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Tenth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 9 July 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations 2003
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 1418.
Good afternoon, Mr. Benton; I look forward to serving under your chairmanship.
I start by quoting briefly from a Library note, which states:
''These regulations, which came into force on 1st July 2003, amend the Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) Regulations 2002, which came into force in March 2002. They simply increase the fees payable for criminal record certificates and enhanced criminal record certificates previously both £12 to £24 and £29 respectively.''
Although the Library uses the word ''simply'', and with due respect to the Library researcher, I emphasise that, in its short chequered history, nothing has been simple for the Criminal Records Bureau. An early-day motion seeking an annulment of the statutory instrument was tabled on 17 June by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), with 12 signatures that included mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). On 19 June, it was ordered that the statutory instrument be referred to a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, which is why we are here today.
Reasons were given for the increase, and I am sure that the Minister will elaborate on them in due course. It would be all too easy to launch a full debate on the fiasco surrounding the CRB, and I shall do my best to avoid that. However, I need to comment on the background that led to us discussing the regulations today.
I would like to make it clear that Liberal Democrats continue to support the principle of providing comprehensive criminal record checks, to help protect the vulnerable. However, most people would accept that its practice has been deficient in so many ways. Now, on top of those failings, an awesome burden is being placed on the voluntary sector and parts of the private and public sectors—to the best of my knowledge, with no prior consultation and with less than one calendar month's notice. The jump from £12 to £29 is an increase of about 130 per cent. That is scandalous.
The regulations reconfirm that no fee is payable in relation to an application that is made in relation to a volunteer. However, we need to remind ourselves that in reality there is a cost of at least £10 to cover administration by registration bodies. That, in itself, is placing a huge burden on the voluntary sector—a sector on which we all depend so much.
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The CRB started operating in March 2002, seven months late. Its many problems and failures have been the subject of at least two Adjournment debates, at which I have been present, and many parliamentary questions. Among the more recent revelations are that Capita has been fined £1.8 million for delivering a defective system; on the other hand, the company has been paid an extra £8.4 million.
The organisation failed to hit seven of eight key targets, which is shown in detail in a recent written answer to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). The targets were missed by massive margins. For example, the target that 95 per cent. of standard CRB checks should be completed in one week was met in only 19.4 per cent. of cases, and that 90 per cent. of all enhanced CRB checks should be completed in three weeks was achieved in only 52.4 per cent. of cases. I do not want to go too far along that line, but it is obvious that we are considering a failed institution that needs remedial action. Who will bear the burden of that action? It appears that customers and taxpayers will have to bail out the flawed project.
The doubling of the fees will hit schools, care homes and charities hardest, at a time when all of them are struggling with cash shortages. It is a catastrophe, due to disastrous planning, bad decisions and bad implementation, all of which can be traced back to Capita and to Government decisions. It is sad that the losers are the vulnerable people who are owed the reassurance of CRB checks on care staff and the customers who face the massive charges—and, of course, the taxpayer who has to foot the bill for the huge losses.
We need to reflect on the burdens and the benefits of the charges. A private charge is made on organisations and public sector bodies, but a public good comes out of it; that is what we all appreciate. It is difficult to agree a pricing policy when a public good is involved. The late announcement of massive increases in this instance means that there is huge harm on the private side. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggests that the fee increase will not only harm voluntary organisations, but will damage their ability to complement public services in areas such as child care, youth services and care of the disabled. The same organisation estimates that the additional cost to the sector in the first year will be between £7.6 million and £9.3 million.
Bob Russell (Colchester): Would my hon. Friend care to comment on whether the increases will help the Government in their objective to embrace the voluntary sector more and more in our daily lives?
Mrs. Brooke: We all appreciate the enormous contribution that the voluntary sector makes to our public services, so it has to be a matter of great concern. More directly, our public services, education and social services are also affected.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): I accept the point that the hon. Lady makes about the voluntary sector. I used to be a director of Age Concern Scotland, so I know what she is talking about. I know also how easy it is to criticise things that
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might not have gone as well as expected. I did it for 18 years, and I used to enjoy it. It is more difficult to come up with alternatives. When will the hon. Lady tell us what she thinks ought to be done, or to have been done? I hear repeatedly from the Liberal Democrats yap, yap, yap, criticism, criticism, criticism but no positive alternative. Let us hear the alternative.
Mrs. Brooke: I am sure, Mr. Benton, that you would not wish me to go into a complete description of a new solution. We have in front of us a statutory instrument laying out specific proposals. Of course, my party would be happy to meet representatives of the Government to discuss the matter, but that should be outwith the Committee, as it is outside the scope of the regulations. I wish to continue—
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I am sorely tempted to support the hon. Lady in her opposition to the measure, having heard her arguments. My difficulty is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) has said, without knowing what her alternative is, I would be opposing something for the sake of opposing it, rather than supporting something. I know that that is a habit into which Liberal Democrats slip easily, but some of us have to have alternatives.
Mrs. Brooke rose—
The Chairman: Order. We are not here to discuss Liberal Democrat policy. Let us return to the regulations.
Mrs. Brooke: Thank you so much, Mr. Benton. I am grateful to hear that some have as much concern as I have about the proposals; they are what we should concentrate on.
The one month's notice gives me great cause for concern. Notice was given on 5 June. Clearly there could have been differences in the handling; the budgets of the voluntary organisations and the care homes from which we have received representations tend to set in April. The short notice makes budgeting difficult, as does the timing. Given that the charges are in place as we are speaking, that is a matter of great concern.
I draw my comments together by raising a series of questions for the Minister. The compact advocacy programme based at the NCVO expresses concerns that introducing the fee rise without consultation could be a serious breach of the compact. I understand that the compact includes undertakings from the Government to appraise the impact of new policies and procedures on voluntary organisations, and to consult the sector on issues that are likely to affect it.
The decision to more than double fees for disclosures is going to affect many voluntary organisations seriously, so where is the consultation coming in? Although Liberal Democrats are often criticised for such questions, I am sure that most Members would say that that is pretty reasonable in the circumstances. The NCVO has suggested that a fee freeze could be considered for voluntary and community organisations until the end of 2003. If
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the regulations were annulled today and a consultation period was set up, albeit for a couple of months, those important issues could be considered carefully. All Governments, after all, want to be seen as listening Governments. I further understand that although the CRB checks for child care agencies were free in 2002 and 2003, they are to be brought not only into the network of the charges this financial year, but straight into such high levels. Can the Minister give that some consideration?
It seems quite likely that there will be further fee increases in the future, given the stated objectives of the Government and the CRB that there is to be a balance by 2007 between income and expenditure. Further figures obtained in a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam showed that in 2002–03 it cost £36 to produce a standard check using the paper application and £31 by phone, whereas it cost £41 for an enhanced check by paper and £36 by phone. The Minister could therefore say, ''Well, this is a generous subsidy to all these people.'' One could say that, but are further fee increases anticipated before next April? Are further increases anticipated by 2007? Given the issue of high costs, what are the plans for management of costs in future? Will the Government be forced to accept a further lowering of standards and performance? These important considerations would benefit from further consultation.
We are talking about the voluntary, private and public sectors. I have said much about the voluntary sector, but I do not want to forget, for example, care homes that are in the private sector and, in particular, schools in the public sector, which is one of my great hobbyhorses. I want the Minister to say what will happen if the possible fee increases take place. Would he then commit himself to holding proper and full consultation?