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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 8 February 2006

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Bichard Inquiry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I am sure that everyone here is all too familiar with the tragic circumstances that led to the then Home Secretary, the    right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), asking Sir Michael Bichard to lead an independent inquiry into child protection measures, record keeping, vetting and information sharing. Following his inquiry, Sir Michael was asked to make recommendations in the hope that strategic changes to the way in which our police operate could minimise the chance of another tragedy occurring, such as happened in Cambridgeshire on 4 August 2002.

Sir Michael made 31 recommendations in his report of June 2004, all of which were accepted by the Government and some of which have been fully implemented. However, it can be argued that the first recommendation is the most important, and it is that on which I want to concentrate this morning. The recommendation was that a national information technology system for England and Wales to support police intelligence should be introduced as a matter of   urgency. I am concerned because in February 2006 we are barely any closer to implementing that recommendation than we were when Sir Michael made it more than 18 months ago. That is despite the fact that the Home Office responded to the    recommendation by announcing plans for the development of an intelligence system of information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking, known as IMPACT. I apologise for the amount of acronyms that will pepper my speech. They all come from the Bichard inquiry and, for ease of reference, the glossary at the back of the Bichard report might be of assistance.

In December 2004, the Government announced in their first progress report that a full business case would be in place by March 2005 and that the IMPACT intelligence system would be completed by 2007. At the time, that statement was accepted at face value and everything was all well and good. The urgent action that Sir Michael had called for seemed to have been noted by the Government. However, in March 2005 when Sir Michael Bichard published his final report, he identified a six-month delay in producing the business case. By September 2005, only an interim case had been produced, which is not available publicly. We were promised a full business case by March of this year, which would mean that the business case would be more than 12 months late, yet it is now unlikely that the new date will be met.

Perhaps more worrying is the fact that the second progress report of November 2005 revealed that both the time line and the budget had slipped, and that the
 
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IMPACT programme might not be in place until at least 2010. The implementation of the first recommendation is now looking less of an urgent priority. However, the Bichard report allowed for some interim measures, one of which was referred to under recommendation 2, which called for a police local cross-check system—a PLX system—to be introduced throughout England and Wales by 2005.

What stage are we at in respect of recommendation 2 and information cross-sharing? The idea was that, if we introduced a PLX system as an interim measure, it would alleviate some of the problems that the police force had experienced. It is important to remember that the PLX system, a local cross-check system, is exactly that. It can cross-check one piece of intelligence against similar intelligence across forces. It is not an intelligence system in itself, in that it cannot deal with intelligence and progress it. It simply flags up where intelligence is held throughout the country. In other words, if my name was put into a police computer in South Yorkshire, the PLX might flag up my name in another county. I hasten to add that that is unlikely, but the system might flag up my name in other forces. The force making the inquiry then has to contact the other force to ask for the intelligence to be forwarded to it. It is a cross-check system. It does not put the intelligence in front of the operator who is putting in the initial entry.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Let us suppose that the police in his constituency did not know who he was, but had a photograph of him. With facial recognition technology, his photograph could be entered into a system so that other forces could identify him without knowing his name. Will the hon. Gentleman support me in my calls for the Home Office to speed up its attempts to introduce a nationwide facial recognition system? Are not the PLX and IMPACT systems the perfect chance to advance that cause?

Mr. Illsley : From my limited knowledge of police computer systems, I think that it would be a great advantage if there was a photograph recognition system. Given the technology that is now available, that cannot be too far away. As will become clear the longer that I talk about the system, even to achieve the intelligence system that was flagged up two years ago, a huge cost and a time scale are involved that have not yet been met even in respect of the more simple aspects of police intelligence. To include a system of photo recognition within the IMPACT technology—an incremental system—could be possible, and different aspects of police intelligence could be added to the system as it improves. However, given my current knowledge of the system that is a long time away.

In his original report, Sir Michael said that the PLX

Yet, even though it is cheaper and easier to set up, we are still struggling to implement the PLX system, which was looked on as an interim system.

The other problem with the PLX system is that, although it flags up intelligence in police forces other than the force making the inquiry, it duplicates the
 
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intelligence. If a police officer in South Yorkshire put my name into the police computer and it flagged up that that intelligence was being held by a police force in, say, Essex, the police officer in South Yorkshire would ask Essex for that intelligence. It would be sent from Essex to South Yorkshire. South Yorkshire would then make a file entry in its system, duplicating the entry in Essex. Therefore, we would have a system whereby, over time, a duplication of the intelligence that is held would be built up around the country as other forces access those pieces of information. That would then require us at some stage to do what is called cleansing the intelligence; we would have to weed out all the duplicated entries. That is a disadvantage of the PLX system.

There is another disadvantage in respect of police forces that are up to date with their procedures. Let us say that South Yorkshire puts my name into the computer and it shows up in Essex, and South Yorkshire then includes that piece of intelligence in its system. In the meantime, if Essex police had had no use for that piece of intelligence after a certain period—12 months or two years, perhaps—it might have deleted it from its system. If South Yorkshire then took me to court and tried to use that intelligence against me, my defence would be the provenance of that intelligence; I would ask, where did it come from and how did South Yorkshire obtain it? South Yorkshire would say, "We got it from Essex," and Essex would say, "Sorry, but we don't have it." That piece of intelligence would have no provenance. It is unlikely that it would be of any use to South Yorkshire if it had been deleted by the original force.

The interim police local cross-check system—the IPLX, to use another acronym—was launched in February last year. The IMPACT nominal index provides a similar function directly to police forces, and the PLX is part of that IMPACT nominal index system. IMPACT is the overarching computer intelligence system; it began to roll out last year. In a parliamentary written answer of 31 January, my right hon. Friend the Minister said that the PLX system had now been rolled out to child abuse investigation units around the country.

