Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 215)




  200. You hope to find them all presumably.
  (Mr Clarke) I was just going to say, we hope that everybody will be included.

  Bob Russell: The reason I say that, Minister, is when the Chief Executive of The Scout Association gave evidence last week, he was talking about 70,000 volunteers a year who are currently checked out by the Scout's own inhouse system and the numbers that caused them concern were relatively few.

  Mr Fabricant: Ten.

Bob Russell

  201. A dozen or a couple of dozen, something like that. What concerns me, Minister, and I wonder if you can give me an assurance here, is that a degree of complacency may well come in because there will be haystacks galore and only a few needles and it may well be that those operating the system may just pass everything through without being as diligent as they might be when there is only the occasional needle.
  (Mr Clarke) I will ask Mr Herdan if he has got anything to add but it seems to me that is very unlikely because the whole process of the system will be a system of routines and checks which are absolutely standard for every case with a series of indicators being thrown up which will, of themselves, generate further scrutiny and address. I myself hope that the existence of the scheme will minimise the ability of people on the margin who might have some nefarious purpose to get involved in the whole process, so you will find, as it were, the number of needles in your haystack becoming smaller because people's perceptions will be that it will be a system they will not be able to get through and that would obviously be the desirable state of affairs. But the only way in which that can be established is by the very systematic routine checks that are gone through. Of course, a lot of it will be mechanised. It will be not be a question of the weariness of a particular individual weakening the scrutiny element but a system which is rigorous.
  (Mr Herdan) I certainly agree with the Minister that the deterrent effect of the CRB may be to make those needles even less frequent, but clearly the whole culture of the organisation is to be based around the concept of no stone being left unturned—mixing my metaphors—to make sure that every case where we would find a positive hit is uncovered and revealed. That will be part of the way in which we have got to induct and train all the human beings who will also be part of the system; it is not all just about computers. It has been suggested that the number of cases where there is no information on the Police National Computer but then there is softer information would be quite small. I think that may well be the case but some of those are going to be the most vital cases and obviously there we need a culture of the police forces and ourselves to make sure that that small number of cases is picked up. I can assure you that the scenario you are describing where we might go to sleep on it and lose interest in the cases where there is something to be found is not at all the way I see it.

  Chairman: There is the dreadful warning of Thomas Hamilton and Dunblane where nothing was known in terms of convictions but many people locally knew "something was wrong". We were heartened by the evidence of the Scout Association who told us that their own internal enquiries revealed this. It is a good point. We were very impressed by the evidence we were given on behalf of all of the voluntary bodies as to the seriousness with which they carry out the present checks and the thoroughness as well, for very obvious reasons, but nonetheless it was very impressive the evidence they gave. Ian Cawsey?

Mr Cawsey

  202. Thank you, Chairman. I want to ask you a few questions about the timeliness of information. We have spoken a lot about accuracy but how quickly the information is available is also very important and a previous Committee report going back to 1990—and of course it is so long ago now that some of the acronyms have changed—recommended that: "When the National Collection of Criminal Records is computerised, court clerks rather than police forces should be responsible for providing records of court results to the National Identification Bureau." The then Government agreed with that but nothing actually happened and in 1995 the Masefield Scrutiny into the criminal justice system also recommended that courts should directly update results onto the PNC. Again nothing has happened since that time. ACPO have told us that "the accuracy and timeliness of court results would be dramatically increased if the courts entered their own results." Why is that not an option that you are putting forward?
  (Mr Clarke) Can I say, firstly, that it might be helpful to set out what our service standards are in this area. Firstly on disclosure turn around times, the standard is enhanced disclosure, the highest level, 90 per cent in three weeks, standard disclosure, 95 per cent in one week, basic disclosure 95 per cent in one week. And on response times, written enquiries, one week, e-mails, one day, and disputes 95 per cent within one week. So those are the service standards which we set for this approach. In terms of the inputting of data that Mr Cawsey asked about, the purpose of the whole discussion about IT and the criminal justice system is to indicate that we are trying to get a common system of inputting data that reads across each other and we think that is the best way to proceed.

  203. You do not agree with the comments in the Report that it would be better?
  (Mr Clarke) On the question of where the data is held I think it is best to base everything on the Police National Computer and that is the right way to operate it. Where I agree with the comment is it is important that the data that the police enter into the system and the data that the courts, whether magistrates' or crown courts enter into the system, is compatible and that the information flows right across the whole system. Maybe I misunderstood the question.

  204. At the moment the police enter it on the PNC. I think the recommendation is that the courts do it directly rather than pass it onto the police and then the police having to do it.
  (Mr Wright) I think this is the intention, the way things are going, that the courts will put data straight onto the Police National Computer in the future. It is a question of time and on that I have no information.

