Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions (1-19)




  1. Can I welcome the Home Secretary and Beverley Hughes, a former member of this Committee. Can I say that in this era of New Labour targets we have set ourselves a target today: I have sworn to the Home Secretary that he will only be here for two hours, and I propose to deliver on that promise.

  (Mr Blunkett) I am very grateful. I hope I can make the same commitment on targets in the department.

  2. That means he will depart here at 12.34. The main purpose of today's session is to discuss asylum and immigration but we have a number of other matters we also wish to raise. In order that we can focus on asylum and immigration I propose to deal with the other matters first, if that is agreeable. I may be fairly ruthless about moving things along. Can I appeal for short questions and short answers, please. Perhaps I can start the ball rolling, Home Secretary, by asking about the outcome of the spending review. I am told you are not very keen to talk about it. Why is that?
  (Mr Blunkett) Because I have not determined the allocation within the overall figures that were announced in July. I am in the process of doing that. I will have to give notification in relation to the police budget because of the revenue grant and the associated standard spending assessment for the announcement by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in November, and I will do that shortly. However, we are undertaking a root and branch efficiency review within the department in terms of the allocation of both baseline resource and the new allocation, and I want to be able to reconfigure the way in which we do our budget. We have some very new senior staff on the finance side in the department. Margaret Aldred came across from the Treasury at the end of last year and she has been working with us on both the application through the spending review process and now on the key issue of not simply providing incrementalism where we simply add to what we have already got, irrespective of how well we are performing on the baseline and whether or not we are actually delivering the resources in the right area. So forgive me for that, it is a genuine exercise in reconfiguring the Home Office's budget to meet the new priorities.

  3. When do you anticipate you will be able to give us a definitive statement on that?
  (Mr Blunkett) On the police budget I will endeavour to do so within the next three or four weeks. The issue of the reconfiguration I hope to have been able to make some progress on by the end of the calendar year and certainly into the beginning of next year because people will want to know the three-year picture at least in broad terms, and I accept and understand that.

  4. What are the problem areas? Asylum? Prisons?
  (Mr Blunkett) On asylum we have a ring-fenced amount for this coming year, an additional amount to the totals that were agreed in the previous review. I choose my words carefully because I seem to remember the last time I was with you I did point out that we were in a situation, not of my making, where we had an interim allocation in the 2000 review which then had to be topped up immediately because the year-on-year outturns for 2000-01 and 2001-02 were considerably higher than the original allocation of £400 million for asylum purposes, added to the existing broader IND activity. That has been at least substantially rectified in this current spending review, so the £641 million (if my memory serves me correctly) for the coming year is ring-fenced. We still, obviously, have to decide whether there are other areas in terms of what we are doing in strengthening our border controls or our bilateral relationship with other countries which would require an approach demanding additional resources, and I need to look at that.

  5. When Martin Narey came here on 18 July and we asked him how he had done in the spending review, he said "I do not know yet, I hope to have a picture in the next few days". That was 18 July. Is he likely to be able to tell us now if we were to ask?
  (Mr Blunkett) "The next few days" has extended into a substantial review of correctional services, so I do not want to allocate the budget purely to the Prison Service over and above what they have already been allocated, not least in the April 17 budget—because I think you should, if you would, Chair, take the April 17 budget together with the spending review, because unlike other departments we did have a substantial uplift both on the street crime initiative and on prison places; the 2,300 additional places for correctional places were announced and are being implemented. I have said to the Head of the Prison Service that clearly he will need to know very rapidly how we fund the immediate requirement for those on-going places and we will do that, but we have set up a review with independent members now joining the Correctional Board that we have established and that review will take a look at both the pressures and, also, the opportunities for reconfiguring the balance between the parts of the correctional service—community sentencing, long-term sentences for dangerous, sexual, violent offenders—and we want to ensure that we have got a picture that is robust enough to convince others that we have a case for substantial additional resources, which of course come at a price, because the money you spend on additional prison places is money you cannot spend on interventions which avoid re-offending.

  6. Are you worried that you might get pressed by the Treasury into setting unrealistic targets? It has been known, has it not?
  (Mr Blunkett) We have been in the forefront of suggesting that we need fewer, more robust targets, and I believe that very strongly. I think that the emphasis that I am placing for the three years ahead is on delivery, and to be able to deliver you need targets that are within reasonable bounds and understandable to both the public and Parliament and, therefore, to allow you, as the Committee here, and Parliament as a whole, to genuinely scrutinise whether we are making progress rather than merely scoring points.

