§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Bichard inquiry report.
Last December, following Ian Huntley's conviction, I asked Sir Michael Bichard to conduct an inquiry into the events leading up to the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. I am publishing his report in full today. The families have shown great courage and dignity. We extend again today our most heartfelt sympathy to them.
I am grateful to Sir Michael for the speed and thoroughness of his inquiry. We have accepted his critique. In doing so, we must not forget that, as he states,Huntley alone was responsible for these most awful murders. None of the actions or failures of any of the witnesses or the institutions they represented led to the deaths of the girls.
Sir Michael's report uncovers serious failures in recording and managing information. These failures include local systems for recording, retaining and accessing data. They include national frameworks for inspection and information exchange, and the systems that underpin them.
As a consequence, the report is wide ranging in its recommendations. These apply to a range of public services and Government Departments. I am therefore responding on behalf of the Government as a whole.
We are, in principle, accepting Sir Michael's main recommendations and will act on them immediately.
It is the Government's task to ensure clear national standards as well as providing strong leadership. But other national bodies and local agencies also have a key role in strengthening the system.
Let me turn to the specific recommendations. Sir Michael recommends the introduction of a national intelligence system. Information collected should be shared and acted upon before an individual is employed in a sensitive post. Let me describe how this will operate. The police national computer is the cornerstone of police information systems, but its task is to register recorded crime. It holds basic information—for example, names and addresses of offenders. We are working with forces to improve the quality and timeliness of data. It is necessary for it to keep up with the growing and changing demands on the police service.
But the police national computer does not hold intelligence information—for example, where someone has been questioned in relation to repeated allegations of sexual assault. Until now, all 43 forces in England and Wales have operated individual systems for handling this kind of information. This should no longer be the case. As Sir Michael puts it, we cannot have a situation in which—and I quote—local accountability will be used to defend ineffective local systems when a national system would be more appropriate".
This report marks a watershed in how police forces and authorities will work together to procure the intelligence and information systems needed to do the job properly. No longer can the historical justification of 1186 operational independence take precedence over the imperative of being able to track and deal with offenders effectively.
We are therefore now introducing the first national police intelligence computer system—entitled "Impact". "Impact" will ensure that all forces use the same system to manage and share intelligence information. As an interim measure, we are bringing forward the nationwide introduction of the police local exchange—PLX. It will begin this autumn and be complete by next spring. It will provide an easily searchable index of all those on whom any police force holds information. Sir Michael commends this.
But systems are only as good as the information that they hold. In this case, because records were handled so badly and deleted, a national intelligence system could not have identified the concerns. Sir Michael therefore concludes that the police need clearer, more soundly based rules, for recording, retaining and reviewing, as well as deleting information.
Before the inquiry was established, the Data Protection Act 1998 was criticised as a contributory factor. While it is no doubt complex, it. embodies important principles. Sir Michael concludes that the loss of intelligence cannot be blamed on the Act. He does not believe that radical revisions are necessary. It is crucial that rules on managing information are clearly understood. I am therefore introducing, by the end of this year, a statutory code of practice on police information handling. All 43 forces will deal with intelligence information in the same way. This will be backed up by detailed operational guidance. Effective training, management and inspection will ensure that it is fully understood and consistently applied.
The code of practice will link closely to the police national intelligence model. This sets out how forces should collect and handle intelligence. It is already providing a more consistent structure. The code will ensure that all forces are required to make the most effective use of this structure. Those few forces still not operating this model must do so now.
But those recommendations apply substantially beyond policing. The report recommends that social services should routinely notify the police when a crime against a child is committed or suspected. Sir Michael concludes that that is not always the case. The social services database needs to hold details of all alleged sexual offenders involved with named children, and should be easily searchable. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is working urgently on that. The Department will shortly receive a serious case review report from Sir Christopher Kelly on other specific lessons for social services.
Sir Michael has highlighted the importance of robust selection and recruitment. He has recommended that those recruiting staff in schools must be properly trained in safeguarding children. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for Children have agreed that selection panels should contain at least one panel member properly trained in that work. Sir Michael also calls for stronger, more consistent vetting and a new system for registering those working with children and vulnerable adults. We will therefore urgently consider his recommendation that a register be created to bring together all the relevant information 1187 held on individuals in a way that is easily accessible. We need to consider how that fits with and enhances the service already provided by the Criminal Records Bureau. We will also need to make the link to proposals for identity cards.
