Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)

MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2001

MR CHARLES CLARKE MP, MR BERNARD HERDAN AND MR BOB WRIGHT

  160. I am sure you are absolutely right and I am glad you recognise that demand is likely to increase because of the no fee basis. I would be rather worried if I were running a business which required these investigations to be made if I had no idea whatsoever what the fee would be. I would be even more worried to read the report of this meeting to find out that the Chief Executive does not have any idea what the fee would be. Can you not give us a ball-park figure?
  (Mr Clarke) There is no question of the CRB being up and running without people knowing what the fees are. The point is, we consider, and I think it would be good practice, that it would be ridiculous for us to speculate what the fees are before announcing. We think it would be better to announce the situation rather than to put ball-park figures into the air. We will make those announcements when we have fully concluded all of our modelling on the various issues and when we come to firm decisions on it. As Mr Herdan has just indicated, an important factor in that regard, is the decision that has been taken on the decision on the question of volunteers which we have to take into account. Which is one of the reasons why we are not in a position to say to you today, this is what the fees will be. We are not going to be in the position that the organisation starting operations were without the fees being publicly known. As I understand it that is the process that we are talking about. We are talking about annual reviews once the system is up and running in the way that is conventional for very many organisations. I was going to say at a later point, Mr Corbett, perhaps I can do so now, when I said to Mr Howarth that the exchequer would pick up the tab for what was going on here I was perhaps guilty of shorthand, which I should not have been guilty of, the actual process is that in the end the whole of the CRB funding is self-financing. Because of the pattern of it, before it gets to a break even point the question of the pay-back period is the key point. The way in which that extra exchequer revenue is coming to the system is by extending the period of the whole scheme for pay-back, for the arithmetic of what money comes in. That is the way that that is being done. It is not simply a hand-over from the exchequer, it is the way in which the cycle of the money is dealt with. I think that that is the way in which it operates. The fee levels within that will be annually reviewed. The question of starting the operation, as Mr Fabricant was fearing might be the case, as the Chief Executive of the business without knowing what the fees would be is not imaginable in that position.

Mr Howarth

  161. Are you suggesting that the Bureau will run at a deficit for the first few years?
  (Mr Clarke) That is the case for a large number of new organisations. You start out running at a deficit and then you start to make a surplus in later years and there comes a break even point. The question that I was not clear about in what I said, and I was slightly worried I have been misleading was that there—

Chairman

  162. It did sound unusually generous of the Treasury.
  (Mr Clarke) It is unusually generous of the Treasury for the reason that there is a standard time frame they work on for pay-back on these new schemes. They have agreed to extend, unusually and generously, the period for pay-back, which effectively adds up to more exchequer payment at the beginning of the scheme in order to meet the particular needs of the government's target on volunteering.

Mr Fabricant

  163. I appreciate what you are saying, that you are not in a position to give this information now. The government is embarking on this policy, I think we all welcome it. As the Minister quite rightly said it follows on from a White Paper produced in 1996, so we all support it, but I have to say that the Government is embarking on the policy now, businesses, therefore, know there will be a charge and I think it is worrying that the Government has got no idea at this stage what that charge might be. What I am going to ask the Minister to do or, indeed, Mr Herdan, is to come up with a guess off the top of their respective heads. I wonder if the Minister or Mr Herdan can think about it before the inquiry is finished and, give us some sort of ball-park figure. You must have something in mind when you bring forward legislation. I cannot believe that the Home Office or any government department would bring forward legislation which has to be self- financing and where there is no figure in mind at all. I do accept that the information may not be available now but I do ask the Minister to write to us with some figures when the time is appropriate.
  (Mr Clarke) I am certainly prepared to give the commitment that Mr Fabricant has asked for to write at an appropriate time with the information, that is fine. I am not prepared to go so far as he said in the first part of his question, to do so during the course of the inquiry of this Committee. Not because there is anything to hide about this, there is not, but because I think good business practice in introducing any new regime, which is what we are doing, a very major prospect, is to publish only data which is accurate because I think the scope for confusion here with publishing ball park figures, speculative figures, or whatever, would be very bad business practice. The commitments I can give are, firstly, to write to this Committee immediately we come out with a decision on this matter and, secondly, that we will be publishing the figures, of course, before the CRB is in operation for people to apply to in the way that we have set out. The commitment I cannot give is to say that letter will come during the period of consideration of this report by the Committee.

