Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 107 - 119)




  107. Thank you, Mr Clarke, for making time to come and see us. We do understand the difficulties of your busy life. Thank you too for your letter explaining why the Committee had not been told at the same time as the written PQ was being answered. We were delighted, of course, with the decision which has now been taken not to charge volunteers for checks, which was one of the principal concerns not just of this Committee but of those working in the voluntary sector, above all in this United Nations Year of Volunteering. We welcome that.

  (Mr Clarke) Could I reinforce that apology to the Committee, Chairman? We had intended to make an announcement during the course of last week before the hearings of this Committee, to whom some credit is due for the whole process, but at the end of the day sorting out the final detail was complicated in terms of giving the answer, it happened at the last moment on that day, and it was an oversight on my part entirely, for which I can only apologise and hope you can understand in the circumstances.

  108. You might just say to Ms Hetherington that I am also a Member of Parliament; she forgot to acknowledge that.
  (Mr Clarke) I will pass that on.

Bob Russell

  109. It did come as a very pleasant surprise and a shock because only three weeks previously the Prime Minister in reply to a question I put to him during Prime Minister's Question Time denounced the suggestion that this charge should be free as being something which would not happen. I am delighted that all the efforts you obviously put in behind the scenes to convince him of the error of his ways proved to be successful.
  (Mr Clarke) The Government's policy was set out by the Prime Minister in that exchange but, as I think he also acknowledged—I do not have Hansard in front of me—we were going through in some detail a consideration of the very large number of responses, and I certainly put on the record on a number of occasions that we had heard the various submissions by a wide range of organisations and a wide range of Members of this House and we were considering that very carefully.

  Bob Russell: Chairman, I hear what the Minister says, but that is not quite what the Prime Minister said in reply to my question, but I am delighted the Minister here was able to convince the Government his line was the correct one.

  Chairman: The fact the Minister is persuasive is no surprise to us.

  Bob Russell: I am delighted that is the case.

Mr Howarth

  110. Minister, you gave an answer to Mr Wyatt on 6th February, last week, when you said, "Consideration of the appropriate regime and structure for other users of jury services ..."—no, that is not the right quote but you gave a non-committal reply.
  (Mr Clarke) The answer we gave, I think a day later, on the 7th—I am speaking from memory—was pursuant to that answer.

  111. Can I put it to you, Minister, it seems rather curious you should have given a very non-committal reply on one day, following it up the following day with this breath-taking announcement, and in your letter to the Chairman of the Committee you say, "Matters moved rapidly yesterday, once we found the way was clear to make an announcement". Can you share with us the way in which matters moved rapidly at the Home Office?
  (Mr Clarke) As the Committee will be aware, matters always move rapidly at the Home Office, that is the way we like to work, but the fact is in this situation we were very conscious of the fact this Committee was meeting and was taking evidence last week from the voluntary organisations, and this week from myself and my colleagues. By the way, I have omitted to introduce them, Chairman, and I would like to do that.


  112. I should have asked you to do that.
  (Mr Clarke) Bernard Herdan is the Chief Executive of the Criminal Records Bureau, and I would like publicly to pay tribute to the work he has done in bringing the project to this particular point; he has been very committed to it and very successful with it. Bob Wright is the Head of the Criminal Records Section of the Home Office and is an official of the Home Office. What happened was, we were aware we would be giving evidence this week, and I think you are also taking evidence this week from the Data Protection Commissioner, and we thought it was important we should give you—we had been working on it for some time—the most up-to-date information we could about this important matter about which we had very substantial representations. So we had been clear for sometime we wanted to make a final announcement of the Government position before this Committee met, ie last week. The reason why we had the rapid events to which Mr Howarth refers is that we thought on reflection at the beginning of last week that if we could make it clear to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, which was having its AGM last week and had made many representations, as the Committee will be aware, that would be a better way of proceeding than doing it towards the end of the week. So we had substantial discussions within the Home Office and also between the Home Office and other government departments, particularly the Treasury, to see if we could secure the agreements necessary to make the announcement we did, and that is how the process—

Mr Howarth

  113. What I quoted to you earlier was not the answer you gave on 5th February, I apologise, but you gave a very non-committal answer on 5th February, only the day before, and I am curious as to why your officials decided to answer that question the day before, given they were working, as you say, very rapidly, knowing that the NCVO conference was going to take place on the Wednesday.
  (Mr Clarke) The point of non-trivial correction is that I made that decision, not my officials. The reason I say it is non-trivial is that certainly all the answers I give are ones I personally approve at least, and sometimes amend and put down. The reason I decided to do that was it seemed to me to give anything other than a non-committal answer, when one was not in a position to make a full statement, was mistaken; hence the non-committal answer. The alternative is to delay answering the question entirely, which I prefer not to do in general—there are occasions when it happens but I prefer as a matter of practice normally to try and give an answer even if non-committal rather than not give one. The reason why the first answer referred to making a statement, as indeed it did, was an indication of the fact we were hoping shortly to be able to make a statement, which is what I said.

  114. All frightfully plausible, Minister, and of course it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Department got wind of the fact Mr Hague was going to make an announcement at the NCVO conference to say the next Conservative Government would not charge fees. That, of course, did not enter your consideration at all?
  (Mr Clarke) I think you sum up the position quite accurately, as a matter of fact. What we had got wind of was two Government Ministers at least were participating in the event—my Rt Hon friend, the Secretary of State for Education and my Rt Hon friend, the Minister of State dealing with volunteering, Paul Boateng, as indeed was the Leader of the Opposition, I subsequently discovered—and we felt it was important, as I said, that at the NCVO event we were able to set out the position clearly. I did not know quite frankly whether we would be in a position to make the position as clear as we could before the NCVO event, but I was keen that we should if we could.

