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10 Jan 2007 : Column 291

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Is he aware that when the incoming Labour Government began to set up the Criminal Records Bureau, it became apparent that we could not even be sure that convictions in this country were being entered on the police national computer? Laxity in these affairs long predates my right hon. Friend’s time as Home Secretary, and stretches back over other Governments.

May I point out to my right hon. Friend the real purpose of the Hampshire chief constable’s contribution to our Committee session yesterday? It was not to draw attention to past problems, which he regards as being on the way to solution, but to report that we are continuing to receive notification from other European states that contains too little information to allow individuals to be positively identified and registered on the national computer. Will my right hon. Friend add to his list of priorities a real drive in Europe to sort out the problem of the quality of data, so that we can establish the information on the computer and so that we are not still debating this issue in two or three years’ time?

John Reid: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the information that he elicited yesterday, which is very helpful to all of us. [Laughter.] This is a serious problem, and the information was helpful in spurring further action with the aim of establishing a process of constant improvement.

As my right hon. Friend says, over the past few decades public expectations of this as of other public services have become much higher. The public are entitled to demand more, as is the House, and I will try to respond. It is also the case, however, that we are monitoring, categorising, listing and registering, and through those actions protecting the public better than we were several decades ago.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the evidence given by the police yesterday. I am very grateful to the police for what they are doing. We have a problem that is currently being solved; but in the midst of that solution, there have been revelations about the problem as it existed before and as people had to grapple with it then. That is why I say that whatever happened previously, my predecessors were absolutely correct in taking the steps that were necessary for a speedy response to the European Union directive. We were among the first European member states to tender, and then to set up, a central authority—the Association of Chief Police Officers—to deal with the problem.

Although we are now working on system improvement, it is by no means perfect. My right hon. Friend said that the evidence yesterday was that some European Union member states were still not giving us information in a manner that can be registered on a computer; giving us the name “John Smith” with no address, no background and no identification, along with some general crime is not very helpful in terms of the police computer. Even worse, some states appear to have given us no notification of anybody at all, so I will certainly make that one of my priorities as well.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The Home Secretary, in the usual discreditable way that he and his colleagues adopt, has sought to spread some of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs to
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the previous Administration, but less than an hour ago the Prime Minister told the House that the voluntary transfer of information commenced in 1999, and I am sure that the Prime Minister was carefully briefed on that matter. Is not the simple truth that, since 1999, thousands of records of this kind have been received at the Home Office, have been put into boxes at the Home Office and have been left to gather dust at the Home Office? Is that not a disgraceful state of affairs, for which this Government are entirely responsible?

John Reid: I think that the date that the Prime Minister might have mentioned was 1959, as regards the voluntary scheme.

Mr. Howard: No, 1999.

John Reid: The year is 1959 for the European Council convention on the exchange of information—the mutual legal aid. Information was exchanged from 1959. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is challenging me on the basis that all the files in the backlog are from 1999 onwards. I think that he will find that that is incorrect, and I hope that if he does find that it is incorrect he will be apologetic about what he said about me attempting, in discreditable fashion, to blame somebody. I am not attempting to blame anybody; I am attempting to explain how a problem arose and to address the problem.

I also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the public are less interested in the blame game and party politics than they are in the protection of themselves, their families and their children, which is what I am interested in.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I seek clarification on a small point. Yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee sitting was entirely about home affairs issues relating to Europe. My right hon. Friend mentioned Interpol in his statement; yesterday, we talked about Europol. Can I understand from what my right hon. Friend says that ACPO is now receiving information from Interpol, and therefore from around the world, rather than just from Europe?

John Reid: Interpol has played an active part. Let me give an example—it is a rather complex one, but Members demand and expect detailed answers to such points. When ACPO received the files—some electronically, others physically—it sifted through them; it conducted what we would call a triage, sorting them into more serious and less serious offences. Of the 540 more serious offences, it transpired that 149 were already on the police national computer because they had been put on it by Interpol. That means that Interpol had already been playing an active role.

We will certainly encourage it and other institutions, including the European Union and its member states, to make information available. That is not, however, quite as simple as we would all want it to be. For example, only three countries in Europe have a sex offenders register: the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Other countries do not protect the public in the way that we do; we have a standard of protection that has been built up over the years. I do not make any exclusive claim for that for the Labour Government.
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Over a period of years, we have built up a system of protection that is in advance of that of any other country in Europe, but it still has major deficiencies, and we are trying to address them.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Home Secretary referred to the tragedy in Soham in my constituency, and to the fact that if there had been better communication between police forces that tragedy might not have happened. However, although that happened five years ago, the Home Secretary said that the IMPACT—information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking—system is still being implemented. How much longer will my constituents and other people in this country have to wait before there is a system in place that ensures that everybody who has committed crimes that could mean that they are a threat to children in the future are recorded in a manner that is accessible by those who might be considering employing them?