Let me now turn to concerns about the two forces involved in this tragic incident. Sir Michael highlights deficiencies by Cambridgeshire on the checks into Ian Huntley's suitability. Sir Ronnie Flanagan's parallel report for Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary into the investigation, which is being published today, also highlights concerns about processes and the actions of individuals. However, Ian Huntley is behind bars. Cambridgeshire acted effectively to achieve that. It also asked the Metropolitan police to review its procedures at the time of the investigation. Failings were neither systemic nor corporate. I should also add that mistakes have been fully acknowledged and actions have been taken to ensure they do not recur.
But much graver concerns are raised about the senior management of Humberside. There were, to quote the report, "very serious failings", some of which the chief constable only became aware of when hearing evidence to the inquiry. Sir Michael finds the lack of awareness of the scale of those failings over such a long period of time to be "deeply shocking". It is Sir Michael's view that thefinal responsibility for these serious failures rests with Chief Constable David Westwood".It is difficult to disagree with that. Paragraph 2.94 could not be clearer. It says of Mr Westwood thathe was chief constable from March 1999 and, as such, became ultimately responsible for information management and IT systems. The wide-ranging and systemic failures … existed in March 1999 and therefore predated him becoming Chief Constable. However, they were not identified and continued for a considerable period thereafter. Chief Constable Westwood must take personal responsibility for the continuation of those failures. From 1 September 1997, he had been Deputy Chief Constable, the second most senior officer on the force".
The role of any chief constable has to be one in which the public have confidence. In the face of serious criticism, it is my responsibility as Home Secretary to question whether people in Humberside can continue to have that confidence. Mindful of our duty of care, I asked Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Keith Povey, to discuss Sir Michael's findings with the chief constable yesterday. The strength of the report's criticism of him has led me to conclude that, using the powers available to me under the Police Act 1996, as amended by the Police Reform Act 2002, I should require Humberside police authority to suspend Mr. Westwood as chief constable forth with.
I have also invited the police authority to consider what steps it should take, having regard to its statutory duty under section 6 of the 1996 Act to maintain an efficient and effective force. I have asked it to report to me by 6 July. I also asked Sir Keith to ensure that the professional judgment of Her Majesty's inspectorate is available to the police authority. When I receive the authority's report I will decide whether to initiate the process that could lead to the retirement or resignation of the chief constable.
Finally, let me repeat my thanks to Sir Michael for his work. I believe he is right to suggest the discipline of reconvening his inquiry in six months.
1188 Mr. Speaker, we know that this must, once again, be a terrible time for the families of Jessica and Holly. We owe it to them to make substantial progress as rapidly as possible in ensuring that these failures are not repeated ever again. I commend Sir Michael's report to the House.
§ David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
I start by thanking the Home Secretary for giving me unusually early sight of the report and the statement. That is not just the normal courtesy we show on such occasions; his action reflects the fact that this is a question of public safety, and that will be recognised in my response.
I wholeheartedly endorse the Home Secretary's remarks about the dignity shown by the families of Holly and Jessica. I am sure that that is true for everybody in the House.
I welcome almost everything that the Home Secretary said today and I also welcome the report of Sir Michael Bichard. It is exhaustive and I agree with most of it. I consider his decision to reconvene in six months' time to review progress not just a good idea but something that should become standard practice for reports such as this in future.
The report makes it clear that Cambridgeshire criminal records bureau was so focused on the introduction of new systems that it failed to carry out crucial checks into Ian Huntley's background. We must ensure that such failures never happen again, and much that the Home Secretary said about that will do just that. However, Sir Michael says that even if Cambridgeshire had got it right, Ian Huntley's record would still have been missed because of other failures in the system, most notably in Humberside police.
In my view, there were two failures in Humberside policing. One relates to information technology, but the other relates to the handling of the Huntley case. Even before any weeding took place, Ian Huntley's record of behaviour should have led police to act. Consider the following: there was an allegation of unlawful sex with a 15-year-old in August 1995; there was an allegation of unlawful sex with another 15-year-old in May 1996; and there was an allegation of unlawful sex with a 13-year-old, also in May 1996. That was not an IT failure; it was a failure of policing.
Those offences were known at exactly the same time, before there was any opportunity for them to be weeded by Humberside police, so it is no wonder that PC Harding in his report, which is reproduced on page 52, in section 1.229 of the Bichard report, said:It is quite clear that Huntley is a serial sex attacker and is at liberty to continue his activities.
Sir Michael says that no one thing could have prevented what happened. In fact, if the police had acted on that sequence of events, Ian Huntley would presumably have been locked up. Incidentally, that failure preceded the current chief constable's arrival in post. His failures relate to the failures of the IT system and the consequences that flow from that. In view of the fact that the Home Secretary has, in effect, today initiated a quasi-judicial process under the Police Reform Act 2002 in respect of David Westwood, which I do not wish to prejudice, I shall say no more today about his direct role.