Therefore, the PLX system is now available to police forces, but only for child abuse investigation units. That is only one aspect of police work. Although the PLX system has been rolled out and the Home Office is saying that it is ready, it is available only to child abuse investigation units, and it cannot be used for aspects—or modules—of police work such as violence, domestic violence, firearms, custody, other crimes and intelligence, all of which will, hopefully, be part of IMPACT in due course. We are still awaiting the roll-out of the PLX system into all those areas—and, of course, the business case for IMPACT.

Let us now consider some of the costs of implementing this system. In my right hon. Friend's written answer of 31 January, she said, in respect of the limited roll-out of the PLX system to child abuse investigation units, that

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Therefore, the cost merely for the IPLX appears to be £11 million, with, perhaps, an additional 600 staff. We should take into account the costs currently imposed on our police forces, especially in respect of the estimates for police force reorganisation. Some substantial sums are involved, which the forces themselves will have to pay. They have to fund the system; the money will not come down to them from the Home Office.

It should also be noted that what we are struggling to put in place is an interim solution. A system has been operational in Scotland since 1992, and the system implemented there in 1992 has now been superseded by what is known as the Scottish intelligence database.Sir Michael Bichard considered the system in Scotland a possibility. The original Bichard report stated:

He was referring to the Scottish intelligence database, or SID, which has been fully operational since 2004.

We must bear in mind that police forces in England and Wales have been considering having a national intelligence system since 1994. Scotland's was fully up and running in 2004. When Bichard first reported, the then chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Chris Fox, wrote to his opposite number in Scotland, Peter Wilson, to ask about the Scottish system and the possibility of rolling it out to England and Wales to satisfy recommendation 1 of the Bichard report. The reply that came from Scotland was that Scotland was happy to assist the police forces in England and Wales, and the system was offered to England and Wales at no cost for the duration of the roll-out. The only costs would be for the hardware to implement it, and for the commercial licence for the company that developed the software. The total cost was estimated to be £55 million with a time scale for implementation of 13 months.

That appears to me to have been good value, given some of the cost estimates that are currently floating about. The Home Office estimate of costs so far for IMPACT and the PLX system is about £163 million. The Home Office second progress report of three months ago stated:

Perhaps more importantly, if the Scottish option had been chosen, by now we would have not simply an interim measure, but the national database that Bichard recommended, and at a fraction of the cost. As things stand, we are years behind on that, and there are estimates that the total cost of that over the coming years will amount to £2 billion.

Why was the Scottish system and that Scottish offer declined by England and Wales? In relation to Scotland, Bichard said:


 
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He went on to say addressing these remarks to the Home Secretary:

If I have one criticism of Bichard it is that he accepted that at face value from the Home Office. He never challenged it or asked for an explanation. There was no explanation as to the evaluation of the SID as against IMPACT, but Bichard took the Home Secretary at his word.

Actually, that was not strictly true. The Scottish system can deal with both evaluated and non-evaluated intelligence. Evaluated intelligence is that which has provenance and can stand up in court. Non-evaluated intelligence is simply intelligence for which there is insufficient provenance or no provenance at all. The Scottish system can deal with both. When the Scottish system was set up, the decision was taken not to include non-evaluated intelligence, not because the technical requirements of the system could not meet that; that decision was taken for operational reasons—Scotland was not prepared to use, or did not want to use, non-evaluated intelligence.

The Scottish system was recently augmented to provide a vetting and barring facility and that upgrade took two days. However, even as an interim measure and unadapted, the Scottish system would be preferable to the current situation. Where is the analysis that was undertaken on the Scottish system? Given that we approached the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland with a view to using the Scottish system, where is the assessment that caused ACPO to conclude that the system was not appropriate to its needs? Who made that technical assessment, particularly as there was still no business case available for IMPACT when the Scottish system was rejected?

There is another aspect to the Scottish system that I should mention. Scotland has a much smaller population than the rest of the UK. Perhaps there was a worry that the Scottish system might not roll out well enough across England and Wales because of size factors. However, at 13 months' availability and a cost of £55 million, that system was worth a try, because it is a bit of a bargain, given the costs of the systems that we are considering.

Given the cost of the Scottish system, we could have it as an interim measure, especially as IMPACT is now due in 2010, and perhaps even later. The business case is   due to be produced next month, but even that is not   certain. The cost estimate for IMPACT is about £2 billion. In England and Wales, we were looking for a system that we would like; we had a bit of a wish-list of what we could put on a computer. That meant that we took our eye off our aim, which is to have a workable system in place. Three police forces in England and Wales are already inquiring into signing up to the Scottish system. Obviously, we face the problem that if enough forces sign up to the Scottish system, they will not want to use the PLX or IMPACT systems in future; they will be tied in to the Scottish system.
 
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There are concerns about IMPACT, too. IMPACT will use an incremental approach, which I have tried to explain. It will take one step at a time, across various levels of police intelligence. The system builds on CRISP, the cross-regional information-sharing protocol. CRISP was designed by Cumbria police force and is being offered to other forces throughout the country. CRISP is an information-sharing platform—not an intelligence-sharing platform—that is reliant on a number of other systems being in place to feed into that database. In other words, CRISP is a sharing platform a little bit like PLX: information has to be fed into it. That information comes from separate sections of police intelligence. The six most commonly quoted are intelligence, crime, custody, firearms, domestic violence and child protection. Those have to be fed in. Those systems have to be in place to feed into CRISP in order for CRISP to be developed as part of IMPACT.

I mentioned firearms. We were promised a firearms database after Dunblane, but there is still no firearms database in this country. That is how long we have waited for the systems to be set up. Like so many other things, the firearms database that we were promised did not materialise.

There are also problems of constant duplication, weeding data, data being left on the system without provenance, and the system needing to be cleaned up. The cost of cleaning the CRISP database has already reached £9 million simply to weed out irrelevant or out-of-date information on it. It is untested and not universally used; I think that 38 out of 43 forces have signed up to CRISP, so some have still not signed up. As I say, some are considering the Scottish system. We are still no nearer to a national IT system, and the more we look into the matter, the more complicated it becomes. Both Bichard and the Home Office stressed in their reports the idea of compatibility of intelligence, and of the whole system working together. That was the whole idea behind the Bichard report in the first place.