  7. Are you having that argument with the Treasury?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, I do not need to have the argument because the discussions have been extremely friendly, as you would expect.

Bridget Prentice

  8. Home Secretary, by all accounts it has been a shambles in the summer in the lead-up to the new term in schools. When did you first realise there was a problem at the Criminal Records Bureau?
  (Mr Blunkett) I knew there were major challenges when I visited the Criminal Records Bureau on 1 March. I was aware that what had been expected of them was extending the capability of any organisation to deliver. You will recall, because you will have the history, that it was this Committee which recommended that there was something like the Criminal Records Bureau established in their report of 1990 and there was then legislation just before the 1997 General Election. That was then carried into effect, starting in the August of 1997 and eventually the contract was let in August 2000. Subsequent to that, the Office of Government Commerce had two separate what are called "Gateway Reviews" on progress. On each occasion the recommendations made on substantial improvement were acted upon. When I visited the Bureau on 1 March it was patently clear that what was happening in terms of the pressure of clients, including the prevalence of paper-based applications, was going to be a challenge. I do not think what had been foreseen at the time was the enormity of the volume, nor that there would be the particular concerns that arose this summer and were acted upon by the Department for Education and Skills. There is no question whatsoever that the way in which the administration and operation of the Records Bureau has proceeded is unacceptable, which is why just under ten days ago I set up an independent review with independent scrutiny, under the chairmanship of Pat Carter—acting as a senior non-executive chair, in effect—to come forward with not only a picture of the immediate steps that are required but, also, some of the broader issues that affect, I think, the relationship between Government and arm's length agencies (those agencies and their private sector partners) on the level of accountability and responsibility that should be taken at each layer, including ministerial level, and also of course the question of risk and who carried that risk and for what purpose.

  9. It will be interesting to see the results of that review. You say that they did not realise the volume that was to face them, but things such as the number of teachers in schools, the number of nursery nurses and the number of student nurses and so on, are all pre-determined. There was obviously no forecasting going on about what was needed to be done by those dates. How did the situation arise where schools ended up having to close because they had not staff who were fully cleared?
  (Mr Blunkett) Consequent on the concerns that arose in May—and this is all on record, of course, so there is no difficulty about access to the decisions that were taken—on 21 May in agreement with the Secretary of State for Education it was decided that given the concerns that we had we would use List 99. List 99 is robust. The work of the Criminal Records Bureau underpins that even further and, obviously, extends it to non-teaching staff. The decision in May was overturned, as Members will be aware, following a direct approach from that department to the Criminal Records Bureau on 20/21 August, and, as a consequence, the Criminal Records Bureau switched its effort and staff, including the work of Capita, to concentrate, as a matter of priority on the full checks again that had been undertaken prior to 21 May. The consequence of that you are aware of. It was then a decision taken by the Secretary of State when she returned from Australia that put us back on track to be able to ensure that schools were able to operate properly. That is the situation we are now in, it is part of the review that Pat Carter's group are undertaking and I hope we can resolve it very quickly.

  10. When do you think schools will be able to say that all their staff—teaching and non-teaching—have been through the Criminal Records Bureau and have been properly vetted?
  (Mr Blunkett) The issue is at what stage those applications were put in, because those that applied at the point when notice has to be given by teachers of leaving have practically all been cleared; those that have been put in very recently—within the last three weeks—remain outstanding. So what I would like to do, as the accountable minister, with Charlie Falconer, is to ensure that we get a timescale for clearance which is acceptable. At the moment we are working to get that to six weeks. The original target was three weeks. Given the volume, that was extremely ambitious. It is better to tell people what they can expect and allow them to plan for it in the short term while we get this right than it is to mislead them and then create the frustrations and, in some cases, the genuine worry that they are not having their key staff cleared. I have to emphasise, however, because I think this is very important and I have not spoken about this publicly, that we are at least in a better position than we were on 11 March, because prior to 11 March we did not have a Criminal Records Bureau. So the processing of staff, albeit it has not been competent, actually is a plus not a minus, and I think that did get lost at the end of August in the concerns about whether teaching staff were being cleared.

