Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. Is this something you have discussed with your ministerial colleagues who have put this scheme in place to give start-up funds for childminders?
  (Mr Clarke) I have not personally discussed it with colleague ministers in other departments. There has been a large range of discussions between my officials and officials in other departments around precisely this point. I do not know, Bob, whether you can tell the Committee whether there has been specific discussion on this point at official level?
  (Mr Wright) I do not recall one.
  (Mr Clarke) We do not recall one specifically on this.

  121. You can see the point I am making, particularly concerning joined-up government, and to some of us at least there appeared to be a bit of an anomaly in this.
  (Mr Clarke) There is an interesting argument which has run through all of this which perhaps I can share with the Committee. There is an argument that if it is in the policy interest of, for the sake of argument, the Department of Education, the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security, to encourage, for example, childminding but it could extend to a large number of other areas, they should pay for it rather than the Home Office or somebody else paying for it. This has been an entertaining discussion around departments—

  122. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, Minister!
  (Mr Clarke)—and it is one which we are entirely agnostic about. If, for policy grounds in another area, it is thought to be beneficial to subsidise the certificates in another area, that is fine as far as we are concerned, but our job is to set up a system which works efficiently and effectively and to charge hopefully a reasonable cost for that.

  123. Mr Herdan, you are due to publish your five year plan in March, is that still on course?
  (Mr Herdan) Yes.

  124. Are you confident that the systems you have in place can cope with the problems which other parts of the Home Office empire faced when similar systems have been started?
  (Mr Herdan) Yes. It is a very complex project and extremely challenging, not least because of all of these joined-up government aspects you mentioned and we have to integrate and pull together data bases from other government departments and the police, so it is a challenging project. I am certainly confident that all the plans are in place and the assessments of risk and so on have been made. We will need some time to get everything ready, we are certainly not going to go live with a service for customers until we are confident that the testing programme has been satisfactorily completed. It is going well, there is a lot to do but it is going well, and I am confident it will come into operation satisfactorily and not cause great problems. We have to be careful to learn all those lessons from previous projects and make sure we do not have the same problems.

  125. For how much longer will you be doing the work with the Bureau as well as the important job at the Passport Agency?
  (Mr Herdan) My job is to cover both functions.

  126. Will that remain the case?
  (Mr Herdan) Yes.

  127. For the foreseeable future?
  (Mr Herdan) Yes.

  Chairman: I see.

Mr Howarth

  128. Can I just go back to childminding. The Association did express very considerable concerns and there are 85,000 child minders, and when you say, "Not to worry because those who will continue to pick up the cost of running this service will be in business", and you say, "Only slightly higher fees", the Childminding Association told us last week that there is an initial registration fee of £12 and an inspection fee of £10. How much do you expect to load on to them as a result of this change?
  (Mr Clarke) Firstly, to correct your question, if I may, I did not say it was not an issue, I simply said that I can acknowledge it is an issue but at the end of the day someone has to pay for this service, it is going to be a very complex service, as Mr Herdan has just indicated, and the question is who pays for it.

  129. It is paid for by the Government at the moment.
  (Mr Clarke) It could be a straight Exchequer grant which comes through in the way it operates, or it could be each government department paying in the way it does for each particular service. What I said was, if there was a real matter of concern here, then that was a matter for the most appropriate government department to address in moving it forward, as I would say in relation to other areas of employees where it arises, and that is a perfectly legitimate thing for Government to say. As I said, the amounts of money that would be charged for this I do not believe are disproportionate when compared with the income derived over a year or even over a shorter period than a year by an individual. This is effectively a ticket to be able to practise in this area.

  130. Yes, but you say the charge will be slightly higher. In anticipation of making the announcement last week—and as you said, "The way was clear", presumably in clearing the way you had to discuss with the Treasury and other government departments the fact that the burden which would have been assumed by the voluntary sector, the contributions the voluntary sector would have paid, towards the cost of Mr Herdan's services, are now shifting to the commercial organisation including childminders—instead of being £10 for an advanced check, what do you think it will be now?
  (Mr Clarke) The position is that we will make our announcement on the whole fee structure in due course, relatively soon. The point I was trying to make is, when you take the costs of what would have been the charge for the volunteers, that is being subsidised from two sources. Firstly, an overall Exchequer grant because of the overall government policy on volunteers, and, secondly, to a very small extent, by the increase in charges for employees, for example, childminders but others too, compared to what they otherwise would have been paid. I am not in a position to tell the Committee today precisely what those quantums are, but I am saying the difference between the charge to, for example, the childminder as a result of the decision we have taken on volunteers, compared to if we had not taken that decision, is relatively small.