1189 The report states that social services should report incidents of sex with minors to the police. I agree. However, the report also says that there are "exceptional circumstances" when the police should not be notified. What exactly are those exceptional circumstances? When an adult is engaged in a sexual relationship with a child, I believe that there are no circumstances where the police should not be informed. We now know that, in 1995, social services knew of an allegation that Huntley was having sex with a 15-year-old girl, but apparently—it is not entirely clear—chose not to inform the police. That was at exactly the same time as the cases that I cited a moment ago. The social services were not, and could not be, in possession of all the facts relating to public safety. Therefore, they should not make that decision. So will the Home Secretary review that specific aspect and consider the option of making the requirement to notify the police of such offences absolute?
Much of the report focuses properly on the failure of information handling, primarily by Humberside police but also by the Cambridge criminal records bureau, and generic failures by the Police Information Technology Organisation, the Association of Chief Police Officers, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the Home Office. The report properly criticises Humberside police's IT practices, and it criticises the lack of a national police IT system. It calls for the introduction of such a system as soon as possible. It does not say whether the problems of Humberside are replicated in other forces, although I suspect that they may be. Neither does the report deal with a problem that we all know about: Whitehall in general and the Home Office in particular have a very poor track record of implementing computer systems.
I welcome the Home Secretary's comments on the police local exchange system—the PLX system. I also welcome his announcement about the police national computer system—the so-called Impact system—but may I make two suggestions? First, will he commission Sir Michael Bichard in the next six months to review all the IT systems in the 43 forces, to establish the extent of the problem? Secondly, to minimise the risk of another computer disaster, will the forces use either the best practice that he identifies, or the already operational Scottish system, as the basis for the new national system?
The failure to implement a system should have been identified much sooner. Sir Michael Bichard states in his report:HMIC could and should have been more proactive. Information systems are of obvious importance to policing, and they could have been inspected effectively with relative ease.Has the Home Secretary any proposal to reform or improve the capability of Her Majesty's inspectorate in that respect?
Sir Michael recommends a registration system for all those working with children. Will the Home Secretary tell us whether such a system would apply to people who work in charities and voluntary groups—volunteers, rather than employees—because they often add great value and enjoyment to children's lives? Although child protection is clearly paramount, there is a balance of justice to be established. A series of false allegations can 1190 effectively destroy a career, as was recently the case with a teacher, ironically, in Humberside—the Jonathan Dunning-Davies case that I have discussed privately with the Home Secretary before.
Sir Michael envisages anappeal process for applicants who were refused registration.Sir Michael is absolutely right, but how does the Home Secretary believe that the appeals system would work? Would people know who is making the allegation against them, and if not, how could it be challenged? Who would decide what information is held on record, and how could that be challenged? Would the process be judicial? I recognise that those are difficult issues, but they need to be addressed. The Home Secretary, I know, recognises the burden that would be placed on the police. Humberside police, to take the example that we are dealing with, will process 50,000 information requests this year. That implies about 2 million for England and Wales How does he intend to progress that issue?
I also welcome tho Home Secretary's proposals for a code on the Data Protection Act 1998. Of course, the Bichard report properly dismissed the Humberside policy authority's excuses in that respect, but this is not the only case of serious misunderstandings with that Act, so I welcome his review and the writing of a statutory code.
It is not just Humberside and Cambridgeshire police who should read the report today. Every police force and social services department in the country should read and learn the lessons of the report because, if we fail, it will be a catastrophe measured in human tragedies.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I welcome the shadow Home Secretary's measured tones and approach, which are appropriate on this occasion, and in reciprocation, I wish to share with him and the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to get such aspects right in the months ahead. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that it was not simply that an information system went wrong, but that a recording did not take place so a record was not available. It was inevitable that such a failure would lead to critical information being missed. I take the point entirely in relation to the information that the right hon. Gentleman gave me earlier today about a local case, which I shall come to in a minute.
Regrettably, the system of "weeding out", as it is described in Sir Michael's report, is almost a bizarre experience in Humberside. I draw hon. Members' attention—if they are prepared to look through the report—to paragraph 2.58, which describes a system in Humberside that was so dysfunctional that there was no clarity whatsoever in what was meant by the words "delete", "weed" or eliminate", or in the way in which officers were to go about their business of deciding what should be held or deleted from the system.
Of course, that led to the situation, which the right hon. Gentleman described, whereby incidents in which Ian Huntley was involved with young girls before those tragic events were missed time after time. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the examples that he gave predated David Westwood's appointment as either deputy or subsequently chief constable. Regrettably, 1191 there were 11 incidents in total. Nine of them were of a sexual nature and all of them related to incidents—some in a very short time, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—that should clearly have been picked up by those involved, as well as by the systems, which were clearly inadequate or not in place.