Mr Howarth

  164. Minister, I am sorry but I cannot reconcile your difficulty in providing us with figures now with your written answer last week and your letter to us saying that the way was now clear to make an announcement. Perhaps I can put this to you: did the Treasury accept this concession to the voluntary sector? Did it accept the new arrangements for the deficit funding of the Bureau? You must have had some figures. If you had come to us and said "we still have not worked out how we can alleviate the burden on the voluntary sector", fine, but you have not, you have told us that you are going to alleviate that. You cannot arrive at that decision given what you have told us about the extensive work going on in your Department unless some calculations have been made as to how you are going to fund this big hole by the voluntary sector being exempted.
  (Mr Clarke) The answer to the first question is, yes, the Treasury is fully committed to the announcement we made. Secondly, I said at the beginning in answer to Mr Howarth, I may be wrong, that there are two questions which we have in consideration in setting the fee levels. Firstly is the work that is being done on the modelling now by CRB on what precise fee levels ought to be set, and that work is ongoing and moving forward all the time as the estimates are updated and the practicalities of the operation of the scheme are further refined. Secondly, there is the impact of the decision announced last week on the charging to volunteers. Specifically they are two factors which are informing the situation of what is the fee when it finally emerges. We are considering those things very carefully. We are prepared to make the announcement on volunteering for the reason that I indicated earlier, because of the priority the Government gives to encouraging volunteering. That changes, as Mr Fabricant acknowledged, the arithmetic of the various other aspects which come through when looking at the overall funding of the project. What I am not prepared to do is to give ball park figures. I think it is important that we give accurate figures as to what will actually be charged. I think the confusion between ball park figures and accurate figures is one which is dangerous and I think it would be irresponsible of Government to go down that line.

  165. We are only a couple of months away from this thing going live and this organisation accepting requests from the public for this information. You are going to have to produce the figures PDQ, are you not?
  (Mr Clarke) The current schedule for going live is late summer, that is what we have talked about. Perhaps I should have said this earlier on in response to one of Mr Herdan's points, that it is much more important to get it right in all respects than it is to do it immediately. Given all the experience that Mr Fabricant was referring to earlier, it would be a total mistake if we were to go down the course of getting that before we were completely ready, so it is conceivable that may slip into early autumn or whenever. I can certainly give the assurance, as I have just given, in terms that we will publish the fees well before we get to the point of going live in that way and we will communicate that to the Committee when we do.

  166. Last week some of the voluntary organisations told us that some Government departments are no longer providing them with information, so they are now in a state of limbo, they cannot go to the Government departments and get the information. Are you now suggesting that this whole programme might slip to the autumn so they cannot go to Mr Herdan's Bureau, so we are faced with a widening black hole, if you like, where the voluntary organisations, which we all accept have an obligation, which they accept too, to secure the maximum protection for young protection, are going to have nowhere to go to get the information that we all think they need to have?
  (Mr Clarke) We are faced with two imperatives. The first is the imperative that Mr Howarth quite correctly identifies, which is to get this up and running in its complete form as fast as possible, no question about that. I not only accede to but agree with the point that Mr Howarth is making about the imperative need to do that. Secondly, the imperative need to ensure that we do it accurately, well, effectively and do not make mistakes in setting it up which will effectively discredit the operation of the whole system. Those are the two competing pressures that we have and under which the CRB is working. What I said was my instruction—that may not be the right word—the guidance I have given to Mr Herdan is that it is very, very, very important in my view that when we do it we do it accurately, because if there were mistakes made because we had not done enough preparation to get it right then that would be more damaging than the damage of delay. The Committee may disagree with that.

