway Reviews"
on progress. On each occasion the recommendations made on substantial
improvement were acted upon. When I visited the Bureau on 1 March
it was patently clear that what was happening in terms of the
pressure of clients, including the prevalence of paper-based applications,
was going to be a challenge. I do not think what had been foreseen
at the time was the enormity of the volume, nor that there would
be the particular concerns that arose this summer and were acted
upon by the Department for Education and Skills. There is no question
whatsoever that the way in which the administration and operation
of the Records Bureau has proceeded is unacceptable, which is
why just under ten days ago I set up an independent review with
independent scrutiny, under the chairmanship of Pat Carteracting
as a senior non-executive chair, in effectto come forward
with not only a picture of the immediate steps that are required
but, also, some of the broader issues that affect, I think, the
relationship between Government and arm's length agencies (those
agencies and their private sector partners) on the level of accountability
and responsibility that should be taken at each layer, including
ministerial level, and also of course the question of risk and
who carried that risk and for what purpose.
9. It will be interesting to see the results
of that review. You say that they did not realise the volume that
was to face them, but things such as the number of teachers in
schools, the number of nursery nurses and the number of student
nurses and so on, are all pre-determined. There was obviously
no forecasting going on about what was needed to be done by those
dates. How did the situation arise where schools ended up having
to close because they had not staff who were fully cleared?
(Mr Blunkett) Consequent on the concerns that arose
in Mayand this is all on record, of course, so there is
no difficulty about access to the decisions that were takenon
21 May in agreement with the Secretary of State for Education
it was decided that given the concerns that we had we would use
List 99. List 99 is robust. The work of the Criminal Records Bureau
underpins that even further and, obviously, extends it to non-teaching
staff. The decision in May was overturned, as Members will be
aware, following a direct approach from that department to the
Criminal Records Bureau on 20/21 August, and, as a consequence,
the Criminal Records Bureau switched its effort and staff, including
the work of Capita, to concentrate, as a matter of priority on
the full checks again that had been undertaken prior to 21 May.
The consequence of that you are aware of. It was then a decision
taken by the Secretary of State when she returned from Australia
that put us back on track to be able to ensure that schools were
able to operate properly. That is the situation we are now in,
it is part of the review that Pat Carter's group are undertaking
and I hope we can resolve it very quickly.
10. When do you think schools will be able to
say that all their staffteaching and non-teachinghave
been through the Criminal Records Bureau and have been properly
(Mr Blunkett) The issue is at what stage those applications
were put in, because those that applied at the point when notice
has to be given by teachers of leaving have practically all been
cleared; those that have been put in very recentlywithin
the last three weeksremain outstanding. So what I would
like to do, as the accountable minister, with Charlie Falconer,
is to ensure that we get a timescale for clearance which is acceptable.
At the moment we are working to get that to six weeks. The original
target was three weeks. Given the volume, that was extremely ambitious.
It is better to tell people what they can expect and allow them
to plan for it in the short term while we get this right than
it is to mislead them and then create the frustrations and, in
some cases, the genuine worry that they are not having their key
staff cleared. I have to emphasise, however, because I think this
is very important and I have not spoken about this publicly, that
we are at least in a better position than we were on 11 March,
because prior to 11 March we did not have a Criminal Records Bureau.
So the processing of staff, albeit it has not been competent,
actually is a plus not a minus, and I think that did get lost
at the end of August in the concerns about whether teaching staff
were being cleared.
11. You say it is a plus. Do you therefore deny
the reports in the papers which suggested that 60 or more per
cent of the reports from the Criminal Records Bureau are, in fact,
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, there have been a great many rumours.
I hold no remit for what has taken place. It seems to me the reassurances
that have been given to officials and, consequently, to ministers
have led us to be extremely sceptical of anything that we are
told, and that is why the review group will be looking at the
information trail and the robustness of what is available to us,
so that we can make logical decisions from their review. What
is absolutely clear is that the use of paper-based applications
and the sheer incapability of people filling in those forms properly
has undoubtedly contributed to the chaos that existed a few weeks
agono question about that. From the interim report I was
given by the review group two days ago that became patently clear.
