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10 Jan 2007 : Column 285

Criminal Records Backlog

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the backlog of unrecorded overseas crimes committed by British citizens abroad. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for the late arrival of the statement. As he probably saw from the papers being passed along the Front Bench, the inconvenience was mutual.

I intend to outline the situation up to May 2006—when the Association of Chief Police Officers became the lead organisation—the current situation, and the further actions for which I have asked today. No hon. Member should be under the illusion that I do not regard the subject as serious.

First, let me outline the situation to May 2006. Since 1959, there has been a Council of Europe convention on mutual legal assistance, which established the expectation that the more than 40 member countries would inform each other of the criminal convictions of their citizens while in another member country. That was the position from 1959 until last year. The system had several grave weaknesses.

First, implementation of the system for exchanging the information was patchy across Europe. Secondly, much of the information was of poor quality—for example, on some occasions, it constituted just a name. Thirdly, the process for handling the incoming notifications when they arrive in the United Kingdom was fragmented and piecemeal. There were therefore fundamental flaws in both the sending and the receipt of information.

It was agreed that this situation should be improved at European level, and in 2005 a European Union Council decision made it mandatory for all member states to have a central authority in each country for receiving and sending such information, to counter the fundamental flaws of the prevailing system. In March 2006, it was decided by my predecessor—in my view completely correctly—that the central authority for this country would be the Association of Chief Police Officers. I think that I am correct in saying that we were among the first in the European Union to appoint such an authority to improve the exchange of such information. A backlog of 27,500 notifications was passed to ACPO, and its team was operational by May last year.

Since then, ACPO has sifted through all the approximately 27,500 notifications and carried out a priority risk assessment on them. This identified 540 most serious offenders on the police’s own definition. All the notifications relating to the most serious offenders that had enough information to be entered on the police national computer and which were not already on the computer as a result of Interpol work have now been put on it. Together, that means that 260 of the 540 serious notifications are on the police national computer. The remaining 280 cannot be entered on the PNC and are the subject of further inquiries to the notifying country to get more details to try to establish the identity of the offender. I should make it clear that the 280 cases are not necessarily
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notifications received since May last year or, indeed, since this Government came to office. However, we are having their origin checked.

I shall now outline the actions that I have asked to be taken. As the House will know, I regard protecting the public as my highest priority, and I know that that view is shared by the whole House. I therefore consider the past failings in the system to be a very serious matter, and I regard the response of my predecessor to have been a correct response to those failings. However, I also believe that the system now operating puts responsibility in the right place.

I want to express my gratitude to the Association of Chief Police Officers for the action that it has taken and for the assistance that it has given me this morning. I have today met Ministers and my officials, the president of ACPO and the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked ACPO for an assurance that every one of the more serious offenders that it has identified and on whom there is sufficient information has now been entered on the police national computer. I have been given that assurance.

Let me now set out the actions that I have taken as a result of the past 24 hours. I have asked the permanent secretary at the Home Office to set up an inquiry into the Home Office’s handling of these notifications. This will include determining a chronology of events, the practices and procedures in place at different times, whether appropriate action was taken, and the lessons to be learned. I have asked that every effort be made to complete this inquiry within six weeks.

In addition, I have asked my officials, ACPO, the CRB and the probation service, in liaison with any other Department should that be necessary, to ensure that all appropriate public protection steps are taken. In particular, I have asked the CRB to check whether there are any disclosures to employers in respect of the most serious offenders who have been identified that ought to be looked at again in the light of that new information. I expect to have that information in a matter of days.

I have also asked the police and the probation service to ensure that all sex offenders who have been identified through that process are subject to appropriate monitoring in line with the public protection arrangements that would be expected if there had been a conviction in this country.

Finally, I have asked ACPO and the CRB to accelerate the timetable to process the remainder of the backlog—that is, those cases that have not been identified as serious, which involve less serious offenders. As of this morning, that timetable, due to less serious offenders being involved, was envisaged to be 12 months. I have also asked them, with extra resources, to provide that within three months. They hope to complete it within that time scale.

As I hope is now clear to the House, this is a problem that was some years in the making. By May 2006, a better system had been established and was operational. I take full responsibility now for ensuring that that new system operates effectively to protect the public and that the lessons of past failings are properly learned.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for the advance notice of his statement, although I understand entirely why it came not quite as early as normal.

