HL Deb 15 September 2003 vol 652 cc662-5

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept that the documentation required by the Criminal Records Bureau for the purpose of standard and enhanced disclosure checks is suitable for purpose.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, it is essential to have in place robust arrangements for checks to ensure so far as is practicable that people are not able to obtain a clean disclosure through falsely using another person's identity and that information is not revealed inadvertently to the wrong person. The CRB has therefore carefully developed arrangements for checks to authenticate the identity of disclosure applicants using documentary evidence of different types. These appear to be serving the required purpose, but are kept under regular review in the light of experience.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the Answer. I admit that I am subject to a standard disclosure clearance at the moment. I have to say that the experience I am having—I hope the noble Baroness would agree—simply shows that other people are right in their views that the CRB is something of a shambles at the moment.

My specific question to the noble Baroness is: when asked for a photo-identity card, why was my House of Lords security pass unacceptable to the CRB?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I say straightaway that the noble Baroness will be reassured that Members of this House are still treated as ordinary members of the community and are subject to the same rules. At the moment, I regret to tell your Lordships that, perhaps because of the relatively small numbers who attend this House, the pass which enables one to get into this House is not included in the authorised list for disclosure.

I can also reassure the noble Baroness that her application was treated with great expedition and care—and accuracy because of course the document produced was not within the rules.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I applied in June; I am still waiting for clearance. If that is expeditious, I wonder what taking a long time would be?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I make absolutely clear that it is of critical importance for those who apply to the CRB to comply with the rules and to fill in the form appropriately. I regret to tell the noble Baroness that her application form was not so completed.

Since the noble Baroness wishes to have an answer, I am happy to give one. The application was initiated by telephone on 21st July; the form was countersigned by the registered body on 18th August; the form was received by the CRB and immediately returned to the Department for Education and Skills because of insufficient identity validation on 20th August; the noble Baroness was then written to on 4th September; and the DfES wrote to the CRB on 8th September. It was received on 11th September asking whether the House of Lords pass was an acceptable identity document and for a reply by 19th September. A reply will be sent.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I wonder whether those exchanges will suffice to establish for the authorities that my noble friend is who she says she is.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am sure that one would want verification, but we would all be happy to verify that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is the noble Baroness. I am sure DNA would not be necessary.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, as a trustee of Age Concern Surrey, I, too, have had to go through the CRB procedures. I was somewhat surprised to discover that I had to produce my passport, my birth certificate, my marriage certificate, my driving licence and a utility bill addressed to me. That proved to be the most difficult since unfortunately our utility bills are addressed to my husband.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am very happy with the recitation given by the noble Baroness because she will know that the information provided by the CRB is of critical importance. It is the information upon which we rely to keep our children and those who are vulnerable safe. It is absolutely necessary that we have the best quality identification material available to make that verification possible.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, will the Minister say something about a serious aspect of a piece of work that most of us regard as extremely important? Certainly, in the Churches we have every reason to think that the CRB is doing something extremely important for us all. I am increasingly concerned at the amount of staff time and particularly at the effect of the quite sudden and very large increase in charges made by the CRB on the work not only of Churches, but in particular of small charities. Are the Government keeping any kind of check on the effect of this admittedly extremely important piece of work on the other work of charities and Churches, because it is becoming a very serious matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I very much welcome the comments of the right reverend Prelate in relation to the importance of the Criminal Record Bureau's work. We take very seriously the amount of time spent. The right reverend Prelate should know that initially one form out of two was incorrectly filled in. Now the figure is one out of four. We are trying to give guidance, help and support to make sure that people can quickly and easily fill in these forms. I can reassure the House by saying that of course the applications of the volunteers who come forward are done for free. We will regularly keep the matter under review to see what more can be done to make the system even better than it is now.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, in order to speed up this process, which causes immense problems, could the Government take some action to develop a system which would make it routine for a prospective employee to take to an interview his CRB certificate along with other proof of identity and qualifications, and perhaps be reimbursed later where appropriate?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are certainly looking at what can be done to make the system easier. The noble Baroness may know that the Government are looking to see whether we can take advantage of registered bodies and whether applications could be made first through them and then through to us. There are provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill which address that very issue. I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that we are keeping this matter under careful consideration.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the CRB is a government agency. The noble Baroness has been kind enough to inform the House that the House of Lords pass is not acceptable identity for the CRB. She has not explained why. Would it not save, as the right reverend Prelate has explained, a great deal of staff time if the House of Lords pass was acceptable and should not the noble Baroness use her best offices to make it so?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I shall certainly raise the issue. But the noble Lord should know that the pass allows individuals to come into this building. We have tended to enable the use of documents which are of general availability. I regret to say that the general population still does not have access in an equal way to this House.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, the noble Baroness described a procedure of almost unbelievable complexity. She described a form which is still so obscure that one applicant in four finds it impossible to complete it correctly. She is describing a system which also makes frequent errors in clearing people who should not have been cleared, as well as not clearing those who ought to have been cleared. Is not the plain fact that this organisation is not under her control; that it has been contracted out through a quango to a company which has then subcontracted much of its operations to a second company which has subcontracted again to a third?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not accept what the noble Lord says about quality. In fact, the CRB is meeting its service provider requirements. I regret to have to tell the noble Lord that the reason that the form is not filled out correctly is often that those filling it out err—not because it is not plain; but because they err. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that that difficulty is cured. There is not the frequency of errors to which the noble Lord alludes. The system is working very well indeed. I agree that it did not work well last year; but this year, there has been a great deal of improvement and the CRB should be congratulated on its improvements to the system.