HL Deb 08 October 2002 vol 639 cc138-40

2.57 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale asked Her Majesty's Government:

On what date and for what reason the Criminal Records Bureau decided to change the method of data processing of applications for enhanced disclosure from that originally specified.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the original model for the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was based on a call-centre, telephone-based and online application route, with capacity to deal with individual paper applications. That arrangement was expected to be convenient for applicants and would reduce errors. It was also in line with the Government's e-government objectives. However, during extensive consultation with registered bodies and employers from January to June 2001, there was strong pressure from them to introduce a full-scale paper-based application. Consequently, in May 2001, the CRB agreed to introduce more extensive capacity to deal with paper-based applications. That was negotiated with a contractor between May and October 2001.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that response, I ask him to explain why the Home Office and the Criminal Records Bureau accepted the ICT system from Capita designed to deal with most applications by phone before asking its known customers how they wanted them dealt with, which turned out to be by paper. After similar failures in IT contracts signed off by the Home Office, the Prison Service, the Passport Agency and the Immigration Service, to name but a few, should there not be an immediate review of procurement practice to ensure that systems are fit for the purpose before the start button is pressed and the results of such a review published?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in regard to the focus on a call-centre, telephone-based approach, both the contractor and the CRB thought that was appropriate, but before they went live there was detailed consultation with the clients of what was to become the CRB. That took place between January and June 2001, which was approximately nine months before the process went live. It was sensible to hold that consultation before it went live. It led to the discussions between the contractor and the CRB during the period that I indicated in my original Answer and the change that was then introduced in relation to the system of dealing with applications.

On the problems about ICT contracts generally, yes, my noble friend is absolutely right. In both public sector ICT contracts and private sector ICT contracts, there are frequently great difficulties in making them work at an early stage. In organisations such as the Government, but also in the private sector, we have a huge amount to learn about how they are best introduced. We have an Office of Government Commerce and a series of NAO reports looking at that kind of issue. We have a huge number of lessons to learn. But please do not be under the illusion that this relates only to the public sector. Anyone in this House who has been engaged in the introduction of major ICT contracts in the private sector may well have experience of similar problems.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the importance of such disclosures is not questioned; it is the process. Are the Government aware of the chaos that has resulted in the appointment of teachers, clergy and all kinds of voluntary workers such as youth leaders and Sunday school teachers—and the anxiety that it causes, not just to the people concerned but to the communities around them? We need to have some action to make the process speedier.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am fully aware of the particular problems referred to by the right reverend Prelate. The aim of introducing the CRB was that there should be reliable vetting of people who work with children and vulnerable people. I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree with that outcome. The process of introducing that has been problematic, particularly in relation to the ICT. It has been running since March, but it is not running properly at the moment. A great deal of effort is being put in to make it right, in particular, by bringing in three outside independent people to look at the system and to make sure that it is being done in the best possible way to reach the conclusion that I know the right reverend Prelate wants. Please bear with us in relation to that. Do not be unrealistic about how long these things take to get right. We all know the aim that we want. Please bear with us to get to the aim that we are after.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord explain to the House the relevance of a question that applicants have to answer about personal details of their bank and building society accounts, which includes the sort code, account numbers and the personal confidential word that they have to use in order to secure information from their bank accounts? What is the relevance of all of that to securing information about a background of paedophilia and safety to work with children and adults? Can the noble and learned Lord also say whether much of the processing still takes place in Delhi, India?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as to the first question, a very important aspect of what is done is that people are appropriately identified before any checks are made, so that the right person is identified.

As to the second question, the process involves material being sent to India. In India the details of paper forms are entered into the information system. That is done extremely quickly and effectively so that the system can then help in the process of identification.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord said that we should not be unrealistic about the time it will take to put matters right. Could he be realistic and tell us how long he expects it to take, because while this is going on, it is causing enormous problems, not only to schools but to hospitals, doctors' practices and so on?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as regards the time it will take, the three independent people appointed to look at the particular issue are doing so now. I do not want to create any false expectations, but I shall keep the House informed as to their views.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, is it not about time that the Government started to get things right the first time, not only in this case, but as regards A-levels and everything else that they have got wrong, ending up with disaster and huge expense to the public purse?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that everyone in the House will agree that we are seeking to achieve a right and identifiable outcome. The noble Baroness will be aware that a number of contracts were entered into by the government of whom she was a member, including the one for the benefits card which had to be scrapped. I think that one should be realistic rather than political in relation to these matters.

Forward to