Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) (Amendment No. 4) Regualtions 2003

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Mr. Howarth: I was listening closely to the figures that the hon. Lady used. Would not joining her today in opposing the measure have the effect of making the already existing subsidy even greater, because the revenue from fees would then not be collected? She is proposing that the taxpayer continues to subsidise the applications.

Mrs. Brooke: I am proposing that the regulations are annulled, that time is taken out to consult, and that a measured decision is then taken.

Mr. Howarth: The taxpayer would have to pay for it.

Mrs. Brooke: Perhaps it is a matter of ensuring that the body is acting efficiently. When mistakes are made, sometimes somebody has to pick up the bill. In relation to a private finance initiative, given the figures that I quoted earlier, the balance of risk in the present case is good for a company in the private sector. Getting an extra £8.3 million when somebody has got something wrong is quite a good deal for the private sector. Other companies go out of business, so we must also consider the management. There must be responsibility and accountability—that, of course, is the prerogative of the party in power.

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To continue with my questions—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will answer them in his usual measured way—does the Minister regard it as reasonable to have announced the increases on 5 June that took effect on 1 July? That is a short run-in; as I mentioned, the financial year for many institutions operates from April to March. Furthermore, is the Minister satisfied that the CRB can deliver a satisfactory service? The National Care Homes Association wrote to us and suggested that it would feel happier about paying increased charges if it thought that it would get a decent service for the money. It quotes a recent example of a promise to deliver application forms within five to seven days that in fact took 11 days; and so things goes on. The NCVO found that five out of 10 voluntary organisations rated the service that the CRB provides as very poor, owing to costs in delays and mistakes.

There are two sides: poor service and a high charge, plus, due to the escalating costs, which have not been controlled, all the problems. Will the Minister therefore annul the regulations? There is a strong case for holding a proper consultation, for at least a couple of months. There is certainly a moral duty, as far as the voluntary organisations are concerned, to carry out that consultation. That is the main reason why we shall press for a Division. We do not believe that the commitment to carry out consultation has been honoured. We continue to have the greatest of reservations about the operation and control of costs, and about subsequent burdens on the essential users of the service, which is a monopoly. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that that monopoly service gives good service.

2.48 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): We have at the moment the worst of all worlds: a system that is failing to protect the vulnerable with timely checks of the sort that it is supposed to deliver, while at the same time penalising organisations with charges that will increase by about 150 per cent. if the regulations are passed. Let it be absolutely clear that the Opposition believe that all Governments have a duty of care to protect children and vulnerable adults. Our commitment to that principle and the CRB is total.

You quite rightly ruled earlier, Mr. Benton, that we should not take the matter wide and set out alternatives. I accept that ruling; we have no intention of doing so, but I make one point at the outset. This is one more example of a system breaking down due to a huge overload of paperwork caused by buckshee initiatives in the various organisations that provide the necessary material—the CRB, the police and social services. We publicly opposed many of those initiatives at the time.

In one swift stroke, the amendment will dramatically increase the CRB's fees by 142 per cent. for enhanced disclosure and 100 per cent. for standard disclosure. To date, the CRB has failed to deliver timely checks. Has the Home Office made any effort to consult on the increases and their likely impact? Had

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he bothered to consult, the Minister would have found the strength of the opposition. I shall give a few more examples. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers has said:

    ''For the past year, schools in England and Wales have been forced to deal with the difficulties caused by the CRB's inefficiency. To increase the fees charged to such a level at a time when many schools are being subjected to a serious shortfall in funding''—

particularly in southern England, I might say—

    ''is nothing short of outrageous.''

Mr. Foulkes: In the middle of the hon. Gentleman's outrage, will he explain why the Tories did not pray against the measure, if he is so opposed to it? Is he conceding the position of official Opposition party to the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Brazier: Far from it. We have also opposed it and—if the right hon. Gentleman will contain himself—we have written to the Auditor General to ask him to investigate the activities of the CRB. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on tabling her early-day motion just before us, and just before I took up this post.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Otherwise we would have been there.

Mr. Brazier: Quite right.

The chairman of the National Care Homes Association, Nadra Ahmed, said:

    ''If one of our members failed to deliver an appropriate level of service to the vulnerable and elderly, their home would be closed down. The CRB has been rewarded for failing to deliver a satisfactory service with a green light from the Government to charge more.''

That comes on top of a 1 per cent. increase on employers' national insurance contributions, a 20 per cent. increase in the fees that care homes have to pay to be inspected by the National Care Standards Commission and a 6 per cent. increase in the national minimum wage from October 2003. Is it any wonder that there is such a shortage in our shrinking number of care home beds?

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that care homes might well appreciate the 1 per cent. increase in national insurance contributions if that money went to the national health service? It would pay for more care beds in such homes, increasing their income by several hundred pounds per week.

Mr. Brazier: It does not work like that. We remember the figures setting out the bulk of the increase in recent NHS spending. There has been a 22 per cent. increase in spending in the past two years, and a 1.6 per cent. increase in output. The money is being spent on administrators, waste and almost everything except increased output in the NHS.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He referred to increased costs caused by the national minimum wage. I am sure that he and every other hon. Member in this Room would agree that the work that the care sector does is important. We should expect people in that sector to be paid decent wages, and not to work on the slave pay

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that some people in this country expect them to receive.

