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Police National Computer Records

12.30 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con) (urgent question): To ask the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety to make a statement on the completeness of police national computer records in the light of the Soham murder case.

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): The whole House will join me in expressing our sympathy with the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. We cannot imagine the pain that they must be suffering, but we can work together to ensure that lessons are learned from the girls' murders.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary yesterday announced an independent inquiry led by Sir Michael Bichard. That inquiry will look into child protection procedures in Humberside police and Cambridgeshire constabulary. It will assess the effectiveness of the relevant intelligence-based record keeping, the vetting practices in those forces since 1995 and information sharing with other agencies. Importantly, it will report to the Home Secretary on matters of local and national relevance and make any recommendations it believes appropriate.

It is right that it should be Sir Michael Bichard who provides an authoritative answer on whether the completeness of police national computer records had a significant impact on the Soham case. I am sure the House will agree that I should not prejudge that independent inquiry. However, I can say that the speed and quality with which police forces record information on the police national computer has been the subject of a sustained focus by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary in recent years.

A year-long inspection that ran in two phases from March 2001 to April 2002 was not encouraging. It found poor business processes, exacerbated by the lack of a national IT solution. The backlog of unentered case results was mainly due to the absence of strategic prioritisation of the issue and the failure to allocate sufficient people to the task. As a result of that inspection, the HMIC managed and monitored a year-long programme of work in every force to improve performance. That has covered two areas. The first is arrest and summons reports, which initiate a new record. The target is for 90 per cent. of reports to be logged on to the system within 24 hours. Some 79 per cent. of cases in England and 76 per cent. of cases in Wales are meeting that target. The second relates to court results. Police forces are measured against a target of 90 per cent. of court results being inputted on to the police national computer within seven days. At the moment, 38 per cent. of cases in England and 30 per cent. of cases in Wales are meeting that target, with 80 per cent. of cases reaching it within 28 days.

Forces have worked hard with the inspectorate to improve the situation. As a result, every force improved its performance and some were at, or near to, the nationally agreed targets. However, both the inspectorate and the Home Secretary are clear that many police forces must do a lot better to reach the standards that we are entitled to expect. To ensure that

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improvements are being made and properly tracked, a new team has been established in HMIC to audit and monitor forces' performance and intervene where necessary on a targeted basis.

Further action has also been undertaken by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has set up a group to pursue the implementation of the other recommendations in the HMIC report. Paramount among those is the development of a statutory code of practice under powers put in place under the Police Reform Act 2002. That will set standards for forces in relation to the timeliness of inputting. A draft has been produced and is out for consultation. The consultation ends in January, and our aim is that the code should be in place by next April. In parallel, we are working with the Court Service on a joint document to set out escalation processes to deal with problem cases should they arise.

We have made very considerable progress in recent years in trying to ensure that vetting is effective and thorough, but we know that the Criminal Records Bureau can only be as good as the data available to it. That is why our ongoing work with police forces to ensure that the police national computer is kept up to date is so important. I assure the House that the inspectorate will continue to drive improvement in those forces that are not meeting their targets and that any further recommendations that Sir Michael Bichard makes will be dealt with speedily. The House and the people of this country would expect nothing less.

Mr. Paice: I thank the Minister for her statement and for her kind words about my constituents, the families of the two little girls. Through her, I thank the Home Secretary for his promptness in setting up the inquiry headed by Sir Michael Bichard into the effectiveness of the vetting practices carried out by the Cambridgeshire and Humberside forces.

My constituents in Soham, as well as parents throughout the country, are angry and horrified that a man with so many allegations against him came through the process apparently without criticism, and they wonder why no charges were brought when so many victims are now describing their experiences. Although the inquiry must be thorough and effective, will the Minister tell the House when she expects it to be able to report?

Will the inquiry investigate allegations that the Data Protection Act 1998 and even perhaps the Human Rights Act 1998 have prevented Humberside police from keeping or passing on relevant information, and the counter-statement by the registrar that that is not the case? Will the inquiry also consider the present Criminal Records Bureau operations and its system of checking people for work with children? In particular, is it still possible for someone who changes their name to circumvent the checks?

Has the Minister, as I have done, looked at the forms used by the CRB and seen how easy it would still be for someone of evil intent to evade detection? Is she satisfied that the quality control of work carried out by the CRB, including in Bombay, is adequate? Will she instigate, as one of her hon. Friends has suggested, random sampling to check the rigour of the CRB system?