  115. Did you know at that point William Hague had intended to make this announcement?
  (Mr Clarke) I personally discovered the Leader of the Opposition was going to be at the NCVO event at the beginning of that week; last week. I saw press speculation—I cannot remember whether there was press speculation but certainly speculation—he would make an announcement around this particular aspect before we finally made the announcement at the end of the Tuesday. As I say, the principal concern was we always were going to say whatever we were going to say, if I can put it like that, before the meeting of this Committee because it was important to do that. We decided to try and see if we could get to a final decision before the NCVO event because a large number of organisations there were the ones who were motivating the whole process. Obviously you can suggest it was because Mr Hague was making a speech that we did that, and I understand you are making that suggestion, but I can tell you as a matter of fact it was not the single fact of Mr Hague attending and speaking in whatever way he was going to, it was the fact that the NCVO event was taking place which led us to work hard to try and make the situation clear by that point. But in any event, we would have made the position clear by the end of last week in order to be able to inform the meeting of this Committee.

  Mr Cawsey: He does change his policy quite a lot, so you would have had to do a lot of work if you were going to change your policy in line with his.


  116. I am not anxious to start this sort of exchange.
  (Mr Clarke) I know, Mr Corbett, you are a non-political Committee.

Mr Howarth

  117. This is not an attempt to score a political point, but it is a legitimate point, I hope, Minister, that William Hague had a prepared speech in which it was stated that the next Conservative Government will abandon these charges in respect of voluntary organisations, you then give a wholly written answer which is entirely non-committal, all of a sudden you rush out this statement, you fail to tell this Committee, you then have to send us a letter of apology which is not signed by you but by your official, and I do put it to you, Minister, that even though there were ministers going to be present and you wanted to try and make an announcement, I suspect this was all rushed out the night before simply to spike the guns of the Leader of the Opposition.
  (Mr Clarke) Firstly, I apologise if the lack of personal signature was offensive. In fact it was not possible for me personally sign it at that event, but it was specifically not only authorised by me but briefed by me, agreed with by me in every respect, and I am sorry if it gave offence, and I do not think that the fact that I did not sign it personally in those circumstances should have given offence. I have never seen, and to this day have not seen, any draft speech released from the Leader of the Opposition on this matter. As I said, I heard speculation about what might be in it but I have never seen any text or any proposal. You are entitled to your cynicism about it and I cannot contest that at the end of the day, except to say that I think even a Conservative Government might have thought it was at least as important to inform the voluntary organisations of these things as it was to try and score a party political point in a particular context.

  Mr Howarth: That is why Mr Hague, of course, made it. Anyway, the fact is both political parties are agreed now that this is the right way to proceed.

  Chairman: It is better than that because the Liberal Democrats are agreed as well, are they not? Can you speak for them?

  Bob Russell: I can indeed. I can assure this gathering that this was going to appear in the Liberal Democrat party manifesto. Presumably it need not now because the Government, not for the first time, has seen Liberal Democrat policies are the right way forward.


  118. So we are all unanimous on this. May I now ask you, Minister, you repeated the point in that written answer that it remains the Government's intention that the Bureau should be financed by means of the charges it makes. Does that mean that those who are employed, paid, to work with children and vulnerable adults will face higher charges to subsidise those who are being offered free charges in the voluntary sector?
  (Mr Clarke) It does mean they will face higher charges in the sense it is free for volunteers and not free for employees. The question of subsidy or not is still a matter which is finally being resolved, about the extent to which there is direct funding for the overall funding of the proposition, and the extent to which fees might otherwise be slightly higher than they would otherwise have been. I think it would be frank to say to you that I would anticipate there will be a slightly increased fee for employees, for example, than there would otherwise have been as a result of the change we have made, but only a slight increase.

  119. Minister, you and I have been around long enough to know that when you draw a line there is always somebody you did not mean to be on the wrong side of it who ends up there. The National Childminding Association told us last week that the average net income of child minders was £106, more realistically was about £160, but in homes with adults over the age of 16 they would all have to have checks on their criminal records for them to become registered. So with one hand the Government is, where we are now, saying, "You have all got to pay whatever it is to have this check done", but with the other hand, quite properly, it is giving start-up grants for childminders to get into the business because of the growing need for them. Is this something that you are willing to take another look at?
  (Mr Clarke) No. The entire motivation for the policy decision that we announced last week was because of the Government's very strong commitment to encouraging volunteering. We believe that volunteering, for reasons which I will not bore the Committee with, ought to be an important stream of public policy and that was the thrust of many of the representations made to us, both by Members of Parliament and by other organisations. We acknowledged that once you go over the line, you are into the more difficult area of the poverty or otherwise of people in meeting particular needs, but the Government remains of the view that even in the context of the relatively low paid people you are describing, the kind of order of fee we are talking about is not prohibitive, and if at the end of the day individuals decide to go into business, because that is what it is, as a childminder and to charge for their services, one of the things they ought to be prepared to pay for is the not very significant charge involved in ensuring they can demonstrate they have no related or important convictions. So we are not thinking of changing that position.

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