There is no definite cost for IMPACT. Not only does there seem to be little will to implement it as a matter of urgency, but it seems that the Government might be trying to distance themselves from the responsibility that they were initially charged with. I note that the Home Secretary, in the most recent statement on the issue, said

That is a bald statement, made in the second progress report. IMPACT is not in place, and it is nowhere near being in place. We do not even have a business case for it. Nothing from Bichard's first two recommendations is in place. Looking at the progress report in detail and at the tables in it, I see that in the fine print the Home Secretary refers to IMPACT 2005, which has apparently been "de-coupled" from the main IMPACT project. So instead of having IMPACT, we now have IMPACT 2005. The small print says that IMPACT has been "de-risked"—whatever that means—and de-coupled, so it looks like there are two IMPACTs.

Why do the Government want to separate the initial steps to developing IMPACT and bring in IMPACT 2005? It looks like the Government now want to use
 
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IMPACT 2005—that is, the PLX system that went out live in December, but only to child abuse units—as a way of meeting the Bichard recommendations. Their attitude is: "We have done it; we have got PLX and have met the recommendation. That's over. Now let's go back to IMPACT, which is due sometime never in the future." My fear is that we are looking to say that we have met the Bichard recommendations by putting in place much less of a system than we initially had. If so, that is unacceptable, and we should look at the Scottish system again.

Recommendation 1 did not call on the Government slowly to improve existing pre-Bichard systems over a number of years; no, Bichard recommended providing a basis for central intelligence that could be fully operational as a matter of urgency. We still have not got that. The extent of what is required is now beginning to dawn on the Government and the police forces. We are talking about a lot of money—billions of pounds—and it will take many years to develop the systems, given the complicated manner in which we are going about it.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to re-evaluate the Scottish intelligence database, and perhaps to publish assessments made at the time—if any were made—of the comparison between IMPACT and the Scottish system. Perhaps she will consider rolling out the Scottish system in England and Wales as an interim measure. Finally, I   ask her and the Home Secretary to reconvene the Bichard inquiry and ask it to report again on where we are.

9.58 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate on a topical and important subject that certainly deserves more attention. All of us here are concerned about the subject of child protection and the safety of our children. That has been heightened recently by the revelations about the number of sex offenders and potential sex offenders working in the education system, including in our schools.

We all recall the horrors of the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in the summer of 2003, for which Ian Huntley was convicted on 17 December 2003. The Bichard report, which was produced in swift response to the questions that those horrible murders threw up, was out on 14 June 2004. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is some 20 months ago. The public and our constituents are entitled to ask, particularly in the light of recent revelations about the dangers to children from people working in proximity to    children, what on earth has happened in those 20   months to procure a system along the lines that Bichard recommended, or an alternative to it. When are we finally going to see some action?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised a number of questions about what is happening and whether things are on track. There is great confusion about how we secure greater joined-up thinking and co-operation on matters concerning the safety of children. The Bichard report specifically raised concerns about the procedures for sharing information between police forces, and
 
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between those forces and other agencies, particularly social services. Recent revelations on sex offenders have revealed a plethora of data and an enormous number of lists of people. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills revealed in her announcement last month that there are at least seven different lists dealing with people who are deemed dangerous to children.

The sex offenders register lists 28,994 individuals, list 99 has 4,045 people and the Protection of Children Act 1999 register, set up in 2000, contains 1,285 names. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), made an announcement about a scheme for the vetting and registration of another 750,000 people involved in social care. We do not have any details about exactly how that will work. Under the Children Act 2004, a database of every child in this country—some 11.5 million children—was set up and is being put into practice. We seem to have an awful lot of information floating around the system. However, the Bichard report highlighted clearly, and recent revelations have reinforced the finding, that that information is either of low quality, is not being joined up, or is not being acted on—or there is a combination of all three things.

The database of children set up under the 2004 Act highlights the problem. A database is only as good as the quality of the information put into it, and its usefulness will be determined only by the effectiveness of the mechanisms and protocols for joining up that information like a jigsaw and acting on it. That process relies on the quality, presence and number of professional staff working in the field. It relies on them to act on some of the concerns that may be flagged up from a database.

The database of children, which seeks to include the names of and basic data concerning 11.5 million children in England, provides nothing short of an overload of poor-quality information. That was one reason that the Information Commissioner described some of the developments in information division and data sharing as

Who goes on the lists that I have mentioned? Who monitors the quality of the information about the names on the list? Who maintains the accuracy of the names and the information, and who updates it? Where does the buck stop regarding acting on information being procured and brought together to flag a concern that needs to be acted on? In the Bichard inquiry, that is referred to as weeding, reviewing and deleting.

I am concerned that the recent publicity about sex offenders has focused only on schools and teachers. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills has mentioned list 99 and the list created under the 1999 Act. She promised a rigorous review of how the lists worked and on the nature of sex offenders who have a record and may be working in proximity to children. She promised urgently to bring forward some of the recommendations in the Bichard inquiry, although we do not know which ones. However, we have not heard similar promises and guarantees of rigour from other Departments, particularly the Department of Health. What about other professionals working in the NHS? What about social workers, doctors, dentists, nurses, foster carers and youth workers? Potentially, other
 
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people, who may have some form of record contained in some of the lists, pose more of a danger than people working in education, on whom the review has focused so far. Yet the Government appear to be doing very little in all those other areas, which is a great concern.

We need a proper joined-up approach, particularly given the different routes of recruitment for people into   those areas, whether through local education authorities, primary care trusts, hospital trusts, social care trusts and children's services departments—there are different structures, particularly in the health service—or through private health care providers. All those organisations employ people who are potentially a danger to children and on whom some input from a national police database is essential in a joined-up approach to whatever other lists we have to use.