On the police national computer itself, is the Minister aware that, on 3 February this year, her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen

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(Mr. Denham), answered a written question from me on this very subject? At column 72W of the Official Report he said that, in the period to December last year, police forces took 71 days on average to enter all court disposals on to the database, against a target of what he then said was three days. The Minister said in her answer that the target was now seven days. Can she explain the discrepancy?

Will the Minister publish the report, which was apparently leaked yesterday, that suggested, according to the media, including the BBC, that the situation is getting worse rather than better? Will she explain why it was necessary to leak the report rather than publishing it in the interests of transparency, especially in the light of another answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave me on 30 October last year which, I am afraid flies in the face of what the Minister just told us when she said that the situation was very bad a year ago? The then Minister said:

Yet the Minister has just told us that, in fact, the situation was not showing any improvement at all. Can she explain how much of the delay in entering data on to the computer is caused by the courts not meeting their targets for notifying forces, and how much by forces not entering the data once they have received them? Is it not obvious that no vetting process can be effective if records are two months out of date? If, a year ago, the situation was apparently improving—as the then Minister told me—why does it seem that it has not got better since?

The tragic and evil events that occurred in my constituency have struck a chord with people all over the country and abroad. Although we can never eliminate risk, it is essential that we ensure that those who work with our children do so with our trust. Will the Minister promise the House that Sir Michael Bichard's report will be published in full, and that whatever needs to be changed—people, systems or laws—it will be done?

Ms Blears: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday when he announced the inquiry that he wanted it to be completed speedily, particularly so that it does not cause further distress to the families, who have already gone through such a terrible time. My interpretation of "speedily" is a time scale of three to six months. Clearly, that will be a matter for Sir Michael Bichard in terms of his findings, but I want the matter to be dealt with as speedily as possible so that we can learn the lessons from what has happened.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) asked whether the data protection legislation has inhibited the ability of forces to collect data and use them properly in the vetting process. I assure the House that the data protection legislation does not inhibit that process. The Data Protection Act 1998 provides that information should not be kept longer than is necessary, which requires forces, as it does all of us, to exercise a degree of judgment and professionalism in how they use data and how they deal

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with data in their system. There are requirements whereby data that relate to offences for which there has been imprisonment for more than six months, or to any kind of sexual or violent offences, should be retained. A detailed framework therefore exists in which information can be used properly while complying with the provisions of the Data Protection Act. Certainly, I do not see those provisions as a bar.

In terms of the assurance of the process, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have been very concerned since the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau, and in all the measures that we have taken subsequently, to ensure the integrity of its record keeping. We have wanted to drive performance not just in terms of timeliness but in terms of the quality of the results obtained. Every Member will appreciate that the Criminal Records Bureau has made significant progress. It had a difficult beginning, but the current process is much better. There is an ongoing consultation not just in relation to fees but in relation to the issue that that the hon. Gentleman raised about quality assurance: whether we can put more checks in place to ensure that we get the identity of the person correct when an application for a disclosure is submitted. We will look very carefully at the results of that consultation to see whether we can provide more quality assurance on that issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the discrepancy between the seven-day target and the original three-day target. I understand that courts are given three days to pass such information to the police, who then have three days to put it on to the computer. Occasionally, I suppose, one of those days will be on a weekend, which explains why they are measured against a seven-day period.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Bichard report will be published. I can undertake that that report will be published and will be available. It will be important that we all look at it closely and learn the lessons from it.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue—one that I raised myself with my officials—of what would happen in relation to a delay if information were not on the computer. We are dealing with two separate sets of information: convictions, which would be on the police national computer, and local intelligence. Many of the issues in the Huntley case concern local intelligence. Because there were no convictions, the incidents would not have found their way on to the police national computer in the first place. It is vital that forces have that local intelligence and that when someone applies for an enhanced disclosure from the Criminal Records Bureau, they access local intelligence as well as convictions, so there should be a rounded mix.

As for the delay that the hon. Gentleman properly raised, 80 per cent. of cases are now getting on to the computer within a reasonable period of time—within 28 days—but when people apply for an enhanced disclosure they also get access to the arrests and summons that have not yet been entered. There ought to be sufficient checks in the system to ensure that there is no loophole through which people can go. I hope that the inquiry will look searchingly at those matters to ensure that the integrity and robustness of the whole system can be maintained. I give the hon. Gentleman an

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assurance and undertaking that the recommendations and lessons from the inquiry and the separate but parallel inquiry into child protection measures launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will inform the way in which we proceed.

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