  131. So if I get you right, what is happening is that a large part of the cost of providing a service to the voluntary organisations will be picked up directly by the Exchequer?
  (Mr Clarke) Correct.

  132. So there will be only a limited amount which will feed through to the other users?
  (Mr Clarke) That is absolutely correct.

  Mr Howarth: Thank you.

Mr Linton

  133. I want to come on to the thorny question of soft information, but before I do that can I welcome the announcement. Certainly Big Brothers & Sisters, a very large mentoring organisation based in my constituency, are very glad to have that assurance about the voluntary sector. However, it does sound a bit as though we will have the problem where childminders will be in a rather invidious way asked to cross-subsidise the record checks on, for instance, scout masters.
  (Mr Clarke) Can I clarify that. It is not a question that the childminders in particular will be asked for that, I was asked a question about childminders as an example of employees. It is the case that all employees right across the whole range who work with children and vulnerable people will be in a position of having to make some—but I emphasise relatively marginal—contribution to the cost of what will be done through volunteering. The bulk, as I said to Mr Howarth, will come directly by Exchequer grant.

  Mr Linton: Can I move you on to soft information, as it is described, in other words information that will be released at the discretion of chief officers. There are considerable concerns about this and obviously some of this has been highlighted in the television programme which, for instance, mentioned the case of the head teacher who, when he applied for another job, had allegations about homosexual behaviour which had not even been investigated by the police—

  Chairman: Forgive me, Mr Linton, it was a radio programme; Radio 4.

Mr Linton

  134. Sorry, it was a radio programme.—because the boy who was the alleged victim had denied it. This was cited to his prospective employers who cancelled his appointment on the basis that he had a date in his application out by six months. These are the kind of cases which can arise when information is passed on from chief officers to prospective employers. What I really would like to know is what kind of work will be done over the next few months to ensure these registered bodies treat the information they receive in an appropriate way?
  (Mr Clarke) I think there are two things to say about this and I will ask Mr Herdan to expand on my answer if he will. Firstly, we have a very substantial process of inducting, if I can put it like that, registered bodies. I was at the first seminar which was held in London on this question. Registration will begin in April, a brochure is being produced for potential registered bodies, of which over 10,000 copies have been distributed, and seminars are being held throughout England and Wales—a total of 20—and so far we believe about 3,000 people have applied to attend the seminars with about 2,500 expressing an interest in becoming registered bodies. So there will be a very substantial programme of induction of registered bodies to the rules and the protocols which exist. In addition to that, we will of course monitor extremely carefully the way in which the registered bodies operate and take the situation forward to deal with the kind of problems you are describing. That is the first aspect of it. The second aspect is I think the fairly well publicised problem of the quality of the data itself which the police hold. We have a substantial programme on that to try and address it. You will be familiar with the Inspectorate of Constabulary report on this area which indicated significant problems. They are, of course, very concerning to us and in fact there was a meeting just last week with the Data Protection Commissioner, ACPO and the Inspectorate of Constabulary, to discuss exactly how we can take this forward. We are faced with a hard choice which is, do we simply accept our data is not good enough and therefore we cannot do anything in this field, or do we alternatively say, "We have to improve the quality of the data" and work to that end in a culture of operational independence of the police forces where we have to work together with the forces to do it. So I do think it is a two-pronged attack on the problem you have identified. Firstly, establishing a registered-body regime and, secondly, seeking to improve the quality of the data. With your permission, Chairman, can I ask Mr Herdan if he would like to add anything to what I have said?
  (Mr Herdan) So far as the specific question of the soft information is concerned, ACPO is putting out guidance to police forces on what kind of information should be released and in what circumstances. It will be the judgment of the nominated chief officer in the police force—the Assistant Chief Constables—to make those judgments. That information will be passed to the registered body and will form part of the disclosure that is also passed to the individual. So an important difference compared to current arrangements is that it will be more transparent. The individual will receive the information at the same time as the registered body and, except under very rare circumstances where the police wish to say something privately, normally both parties will see this soft information and there will be a fast track appeal system so we will be able put right anything which is wrong. In the case which was mentioned in that particular radio programme, it was alleged they had the wrong individual, and that kind of thing will come to light very quickly through the appeals system. The registered bodies will be working under a code of practice, they will be briefed and informed about how they should operate. As the Minister has said, we currently now are running a whole series of seminars to start briefing them and educating them on what we expect from them, and there will be lots of guidance given to them on how to handle that kind of sensitive information.