There is a question about the use of staff from agencies, which has come up in a number of recent cases. Whose responsibility is it to check the background of teachers, nursing staff or social workers employed through agencies, a great many of whom are employed from overseas? It is much more difficult to check their backgrounds, yet we are hearing little about what measures the Government are taking urgently, or proposing to take, to ensure that all those people are properly checked and vetted, that those who are deemed inappropriate to work with children are not allowed to do so, that everybody is clear that that is the case and that every appropriate person has access to that information.

We have been asking a lot of questions along those lines and the Government have been found wanting. In the House of Lords recently, Baroness Seccombe asked Lord Warner, the Minister for Health, how many people

working

Lord Warner had to say that he did not know and gave no assurances as to what steps are being taken to procure that information and to do something about it.

An article in the Health Service Journal last month said:

and added:

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) asked the Secretary of State for Health

The Secretary of State said:


 
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The answer to my question to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about foster carers was that details of individual foster carers are not recorded centrally. Fostering service providers are required to consider a range of information but not necessarily to act on it or to bar people against whom there are serious question marks over their suitability for working with children. We have many concerns about the system not being joined up  and there are still too many potential loopholes through which unsuitable people are gaining access to roles that bring them in proximity to children.

There is a great deal of confusion and, therefore, a great deal riding on the findings of the Bichard report—and, more importantly, on the development of some of the recommendations that he makes to join up the services.

There are three main issues. First, will the physical computer system proposed in the Bichard report, or being considered by the Home Office, work? Will it do the job that it is intended to do? Secondly, how will the quality of the information be monitored? A system is only as good as the quality of the information that goes into it. If you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out. Thirdly, will the system encourage and lead to joined-up action by all the relevant agencies and appropriate intervention when required?

I turn briefly to the question of software. Few of us have confidence in the Government's IT procurement programmes; they have form on wasting a lot of money to achieve little. The recent revelations about the £6.5   billion so far spent on an NHS IT programme that is well behind schedule, and that nobody is convinced will deliver, only reinforce that impression.

For whom will this computer programme be designed? As we speak, police force structures are changing compulsorily against many people's will because of the Home Office's determination to regionalise police force structures. Only yesterday we had a debate, in which you took part, Mr. Taylor, on the similar issue of the restructuring of primary care trusts and other health service structures.

Under PCT structures, there is now a requirement that a lead medical person should take responsibility for child protection measures. If we are agglomerating all the PCTs into bigger structures, will there be more lead people with responsibility for child protection? We do not know, but the issue does not get any smaller because PCTs or other health structures are being agglomerated. Will any computer system designed for the police take account of what the police force structure will look like if the Government have their way, or will that system be redundant before it comes into force?

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned that the police are planning a national police intelligence system, or IMPACT. It was originally developed by the Police Information Technology Organisation, in which I have very little confidence, given that it completely mauled what was a very good child rescue alert system, based on the American amber alert system. The system was piloted in my own area by Sussex police with a company called Child Rescue Alert. The Minister knows of it because I took a delegation to see her about it. Three years ago, it was up and running and ready to be rolled out nationwide. However, that did not happen; the system was completely sat on by PITO and the
 
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Home Office. Today we have no equivalent system for alerting the police at an early stage to the disappearance of young children. That is an absolute scandal, and largely down to the internal politics of the Home Office and PITO.

Responsibility for IMPACT then passed to the Home Office. As the hon. Gentleman said, the original estimate—that it would be completed by 2007 on a budget of £160 million—is looking very fanciful indeed. He mentioned the Scottish system. What is being asked for is not rocket science. Alternatives are available now that are not being sought, even as an interim measure. We need to address the problem urgently. That is the big concern. Will the Minister say what firm decisions have so far been taken about the form that such a computer system will take and when we are likely to see it?

The next issue is that of monitoring quality. Putting the names of 11.5 million children, the vast majority of whom are not at risk at all, on a national database of children is a singularly pointless idea. That proposal was put forward in the Children Bill, and I led for our side and argued that we really needed a national database of vulnerable children. The more obvious candidates as vulnerable children, in respect of whom there are concerns about domestic violence—they may be looked-after children on the child protection register—should be placed on a national database, so that cross-referencing can take place. I also suggested that we needed a national database of people who have caused concern and who work with children, and that that should be properly joined-up and properly linked into a police database system.

We recently heard about the scandal of about 40,000 children whose DNA is on a central database held by the police, even though none of them has committed any offences. At the moment, the Government seem terribly good at collecting information about the wrong people, but not at collecting and acting on information about the people we should be most concerned about. During the debates on the Children Bill, some of us argued that there should be a national database of people whose suitability for working with children caused concern.

It may not be uncommon for foster carers working for an authority in, say, Newcastle—to pluck an area out of the air—to have standards well below those required of foster carers. Their actions against children may not quite have merited a criminal prosecution. Alternatively, there might not have been sufficient evidence to prosecute. Those foster carers may then do a flit, turn up, say, in Brighton and present themselves as potential foster carers to the Brighton unitary authority, which may be desperately short of foster carers. They may then lie about their background and    be taken on. There needs to be a national database through which Brighton could, in such a case, automatically cross-check with a national database that would route it back to the director of social services in Newcastle, who would say, "Hold on, you should be wary about taking these people on."

Sex offenders are notoriously good at covering their tracks. I spent an afternoon at the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard. The ways in which paedophiles use technology to cover their tracks on the internet as they
 
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download images are incredible and constantly one step ahead of the authorities. That is why it is so difficult to catch them.

Criminal Records Bureau checks have great merit and the Government have relied heavily on them. However, such checks are very soon out of date and present only a snapshot. Many paedophile cases, including those that came to light in my own constituency, have involved people being investigated by police because of suspicions at one school. In the meantime, they had gained employment in other schools in neighbouring authorities. At that point, those people had not committed a criminal offence, but they were under severe suspicion.