Obviously, it is absolutely crucial that we learn the lessons. The right hon. Gentleman asked me what was meant by the phrase "exceptional cases", where automatic referral by social services or other agencies to the police would not take place. Clearly, those incidents would not have been exceptional, so the kind of incident that Huntley was involved in while in Humberside should have been, and must be in any future circumstance, referred to the police and the information held properly, not deleted.
The exceptions that Michael Bichard was referring to take us back to the sex offenders and sex offences legislation, when we had a delicate debate about how to deal with those around the age of 15 and 16 who are experimenting with their sexuality and, as we retained the law as it was, how to implement it sensitively and not be run ragged by those organisations that wanted us to change it dramatically. So we are back to the use of common sense.
Regrettably—I think the right hon. Gentleman referred to this, and we are mindful of it—if common sense had prevailed, of course, we would not be here this afternoon discussing the report. Common sense would have led people to understand the relationship between one act and another, and to put two and two together. So those incidents were not exceptions and there can be no absolute guarantee of anything. but we can pick up the lessons in the report and use them effectively.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the new systems. He is right to say that the Government do not have a good record on the implementation of national information technology. That is partly why there was such a reluctance to get engaged at an earlier stage and to implement the national intelligence model before putting the national computer in place. That decision was taken by a board consisting of the three partners—the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and the Gevernment—back in 2000.
At the time of the White paper in 2001, I allocated £11 million to the initial establishment of such a system, again under the old tripartite approach, operated and led not by the Home Office, but by the services themselves. We have now taken responsibility, which, as I said, we need to do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who was in the Home Office, will recall the necessity of sometimes knocking heads together. When 43 forces operate entirely different information technology systems, in a world that demands something very different, there must be a national system.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me two specific questions, one of which was on the follow-through and whether Sir Michael Bichard should be engaged to do that job. I have spoken to Sir Michael. Other than reviewing what he has done, he is not keen to get engaged in being the arbiter on, or even the arm for, implementation. The right hon. Gentleman also asked the sensible question about what will happen if Sir 1192 Michael does not want that job. It will, of course, be the job of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, and we need to work with Sir Keith Povey to ensure that it can draw on and use outside expertise in the assessment and review of information technology systems at a local level, where the inspectors—understandably in terms of their histories—might not have access to that expertise themselves. We also need to learn from Scotland, which, with two very large police forces and six very small ones, managed to get its act together simultaneously with the introduction of the national intelligence model. There is much to learn from that, which we should do.
Registration systems are a difficult matter. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Minister for Children will look at the recommendation of enhanced disclosure for all staff working in schools and similar educational establishments. We are extremely sympathetic to achieving that. There is, however, a danger, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, of wrongdoings as a result of accusations that are made against people.
Although we will examine a non-bureaucratic light-touch way of providing an appeal, we must also exercise judgment on how people are dealt with in those circumstances. I am reluctant to have a system in which people have to register in advance of any thought of taking a job in order simply to work with children. When they do work with children, whether they are employed or volunteers in the voluntary and community sector, they have to be checked out through the Criminal Records Bureau. The question that arises again is whether it should be a normal or enhanced disclosure.
Let me confirm the right hon. Gentleman's sensible conclusion to his contribution. The report is not for Humberside and Cambridgeshire forces alone; it goes right across the board for services dealing with children at local and national levels, for the Government and local government, and for the police and social services. Above all, it is to be taken seriously and implemented by all of us who care about ensuring that never again will we have to stand here dealing with the tragic death of a Jessica or a Holly.
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD)
I am sure that the whole House will feel let down by the series of mistakes involved in the case. Although the report does not blame any individual for what happened, there will remain for ever a doubt that perhaps something could have been done to avoid the tragic death of those two young girls.
I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and warmly welcome his speedy response to the Bichard recommendations. However, he needs to explain in more detail why the Government abandoned plans to create a national database, which was, after all, recommended 10 years ago. He now plans to establish that database. Will he set out the time scale involved in putting in place the Impact system? Will he also explain what role he sees for the Criminal Records Bureau in the future? Does he share my concern that, with improved police data, the Criminal Records Bureau could become the weak link in the system? Does he have plans to review the Criminal Records Bureau or, indeed, replace it with a new system?
