Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

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Tim Loughton: Whether reports should be produced to the Minister responsible or to Parliament is old territory. In the case of the children’s commissioner, the suggestion was strongly taken on board by one of the Minister’s predecessors that the commissioner’s report, which has to be presented to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, should also be presented to the Select Committee on Education and Skills, so that he could be invited to discuss the annual report in front of that Committee. Does the Minister envisage a similar process taking place in this case, whether involving the Select Committee on Home Affairs or the Education and Skills Committee?
Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I do not think that it is my place to rule his suggestion in or out, but it is certainly interesting and could be considered. As I said, the annual report will be of interest to the House. If problems arise from the failure of the vetting and barring scheme, hon. Members will have no difficulty in securing a ministerial statement and a debate, as we have seen in recent times. Therefore, I have taken on board hon. Members’ points, but hope that the Committee will accept that the amendment is unnecessary.
Amendment No. 9 would remove an incidental power of the IBB to borrow money, but only in connection with the exercise of any of its functions. There is no general power for the IBB to set itself up as a financial speculator. In principle, it will need to work with annual break-even budgets. If it were to conclude that the outright purchase of, say, a batch of IT equipment or office furniture would give good value for money, it might wish to borrow money for that. That is why the provision has been included.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned the IMPACT programme. It is an ongoing piece of work. I would be happy to write to her with more information on exactly how things are progressing, and I will do that. She mentioned the CRB and some 3,000 CRB errors. I believe that that is off the back of the recent report about duplication. However, it is worth remembering in that context—I am sure that my Home Office colleagues would want me to say this—that some 25,000 people were protected last year through decisions made by the CRB.
The hon. Lady asked a pertinent question about online access, which will be discussed under schedule 4. It is our intention to set up online access for the scheme so that people will be able to check whether somebody is subject to monitoring. That is an important issue and very much part of our proposals, and I look forward to debating it, whether today or Thursday.
Tim Loughton: The Minister skirted briefly around amendment No. 9 and the power to borrow, but I am still mystified as to why this body will need such a power. Is it purely for short-term borrowings, in which case the board will be expected to have balanced its books by the end of the year on a cash-flow basis? If it ends up with a deficit, how will it be taken into account when judging the budget for the following year? Will the following year’s budget be suitably adjusted downwards to take account of the borrowings, as happens with health trusts, for example? Exactly how will that work? A mention that the board might like to buy some furniture does not really take account of a large power; that is, to borrow. As the IBB is, in effect, a distant part of Government, why does it need such powers?
With all of that to be taken into consideration on this string of amendments, I hope that hon. Members are satisfied that I have given enough information for the amendment to be withdrawn.
Mrs. Miller: I thank the Minister for his response on this string of important amendments, which needed further debate and clarification. I thank the hon. Member for Brent, East for her support for several of the amendments. I appreciate that support, particularly in respect of communication. I am glad that she shares my concern that adequate communication is vital if the Bill is to be effective as and when it is put into place.
11.30 am
I was interested by the Minister’s response about the monitoring side of things. Obviously, the Government have considered that and decided that there will be a separate body and that the activity will be undertaken through the CRB. Several issues remain hanging, to which he will perhaps return on Report. The CRB experienced great difficulty with capacity, certainly immediately after it was set up. Giving the entire role to the CRB would, in effect, double the size of its operation. The CRB deals with 9 million people, and although there might be some duplication, my understanding is that a further 9 million to 10 million would be covered by the remit of the Bill. On Report, it would be interesting to hear of any further discussions on how that will be dealt with.
Mr. Dhanda: It is probably fair to say that those people are not likely to be an additional 7 million to 9 million people, because many of those on whom the CRB will carry out checks will already be working, for example, in the schools work force.
Mrs. Miller: I thank the Minister for that clarification but, in a way, it misses the point. This is not a checking system but a monitoring system, and the two are entirely separate. Having people checked each year is a one-off process. They put their application in to be checked by the CRB—as a school governor, for example—and it is done, dusted and sent to those who requested the check. This is an entirely separate process and involves setting up a database of 9 million people, an undertaking that most organisations would face with some trepidation, particularly given the need for as high a level of accuracy as possible. I am somewhat concerned at that response, because it does not show that the Minister has grasped that a database of 9 million people would have to be managed and monitored and that the information on it would have to be acted on. It is an entirely separate and different process to that currently undertaken by the CRB.
Mrs. Miller: So, the CRB is to undertake the role of monitoring. I think that we shall have to return to the subject in later stages of the Bill, because we will require some idea of how the database will be run. Who will undertake the weeding of the data?