We urgently need a joined-up police record system that draws together all the strands of information gathered by the police and that can be accessed by the appropriate people easily and urgently. The people running it should talk to all the appropriate agencies, be they social services, education departments, children's services departments, GPs or the wider health sector. That is simply not happening.

I turn to the issue of joined-up action. The Children Act 2004 set up local safeguarding children boards, a key component of which, as set out in section 10(4)(b), is

The police are plugged into that whole system; police input is absolutely essential. The police must share the information among other forces and agencies. However, we are dependent also on the professionals in the field then carrying out the intervention work required. We know how desperately short we are of child protection and social workers in particular.

Also relevant is the issue of confidentiality. We hope that the 2004 Act has made it much easier for the different agencies to talk to each other, share the information and decide who will act on it and whose responsibility it is. One of the ramifications of the Bichard proposals is greater compulsion, particularly on health professionals, to reveal information about minors. We all want to make sure that minors are protected from predatory sexual advances, but there is another side to the issue. I gather that the measure was recently piloted in Sheffield. Many people within the health community there boycotted it because it obliged people working in sexually transmitted diseases clinics—genito-urinary medicine clinics, for example—automatically to report to police if a minor came to them with a sexually transmitted disease and to report details of the partner from whom it had been contracted, if those were known.

If an adult is preying on a 12-year-old or 13-year-old, that will, of course, raise serious concerns. There are procedures whereby people working in the clinics already make a judgment about whether there is a clear danger to the child and whether the case should be reported to the police. Under the compulsion that will apparently be required—this was revealed in the press earlier this week—doctors and other health workers will have to reveal all those details. Some of the implications might be that people will not present at some of the clinics, minors will have sexually transmitted diseases and other problems untreated, and nobody will be made aware that they might be in an inappropriate sexual
 
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relationship. We must take care to get the right balance between confidentiality and ensuring that those people whom it is inappropriate to allow near children are barred from being near children.

As it stands, the whole system is a mess. The Government have been good at setting up new committees, tsars and structures, but all those things must be joined up. They are only as good as the information with which they are provided and the professionals that they have at their disposal to implement what needs to be done to protect children. We need such a system urgently; we need it now, because 20 months after the issues were flagged up clearly in the Bichard report is already too long.

I hope that the Government will give us a clear indication today about when they will get their act together and when we will get some results at long last.

10.22 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), to whom I am grateful for his clear explanation of many of the issues and much of the terminology relating to this debate.

The broader debate is an upsetting one for those of us who are parents and who think about the risk to our own children. We all remember with sadness what happened to Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells and hope that their deaths might at least have led indirectly to improved safety for other children, such as our own.

It has also been upsetting that this debate, which has a critical need for the kind of clear-headed arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman, has often been clouded by media hysteria and headlines such as "Pervs . . . rife in our schools". For the record, I do not think that pervs are rife in our schools. It is important that in that kind of climate we avoid a culture of total suspicion about anyone who works with children in any context. We must have the courage to defend civil liberties as the process goes onwards.

It is also upsetting that a £167 million database—the IMPACT system—recommended as a matter of urgency by Sir Michael Bichard, is potentially delayed from even 2007 to 2010. There have been a couple of    unfortunate instances of Ministers spinning the delivery timetable. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills said on 19 January that no one thinks that 18 months is excessive for the combining of four computer systems into one. As someone whose professional career has some background in database systems, I would go along with that. However, we are talking not about 18 months any more, but about four years. That seems excessive for what is essentially an information system. Similarly, the Home Secretary said    in his introduction to the Bichard inquiry recommendations second progress report in November that the IMPACT system was "in place". It clearly is not in place. It might have achieved some of its milestones but it is not in place on a national scale. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is also the case of the police local cross-checking system, which was supposed to be more of an interim measure and was supposed to be in place by 2005. The implementation has been put back until at least November 2007.

Having said all that, I have some sympathy for the Minister. There is clearly an endemic problem in the implementation of Government IT systems. There is a
 
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catalogue of examples: the collapse of the 1999 benefit collection swipe card system, which left £571 million to be written off by the Post Office alone, leaving aside other partners in that system; the probation service system was £22 million over budget and was also late; the 2001 system for speeding up asylum applications had to be abandoned; and, as almost every hon. Member will know, the Child Support Agency's new £456 million system still seems to be contributing to huge delays in sorting out child support cases, and leading to underpayments and to a lack of payments to single parents who are trying to cope with raising their children.

There is an endemic problem and a lack of responsiveness by Government. In my experience, there is responsiveness to problems in the charity and business sector—

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that computer system delays, overruns and higher costs are not unique to Government? Such things happen in most well known and well established public sector companies in the UK    and in international companies—even in some American companies. This is not unique to Government.

Martin Horwood : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The problems are not unique, but the question is how we respond to the threats. When I was involved in database projects, I had a rule of thumb that it could more or less be assumed that at some point one would be faced with the threat of the timetable trebling and the budget doubling. Already, the timetable for the IMPACT database looks as if it will double, and presumably at some point we will hear that the budget will exceed £200 million.

The questions is: how do we respond? In a national charity of the kind for which I worked or in business there is an immediate imperative, because such delays or cost increases cannot be afforded. Companies would simply go under in those circumstances. We have to look at remedial action. In the case of increasing complexity, which is one of the excuses for the delays in the IMPACT system, such action might to be to consider whether it is appropriate to stick to a specification based on that or whether it should be based on greater simplicity.

One of the important elements of the IMPACT system appears to be a virtual information network, described in the Home Office document to which I referred earlier as

To me, that sounds like a relatively simple element that might deliver a huge benefit. The 80–20 rule might apply: with 20 per cent. of the effort put in, one might get 80 per cent. of the benefit from just that one element. That might not be correct, but the Home Office needs to review whether prioritising the simpler, more effective elements of the system might allow it to achieve considerable progress. That is how business might respond to the situation.