  167. I am sure we all accept that, and given the history of these various IT projects introduced by the Government we accept that, and we certainly would not criticise you for wanting to make sure that the system is reasonably reliable once it gets up and running. But there is a real problem for voluntary agencies, and perhaps I can put it to you that the Government should reconsider the present arrangements whereby it is preventing the voluntary organisations from having access to the previously existing system of checks with Government departments pending the satisfaction of Ministers with the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau?
  (Mr Clarke) I will come on to that in a second. Can I just ask Mr Wright to add to what I said earlier, which may cover some of what you have asked.
  (Mr Wright) If I can just pick up the point you mentioned about access to Government information or information from Government departments. I think there may have been a misunderstanding the other day. The situation was that the Department of Health maintained a list of people who were considered unsuitable to work with children and the DfEE maintained a list of people who were considered unsuitable for working in the education system.

  168. List 99?
  (Mr Wright) List 99. The arrangements under which they function were changed last October with the implementation of part of the Protection of Children Act. The change, so far as voluntary organisations were concerned, was that whereas voluntary organisations by and large had not had access to that information before, they now have access to that information. I think the point that was being made was that there would be a charge for this information in the future, not that the information would not be available. The charge, of course, would only occur when the Criminal Records Bureau came on stream because access to those lists will be through the Criminal Records Bureau under a one-stop shop arrangement. That will not now apply to voluntary organisations, volunteers, because they will have access to those as well as to the CRB free of charge.

  169. So what you can tell us today is that as far as voluntary organisations are concerned, pending the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau, they will continue to have free access to the checking arrangements?
  (Mr Wright) They have greater access than before. Originally primarily the lists were for the statutory sector, now they have been opened to the voluntary sector as well.

  170. So they are not going to be charged and they will have access?
  (Mr Wright) They will not be charged.

  171. There is not a black hole?
  (Mr Wright) No.

Bob Russell

  172. Are they being charged as of today?
  (Mr Wright) No.

  173. So it is free now?
  (Mr Wright) It is free now.

Chairman

  174. Minister, you wanted to say something I think?
  (Mr Clarke) No, I think Mr Wright has settled the point.

  175. Let me see if I can persuade you to say something. Can you give us an idea of what the cost to the Treasury was of the amendments which you made last week, the decision to expand this run-in period before it breaks even?
  (Mr Clarke) As I have said before, I am not in a position to do that. I can say, as I said to Mr Howarth earlier on, that the Treasury is entirely committed to the arrangements that we have made.

  176. They do not often sign blank cheques, do they, the Treasury?
  (Mr Clarke) The Treasury is very poor at signing blank cheques, for reasons that I have not yet been able to fathom during my membership of this House. What they have been prepared to do, and I do think it was a significant point, as I say, is to extend the pay back period of what is involved.

  177. Could you say from what to what?
  (Mr Clarke) Again, I am not in a position to give the detail on that today. I can see from your expression you do not think that is a satisfactory response. I will consider whether I can write to you with that.

  178. Thank you, Minister.
  (Mr Clarke) The reason why I am hesitant is this, Chairman: there is a whole series of assumptions and models which are being operated in this area and I am really very loath indeed to give information in the public arena which could lead to confusion about what the fee regime will finally be. I think it would be much better for us to publish all the detail in that circumstance, and that is what I wish to do. I take Mr Howarth's point in pressing the point as he has, the sooner we are able to do that the better, and I accept that without any qualification, but up until that point every bit of information simply leads to a further discussion around these points.

  179. So if I ask you what the budget of the Bureau is likely to be in 2004-05 I will get a similar answer?
  (Mr Clarke) I think you will. I do not know if we can help more than that, Mr Herdan?
  (Mr Herdan) Probably not. This is all part of the jigsaw.


 
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