Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 239:

""local education authority" has the same meaning as in the Education Act 1996 (c. 56);"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 239ZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 295, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 296 and 297 agreed to.

Clause 298 [Criminal record certificates: amendments of Part 5 of Police Act 1997]:

On Question, Whether Clause 298 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Thomas of Gresford: Although this clause consists of only one line and looks rather inoffensive, it conceals what is an absolute scandal in relation to the Criminal Records Bureau.

In June of this year the Criminal Records Bureau was in a dire state when figures on its performance were published. The bureau had set a target for 95 per cent of standard checks to be completed in one week. By March 2003 only 19.4 per cent of those cases met the target. The target for enhanced checks was 90 per cent to be completed within three weeks. In practice, the target was achieved in only 52.4 per cent of cases. On valid applications a target of 98 per cent was set to be achieved by March 2003, but it was achieved by only 6.5 per cent. So the bureau was in a complete mess, under-resourced and a bureaucratic nightmare.

The solution opted for by the bureau was to double the criminal record check fees on 1st July of this year from 12 to 24. Even after that was done, the bureau's books will not be balanced until 2007, losing 12 on every check carried out.

The record checks in question are those carried out for people in sensitive occupations, and it is against that background that Clause 298 has been introduced into the Bill, together with Schedule 29. That schedule contains clauses introduced as amendments by the Home Secretary, seeking powers to allow the staff of private companies to have access to the police and criminal records of applicants to positions in teaching and social and voluntary work. Such information is extremely sensitive, but it is to be made available to a

15 Oct 2003 : Column 1004

private company. It will be accessed by staff who are not properly vetted and not aware of data protection issues and confidentiality. This is a short-term solution to address the total failure of the Criminal Records Bureau to process the volume of work it receives accurately and in a speedy fashion.

Instead of tackling directly the problems faced by the Criminal Records Bureau, this proposal is a short-term effort to bring in private companies to carry out functions which should properly be confidential and controlled by government. We oppose the clause and we shall oppose the schedule when it is put forward.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 239A. This amendment has been tabled following anxieties expressed to me by the Civil Service unions, in particular by the PCS, the Public and Commercial Services union. I seek the removal of paragraph 10 of Schedule 29 because I could not think of any other way of raising the questions that I want to put to my noble friend on the Front Bench.

This new addition to Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 allows the Secretary of State to delegate what are described as, "relevant functions" to,

    "such parties as he may determine".

It is that wording which worries both myself and the PCS union. To say the least, the wording is very loose. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has already pointed out, it refers to an area which concerns sensitive information and where the need for confidentiality is paramount. What are the "relevant functions" and who are the persons to be determined by the Secretary of State? Surely these should be spelt out in the schedule.

The paragraph raises a number of other issues. First, I understand that the idea for this proposal came from an independent review team, chaired by Patrick Carter, which reported almost a year ago, in December 2002. The PCS believes that things have moved on and that the proposals may no longer be needed. Perhaps my noble friend could comment on that.

Secondly, if the proposals are needed, the PCS believes that they could blur the line between the public and private sectors and those who work in them—a danger already indicated by the noble Lord. In terms of the public services, obviously the PCS is keen to ensure that public sector responsibilities are adhered to and that confidentiality in centres of information is protected and preserved.

Thirdly, I understand that some areas of Home Office work are already being outsourced by the Capita group to India. It would be extremely worrying if this area was likely to be outsourced. I believe that measures are needed to ensure that this important work is carefully protected, preferably by writing into the schedule the appropriate safeguards.

Finally, I refer to the implementation of this part of the schedule. Would its enactment be subjected to the affirmative resolution procedure; that is, will any proposals for enactment be presented to Parliament before they are put into effect? If not, that would leave

15 Oct 2003 : Column 1005

the Secretary of State with a great deal of power in a very delicate area. I hope that my noble friend can set my mind at rest on these issues.

7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): In rising to respond to the debate—

Viscount Colville of Culross: The amendment has not been moved.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I am speaking to Clause 298 standing part of the Bill. It is coupled with the amendment to which the noble Baroness referred a moment ago.

Lord Filkin: That is how I understood the position. I am responding to the clause stand part debate, which is not an amendment but a discussion on the clause itself.

In doing so, as the Committee would expect, I do not intend to claim for a second that the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau has been one of the Government's finest processes of implementation. It has been bedevilled by problems and it has been a very difficult challenge to get it right.

Having said that, let me explain why these measures will be a part of the continuing process of improvement to ensure that the Criminal Records Bureau is able to fulfil its extremely important function of ensuring that no one is employed by public or other bodies in situations where, because of their past records, they might put the vulnerable public at risk.

Clause 298 and Schedule 29 make a number of amendments to Part 5 of the Police Act 1997, which sets out the statutory framework under which the Criminal Records Bureau operates. The Committee will be aware of the difficulties faced by the CRB in its first few months. As a result of these difficulties, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, appointed an independent review team, led by Patrick Carter, to take a fundamental look at the operations of the CRB. The provisions in Schedule 29 flow directly from the review team's recommendations. Their aim is to further improve the performance of the CRB so that it is well placed to meet future challenges as demand for disclosure services continues to grow.