We should bear in mind that at the beginning of this process there was already a system in place in Scotland; the Scottish forces had a system that allowed the kind of communication that has been mentioned. Yet the Home Office ignored that and went ahead; it started to implement an IMPACT system which, as the Home Secretary has told us, is still not fully operational five years later.

John Reid: We are attempting to introduce such measures as quickly as possible, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and he is correct to be so.

On more general matters, I was invited to say whether I think that what happened is serious and detrimental. I have made it publicly clear that I do think so, and we are attempting to remedy that. However, as I also pointed out, it is not as though nothing has happened since then. What has come out of that tragedy? Apart from IMPACT, we have established the vetting and barring scheme, which is scheduled for implementation in less than two years; it will significantly strengthen the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We are trying to improve the national offenders management system and the oversight of serious offenders. We have the POCA—Protection of Children Act 1999—register for those who might be a threat to children. We have the POVA—protection of vulnerable adults—register for those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults. We also have what is called the sexual offenders register, although it is actually the violent and sexual offenders register. Therefore, a lot is going on in this area.

None of that, however, excuses our inability to handle such matters in a better fashion. The task now is to make sure that we improve that much more quickly, and that we do so much more fully—and that has been under way since last May when ACPO took the lead.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Given that many of the problems that have affected our Government since we came to power have emanated from the Home Department, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is right to give serious consideration to splitting the duties and responsibilities of the Home Department, for example by creating a new department for immigration and migration separate from the rest of Home Department responsibilities?

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John Reid: My arrival at the Home Office was not without a degree of controversy. I identified what I thought were failings that had to be remedied. I said that within three months—100 days—I would bring forward plans for reform. I am sorry to disappoint the House and some commentators, but I did not in fact say that I would solve the problems of the Home Office within 100 days; I said that I would bring forward plans to tackle the fundamental problems.

Those plans were produced. One of them is a reform plan for Home Office systems—the systems and functions, and the integrity of them. Another is a plan to reform radically—and, hopefully, make far more efficient—the immigration and nationality department. We are proceeding with those reforms, but we keep the whole situation under review. The agency status we have proposed for the immigration and nationality department might be a big contributory factor to creating a more efficient organisation, but I have also carried out a study and review of the counter-terrorist side of the Department’s responsibilities. We keep that under review. I never rule anything out, but at the moment we have a plan for the reform of the central systems and the IND, and it is better to try to implement those plans before we devise others.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Home Secretary has said that he will accept responsibility for sorting this mess out, but he has been Home Secretary since last May. Does he accept any personal responsibility for how this mess has arisen in the first place—any responsibility at all?

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on and take responsibility for things that happened prior to my becoming Home Secretary. [Interruption.] No, I did not say that it was the previous Home Secretary; indeed, I said that I welcomed the previous Home Secretary’s decision to sort these things out by putting the matter to ACPO and being among the first in Europe to take action. All I am pointing out is that I accept the responsibility for dealing with this, but as I said in my statement it is a problem that has been mounting over the decades.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out the reference to 1999. That was made because accurate records began only in 1999. I am reliably informed by my officials that we have no accurate records for the period during which the right hon. and learned Gentleman presided over the Home Office. However, I accept full responsibility. That is why I am in front of the House, volunteering a statement, within 24 hours of the discovering that there was a problem, albeit some time ago.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Home Secretary separate out some of the questions about whether Ministers knew about this or would have had cause to ask about it in the past, because MPs clearly did not know about it or have cause for concern? Would the offenders concerned have had any reason to know that they were not on the national computer, or can we hope that they were living and behaving under the assumption that they were? Does the Home Secretary feel any unease about the fact that the new information becoming available, including that about countries that have not passed on information,
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might come as some comfort to those offenders? We all need to address that issue, not the political spat about who knew what, when.

John Reid: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who addresses the practical problems and the protection of the public. That is what the public are interested in, and it is what I am interested in. I cannot guess, and it would be a guess, at the attitude of some of these offenders or whether that attitude was shaped by a realisation that their names had not been placed where they thought they might be.

The hon. Gentleman has hit on a serious point. Even if these names are now being put on the computer and we are tackling the problem as a result of the decision of the previous Home Secretary to pass the matter to ACPO, there was a gap. Can we be sure that during that time people did not get positions that they ought to have been prevented from getting because their name should have been on the computer? I spoke this morning to the Criminal Records Bureau, and said that I wanted it to check with utmost speed that there is no one in a job or position of trust who would have been prevented from getting it had their name been on the police computer and various registers more speedily. I have asked the CRB to give me the answer to that question by the end of this week, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep the House informed of these matters.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. There is still deep concern about this matter and a fear that proper checks and disclosures may not have been carried out correctly on a number of these people, who may now be employed back in the UK. I welcome some of what he said, particularly about the fact that the records have now all been sifted and a priority assessment carried out to identify the 540 most serious cases. I welcome the fact that there is now notification of whether data exist concerning those on the PNC.