Another possible solution is to add in more resources. In my experience, that is rarely the best solution. If we are facing enormous delays, do
 
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Government need to consider providing the Home Office with more resources to tackle the problem? There is also the possibility of considering whether we have the right solution. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central pointed out the speed and cost-effectiveness of the Scottish intelligence database as a possible alternative. It is never too late to ask, "Have we got the right solution or is an alternative staring us in the face?"

It is news to me that the Scottish intelligence database system is capable of incorporating soft intelligence data. If right, that is an important piece of information that the Government need to take on board. As I understand it, one of the principal reasons why the Scottish system was not simply taken as a potential roll-out for the UK as a whole related to that. They need to consider that carefully.

All this matters because, as Sir Michael Bichard pointed out, Humberside may not be alone in its failings in intelligence. That means that Ian Huntley might be far from the only person who slipped through that net. Some of the statements in the Bichard inquiry are enough to make one's hair stand on end. It was stated that there was a

Another statement was that there was

The process of creating records in Humberside's main intelligence system was described as "fundamentally flawed". The guidance and training given to officers were "inadequate". There was

That might still be the situation in some forces, and it might be allowing people to slip through the net. There are therefore extremely serious issues.

Some things in the Government's approach are, however, to be welcomed. Obviously, we would support all their efforts to improve the situation in the light of Bichard and of recent debates, including, in particular, those directed at the Department for Education and Skills. We look forward to the new measures to ensure that any individual who is convicted of, or cautioned for, sex offences against children will be added to list 99. We also hope that that list will replace the current confusion of lists to become the definitive reference point.

In the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) welcomed the setting up of an expert panel to take all barring decisions. There is a slight risk that that might be seen as absolving Ministers of responsibility and removing the potential embarrassment of taking such decisions, but they will ultimately remain Ministers' responsibility. The involvement of an expert panel under Sir Roger Singleton would be a welcome development. We also welcome the fact that the Government accepted all 31 of the Bichard inquiry's original recommendations and that they have, by our count, implemented 13 and are planning to implement the other 18.
 
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However, important worries are still being raised. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central referred to the language that is creeping into some of the Government's reports on progress, and I have to say that talk of "de-coupling" and "de-risking" obscures whether progress is being made. The language used in progress reports is important and needs to add to their clarity, not to the confusion.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the important issue of the deletion of intelligence, which was a critical failing in dealing with the Huntley case. Intelligence was deleted in Humberside. The issue is not that intelligence was shared with another force, leading to problems over its provenance, but the mere fact that that intelligence was deleted at all. If it had not been shared with another force, it would have been lost altogether, which would clearly be an extremely serious issue. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, a database is only as good as the information in it, so it is important that we avoid deleting accurate and appropriate intelligence from any system.

As the hon. Gentleman also noted, there are questions whether all professionals working with children will be subject to the same vetting requirements. A lot of attention has been paid to schools, but does that include independent schools, for instance? Does it, as the hon. Gentleman said, include foster carers or NHS social care professionals?

There is the question whether guidance and training will be put in place to safeguard professionals from false and inaccurate allegations. That issue has to be raised in the present climate of sometimes rather hysterical attitudes towards child protection. The rights of the children remain paramount, but the civil liberties of professionals whose careers are at risk are also important.

There is the question, particularly for the Home Office, whether cautioning policy needs to be reviewed in the light of Bichard. Indeed, given some of   the examples brought to me by my constituents, I wonder whether there is a case for a general review of cautioning policy and its operation. The Home Office, or perhaps the Home Affairs Committee, might take that up at some stage.

I, too, would ask whether the planned restructuring of police forces is contributing to the delay with the IMPACT system. Presumably, the initial plan was based on a 43-force model and it might now have to be delayed while the police force data systems are reorganised and reshuffled in the new reorganised and regionalised police force model.

The Government therefore have delicate balances to strike and urgent and important work to do. It is important that they should not be criticised for project delays and complexities that would present the same problems to an Administration of any political colour. However, I hope that they accept the urgent imperative to take remedial action where delays threaten to undermine the safety of our children. If they do, they will have our support.

10.34 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate, which follows the
 
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appallingly tragic murders in Soham. The Bichard report illuminated a whole range of poor procedures, poor record keeping and poor professional standards. What struck me most was the blind acceptance on the part of some social workers that it was not only the norm, but acceptable for many of the girls they were supposed to be looking after—especially working-class girls—to have abusive relationships.

I shall not deal in great detail with all the report's recommendations, because the hon. Gentleman focused particularly on the national database. However, I should like to mention three other issues. First, there is the question of overseas personnel who wish to work with children. Bichard found that many countries provide data only on the convictions of those from overseas who work with children and that they provide that data only to the data subject, not to organisations such as the Criminal Records Bureau. There is co-operation with Canada and Australia, and Bichard urged the Government to speed up the development of bilateral agreements with other countries or of EU-wide arrangements. He suggested that EU proposals might be taken forward as part of the UK presidency, and I should like the Minister to tell us whether they were and what the outcome was. Bichard also noted that even if such arrangements were agreed, they

He recommended that we engage in discussions to achieve an exchange of intelligence. What is happening in that respect and what are the prospects? There are about 12,000 overseas teachers in this country, and we do not have the same information on them all as we do on teachers who come from this country.

The second issue relates to recommendation 19, which deals with arrangements requiring those who work with children and vulnerable adults to be registered. One recommendation was that parents should be able to check easily whether a potential music teacher, for example, is on a barred list. Sir Michael said that that would be feasible, but a recent parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) suggested that it is certainly not feasible yet. The Department merely advises parents

It also advises them to have an adult present when such home tuition takes place. Again, I ask the Minister when that will be implemented.

Sir Michael said that employers should be notified if new information becomes available about those who are already employed, but it is not clear when that will be implemented. He said:

The upgraded police computer with the full police local cross-checking system will not be available until the end of 2006, so are those still realistic delivery dates? What are the legislative and procurement milestones? Have they been met? Bichard gave a very clear warning:


 
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but I am sorry to say that there is not a great deal of evidence that IMPACT is being effectively project-managed.