Sir Michael talks about new systems for registering those working with children—perhaps making them carry a card with biometric details on it. Does the Home 1193 Secretary support that? If so, how would it work? Does he share my concern that that would mean schools, scout clubs and church groups having to buy expensive equipment to read those cards? Finally, will he confirm whether he or the police authority has the final decision on the future of the chief constable for Humberside?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I was not entirely sure from the hon. Gentleman's opening gambit whether he accepts, as we have, the overall thrust of the Bichard inquiry. However, I accept the tone in which he delivered his questions.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the initial proposal for the national intelligence system was abandoned. Plans were considered by the board, which was part of the tripartite approach that I described, in 2000. The decision was taken in relation to implementation of the national intelligence model, to be followed by the technology and the development of the system to ensure that once that was in place, it could be implemented. As I said, the decision was taken in Scotland to do the two things simultaneously. That is much easier in Scotland, with a population of 5 million, than in England and Wales, but nevertheless doing the two things together must have been a fine decision.
I have been careful not to open up any party political issues in the statement, and I shall continue to take that line. However, people must reflect on the pressure that Governments of all persuasions have been under, and central Governments have not—although Oppositions tend to take a contrary view of this—interfered with, or changed the balance of, the tripartite approach and, therefore, the decentralised autonomy and operational responsibility of police services across the country. At the time, the decisions lay with a non-professional ACPO leadership, which now has a full-time presidency. As a result of the decisions on local autonomy, the mechanisms did not exist for ACPO or the Home Office to go ahead.
I am spelling this out as gently as I can. In terms of what has been demanded of me since I have been Home Secretary, I have not got into—although I could easily do so—the issue of leaving the police service alone to develop the sharing of information and their IT capacity. I have spelt out that we accept that there will have to be a sea change in terms of leading that change, while working with ACPO, police authorities and local forces.
On Impact, we think that it may well take two years to get the system up and running. We intend to build on the police local exchange system, which will be in place by next spring, to do that. It will provide access to information held across the forces. We do not believe, and nor does Sir Michael, either in his report or in his press conference at 12 noon today, that the Criminal Records Bureau is at fault. He believes that with enhanced disclosures and the disclosure of information currently not available to the Criminal Records Bureau, the system will work better.
In my response to the shadow Home Secretary, I referred to disclosure—namely, what is it about someone's behaviour that constitutes that information being held and exposed to other people? We need to 1194 reflect on that, in terms not of rejecting the proposal, but of getting the balance right. I am often criticised for doing the opposite. so today I am being cautious about protecting individuals from wrongful accusation or from information being exchanged which has no basis in fact. Four million disclosures have been dealt with by the Criminal Records Bureau, which is now working effectively. I want to ensure that we do not disrupt it and make matters worse. Of course, it did not exist at the time, and even if it had it could not have helped, given that the information was not held and was so badly handled—that includes the issue of whether Cambridgeshire made the appropriate approaches to Humberside—that it would have made no difference.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the card, which we are going to investigate. We share the concern that there should not be a massive bureaucracy. It will obviously be easier to deal with the matter if biometric ID cards are introduced and a database is available, but we want to discuss how that would work in the House and in Committee when we introduce substantive legislation. Again, people will want to test our proposals and make sure that action is proportionate. Overall, I hope that we can all work together to make sure that the sensible suggestions that have been made can be implemented as speedily as possible.
Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the sense of disbelief in Ian Huntley's former hunting grounds of Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham, when his past was revealed after his conviction? I am sorry to say that that has left public confidence in Humberside police at rock bottom. Given that the record that described Ian Huntley as a serial sex attacker was deleted, does my right hon. Friend share Chief Constable Westwood's view, as expressed on 17 December, that that had to be done for data protection purposes, or does he believe that it was because of the wide-ranging and systemic failures detailed in this shocking report?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am sure that my hon. Friend and other Members representing the area covered by the Humberside force, including the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), will share my determination to restore and enhance the force's credibility and people's confidence in its efficiency and effectiveness. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I will be cautious in what I say because of the process agreed by the House, which was affirmed in a protocol of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and because of the national negotiating machinery that came into force on 1 June this year to deal with these cases fairly. All that I can say is that Sir Michael's report—we share his view—demonstrates absolutely that the Data Protection Act 1998 was not responsible for the deletion or for the failures. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that six months ago. the chief constable sought to demonstrate that it was.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
May I thank the Home Secretary very much indeed for allowing me to see the report a day early, thus enabling me to read it carefully? I add my thanks to Sir Michael Bichard for his robust report, which details, as the Home Secretary said, a catalogue of shortcomings 1195 by many individuals, forces and agencies involved in the case. The report will obviously be read in my constituency with great concern and care, and there will be close examination of the proposals is for change.