  205. Mo information on that?
  (Mr Wright) Sorry, it is not my field but, no, I have no information.

  206. Is it the Home Office's general acceptance that that will be an improvement in the system if that were to happen?
  (Mr Wright) I am certain that is the case.
  (Mr Clarke) What we are trying to do is establish a central database which contains all the data that we work through and that requires entering it from all of the elements within the criminal justice system, but achieving that is a lot easier said than done.

  207. I appreciate that but earlier, in answer to Mr Fabricant's question, we were told about a target of 100 per cent within 72 hours once the police received it but now you are saying the policy is not when the police receive it but just to go straight onto the system.
  (Mr Wright) That is a target for as long as it remains the case that the courts supply the information to the police and the police put it onto the system. Obviously the position would be different if the courts input directly.

  208. Of course the courts are not the only body that provide this information, there are other bodies as well. The 72-hour target which it is now, and moving towards direct input; is that going to apply to other agencies that provide information to the system?
  (Mr Clarke) Mr Cawsey, I will try and summarise where I think we are and I am going to suggest, if I might, that I write to you about this matter to set it out fully. We have a situation where we have a series of parallel databases about the same people and the same crimes that are held in ways that do not communicate with each other. That is, in my opinion, a very strong indictment of the system and the way it operates, which is why we are about investing in both the interconnections between the different services and in the new system of developing data in this way. Our ambition is as Mr Wright described, to get to a position where information is entered directly from each of the elements as it reflects their part in the process which then can be sent out in a way that is the most efficient and comprehensive and has the least problem that can occur in the process. But the truth is that we are quite a long way from being in that position in a way that would be desirable, further away than I would like. That is why I may appear to be being evasive in response to your questions because I do not have good answers to the timescale to get to that point. We are talking about a five-year strategy, for example, for reinvesting in the whole of our IT throughout the criminal justice system, in a way that moves it forward properly. I am not able to be as precise as I think you would like me to be in answering the questions.

  209. I was going to move on to ask you about whether you saw one of the solutions being some sort of centralised inputting but, in fact, it is the opposite of that, is it not? At whatever specific point (which you have not announced) it will go the other way, will it not?
  (Mr Clarke) You have essentially got six different databases for the different agencies at the moment, some of which are computerised, some of which are not, and so you have all the interfaces between those different agencies which you have to operate. There is a serious debate about the merit of going to a central database for all the agencies which everybody inputs and then goes out. The implications of going to that structure, if you can imagine the central database as the centre of a star with six agencies going into it rather than six separate satellites, are absolutely enormous in terms of culture and what happens, and we are currently debating which of those courses to follow. That is why I am not being as clear as I would like in answer to your question. Would it be helpful if I try to write a comprehensive letter in answer to Mr Cawsey?

  Chairman: That is very kind of you.

Mr Fabricant

  210. You are going to be writing a lot of letters.
  (Mr Clarke) Three as I recall from this Committee so far.

Mr Cawsey

  211. That would be helpful, Minister. There are just a couple of other points that are linked to that. One point is you have the 72-hour target for the time being at least, but of course that is only from the point that information is handed over to you to use. You heard from the Chairman earlier some extremely long delays of records making it onto the system. What are you putting in place to ensure that as well as promptly appearing on the system the information moves across promptly as well, again not just from courts but from all the various sources of input?
  (Mr Clarke) Precisely the kind of changes I am talking about right across the whole system. The best illustration I can give is on the youth justice reforms. We have talked about trying to speed up the youth justice system in ways that we are very strongly committed to as a Government. It is absolutely revealing as you go through the system the amount of time a particular case has been held in a particular part of the system before being transferred to the next part and it requires major changes in culture to move that forward. In the case of each of the agencies we have got a set of targets about the way in which they should deal with the process because we are always keen to do whatever Mr Fabricant suggests in terms of targets when they come through. We have not got a system where I can put my hand on my heart and say to you, "Here is a great system for making it happen". What I can say to you is that everything we are about, both in setting up the CRB and in terms of general communication between the agencies, is designed to minimise the waiting times within the system because they are very, very deleterious to the whole criminal justice system.