12. One final question, Secretary of State.
Have you paid any extra money to Capita to deal with this problem?
(Mr Blunkett) No.
13. Have you imposed any penalties on them?
There are penalty clauses in the contract, I think.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, there are, and part of the review
group's remit will be to assess the culpability and to ensure
that we get independent advice on that. I am very clear, as I
said a moment ago, that we, as a Governmentand this is
not a party issueneed to be clear about levels of accountability
and of risk in contracts of this sort.
14. Home Secretary, you have twice made reference
to "paper-based applications". The contract was let
in 2000. Can you confirm that at that stage the intention was
that there would be predominantly applications by telephone?
(Mr Blunkett) Yes.
15. Could you tell the Committee when the decision
was made to drop that idea and who made that decision?
(Mr Blunkett) The decision was taken in the summer
of 2001, on the pressure that was brought to bear by those wishing
to use the service and who believed that it would be difficult
for them. The decision was made through the recommendations to
the Home Office. This was part of the Office of Government Commerce
Gateway appraisals on both occasions, and it was still believed
that this was possible to achieve.
16. Will steps now be taken to try and reintroduce
or encourage applicants to use the telephone system? I understand
it would save a week or two if that system was implemented.
(Mr Blunkett) I think, as part of the review, we would
like the group to tell us, both in terms of telephone and Internet
contact, how we could establish a more effective way of making
those applications in a way that allows them to follow through
and check the validity of them, because that is of course the
crucial issue here. How can you be sure who you are dealing with
and on whose behalf? The police were worried about the checking
of telephone applications and the relationship with the Police
National Computer. You will recall that in the immediate aftermath
of letting the contract the Police National Compuer required updating
substantially. That did take time and it was part of the concerns
in the run-up to the full launch of the CRB on 1 April. Looking
back now, it would have been sensible to have made sure that they
were happy with an alternative system but nobody at the time raised
this, including those who were doing the professional appraisal.
17. I am grateful the review body is going to
look at that. Finally, Home Secretary, bearing in mind your previous
position in Government and your current one, would you agree with
me that children are much safer in school than being let loose
in the community, as was proposed by one of the education ministers,
who said if the full check had not been done the schools must
shut and the children should be sent home?
(Mr Blunkett) I do not wish to comment on anything
that an education minister may or may not have said. I do know
that the Secretary of State on her return from holiday took that
view, and I share it.
Bob Russell: Thank you.
Chairman: Can we turn briefly to air
weapons. Mr Watson.
18. Home Secretary, you will be aware that two
people have been killed by air weapons over the summer. Have you
considered the possibility of a licensing system as a result of
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, and we have responded to questions
in Parliament by indicating that we do think there is a real issue.
There is an issue about their possession by those under the age
of 17; there is an issue about the present regulation in terms
of velocity (and there is other phraseology which escapes me at
the moment) in terms of both rifles and hand pistols. I think
there is a very crucial question as to when we pass the line of
danger here, and we should appraise this afresh.
19. Could you put a timescale on that? Are you
saying something might be brought to Parliament this year?
(Mr Blunkett) I cannot promise that we can include
a change in the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill but I am
quite keen to get this resolved because I realise it has been
a concern for some time. I ought to stress, however, that we need
a proportionate approach here because there are real issues of
enforcement, so we want to ensure that in relation to any restriction
on purchase and on, if you like, the dangerousness of air pistolstheir
capacitywe need to be sure that we are doing something
that is enforceable and which the police can check and manage.
I happen to be someone who believes that we rush into legislation
very often only to find that what we have done is then discredited
by a lack of application and rigour in the way in which it is
followed through. I think the Home Office has been bedevilled
by that over the years.