Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2001
CLARKE MP, MR
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.
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 unturnedmixing
my metaphorsto 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?
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 1990and of course it is so long ago now that some of
the acronyms have changedrecommended 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
(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
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
206. Is it the Home Office's general acceptance
that that will be an improvement in the system if that were to
(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.
210. You are going to be writing a lot of letters.
(Mr Clarke) Three as I recall from this Committee
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
(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 phrasenot by you personally
of courseit 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.
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.