The recommendations should be viewed against the backdrop of a sustained improvement in the CRB's performance since last autumn. The bureau is now issuing on average 40,000 disclosures a week compared with 24,500 in August 2002. It is also now meeting its service standards for turnaround times, with more than 90 per cent of standard and enhanced disclosures being issued within two and four weeks respectively. However, the Home Office is not complacent. We need to build on these improvements in performance and

15 Oct 2003 : Column 1006

ensure that the CRB has the necessary capacity to meet all the demands for its services, particularly in relation to higher level disclosures.

This is where the review team's recommendations and these amendments to the Police Act come in. The CRB is a vital element of the Government's programme to improve the protection of children and vulnerable adults from those who might wish to harm them. To meet this objective, the CRB must be placed on a sounder footing.

The amendments to the 1997 Act give effect to four of the review team's recommendations. First, they recognise and upgrade the critical role of registered bodies. The CRB is too remote from an applicant for a disclosure to carry out the identity validation process effectively. This role ought properly to fall to the registered body which countersigns the application, but with scope to delegate the function to the employer or other agent in appropriate cases. To ensure that registered bodies discharge their responsibilities effectively, the amendments enable the CRB to attach conditions to a registration and to suspend or cancel a registration where such conditions are breached.

The second issue addressed by the amendments concerns the electronic submission of applications. Recent consultation carried out by the Home Office with registered bodies suggests that there is strong support for an electronic channel. Many registered bodies will wish to adopt such a channel as their preferred means of submitting disclosure applications. The migration to the electronic route will not happen overnight, but there may come a point where there will be a diminishing case on efficiency grounds for maintaining the existing telephone and paper channels. A facility to mandate the electronic channel could therefore in the future be useful, although at this point in time there is no intention to move to that forthwith.

The third area covered by the amendments is the criteria for determining who qualifies for a standard disclosure and who should get an enhanced disclosure. A standard disclosure simply includes details of any criminal convictions. An enhanced disclosure also includes any relevant local police intelligence. Because applications for enhanced disclosures need to be referred to local police forces, they are necessarily more costly and time consuming. It is important therefore that we do not tie up resources producing enhanced disclosures in situations where they are not appropriate. To this end, the amendments establish a flexible mechanism to set the criteria for determining who qualifies for an enhanced disclosure and then provide the CRB with the means to ensure that such criteria are properly observed. The CRB will want to rely on education and support for registered bodies in the first instance and will exercise this new power only as a last resort.

Finally, the amendments to the 1997 Act will facilitate the more flexible deployment of Civil Service and private sector staff working together under the umbrella of the CRB. I should emphasise that the power to delegate functions is discretionary. There

15 Oct 2003 : Column 1007

have been some concerns about the possibility that non-civil servants will be given access to conviction information on the police national computer. No decision has been taken to delegate the PNC matching function but, were we to decide to do so, I can assure the Committee that the delegation will be subject to all appropriate safeguards, which I will spell out in more detail later.

Having set out the purpose of the amendments to Part 5, let me explain the effect of removing Schedule 29 from the Bill. First, we would lose the ability to set and enforce performance standards for registered bodies. This would mean the continuation of a lack of rigour exercised by a minority of registered bodies in confirming the identity of a disclosure applicant—it is of course fundamental to the system working that you verify the identity of the person about whom the check is being made—which could open up the possibility that a known paedophile might gain access to children.

There would also be a continuation of the high error rate in applications forms. Some one in four forms have to be returned to registered bodies for the correction of errors or for the supply of missing information. We would also lose our ability to better define the criteria for eligibility for enhanced disclosures, as I indicated previously.

There would also be no power to mandate the use of an electronic application channel—which is most likely to come on stream at some point in the future, if not immediately—and, finally, there would continue to be artificial barriers between the functions that can be carried out by civil servants and those that can be carried out by the CRB.

Let me turn to the issues raised by the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson. She asked, first, whether these powers are still necessary. The answer is yes, they are. Following the conclusions of the high level review carried out by Patrick Carter, with the active involvement of the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, senior civil servants in the department are firmly of the view that these powers are needed.

As I indicated, the intention behind the provision is to facilitate more effective business processes—a ghastly term—from beginning to end to ensure that the relationship between the CRB and Capita, which carries out many of the operational functions, is effectively integrated, albeit subject to appropriate checks. In other words, it is to optimise the efficiency of the CRB by rationalising management responsibilities and the respective roles in an end-to-end chain of the CRB and Capita. The current system creates artificial barriers in the way of efficient end-to-end processes. However, I emphasise that this power is discretionary. In the event that we decide to go down this route, the delegation will be subject to appropriate safeguards to protect sensitive information.

I shall list those safeguards because they go to the heart of the question of whether there is risk involved in this. I apologise for speaking at length but there are concerns about these issues. The safeguards are as follows. All staff with access to the PNC would be vetted to a level equivalent to an enhanced disclosure.

15 Oct 2003 : Column 1008

Paragraph 11 of Schedule 29 to the Bill contains a specific new offence of unauthorised disclosure of information obtained in connection with a delegated function which would apply if a member of Capita's staff passed on, without proper authority, information obtained from the PNC.

Next, all bodies gaining access to the PNC for the first time are checked by the Police Information Technology Organisation—PITO—which is responsible for managing the PNC and sets strict security safeguards. All users have unique ID and a password system operates. They are required to operate in accordance with security operating procedures—I will not go into detail. Access to the PNC is auditable by the CRB itself, by PITO and by the police.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page