We then come to the question whether to inform police of offences that have been committed, or which it is suspected have been committed, against children. That relates to recommendations 13 to 15, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred. Bichard said that he was

the new guidance to be developed under the Children Act 2004—

In other words, it would be available in December 2005. Yet, on Monday, the Daily Mail said that health workers spoke as if the guidance was still being developed. It said that they had discretion to contact police if they were concerned for a child's safety, and mentioned the proposed guidance, which would make it compulsory for GPs, social workers and nurses to inform police if a girl of 13 or under begins a sexual relationship, even if she says that it is consensual. Can the Minister tell us whether the target date of December 2005 for publication of the guidance was met, or is the guidance still in preparation?

What will be in the guidance? I emphasise, for the benefit of my hon. Friend, that Bichard said that it is clear that some health professionals are resisting the clearest possible recommendations that either those who commit sex offences should be reported, or the reason for non-reporting should be noted. He also observed that the clarity and lack of ambiguity in the existing guidance is valued by many, especially the police, but added that it was clear that professional judgment was being used to act outside the guidance. He was not saying that everybody should be prosecuted, or even that everybody should be reported; he was saying that the reason for every decision should be recorded. After all, the Children Act 2004 laid down a duty to co-operate for the best protection of young people. While it might be in the interests of one young person that her partner be not reported, it might not be in the interests of other young people that somebody who has a habit of having relationships with young girls should not be reported. Therefore, I hope that that recommendation, too, is followed up effectively in the new guidance.

Finally, I come to the national intelligence system. I will not repeat everything that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said so effectively. However, Bichard spoke of the full business case for the programme that was due to be considered by the Home Office investment board in March 2005. Now, we realise that the full business case has still not been published, even though last March the target remained September 2007. With the best will in the world, it is impossible to believe that the project can be implemented by 2007 when the business case is not now due to be set out until March of this year. Bichard was assured that the delay in presenting the final business case to the Home Office investment board would not delay its ultimate delivery. Well, it has now slipped, as hon. Members have said, to some point in 2010, according to the second progress report, so we need to ask not why things have slipped but what the Government are doing to ensure that they
 
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slip no further, and what remedial or temporary action they are taking to ensure that an adequate system is in place.

That brings me to the Scottish system, which had the support of the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association, albeit not, at the beginning, of the Association of Chief Police Officers. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was not at all clear why ACPO did not support the Scottish system, and Bichard did not inquire as to why that was the case. Now, I understand, when police forces in England wish to subscribe to the Scottish system—I thought that one or two had already done so, although the hon. Gentleman says that three are thinking of doing so, including Cumbria and Merseyside—the Home Office advises them not to do so. That is because it has its own scheme in its back pocket, ready to bring out with a flourish one day, some time, near, in the future.

As if "guidance" from the Home Office were not enough, the Government have said that they will pay. Why would anybody else want to take the trouble to prepare a new system or pay for one when the Home Office has promised to come up with the money at some time in the future? The hon. Gentleman started by saying that we are barely any closer than we were 20 months ago. The Scottish system was offered to England and Wales. Can the Minister tell us specifically why it was rejected and, even more importantly now, why it is not acceptable as an interim measure? Why is it unacceptable for English forces to sign up to the Scottish system as an interim measure until IMPACT is available?

I suspect that the answer to those questions is, sadly, the "not made here" syndrome. That is the attitude—held in England in general and the Home Office in particular—that says that if it is Scottish it must be worse. The Government and ACPO want a Rolls-Royce, preferably one built on home ground, but we are being offered a BMW. I do not see that a BMW is much worse in this circumstance, particularly given that it is available today, and I would caution against going for the perfect model—[Interruption.] Even if it is German built—we are talking about a Scottish-built model, and I shall not try to compare the two. We should not try to put every conceivable bell and whistle on a system if that means delaying the implementation of the system and leaving children at risk.

We have heard of vanity publishing. I suspect that what the Home Office is indulging in is vanity computing, and I fear that we will be left with yet another example in the long line of Government computer projects that do not work.

The hon. Gentleman made one or two other points, and I shall repeat them very quickly. Who made the decision to rule out the Scottish intelligence database, and when? Do the Government still intend to provide a national firearms database, and when? Will Bichard continue to report on the speed with which IMPACT or its substitute—I believe that it should look again at the SID—is implemented?

However much this Houses tighten the rules, we should never believe that Government action, local or national, is a substitute for parents and, in the case of
 
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schools, head teachers, exercising vigilance and good judgment. While all sex offences are serious, some are more serious than others. Thankfully—and we ought to make this clear to parents—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. It is important that the Minister be given adequate time to reply.

Mr. Turner : Indeed, Mr. Taylor.

Only a relatively small number of sex offenders pose a threat to children. We must do our best to ensure that we do not undermine the parents and teachers who are doing their best to be vigilant on behalf of their children, because they are the front line in the defence of our children.

10.47 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on having raised this important issue and, in particular, on having provided the detailed information that has been of such benefit to all Members who have spoken. We have heard some good contributions, and I shall do my utmost to respond to all the issues that have been raised. However, they have involved a great deal of detail, ranging from the computer issue to matters that affect other Departments, including the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health. If I do not address every issue, I undertake to give further information in writing.

I reaffirm at the outset that the Government remain fully committed to the implementation of all the Bichard recommendations and to ensuring that the resources are provided to enable that implementation to take place. We do not see Bichard as a matter of simply ticking the 31 boxes of the recommendations. It is important that we implement all of them, but I see Bichard more as a challenge to the police service's management of information and intelligence, and an opportunity to review our business processes. It uses technology as a catalyst to redesign the way in which    information and intelligence are shared, in order    to enhance the operational capability of the police service—not simply to protect vulnerable people, whether children or adults—and its criminal operational capacity.

