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28 Feb 2007 : Column 293WH—continued

In a spirit of trying to reach helpful outcomes rather than of being confrontational or partisan in any way, let me raise four particular areas of concern with the
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Minister. I shall then give my concluding thoughts about possible ways forward and conclusions that we might draw from those areas of concern.

The first that I wish to bring to the attention of the House is that the IMPACT programme—the programme for shared intelligence, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central has already discussed at length—will not, I understand, be complete until 2010. There is some doubt about whether even that completion date will be met. The deadline for the full business case promised by the Government has been and gone, and we still have only an interim business case, rather than a full one. The programme is greatly delayed and I should be interested in the Minister’s views on whether we can speed up the implementation of that programme and her response to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there may be alternative ways of reaching the same desired end point, although by a different route.

The second problem that I wish to raise is linked to the first one: the level of co-operation and consensus required from police forces across the country to implement programmes of this sort. Co-ordinating separate budgets to serve both local and national interests would present a formidable undertaking, even for a well-resourced commercial enterprise, but for the police service, which must also negotiate with local authorities and consult the wider population, in addition to dealing with the Home Office itself, the scale and complexity of the challenge is even greater. I would be interested to know how much progress the Minister thinks the police services and authorities across the country are making, and whether some forces are making much greater progress than others. If that is the case, what could be learned by those who are less proficient?

The third problem that I wish to raise is that, as I understand it, the police are still taking up to six months to record convictions and acquittals on the police national computer, even though the target is 10 days. There is a huge disparity between a 10-day target and taking six months, in some cases, to record relevant information on the computer. The Metropolitan police have been less than exemplary in this regard. An internal Met report stated that it took 185 days for 75 per cent. of court results to be inputted to the computer. Sir Michael Bichard stated:

There will be legitimate public concern about procedures not being followed as speedily and diligently as they should be. Obviously, if a significant period is allowed to lapse between an offence taking place and a conviction, and the records being updated, there is considerable scope for repeat offenders to fail to be caught by the procedures that are intended to prevent them from offending again.

The fourth and final problem that I wish to raise involves the procedures for vetting adults who work with children, particularly in the education sector. I understand that staff already in post and those who have worked with children for up to three months beforehand are not vetted. The chairman of the Local
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Government Association’s children and young people board has criticised the Government for failing to give schools the ability to vet retrospectively. I realise that there may be issues, concerns and considerations to be balanced, and I may touch on them shortly, but I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on whether the existing mechanisms to protect children in schools and other institutions of that type are sufficiently robust to deal with the potential threat that is posed.

Further to those concerns, let me make three more observations. First, the Liberal Democrats support the Bichard inquiry fully, and we very much hope that the Government can address the four problems that I mentioned and any others that are raised by Members such as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, who has taken a particularly close interest in the matter.

Secondly, we welcome the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 but recognise the concerns expressed in some quarters that over-zealous vetting procedures could discourage someone from working with children and vulnerable people. It is worth stating at this point that we all share the horror about what happened in the Soham and other high-profile cases, but we also do not want to create a situation where millions of law-abiding, decent and well-intentioned people are discouraged from working in entirely beneficial ways with children and young people because they feel that the mechanisms for vetting them are too onerous, burdensome or intrusive. Of course, a balance must be struck. The Minister will be acutely aware of her responsibility and that of the Government to protect children; none the less, it is worth paying some regard to that balance when they deliberate on it.

Thirdly, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Bichard inquiry found that the Data Protection Act 1998 presented no obstacle to Humberside and Cambridgeshire sharing information on Ian Huntley’s previous record. The Government need to act, but they should not regard all the measures and mechanisms that exist to protect the public from undue interference in their private affairs, or the basic liberties of the citizen, as being in some way burdensome to the Government. We must respect the fact that there is a private realm and that information can legitimately be kept secret by the individual.

As with my previous point, there is a balance to be struck between the rights of the individual to live his or her life without feeling that the state is prying unnecessarily into their affairs, and the need to ensure that there are no barriers to the police and other authorities sharing legitimate information that could prevent awful cases such as the one that we are discussing this afternoon. I realise that where the line is drawn is not always perfectly measurable and that there may be some scope for debate. The difficulty for the Government and anyone who is tasked with making such decisions is to try to ensure that the balance between protection of the individual and protection of the liberties of citizens is struck in such a way as to maximise both, and not necessarily to think always that there is a trade-off between the two.

There must be greater efficiency in the way that forces pool and share data, and we must consider whether the mechanisms that have been pursued to
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date have produced the desired results. We must either speed up the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations or develop better recommendations whereby we may achieve the desired outcomes of the inquiry but by different routes, and we must be cautious about achieving balance.

I have confidence that the issues will be addressed as soon as possible, given the determined manner in which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central maintains interest in these matters, and the Minister and officials in the Home Office acting entirely in good faith in their desire to achieve a satisfactory conclusion that will protect the public. I know that the Minister will take my view that that is what the people directly affected by the Soham murders and the country as a whole expect and demand of her and her Department.