  135. Cases of mistaken identity are relatively easy, but in this case I quote, the chief officer really has to distinguish between cases, at one extreme, of a person acquitted on a legal technicality and, at the other extreme, a person who has been maliciously accused. One has to decide, after a case has been closed in whatever circumstances, whether you put it down to malicious accusation or technical acquittal or somewhere in between. That is a very difficult decision for even a chief officer to make.
  (Mr Herdan) These are the judgments they have to make now of course under the current vetting arrangements, and I suppose this is getting into the question of balance between protecting the rights of the individual and protecting society in circumstances where there are at least some suspicions about an individual, and those are decisions which will be down to the police to take also when the CRB is in existence.

  136. What sort of penalties will there be for registered bodies if they misuse the information disclosed to them?
  (Mr Wright) The legislation includes a range of offences for unauthorised disclosure. For example, a member officer or employee of a registered body commits an offence if he discloses information other than in the course of his duties to another member, et cetera, et cetera, so unauthorised disclosure is an offence.

  137. What would happen in the cited case if a registered body takes a decision on the basis of information which the other person believes is unjustified. How can he challenge it without revealing what the information is? In this case he was refused a job, allegedly on the grounds that he got a date wrong on his application form.
  (Mr Wright) I am not familiar with the particular case, but if the issue is that information was supplied by the police and, then, looking at the future situation, where the CRB is in operation, that information is supplied to the Criminal Records Bureau, conveyed to a registered person and then passed on. Then the blame must eventually go back to the police if that information was incorrect.

  138. The other aspect of this that has caused some concern is, how do the organisations know what level of check would be appropriate in different cases? Clearly many organisations want to assure their customers, the users of their voluntary services that they have the highest level of checks available. Who will decide which level of check is available in each case?
  (Mr Herdan) That is largely set out in the legislation which defines the three levels of disclosure, they are called certificates in the legislation, who is entitled to which level of check. We will be providing interpretation of that to the registered body networks, so they will know and they will be making those decisions about which level of disclosure to request. They will also be able to get that information from the Criminal Records Bureau. There is a significant difference, I would say, compared to the current arrangements, in that many more people will be able to get the highest level of disclosure information in all these jobs where they have regular contact with children or vulnerable adults. A lot of the complaints at the moment are that the police will not give this information out. Obviously the CRB Police Act, Part V legislation changes quite a lot of that and makes it less restrictive and narrower in its definition.

  139. Mr Boateng drew a distinction between somebody who takes a scout summer camp and somebody who works on a Wednesday night as a volunteer with a Scout troop. Will people within the same voluntary organisation have different levels of—
  (Mr Herdan) Yes. The Scout Association are very likely to be a registered body in their own right. They will get to know very well what the rules are about which level of disclosure and which kind of activity and they will operate that. Then we will have a compliance audit role to make sure that the rules are not being abused by any organisation.
  (Mr Clarke) One obligation I want to emphasise is the obligation on the CRB, ACPO, the Home Office and registered organisations themselves to give clear guidance which is mutually compatible. That is something which is very much within the CRB's terms of reference, working closely with the Home Office. I hope the levels of misunderstanding which have arisen across different departments, different types of occupation and in different organisations will not arise. That is not to say there will not be issues of judgment on the margin in all cases, there will be. The guidance as to how it should be operated I hope will be clear and transparent.

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