In particular, the report lists the failures of the IT systems used by the police and the failure to develop and integrate them. I therefore strongly welcome the Home Secretary's commitment to a PLX system, the code of practice and the future development of the Impact system. For my constituents in Soham, nothing can undo the tragedy that befell us While there will undoubtedly be demands for calls for retribution or scapegoats, the overriding desire is to know how that evil man could walk the streets of Soham, and to ensure that such things never happen again. Although there were a few failings by the school and by Cambridgeshire police, it is clear that when Huntley applied for the job at the school, the die was already cast. His records had gone and, most staggering of all he had not been prosecuted, despite, as we have heard, being described by the police as a serial sex attacker. Pages 89 to 92 of the report describe an astonishing sequence of events from which Huntley appeared to escape unscathed. My constituents and, I believe, the whole country will be horrified to learn that so many offences could take place almost simultaneously without the police and social services being able to co-ordinate their activities and protect the public from such a man.
What action is the Home Secretary taking to look not just at those specific failings, but at the way in which sex offences are prosecuted? In particular, Sir Michael makes some trenchant comments about prosecutions where there is an admission of under-age sex by the perpetrator, even if the victim does not wish to pursue the matter in court. Can the Home Secretary say something more about Sir Ronnie Flanagan's review of the investigation of the offence by Cambridgeshire police? He said that the report has been published, but is that the whole report? Does he accept that unless my constituents are fully informed, sadly, the speculation about the conduct of the investigation will continue? When does he expect the Kelly report into social services to be published, and will the relevant Secretary of State make a statement?
As the Member of Parliament for Soham, I very much hope that this is the last occasion when this dreadful crime not only comes before this House but is the subject of more media coverage. While the names of Holly and Jessica will live on in Soham's history, my constituents, including, I believe, the families, never want to hear the names of Huntley and Carr again. May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your personal concern and interest in my constituents' welfare during this awful case?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I think that everyone in the House shares entirely the sentiments and emotions that the hon. Gentleman just described, and I thank him for the way in which he has liaised with the families, making it possible for us to work with them and keep them informed to ensure that they knew what was happening and when. While that did not bring comfort, at least it ensured that they had confidence that we were acting properly.
Sir Christopher Kelly has been encouraged to publish his report as quickly as possible. It is important in my view, and that of the Secretary of State for Health and 1196 the Minister for Children, that we have that report so that we can act on its recommendations in tandem with our work on the Bichard report. The hon. Gentleman asked about Ronnie Flanagan's report, which I am publishing today. It deals with the way in which the initial days were handled, including whether the force should have presumed immediately that it was dealing with an abduction and potential murder rather than missing children, but it also commends the force, when it recognised the enormity of events, on the speed and effectiveness of its action. Again, I concur entirely with the hon. Gentleman in accepting that people in the locality will want to know that Sir Ronnie's recommendations or observations are introduced urgently and implemented.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
May I welcome the speedy action by my right hon. Friend, particularly the measures that he announced today, which will reassure many people? I emphasise the importance of his comments on a statutory code on intelligence, and about the PLX and Impact systems, all of which are most welcome. However, it is not enough just to dump everything on Chief Constable Westwood, because the report highlights failings in my right hon. Friend's Department. It says, first, that Her Majesty's inspectors failed to identify the computer mess in Humberside, make recommendations, or do anything about the problem until 2003. Secondly, the Home Office failed to set rules and conditions, or to provide a national code of practice on intelligence services, including what was to be added, deleted and so on from records, which was partly responsible for the confusion in Humberside. Thirdly, our national computer system was inadequate, so that forces were unable to access records held by other forces, and the system could not even flag up the fact that information was held by other forces. Those, too, are failings. I hope that they will be investigated with the same thoroughness and that my right hon. Friend can tell us why our police are so much less adequate in respect of national computer records than the police in Scotland.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I do not demur in any way from the view that responsibility for getting matters right rests across the board. I am seeking not to dump on anyone. I am using powers laid out in the Police Act 1996 and the Police Reform Act 2002 commensurate with the protocol that came into force on 1 June and was agreed with chief constables. If ever there were a case, after a thoroughgoing report and given the language used by Sir Michael Bichard, for the implementation of that protocol, it is now. The authority itself and the subsequent representations of Chief Constable Westwood will be part of that process.
I fully accept that there should have been codes of practice and intervention earlier. That is why, as my hon. Friend will remember, the 2002 Act provided for regulation, codes and directions, which were not available previously. It is also why we set up the national centre for policing excellence, and why I indicated today that the tripartite approach and decentralised autonomy are not acceptable in the context of national information exchange. I have already explained why, in Scotland, the chief constables decided to go ahead 1197 simultaneously with their national intelligence model and their computer system, whereas in England those taking part in the decision making chose to do the first, and then to follow with the second.