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The British public today will be wondering when on earth this catalogue of blunders at the Home Office will come to an end. None of the Government’s excuses, I am afraid, explains why the last three years have been the worst in the 200-year history of the Home Office. That is because the Department has been overwhelmed by an avalanche of legislation, regulation, targets and headline-grabbing initiatives, and by strategic failure on immigration, criminal justice, prisons and a variety of other areas. So Ministers have the major responsibility for this, but the responsibility is even more specific and it means that the Home Secretary can no longer go on blaming civil servants or police officers. Nor does the latest excuse that he has no idea what is happening in his Department auger well for the security of the nation.

This is a database failure. It is the latest in a series of database failures. Five years ago, we had the Soham tragedy, in part because of police and Home Office database failures. There have been failures on the sex offenders register, the police fingerprint database and the CRB—notably, two weeks after the right hon. Gentleman took over as Home Secretary. Did no Minister in the last eight months, as a result of those failures, ask, “Are there any weaknesses or omissions on the police national computer?” That is a straightforward, basic question. If no Minister asked it, why not? I would expect such basic scrutiny from a junior manager working in any business, let alone a Minister working in one of the most important Departments of State.

The right hon. Gentleman became Home Secretary on 5 May 2006. On 21 May, the UK central authority for the exchange of criminal records was set up, as we have been told today, transferring responsibility for those records from the Home Office to ACPO. Ministers will have received a submission on that transfer. Did he not ask the simple question whether there were any problems with it? After he took office, he told us that he had conducted a fundamental review across his Department. Did he ask whether all the databases had complete integrity? How fundamental is an inquiry that misses 27,000 files sitting on a desk for up to six years?

In practical public safety terms, will the Home Secretary tell the House, first, when the transfer will be complete? In particular, when will the 280 serious criminals be tracked down? I could not quite get that from what he said in his statement. Secondly, when will the sex offenders register, the Criminal Records Bureau and other relevant databases have been updated and checked back to see that no one has been missed in the gap since 1999? Thirdly, has he now checked for any other weaknesses in those databases? For example, if people from abroad who are given the right to work in the UK have criminal records, is he certain that those records are on the police national computer? If not known about, that is a serious issue.

I am afraid that the public will have little faith in yet another review led by a civil servant. The Home Secretary can no longer blame his officials, the police or his predecessors. He has been in the job long enough to have had every chance to put the right questions. He has failed to do so. He assures us that he is in charge of his Department. Is he? If he is, when will he start shouldering the responsibility for it?

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John Reid: It is normal to start my response by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for those elements of his contribution that were in some way laudatory; I could not find one today, so he will not mind if I go straight to the heart of the issue.

My statement today was not an attempt to lay blame, but to explain. That is what the House and the public want. It was also an attempt to outline the actions, now that I have been informed of the situation, that ought to be taken.

First, the right hon. Gentleman said that there are failings in the Home Office. That is the least newsworthy item that could be declared today. I do not think that any Secretary of State has been more open about some of those failings. Had I been told about the backlog, I assure him that I would have added it to the other failings about which I told the Home Affairs Committee in order better to tackle them.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman queried whether I had asked about the integrity of systems in the Home Office. Yes, I explicitly asked all the leading officials, in the first week, to tell me everything that needed to be known about systems failures, precisely so that we could address and share that with the public. Why was I not told? That is precisely why the permanent secretary is undertaking an inquiry. Let us now get away from the process points and move on to the substance of public protection.

I would not for one minute like the right hon. Gentleman to give the inadvertent impression that nothing has been done to improve the surveillance, monitoring and registering of people who have committed offences abroad. First, it is a major step forward that a lead organisation—ACPO—was appointed to ensure that the information that we sent to and received from other member states was dealt with in a systemic fashion that had integrity. That decision was taken six months before I became Home Secretary, and I applaud it.

Secondly, ACPO has now worked through and identified all serious cases in the backlog, and every one of those that it is possible to put on the police national computer, without the entry being useless at best or disturbing the system at worst, has been put on that computer.

Thirdly, in relation to the Soham question, the protection arrangements for children and vulnerable people have been improved significantly following Sir Michael Bichard’s report. The Home Office and ACPO are now working on a new IT initiative, IMPACT, which will improve significantly the recording and sharing of information. Under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, we have established a vetting and barring scheme. That is scheduled for implementation in late 2008 and will strengthen significantly the protection of children and vulnerable adults. One of its key features is the continuous monitoring that will be introduced, by contrast with the present arrangements whereby the Criminal Records Bureau is only able to provide what information is currently held in police systems.