  11. You say it is a plus. Do you therefore deny the reports in the papers which suggested that 60 or more per cent of the reports from the Criminal Records Bureau are, in fact, wrong?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, there have been a great many rumours. I hold no remit for what has taken place. It seems to me the reassurances that have been given to officials and, consequently, to ministers have led us to be extremely sceptical of anything that we are told, and that is why the review group will be looking at the information trail and the robustness of what is available to us, so that we can make logical decisions from their review. What is absolutely clear is that the use of paper-based applications and the sheer incapability of people filling in those forms properly has undoubtedly contributed to the chaos that existed a few weeks ago—no question about that. From the interim report I was given by the review group two days ago that became patently clear.

  12. One final question, Secretary of State. Have you paid any extra money to Capita to deal with this problem?
  (Mr Blunkett) No.


  13. Have you imposed any penalties on them? There are penalty clauses in the contract, I think.
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, there are, and part of the review group's remit will be to assess the culpability and to ensure that we get independent advice on that. I am very clear, as I said a moment ago, that we, as a Government—and this is not a party issue—need to be clear about levels of accountability and of risk in contracts of this sort.

Bob Russell

  14. Home Secretary, you have twice made reference to "paper-based applications". The contract was let in 2000. Can you confirm that at that stage the intention was that there would be predominantly applications by telephone?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes.

  15. Could you tell the Committee when the decision was made to drop that idea and who made that decision?
  (Mr Blunkett) The decision was taken in the summer of 2001, on the pressure that was brought to bear by those wishing to use the service and who believed that it would be difficult for them. The decision was made through the recommendations to the Home Office. This was part of the Office of Government Commerce Gateway appraisals on both occasions, and it was still believed that this was possible to achieve.

  16. Will steps now be taken to try and reintroduce or encourage applicants to use the telephone system? I understand it would save a week or two if that system was implemented.
  (Mr Blunkett) I think, as part of the review, we would like the group to tell us, both in terms of telephone and Internet contact, how we could establish a more effective way of making those applications in a way that allows them to follow through and check the validity of them, because that is of course the crucial issue here. How can you be sure who you are dealing with and on whose behalf? The police were worried about the checking of telephone applications and the relationship with the Police National Computer. You will recall that in the immediate aftermath of letting the contract the Police National Compuer required updating substantially. That did take time and it was part of the concerns in the run-up to the full launch of the CRB on 1 April. Looking back now, it would have been sensible to have made sure that they were happy with an alternative system but nobody at the time raised this, including those who were doing the professional appraisal.

  17. I am grateful the review body is going to look at that. Finally, Home Secretary, bearing in mind your previous position in Government and your current one, would you agree with me that children are much safer in school than being let loose in the community, as was proposed by one of the education ministers, who said if the full check had not been done the schools must shut and the children should be sent home?
  (Mr Blunkett) I do not wish to comment on anything that an education minister may or may not have said. I do know that the Secretary of State on her return from holiday took that view, and I share it.

  Bob Russell: Thank you.

  Chairman: Can we turn briefly to air weapons. Mr Watson.

Mr Watson

  18. Home Secretary, you will be aware that two people have been killed by air weapons over the summer. Have you considered the possibility of a licensing system as a result of that?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, and we have responded to questions in Parliament by indicating that we do think there is a real issue. There is an issue about their possession by those under the age of 17; there is an issue about the present regulation in terms of velocity (and there is other phraseology which escapes me at the moment) in terms of both rifles and hand pistols. I think there is a very crucial question as to when we pass the line of danger here, and we should appraise this afresh.

  19. Could you put a timescale on that? Are you saying something might be brought to Parliament this year?
  (Mr Blunkett) I cannot promise that we can include a change in the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill but I am quite keen to get this resolved because I realise it has been a concern for some time. I ought to stress, however, that we need a proportionate approach here because there are real issues of enforcement, so we want to ensure that in relation to any restriction on purchase and on, if you like, the dangerousness of air pistols—their capacity—we need to be sure that we are doing something that is enforceable and which the police can check and manage. I happen to be someone who believes that we rush into legislation very often only to find that what we have done is then discredited by a lack of application and rigour in the way in which it is followed through. I think the Home Office has been bedevilled by that over the years.

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