Sarah Teather: May I, rather obtusely, ask the hon. Lady to get some clarity from the Minister? I am looking at the explanatory notes and the extra money that the Treasury has agreed seems to be for the DFES budget and not for an expansion of the CRB’s operation, which is the point that she was making to the Minister. Obviously, we will require extra capacity if extra checks are to be done.
Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Lady for that point. Before the Minister responds, I want to draw his attention to something that builds on it. It is a statement from one of his right hon. Friends, the former Home Secretary, a few Home Secretaries ago—the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)—in response to a debate in May 2004:
“We will...urgently consider”
Sir Michael Bichard’s
“recommendation that a register be created to bring together all the relevant information held on individuals in a way that is easily accessible. We need to consider how that fits with and enhances the service already provided by the Criminal Records Bureau.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 1186-87.]
That does not imply that there will be merely a straight swap and that the register will be the responsibility of the CRB, although it will sit alongside the CRB. Certainly at that stage, it was not necessarily seen as an activity undertaken purely by the CRB. The Minister may wish to respond to that and to the comment of the hon. Member for Brent, East.
Mr. Dhanda: I am happy to respond to those points.
The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister does that, so that we do not get carried away, I must say that the debate can continue if the Committee wishes, but in future I shall call the Minister to intervene only if he indicates that he wants to. It is not for the Opposition spokesman to keep the debate running in this way.
Mr. Dhanda: On the point made by the hon. Member for Brent, East, I gave on Second Reading the figures available for the vetting and barring scheme. I do not have them at my fingertips but think they were in the order of £14 million in the first year, with similar figures during the next five years to put the scheme in place.
On the enlarged role of the CRB, the monitoring of police information systems is a development of the current CRB processes. Feasibility studies have confirmed that the operational basis for that work is in place. It is feasible.
Mrs. Miller: I apologise, Mr. Conway. We may have taken the discussion on monitoring as far as it can go at the moment, but I feel, and other members probably agree, that more discussion is needed. It is an important issue. Monitoring people is so important that the weeding of data caused great concern in the events leading to the Bichard report. A number of areas not dealt with in detail in the Bill may need further exploration.
I move to the Minister’s response on my hon. Friends’ amendments. I take on board his comments on secondment, but yet again he seems to be brushing aside responses from consultation. I am sure that he will know best how to handle that. Perhaps, in the spirit of this debate, he might consider the conversations that we have had today on the matter and ensure that they are communicated to the IBB so that staff employed in that organisation will be aware of the debate on the issue and the opinions expressed during consultation.
The Minister responded on information and quality. I hope that he does not feel that the amendments would dilute the focus of the IBB and that the quality of the IBB’s data will be at the heart of ensuring that it performs its core function. Presumably, the IBB will be able to address that in its own way. Quality is key. We must ensure with all the changes going on and all the problems encountered that we are in no way complacent and that all is being done that must be done to ensure that quality improves.
I understand the Minister’s sentiment that the current level of CRB error is relatively small. However, in absolute terms, each of the 3,000 people who were erroneously given records that they had done nothing to deserve found that a very difficult situation to handle. In some cases, it caused great concern.
I am pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment that communication is an important part of what will happen following the passage of the Bill. I endorse his statement that it is not just the IBB that will need to undertake communications and that it will be the role of many others, but I should like to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Brent, East. We need to ensure that the communication is co-ordinated and that we do not fall into a situation in which others feel that it is not their job to communicate or that others are undertaking that communication.
Unfortunately, there is not a good record of good, clear communication from the Government on some of these matters. I am sure that the Minister would accept that and understand why we have raised the point.
I thank the Minister for his comments about parliamentary scrutiny and for his positive remarks on the recommendation made by my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on the matter of parliamentary scrutiny, and perhaps on an assurance of having a Committee look at the report. I understand that it is not for the Minister to dictate that but am pleased that he would think it a positive thing.
I thank the Minister for his update on the IMPACT system. I hope that we can hold him to some of the reports saying that the system, rather than being ready next year, will be ready in 2010 and that we do not see any further escalation in the costs associated with that system, which have increased dramatically since the project was started.
I thank the Minister for his response to that string of amendments. I have used this opportunity to reiterate some concerns raised, not just among my colleagues, but in the various consultations that have taken place. I hope that the Minister has listened to my comments and considered the amendments in the spirit in which they were meant—that of improving the Bill—and that he will ensure that we work together, as we should. In the hope that he will ponder further before Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
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