Therefore, without in any way attempting to paint a rosy picture, the position is much better than it was from 1959 to 2005, during which period Governments of all persuasions have held office.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the date of transfer. I do not know whether he meant the date of transfer of the files. It was when ACPO’s role was set up—in the first half of last year, between January and June—that the files would have been established, electronically and physically. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will no longer allude to his colourful but rather misleading proposition that I have been sitting in the midst of all the files since May last year. I have not.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the date of reform. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I cannot respond to remarks made from a sedentary position. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise other issues I will deal with them, but let me make this absolutely clear: I have now asked not only for an assurance that all the serious cases on which we have sufficient information have been entered on the computer, but for a retrospective check to be carried out with the Criminal Records Bureau to ensure that no questions have been asked about anyone who ought to have been registered on the computer.

I am asking the police to accelerate the process of dealing with the other 27,500 cases, and I am asking the Probation Service to give me an assurance that anyone who has now been discovered to have committed an offence as a result of having been entered on the computer will be given the same level of supervision as anyone who has committed an offence in this country. I hope that all that will be done as rapidly as humanly possible.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The Home Secretary and his Ministers seem to have developed a novel doctrine of ministerial responsibility over the past 24 hours. If a Minister is not aware of something, we are now told, he or she can somehow not be held responsible for it. Let us be clear that ignorance is no excuse for incompetence. The British public have a simple question to ask of the Home Secretary: if he is not to be held to account for the work of his Department, who is?

Can the Home Secretary confirm that 27,500 files relate to information collected from Council of Europe countries? Can he tell us what would happen to files on offences committed by British citizens in non-Council of Europe countries, especially countries in, say, Asia or North America where there are large numbers of British residents or visitors? Can he assure us that there are no files from those countries sitting in Home Office filing cabinets?

I do not think the Home Secretary gave us a precise date for the completion of the CRB checks on the most serious offenders. Will he do so now, so that parents and members of the public can have a cast-iron guarantee that none of the offenders are working with children or vulnerable people?

The Home Secretary may be aware that since April 2005 a pilot project has been running, organised by Germany, France, Belgium and Spain—joined recently, I believe, by the Czech Republic—to establish a fully operational criminal records network. We are told that the United Kingdom has been very reluctant to join the project. Can the Home Secretary explain how he will deal with this crisis on a sustainable basis without committing Britain more fully to this type of international arrangement?

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John Reid: I will deal with the last question first. Of course we consider all ways of improving co-operation, but no one should believe that because systems have been established they will work perfectly, even now.

To the best of my knowledge, under the new system, all Council of Europe countries have notified us of all offences, and all those offences are being entered on the computer immediately by ACPO.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that since I became Secretary of State, none of the cases that have come in have added to the backlog. I accept responsibility for sorting the problem out, but unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, what I cannot tell him is that I was presiding over it from 1959 until last May. I was not. I will accept responsibility for sorting out the problem, but it has developed over many years. Even now, with the new system, when I ask how many notifications we have received from Spain, for instance, the answer is none. I find it very difficult to believe that we have had no one convicted of offences in Spain. That illustrates some of the problems that we are experiencing, even with a strengthened system.

We will continue to do what we can, and I accept full responsibility. It is a question of establishing the facts, and I have asked the permanent secretary to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. I hope and expect that we shall have gone through the backlog of 27,500 less serious cases within a few months—three months, I hope, although I cannot absolutely pledge that. He also asked an important question about the retrospective checking of people who are now on the computer but may not have been for a long time. I am also concerned about that, and I have asked the CRB to check and run it through the systems. I trust that the process will not take months or even weeks; I hope to have received the information by the end of this week. I will in any case present a written statement to the House when appropriate, to update Members on what is happening.

The backlog of 27,500 files that built up at some stage between 1959 and 2006—probably from the mid-1990s onwards, but that is part of what I am trying to establish—relates mainly to the 45 or so Council of Europe member states to which the convention on mutual legal assistance relates. That arrangement was even less systematic that the present one. As I have said, there were two flaws. First, the information that came to the United Kingdom was fragmentary, piecemeal and ad hoc, and secondly the system at this end, in the Home Office, was inadequate to deal with that. Had I known about those failings I would have incorporated them in the report that I gave the Home Affairs Committee, along with the other failings in the system.

We are remedying those failings now. A huge amount of work is being done by Home Office officials to reform the Home Office, and I praise them for that work. My only regret is that because they did not, apparently, tell me about it at the time, something that happened a considerable time ago is being blamed on officials as if it were happening now. Actually, it is on its way to being remedied now. What has happened is that we have only just found out about a problem that all of us should perhaps have known about some time ago.

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