From 2001, when I allocated the £11 million, and from 2003, when we issued the code, and following the steps that we have taken to develop the PLX and the Impact systems, the new £500 million Airwave communication system and the new national database for DNA, and the investment that we have put into the Criminal Records Bureau over the past three years, we have invested more than ever before. That, complemented by the £600 million that we allocated from 2002 to the whole criminal justice information technology system to join up, as Sir Michael recommends, the courts with the policing and social services systems, is something of which I shall be proud.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. May I inform the House that I allowed the constituency Member of Parliament to ask several supplementaries for good reason, but from now I expect only one supplementary to be put to the Home Secretary.
§ Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con)
Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a gap in the existing legislation, in that people coming from abroad to work in schools are not subject to CRB checks? Does he agree that it seems unfair that whereas people of many years' standing in this country cannot take up a position in a school until they have been checked by the CRB, someone coming from abroad about whom we know nothing can start on day one? In the interests of child protection, should not the same checking criteria apply to everybody?
§ Mr. Blunkett
There is a checking system, including through the agencies and bodies from which the recommendation came. It applies primarily to supply teachers and to the recruitment of teachers on a temporary basis from overseas, but it could apply to others. I accept, and Sir Michael makes the point, that we need to be more thorough in carrying out checks. That challenge has been accepted more generally and it will be possible to meet it by means of the ID card database, where we will have to do a check back as part of the process of checking an individual's true identity. We will therefore be more easily able to check with the police forces and authorities in the country of origin.
§ Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge) (Lab)
I very much welcome the report, which is extremely important, and my right hon. Friend's response to it. It is ludicrous that the police have not been automatically required to share information across forces. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that they do not want such a failing to occur ever again, but in my view it will happen again. Since my Protection of Children Act 1999, I have repeatedly drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, who are present, the need for the retrospective checking of people who are in position. Prior to the establishment 1198 of the Criminal Records Bureau, many of them were not required to be checked. They remain in position and some are known paedophiles. There is a vital need for retrospective checking to take place. It needs to be phased in so that it does not overwhelm the system, but it must happen. The responses that I have received so far from Ministers and the Secretary of State suggest to me that it is not in the Government's programme to do so.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Sir Michael touches on that. I commend my hon. Friend on her tenacity and commitment to that important cause. First, whenever someone changes job, checks are automatically undertaken for the new employer. Secondly—Sir Michael touches on this—we need to consider introducing a review process for those who have not been checked but are working with children. I merely ask—this is not ducking the issue—for time to do that, if we are not to dislocate once again the system for the thoroughgoing checks that are currently being made on anyone who applies for the first time to work with, be with or volunteer to take part in activities alongside children, so that what it is feasible to implement is balanced against the necessity to provide protection through a checking process on a national basis, with the thoroughness that did not exist three years ago.
§ Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)
The Home Secretary outlined and acknowledged the failures in the Cambridgeshire police and the Humberside police relating both to systems and to policing, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) also emphasised. May I pick up on one point that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) made? Going back several years, those police forces were inspected by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. Did HMIC at any time flag up those weaknesses to the Home Office? If so, what action was taken, and if not, why not?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I have already acknowledged that that is a fair and sensible point, and it is one that Sir Michael makes with regard to HMIC's capability and the thoroughness of its activity in this area. The shadow Home Secretary made the point succinctly, and I have accepted that HMIC must raise its game in this area and needs expertise to do the job. It had certainly reported on the Humberside and Cambridgeshire forces, because regrettably we know where those forces have lain in all other national assessments, including, in the case of Humberside, the recent baseline assessment. What was not clearly emphasised and therefore not appreciated was the enormity of the failure of information systems. That is something that I want to put right.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the report from Sir Michael Bichard. This appalling murder case uncovered weaknesses in some parts of the system and in some police forces. I know that Cambridgeshire police will take the recommendations very seriously and will already have considered the implications. Despite the fact that a national database will be in place, will my 1199 right hon. Friend issue a statement to all police forces asking them to review urgently their current procedures for storing and retrieving information?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, the code that we are issuing under the Police Reform Act 2002 will do precisely that. The inspection process will be critical in making sure that it happens.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)
In the Home Secretary's very welcome statement, he referred to the need for social services databases to hold details of all alleged sexual offenders involved with named children. Does he realise the particular vulnerability of those who work with children on a day-to-day professional basis—I am speaking, of course, of schoolteachers—to unjust and unfounded allegations? In the very delicate balance of risk that he has to strike, will he take care to ensure that teachers in particular are protected from unjustified allegations destroying their careers and, in some cases, their lives?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I accept entirely that it is a very delicate and sensitive balance, which is why we have not rushed in today and made any bombastic statements or indications of unprecedented action. We need to try to get this right, reflecting on what Sir Michael rightly indicates is a mismatch between the holding of convictions and the holding of information, which, taken together, would have led to a conviction in the case of Ian Huntley. We need to do so precisely for the reasons enunciated—there are people who become vulnerable to unwarranted accusations that can destroy their professional well-being and livelihood. With regard to the teaching profession, my right hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Skills are examining how we can ensure a faster process of dealing with such allegations in order to meet the challenge of investigating them thoroughly, but not destroying the lives of those who are accused of taking the actions.
§ Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
For four years before entering this House, I had the great honour of being the chairman of the Humberside police authority. I saw at first hand the great skill and professionalism of the serving officers, who will be devastated by the report, which comes on the back of a recent poor performance assessment. There is no point in denying what is in front of us. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will work as quickly as possible with the Humberside police authority to resolve these management issues and let Humberside police rebuild their reputation as a modern, efficient force, as the people of Humberside will wish and as the actions of a great majority of their serving officers deserve?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I appreciate my hon. Friend's experience and knowledge. I have made it clear through my officials to the chairman of the police authority, Colin Inglis, that we are prepared, and that the inspectorate and outside services will be drawn on, to give whatever help and support are needed to the deputy who will be acting chief constable for the weeks ahead, and to the police authority. I appeal to them to take up that help. In the end, the service that is provided to the people of Humberside is the sole concern of the police 1200 authority and those who work for the service. Confidence in the effectiveness and efficiency of that service is paramount in all our minds.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
In 1997, my right hon. Friend's Department undertook widespread consultation before the introduction of the Data Protection Act 1998, which Sir Michael said does not need radical revision. Will my right hon. Friend consider undertaking the same process in developing the code of practice? I think that there is widespread expertise out there and in the House that will aid in getting that right and in ensuring that improvements occur across the board.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am very happy to draw on expertise and experience in terms of the code. It would be right to do so. The difficulty that we have—we should be honest about it—is that we swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. A terrible incident occurs and people want to ensure that the maximum information is shared and is available. The next moment, there is real fear of intrusion into people's lives and danger of damaging the privacy of individuals and risking their exposure. Getting this right means having a code of practice that, in the cold of light of day, balances those two opposites.
§ Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his speedy action in appointing Sir Michael and on his firm decision taking on receipt of the report. However, it is no wonder that the conviction rate for serious sexual offences is only 5.7 per cent. of complaints, as is clear when one looks at the catalogue of sexual complaints made by young women against the same person which are not investigated and prosecuted to court by this one police force to which we have been referring. Steps have been taken since the nineties that should make the investigation of sexual offences better, but will my right hon. Friend ask the police inspectorate to look most carefully into and report on the way in which those incidents were investigated, so that we may be sure that we learn the lessons of all the Soham-related failures?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. and learned Friend raises much wider issues. In the case of Ian Huntley, the incidents were reported. As the shadow Home Secretary indicated, they were known about, but they were not collated, no relationships were established and they were not held on the database and therefore not drawn on and acted on. I agree entirely that there needs to be a system, as the report recommends, that joins up not only what is found by social services, but what is referred by other agencies or individuals, and that deals with how that information is collated and held; in which circumstances it is deleted; and, above all, how one incident can be put together with another to build up a case and a picture of behaviour that allows us to intervene to save others from being sexually molested. That is what went so sadly amiss in the Huntley case.
§ Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, owing to recent police and criminal evidence legislation, both the Crown Prosecution Service and the police can now, in certain circumstances, 1201 accept hearsay evidence from parents regarding under-age sex? This is playing an important part in my constituency as far as Operation Parsonage is concerned. If the legislation had been in place earlier, it might have helped the police in relation to Huntley.
§ Mr. Blunkett
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 permits the use of such evidence in circumstances in which the young person themselves, while having given details and evidence, is not prepared to do so in court. That measure will be of assistance if it is sensitively applied, with the checks that Parliament rightly built in on the use of such evidence, including in writing.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)
I welcome the speedy action that my right hon. Friend has taken following the publication of the report, and especially what he has said about the need for someone on each interviewing panel to be trained in the protection of children, since there would be no use in having the best system in the world if those on the ground were not trained to operate it. From his discussions with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, can he tell the House how quickly he thinks such a system of training can be put in place? Does he envisage joint training for those in education, social services and the police so that everyone is working to the same agenda and on the same priorities?
§ Mr. Blunkett
The Minister for Children is determined to move as quickly as possible, but we have to bear it in mind that in preparing lead governors in 24,000 schools, with the necessary consultation with all the elements of the education service and training providers, will take a little while. We need to find a way of identifying those at a local level who are available and will be in a position to provide such light-touch training very quickly, so that we can draw on the expertise that exists. My right hon. Friends will be examining that matter. The last thing that we want is to set up some tremendous bureaucratic system that would take years to implement and would probably be out of date by the time people accessed it.