3.8 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on initiating this debate, which certainly is timely. I also congratulate him on maintaining the pressure and ensuring that the Government are held to account for taking forward the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) about the delays, and I associate myself with his remarks about what initiated the Bichard inquiry in the first place. The appalling murders in Soham moved the entire nation. The consequence was that fundamental failings in the ability of our police forces to share information were exposed.

It is worth reminding ourselves that when Bichard reported in June 2004, he said that it was a matter of urgency that greater intelligence sharing and a national IT system should be introduced. Two and a half years later, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, there are still substantial delays, and 2010 is the earliest date for full implementation. As The Guardian reported in June 2006, the cost estimates have doubled over the past year, with some estimates taking us into the region of £2 billion. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about where we are with the programme, as well as what the latest cost estimates and the timetable are. In particular, I should like to know how the National Policing Improvement Agency budget affects those issues and whether it has yet been settled. The agency will be charged with driving the programme forward, and the resources available to it will plainly have a great effect on the Government’s ability to carry out the Bichard recommendations.

Rather than rehearsing many of the points that hon. Members have very effectively made, I want to introduce some new considerations for debate, because the Bichard inquiry and the subsequent failure to take forward its recommendations have demonstrated that there are some real issues here, but the House has not debated them sufficiently.

The first issue is the security of the data, should it finally become available to all police forces. After all, the data not only relate to convictions, but include other data held by police forces and may also come from intelligence systems. Police databases may include entirely unsubstantiated information, leads, suspicions or details of people who are of interest to the police, as
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well as information provided by the security services. Data will therefore be of tremendously varying quality, and much of it will identify individuals who do not necessarily have a criminal record or feature on any of the other databases held by the police or other agencies, such as the DNA database or the fingerprint database.

That raises questions about the ability of other forces to share such data and the security protocols that are being put in place to ensure that data are properly used. Plainly, a national database could be a powerful tool in the fight against crime, and we all accept Bichard’s conclusion that the failure to share intelligence contributed to the awful events in Soham. Although we understand the need for a national database, however, I am not sure that we properly understand the extent to which it will change the way in which the police operate. There has been only a belated debate about the national health service database of patient records, with people starting to question the use and availability of those records throughout the country only once things were under way. It is therefore important that we debate the issue before us now, so that the protocols that will need to be put in place are properly discussed.

The second issue that arises as a consequence of the recommendations is whether there is sufficient national impetus to drive such police IT projects. Frankly, I am reaching the conclusion that there is not. There are obviously strong arguments for joining up the information communication technology systems used by different police forces, but that has been extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Part of the reason for that is that the 43 forces have historically procured their own IT systems and been geographically isolated—they have had their own fiefdoms in some cases—which means that their systems are not always compatible. I am not convinced that there is much momentum behind reform of the police IT market, and the shared services agenda, which is taking off in other parts of the public sector, certainly does not seem to be taking off in anything like the same way among the police.

In its document “Transforming Criminal Justice”, the CBI notes that, to date, police engagement with providers has been fragmented, and that is particularly true of the IT market, where a number of niche players have dominated. For example, approximately 26 out of 37 forces in England have different crime and control systems, and similar fragmentation is found in the core human resources and crime systems.

Previous national projects have failed to take off, including HOLMES2, which was designed to be used by the police service to run major crime inquiries and casualty bureaux after major incidents. Only three forces have the electronic document management system necessary to interface with HOLMES2, and even the second-largest police force—West Midlands—is unable to afford a management system link to it. That is despite the fact that the database has been operational since 1989.

That chronic lack of co-ordination was exposed by Bichard, who described it as “an unhappy position”, and that led to the proposals for IMPACT. However, IMPACT is a hugely ambitious programme, given that
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the police IT market is highly fragmented and dominated by a number of niche players. As I said, 26 out of 37 forces have different crime and control systems. There are also more than 15 different HR systems in England and Wales and more than 10 different providers of crime systems, and several forces run their systems in-house. The information systems strategy for the police service—an Association of Chief Police Officers programme that attempts to set out a common architecture for police ICT services—will enable individual forces to procure systems that would be able to talk to each other. Significantly, however, that programme is not mandated.

IMPACT will therefore have to operate in a fragmented environment. I can, of course, see the sense of IMPACT, which will warehouse forces’ custody, case, call management, contact, intelligence and crime data. It will also include the national databases, including convictions and the sex offenders’ register, and make them available to all forces. However, it will eventually bring together 100 million pieces of data. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, the sheer scale and ambition of the project is one of the contributing factors to the delay that has taken place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a noticeable difference between the approaches that have been taken in England and Wales and in Scotland. The Scottish intelligence database has enabled the sharing of information between all eight police forces there, which have access to 90 per cent. of the intelligence that is gathered. Interestingly, that has brought about a cultural change in Scotland, with police officers using intelligence more proactively. Before the intelligence database was implemented, a relatively small percentage of Scotland’s police officers submitted intelligence, and there was no mechanism for feeding the results back to officers, which many considered a black hole. Even if officers’ intelligence did result in an arrest, they would rarely hear about it. Since the implementation of the database, however, more than 70 per cent. of police officers in Scotland have actively submitted and researched intelligence, and that figure is growing as officers see how their intelligence has helped other officers.