Mr. Brazier: I do not have a problem with what the hon. Gentleman said about the national minimum wage. However, I welcome his intervention because it gives me the opportunity to put on the record how disgraceful it is that over the past few years the Government have steadily taken money away year after year from local authorities such as mine in Kent to the point where a granny from Islington—to choose a local government area entirely at random—is now funded at almost three times the rate of a granny from Kent from the share of central Government support grant.

The Chairman: Order. We are moving away from the regulations. I do not know whether that is because of the heat outside. I remind the Committee once again to return to the regulations.

Mr. Brazier: I am so grateful, Mr. Benton. I was being seduced. I shall return to the regulations. Labour Members are clearly embarrassed because they know that they are on the losing side.

The NCVO has spoken out strongly against the measure. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has already reported its comments, so I will not repeat them. Many local authorities will also come under the cosh. Wandsworth borough council informed me:

    ''This increase was unexpected, and little notice was given. This will result in an additional cost to the Council of £53,000 for which there is no provision in departmental budgets''.

That is just one more load to bear.

The Minister is aware that the Home Affairs Select Committee carried out an investigation into the CRB in March 2001, just before its creation. Unfortunately, that report has proved to be devastatingly accurate. I remind the Minister that his hon. Friends were in the majority on the Committee. Paragraph 16 of the report states:

    ''The Minister told us in oral evidence that people who are employed to look after children and vulnerable adults would not be expected to bear the cost of free checks for volunteers:

    When you take the costs of what would have been the charge for the volunteers, that is being subsidised from two sources. Firstly, an overall Exchequer grant because of the overall government policy on volunteers, and, secondly . . . by the increase in charges for employees''.

Do not teachers look after children? Do not care homes look after the vulnerable? Both those groups will be clobbered by the £29 fee. Headmasters' budgets are stretched to breaking point in my neck of the woods, and care homes are closing down all the time. We have a crisis in care home capacity. I am tempted to say more, but I will not because you might reprove me, Mr. Benton. All of society will pay for the Government's indecent haste to establish the CRB, which has meant that they have not got the detail right. Social services and the police have been subjected to a blizzard of paperwork and a series of silly initiatives.

It was evident even before the CRB went live that it was going to have problems. The same report stated:

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    ''The need to balance finances so that these costs can be met will be essential to the Criminal Records Bureau's success when it becomes operational. We were therefore concerned that the Criminal Records Bureau has as yet produced no detailed financial forecasts for the first five years of its operation.''

I could go on.

The CRB's own website states:

    ''The current fees were set before the service was fully designed and developed, and it is clear now that the fee level was set unrealistically low when considering the complexity of the Disclosure service''.

That is something of an admission, but it stops short of saying sorry—a hard word for the Government.

The increase in fees might be justifiable if the level of service provided to customers was of an acceptable standard. Regrettably, it is not. Once again, the Home Affairs Select Committee's investigation proved frighteningly accurate in its predictions. It came up with a worst-case scenario, which involved IT systems performing inadequately, delays in processing applicants, and unsuitable candidates being able to slip through the net and gain access. I could give a long quote, but I will spare the Committee because it is a hot afternoon and tempers are already fraying.

Since the CRB's creation, there has been a catalogue of disasters, missed targets and failures in procedures. We have the makings of a Whitehall farce—only it is not funny because the victims are some of society's most vulnerable people.

After numerous postponements, the CRB still is not offering a full service. By the end of summer 2002, the vetting application backlog had built up to 100,000. In August 2002, the backlog of delays in criminal record checks on teachers alone was estimated to be 60,000. Stephen Lee, an experienced teacher, found that the CRB was telling schools that he was a career criminal with more than 40 convictions. It took him five months trying to clear his name before the CRB finally admitted its mistake. Unsurprisingly, he is now considering legal action. To date, the CRB has a backlog of more than 50,000 vetting applications. Unbelievably, that is considered a big improvement on last year.

The newly revised service standards for disclosure turn-around times mention 90 per cent. of enhanced disclosures being issued within four weeks. I suspect that the experience of Wandsworth council is typical. It states:

    ''Cases are currently taking four to six weeks on average. However, departments have reported cases of checks still outstanding from last year''.

From last year? It is now July.

    ''It is estimated that the staff time wasted in chasing up applications equates to a cost to the Council of approximately £25,000 per year.''

That is on top of the £56,000 that I mentioned earlier.

The service is so bad that even the Government recognise it. Not only has Capita, the private company that runs the CRB, been fined, but a three-man team was sent in by the Home Office to conduct an investigation. Apparently, the team has come up with 10 recommendations for change. Why were those problems not considered before the CRB was

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set up? It is one more example of an initiative that was put in along with one million others, instead of being thought through fully. It was an important initiative, and the Conservatives supported it, but it has not been introduced properly.

On 3 September, the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, now the Minister for the Arts, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), dropped her Department's insistence that all applicants for school jobs must undergo police checks before starting work, and the requirements of the checks were watered down. Teachers should be subject to the enhanced disclosure check before taking up an appointment, including a check against List 99 and the police national computer, but the huge backlog of applications from prospective teachers led to the proposed checks being slimmed down so that schools could get on with their jobs.

The situation in care homes is equally deplorable. The Government's regulations originally required them to complete their checks by April 2003, but temporary measures, as they are called, have postponed the deadline until October 2004. Those care homes that were unable to have their checks completed in the first wave—some anecdotal evidence suggests that some of them were asked to let schools go through first—will now be charged the increased fee rate. Many postponed their applications precisely because they were asked to do so, but they have been given only one month's notice of the increase.

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