The Bichard recommendations—the development of IMPACT and the interim steps along the way—are among the most significant things that have happened to our police service in the past few decades, and I hope that they will provide a firm foundation for the way in which the police service manages information and intelligence and uses its capability in future.

As hon. Members have said, the Bichard recommendations followed from the tragic circumstances of the Soham case. We are all acutely aware of that; it is one reason why we are absolutely determined to ensure, as far as we can, that those circumstances are eliminated from our system. No Government can give an absolute guarantee that a piece of information will not go through the system, but we want to ensure that it is as tight as possible to ensure that that does not happen.

Hon. Members talked about Government computer programmes in general. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) mentioned several
 
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computer programmes that we have not delivered on time and to budget, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) said that that is not unique to Government projects and that it happens in the private sector as well. There have been difficulties, but the Government have a good record on programmes relating to the Passport and Records Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which now work extremely well. I was pleased to hear the supportive comments of the hon. Gentleman that these matters are difficult to manage and that developments do occur. That is important.

When we first got the Bichard recommendations, the time scale was that we would implement the IMPACT programme by 2007. However, we then set up a programme team and considered the scope of the recommendations, and concluded that if we are in the serious business of not simply providing a technological database but redesigning our business processes and coming up with a new way to manage information, that is a bigger programme that will take longer to implement in full. That did not stop us from saying that we will have a series of interim incremental programmes to ensure that we strengthen the system at every level as we go through to 2010.

We said that there would be an interim local PLX system so that the Criminal Records Bureau can be alerted to information held by other forces, and that was put in place earlier last year. We said that an interim nominal index with which forces could access searches by name against the six business areas of the other forces would be implemented by December 2005, which it was. The system is now available in the child abuse investigation units in each of the 43 forces. It has been put into those units first because child protection is at the centre of our concerns. When we appraise the system towards the end of this month, we will look to roll it out across the other units and offices in every force so that they will be able to search the index across the areas of crime, domestic violence, firearms and child protection. This is the first time that forces have had the ability to search across other force areas. In one case, a family moved to an area and there was some concern about a grandparent who was caring for a child. The force in the area into which the family moved was able to search against that name and to get information.

When a new system is introduced, there is a huge demand to use it, so it is right that we should phase in the roll-out. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central pointed out that there will be an increased demand and that 600 extra staff and £11 million will be needed to service that demand. We are talking about a new operational capability that the police have never had before, which they will welcome because it will enable them to have more intelligence and, hopefully, catch more criminals. It will enable them to do the work that they want to do and to protect vulnerable children and families, but it needs to be phased in.

My hon. Friend talked about the Scottish system. I understand that it was considered initially, but was thought by the Association of Chief Police Officers not   to be suitable because it is predicated on the use of    intelligence rather than information; there is a difference. My hon. Friend rightly said that intelligence is information that has been evaluated and assessed. ACPO wants access to the millions of pieces of
 
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information, not just intelligence, that can enhance the operational capability of the police to do the job that they need to do. I am informed that it would be extremely difficult, at this stage, to reprogramme the Scottish database to take information as well as intelligence.

My hon. Friend recognised that the Scottish system deals with a smaller number of forces and a smaller population than any system introduced for England and Wales will have to deal with. We must question whether the use of the Scottish system as another interim measure, at an estimated £55 million, would be a good investment, because it would not bring us any closer to our goals of being able to use all our information across eight business areas, not just the current six, and of shared intelligence. I understand the   strength of feeling about the Scottish system, and I   know that officials have met the people who are responsible for designing it, so it is not simply a matter of us closing our minds, but there are real difficulties with seeking another temporary, interim solution when we need to build on the current system until 2010 when the IMPACT system is fully operational.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly expressed concern about the safety of children and adults, and said that we need a joined-up approach. I hope that I have convinced him that we are trying to have a joined-up approach. It would be relatively easy—I say that, but technology is never relatively easy—simply to have a computer, but if business processes and how information is used are not redesigned, a joined-up approach will not be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the quality of information use. In November, we published a code of practice for the police on managing information. We are still working on the detailed guidance that will underpin that code of practice, which will be published by April. The guidance will go into immense detail about how information should be managed and about inputs, because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, if we put rubbish in we will get rubbish out. Making sure that all forces and other partners abide by the code of practice on information-sharing is a new development for the police service to ensure that there is quality in how we take that forward.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) asked about the timetable. The full PLX functionality is due to be delivered by November 2007, and the police national computer will be replaced by 2010, but if we need to make interim improvements to the police national computer, we will consider taking that decision earlier if we can. All these issues will be considered in the business case, which will be fully appraised in March. We are committed to that time scale; I am informed that the business case will definitely come and will be fully considered. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central will press me to ensure that the time scale is complied with.

I can tell from the sense of the debate that hon. Members appreciate the complexity and wide-ranging nature of the steps being taken to implement the Bichard recommendations. I am as determined as any Member in the House that we should make swift progress on this matter because we have to protect the public, but I am also determined that our decisions will be properly considered and measured. We will consider cost, impact
 
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and value for money, because, as has rightly been said, there is a history of such projects not being delivered in the right time scale or with the right functionality.

The programme is ambitious. Members have talked about the role of Sir Michael Bichard. He has been hugely helpful in getting a sense of momentum behind the programme, but now wants to step back and be an interested observer—I think that is the phrase he used in his report. He has been kept up to date with the launch of the PLX system and the IMPACT nominal index system and he will be kept informed of the development of the vetting and barring system that the Department for Education and Skills will bring forward in legislation in the next few weeks, so he will remain an important factor in this programme. Now that we have the programme team, that is how we want to progress.

I appreciate entirely my hon. Friend's strength of feeling on this issue. He has huge expertise and I have no doubt that in the months and, hopefully, years to come he will continue to have a real interest in making sure that we get the best system for our police service to be able to protect people in this country. I know that he has the highest motives and that he wants to ensure that we get excellent value for money out of the significant Government investment that we will make over the next few years to ensure that the system works.


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