I remain very anxious, however, that 280 of the most serious cases—more than half—cannot yet be notified and are subject to further inquiry. To allay public fears, particularly in Scotland, can the Home Secretary assure us that as notifications to the police national computer are carried out, comparable and parallel updates are made to data held by the Scottish Criminal Records Bureau, where appropriate? That would at least put some minds to rest in Scotland that as data are found and notification is completed, comparable Scottish records are updated in parallel.

John Reid: That is a very important point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about what has been achieved so far. He is quite right to ask about the gaps. I asked the CRB this morning to give me advice and to try to ensure that this information goes on all the various registers that should have it. I will make sure that that includes the Scottish CRB, too. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have a list of, for instance, football hooligans, those who might be a threat to children, those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults and those who might be violent and
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sexual offenders—ViSOR—as well as the police national computer. He correctly points out that there are parallel or separate organisations in Scotland, and I will ensure that what he requests is done.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Given that part of the problem is the poor quality of information, is the Home Secretary seeking meetings with his fellow Interior Ministers in the European Union to address the problem? Does he feel that if we improved our system of identification and registration of residency, he would be greatly helped?

John Reid: I entirely agree on both points. If European Union members act co-operatively on certain major subjects, for the practical benefit of their populations, we will greatly enhance the status of the European Union in the eyes of our public. If they spent more time doing that than they do attempting to harmonise where harmonisation is not necessary, we would all benefit in practical terms in this country and in the EU more widely.

I turn to my hon. Friend’s second, and most important, point. In a spirit of constructive engagement I ask Members in all parts of the House to consider that one of the most fundamental flaws of the last few decades in the exchange of all this information is the inability to identify the offenders from country to country, and nothing would be a bigger boost to our ability to protect the public than some form of identity management. ID cards are an important consideration in the future of the protection of the public, and quite frankly it ill behoves people to stand up and demand the ends that they say the public want and then on every occasion oppose the means of achieving those ends.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the responsibilities that have been given to ACPO are very demanding and go a long way beyond anything that it has previously been responsible for? What resources has he made available to ACPO? How much has it cost? Are ACPO staff now satisfied that they have adequate resources to fulfil the task that he has given them?

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for a very important point. I should point out that ACPO—which has been helpful this morning as ever, and I pay tribute to it—is not a conscript. It has not had this task imposed on it. As a result of the European directive at the end of 2005, which said that every country should have a lead body for sending out and receiving the information, we put the job out to tender, and ACPO put in a bid and won. That is why I say that even though we are discussing a historical problem with current ramifications, a solution is already under way because ACPO has taken on the role of lead body and is working through the problem. As for doing things a little quicker as a result of my perusal of the situation, if more resources are necessary, we will discuss that with ACPO. We started those discussions this morning.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The House is grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement. He has explained that there are 280 serious cases that cannot be entered on the police national computer and are the subject of further
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inquiries. Is there any sort of deadline for entering those 280 cases and, if so, will he inform the House what it is?

John Reid: There is not a deadline because it would be artificial. The cases cannot be entered not only because it would not add anything to put in a name and very little else, but because it would damage the existing system if there were hundreds of cases that were nothing but a name. The problem is that we are moving from a system that was completely piecemeal and fragmentary—quite frankly, it fell into disuse—to one that is meant to involve the systematic and organised transfer of information, although it is obvious that people are not keeping to the basic format for the necessary information that should be exchanged. We have to try to ensure that we go back through the cases with the countries. Some of the files are indecipherable—they just cannot be read—not because they are in a different language, but because of their scribbled manner. The records are not all typed case files; some are written notifications. There is thus a real problem. We will do that work as soon as possible. As soon as the information is in a fit state to go on the computer, it now goes on it. There is no backlog for perusal, other than the remainder of the 27,500 cases, which are the less serious files. I have asked that there should be an attempt to deal with them in the next few months, rather than in a year, as was originally planned.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does the Home Secretary agree that there is an urgent need to reassure the public that convicted child sex offenders are not working with children at present? Is he in a position to make a statement in the very near future on the child sex offenders who have been identified already—I believe that there are 29 of them—and what process he will follow regarding others who may be revealed?

John Reid: The hon. Lady has a long-standing interest in this and served on a Committee that considered a Bill concerned with these matters. She is absolutely right. That was why I met this morning not only the police and officials, but the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked the bureau to run through all the information that has now been passed to it. I have asked for the 280 names to be given to the bureau and for it to go through its computer files in the next three days. By the end of the week, I hope that I will be in a position to give such confirmation, or to be able to identify anyone about whom an inquiry was made before information was received from the national computer. If there is someone in such a position who has been appointed, I will tackle that problem when we discover it.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to initiate an inquiry to determine what has happened and how that should be dealt with, rather than making assumptions about who was at fault. Will he not just take the weasel words of the Opposition on this issue, which are never substantiated by any action to deal with—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is totally inappropriate to use such language, especially when we are considering a subject such as this. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about the words that he uses.

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