  212. I agree with that. One of the concerns I have about the scenario you are outlining of making it a much more on-line system so information can move quickly and promptly onto this system, is that it almost reminds me of the Internet to a certain extent where there is masses of information and yet nobody is responsible for any of it and there is no accreditation of it either but everybody can get their hands on it. In the 1997 Act in a very carefully worded phrase—not by you personally of course—it says: "No proceedings shall lie against the Secretary of State by reason of an inaccuracy in the information made available or provided to him." You get a similar disclaimer at the end of Heartbeat every week. So who is going to be responsible for all of these people all putting information into this great big database, on-line eventually, and ensuring that it is going to be accurate?
  (Mr Clarke) Can I say as the Minister concerned I am absolutely delighted that was what the officials at the time drafted because I am sure it was the right approach. Mr Cawsey is raising very profound issues about the operation of the system. You have the operational independence of the chief constables, you have the judges and their courts, you have the Crown Prosecution Service, again independent, in the way that they operate, all rightly independent of the Executive. As we as an Executive say, "Let's start to get more of a grip on this", for the reasons Mr Cawsey has rightly identified, quite serious constitutional issues arise at each juncture both about the way we manage the data because obviously data in one part of the system cannot be made available to people in other parts of the system, but also in terms of administratively how to drive it. If I can be encouraging at all to Mr Cawsey there is very, very positive thinking going on at the moment about precisely how to manage this process through. There is a Committee across the criminal justice system chaired by the Home Secretary with the Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General which meets very regularly which is trying to address precisely these points about how we can manage efficiency through the system in a positive way. That is where the responsibility lies ultimately, that group of three government Ministers, to try and ensure that their responsibility, as it comes through, drives it on. To say that does not advance us very far because there are still major inhibitions to making that work. The small changes we have made, for example the criminal justice area committees which now mean that all the agencies are at least organised on the same geographical basis, which was not the case until a year or so ago, is an important step down that route. I genuinely say to you that a Home Affairs Committee inquiry into this area has quite a lot of merit.

  Chairman: You are a hard taskmaster, Minister. Martin Linton?

Mr Linton

  213. There are six different organisations that you say are independent but they are all part of the criminal justice system. Do I understand that if there is to be a central computer system that would enable a case to be followed right the way through from police enquiries to probation?
  (Mr Clarke) That is correct. The gateway to the whole system will be the so-called Case Preparation System for the police which is part of the NSPIS national information systems process which starts with the police, which is when you arrive in the police station and the data is first onto a PC in each police station. That becomes the core of the system that then goes right through the whole area. Even that has not started rolling out yet although we are committed to rolling it out. You are quite right, the idea is that that data should transfer across the different agencies so at least certain big chunks of core data are simply moved on the push of a button rather than having to re-enter the kind of example Mr Wright was giving, the colour of eyes and hair, whatever it might be, at each different stage and doing it in different ways which gives rise to all the errors that the Chairman was pointing to earlier on.


  214. I am conscious of the fact that we will be required elsewhere very soon. Mr Herdan, just two quick questions. What kind of definition are you going to be working on of the word "vulnerable". It is much easier to understand with children and young people but when it comes to adults it is not simply a matter of their age or frailty. The second question is there was a lot of concern expressed by voluntary organisations last week as to which level of certificate they should be seeking and a very strong demand for much more clarity from the Bureau about that. Could you comment on those two points please.
  (Mr Herdan) Could I pass those to my colleague, Mr Wright, to answer.
  (Mr Wright) In terms of "vulnerable" a definition has been circulated for consultation purposes. It is at the back of one of the annexes to the memorandum we sent you. It proceeds on the assumption that not everybody who is old or disabled is necessarily vulnerable. So it takes the process through a thinking process of about three stages. "A person may be considered vulnerable if he receives..." and then it lists the services. And then that is in relation to a "substantial learning or physical disability, physical or mental illness ...", etcetera, etcetera, and then is "substantially dependent upon others who can overcome his will". It is shorthand but it is that three-stage process that we are looking at at the present time to narrow it down to those who are truly said to be vulnerable. Anybody can feel vulnerable. A woman being taken home in a taxi, for example, in a strange area may feel vulnerable at that moment. Here we are looking at vulnerable adults who are vulnerable through that sort of thinking process.

  215. The second point was the call of the voluntary organisations for some better guidance on the appropriate level of certificate they should seek. There would be a tendency for them to go for the biggie, understandably.
  (Mr Wright) Yes, which will only apply if it is within the legislation. Of course, there are terms within the legislation that people are seeking guidance on. The legislation, for example, talks about "regularly involved in caring for, training, supervising and being in sole charge" so there are questions about what does "regularly" mean and so on and so forth. It is not at the end of the day for us to interpret the law but we will give some guidance as to what CRB understands by those particular expressions which hopefully will help organisations to see which is the right level for them.
  (Mr Clarke) What we have done in the draft guidance document is set out at paragraphs 1.2.4, 1.2.5 and 1.2.7 our understanding of the basic disclosure, the standard disclosure and the enhanced disclosure, and we are very interested in the response of voluntary bodies to that and we are prepared to modify our guidance in the light of the submissions that are made to us on those.

  Chairman: That is very helpful. Right, Minister, it is always a pleasure seeing you, and Mr Herdan and Mr Wright. Thank you for your assistance. You have all been very helpful.

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