That demonstrates not only that a national database plays a significant role in ensuring that we have the protections that we seek post-Soham, but that it is a crime-fighting tool, which will improve the way in which police officers work and their motivation. An effective system would therefore plainly have enormous advantages beyond simply the efficient management of data.

What conclusion can we draw, then, from the failure to drive the national database forward? One is, I think, a standard conclusion about the way in which Governments tend to procure major projects of that kind. The hon. Member for Taunton and I attended a seminar recently examining those issues, including Government failures to procure. The central conclusion of that seminar was that it is uncertainty on the part of politicians who procure, and a lack of clear specification, that causes subsequent problems in the delivery of projects. However, there are also, plainly, resource implications that must be addressed if forces
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are to be held to the promises and undertakings given in the Government’s response to Bichard.

A radical suggestion would be that police budgets, instead of allowing the individual procurement of IT systems, could be top-sliced. That would certainly ensure compatibility across all police forces and allow the exploitation of economies of scale. However, that would take us into a huge project, involving the unnecessary redundancy of perfectly good systems; and it would produce a one-size-fits-all ICT system that would stifle innovation and prevent forces from tailoring their systems to specific needs. If that is not a realistic possibility, the onus is on the Government to ensure that there is much more effective central strategic direction of the use of ICT in police forces.

It is no longer acceptable that the different approaches that police forces have taken—the fiefdoms, the individual purchasing of systems and so on—should continue. In many respects there has been far too much Government interference in local policing. Attempts to direct policing and to set targets have interfered with officer discretion at all levels and distorted professional activity. In other ways, however, the Government have had insufficient drive to ensure that individual forces co-operate more effectively. We talked this morning about the lack of progress on the sharing of services and work force modernisation. In relation to ICT the story has been the same.

We cannot go on holding debates year after year in this place at which we observe that the timetable for the implementation of a national intelligence database has continued to slip and that the costs have continued to rise. It is important to get a grip on the matter, tie down the specifications, deal with the security issues, understand the cost implications and make resources available, if it is going to happen. If it is not going to happen, alternative arrangements must be investigated, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central suggested. The project is too important for the fight against crime and the protection of the public for the situation to be allowed to slip any further.

3.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on raising these important issues for discussion, and I very much appreciate his continuing concern.

My hon. Friend will agree that in accepting all the Bichard inquiry’s 31 recommendations, the Government have risen to meet a substantial and challenging agenda of work. I am grateful for the opportunity to update all hon. Members on the Government’s position on the Bichard implementation work generally—the subject of my hon. Friend’s debate—and, specifically, on questions about the progress of the IMPACT programme. Today’s debate usefully complements the regular reports to Parliament made by successive Home Secretaries, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making a further report to Parliament in the spring.

I want to reaffirm from the outset that the Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bichard recommendations and to ensuring that
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the necessary resources to do so are made available. The Government have been working hard for several years to make the protection of children an absolute priority. The work to set up the necessary arrangements to achieve that, including developments under the Bichard implementation programme, demonstrates our clear commitment. As my hon. Friend has explained, the Bichard inquiry report raised serious issues. We all recognise that it triggered, through its 31 recommendations, a complex but necessary programme of work to improve the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, which is why the Government have persisted in driving forward a complex and ambitious programme to address the shortcomings that Sir Michael Bichard highlighted.

Much of the hard work has been done behind the scenes, but I assure hon. Members that there has been no lessening of effort as a result. I shall focus first on some of the achievements so far, and then on the implementation programme. Of the 31 recommendations, 21 have been either fully or substantially completed. Naturally the remainder, the larger and more complex projects, are taking longer to implement fully, but work has been no less vigorous. None of the work streams should be viewed in isolation. The fundamental aim is to minimise risks to children and vulnerable adults through co-ordinated and robust systems and actions. We remain committed both to the spirit of Bichard and to carrying out all the recommendations, which requires careful assessment of the interdependencies and a fully joined-up approach across Government and delivery agencies such as the police, education, health and social services. It also includes taking tough but sensible decisions about resources and making continuing efforts to change working cultures and support frameworks and processes.

We have achieved significant and solid progress since June 2004. We have already presented to Parliament, as I have said, three comprehensive progress reports. Although there has been slippage in some areas, the robust nature of that reporting again shows our clear commitment to delivery. I make it clear that we remain fully committed to achieving the changes that all have agreed are required, even if the plans for putting them into practice have, necessarily, evolved during the life of the programme to take account of emerging realities. A clear example is the substantial programme to enhance information and intelligence management across the police service—the IMPACT programme.

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