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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I ask the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) to pass on our condolences to the families of the victims, as well as the whole community that he represents?
I welcome the inquiry. I hope that it will be thorough and speedy, and will take three, rather than six, months, if at all possible. I agree with the Minister that it is premature to point the finger of blame at individuals at this stage for what may be human error. Nevertheless, does she agree that there are clear signs of systemic failures in intelligence, data systems and media strategy? Given the catastrophic misunderstanding of the requirements of the Information Commissioner and the laws of data protection, will the Minister give me an assurance that, this very afternoon, as a matter of urgency, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will issue guidance in accordance with the commissioner's requirements to every police force about their responsibilities?
Data inputting into the police national computer has been a matter of concern for some time. The Minister explained what she is doing about the timeliness of inputting, but can she say something about accuracy, which is of equal concern? If people put rubbish in the system, they get rubbish out. Will there be an audit of the accuracy of information held on the police national computer? Will she confirm the answer that she gave my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on 8 December that 20 per cent. of employers and organisations using the Criminal Records Bureau have refused to employ an individual as a result? That is a remarkably high figure.
On police operations, is the Minister satisfied with the system of mutual aid for small forces? I understand that, in Cambridgeshire, 300 officers from other forces were injected into the investigation at an early stagethat cannot but cause confusion in command and intelligence. Finally, has she had any indications that the police authorities in Humberside and Cambridgeshire are inquiring into the conduct of their senior officers?
As for system failures, they will be an essential part of Michael Bichard's investigation. I would not want to prejudge the issues in relation to Humberside and Cambridgeshire, as those are matters for the inquiry. However, the hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of systemic failures as well as individual culpability, and I am sure that those matters will be fully and properly explored. He asked whether HMIC can issue guidance this afternoon on information sharing. I cannot give an undertaking that that will happen this afternoon, but I acknowledge his right and proper call for urgent clarification. We shall certainly make sure that every force is aware of the legal position and the interaction of various bits of legislation. We must give them a firm foundation for the action that they take.
The hon. Gentleman has again raised the issues of quality assurance and audit. As I said in my statement, a new team has been set up in HMIC, and we have considerably strengthened its capacity to audit the way in which forces are complying. For me, that is just as important in respect of quality as in respect of timeliness. Much of the information recorded by the CRB is very detailed and includes the colour of people's eyes and their distinguishing features. A previous audit showed that the information in relation to convictions is robust, but questions remain about the quality of some of the fine detail that is recorded. It is important for operational purposes that the police have that fine detail about eye colour, height and distinguishing features, and I am pleased to assure the hon. Gentleman that it was found that the PNC database's information on convictions was entirely accurate in more than 94 per cent. of cases. A previous report found that 85 per cent. of records contained errors or omissions but, as I said, those can be matters of very fine detail. The issue is important, and I do not want to underestimate it, but 94 per cent. of convictions records are entirely accurate, and we should be aware of that.
The hon. Gentleman asked about people being refused employment. It was stated that 20 per cent. of people came into that category and, as far as we are aware, that is correct. One reason why questions about data protection have arisen is that the commissioner has been involved in a couple of cases in which very old convictionsincurred in what some may consider innocuous circumstanceshave remained on file at the CRB. People have complained that they have been denied employment because of events that happened a long time ago. An example might be a schoolyard fight between two fairly young people that would have no bearing on any job being sought. That is one reason why the retention of information has become such a current issue.
We must always aim at getting the right balance in these matters. People have genuine concerns about privacy and the information that is held on them, but the public interest is served by the Government having access to as much information as possible. The spectrum between individuals retaining absolute privacy and the public interest is a matter that we in this House discuss time and again in relation to access to data. This is another example of the tensions that arise as we try to strike the right balance between private protection and public interest. I have no doubt that Sir Michael's inquiry will drill down into some of those important issues.
Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South) (Lab): The Bichard inquiry may make various recommendations on data protection, human rights, the collection of information, local intelligence and so on, but they will only be as good as the degree of certainty that individuals are matched to the intelligence held on them. Whatever difficulties may arise in respect of civil liberties, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea for the Bichard inquiry to consider whether identity cards could have ensured that Huntley was
Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The terms of reference are wide enough to allow Sir Michael to consider recommendations that he might want to apply nationally. We have recently had some good debates about the growth of the use of biometric information in connection with a range of identifiers for passports, driving licences and so on. We want to get as much information as we can to ensure that people who apply under the CRB procedures or who are on the PNC are who they say they are. That is a fundamental requirement for the integrity of the system as a whole.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Serious lessons from this case need to be learned, for child protection and for the forthcoming children's legislation, in which we hear that it is proposed to give identity numbers to 11 million children, only some of whom will be vulnerable. That provision will be greatly diluted if we do not have proper intelligence on the potential perpetrators of abuse and crimes against children. From what the Minister said, there is clearly confusion about how intelligence can be shared. She thinks that the guidelines are clear, but the police are confused about how they should be used. Conviction information may be readily available, but local intelligence needs to be shared properlythat is the key to better measures to combat child abuse. As a matter of urgency, will she ensure that it is made absolutely clear what intelligence about potential abusersmany of whom will have no criminal recordcan be shared between the proper agencies dealing with child protection? Will she ensure that those findings are fed into the new children's legislation as soon as possible, so that children are protected and we can get better intelligence about the potential perpetrators of violence against them?
Ms Blears: That is clearly an important part of our considerations. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced a serious case review by the North East Lincolnshire area child protection committee. One of its terms of reference is to look specifically at how multi-agency working might be improved. Essential to that is the sharing of information. All of us who look at these matters now appreciate that we cannot get the results that we want if we work in silos. Coming together and sharing information is the best way to protect children and make services more effective.
It concerns me that the data protection legislation can be prayed in aid so that information is not shared as much as I should like. The adoption of proper protocols and safeguards will help to achieve the data protection aims and allow information to be shared. The evidence for that is the fact that police forces and local authorities around the country share information effectively. One of the challenges for the Government is to clarify for people that it is safe and lawful to share information, and to encourage best practice in that respect. The issue is very current and important for us. Clearly, we will