HC Deb 30 April 2003 vol 404 cc103-25WH

2 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I shall start by explaining why I have called today's debate. My interest in the Criminal Records Bureau was roused last November by a written parliamentary answer in the House of Lords. The Minister answering the question, Lord Falconer, announced that checks on 700,000 people mostly working with vulnerable adults were to be postponed indefinitely. Given my interest in issues affecting care of the elderly, that made me want to understand more about what was going on and what had led to that announcement.

The CRB is one of the pillars of this country's system of safeguarding vulnerable people. It is not the only safeguard, but it is an important one. The decision to postpone checks on those who work with vulnerable adults and frail elderly people has provoked an outcry from providers of care services to organisations, such as Action on Elder Abuse, and from practitioner organisations, such as the Social Care Association.

The statement made me want to know what had gone wrong with the system, why it had gone wrong and who was accountable. Strange things happen in this place at times. It was pure happenstance that I secured notification of this debate on the day that I met Lord Falconer and his officials to discuss some of the issues.

The CRB has a long history. The Conservative Government set out their plans to create the agency in a Green Paper in 1993. The idea had strong all-party support in the House. The idea for such an agency goes back even further, but taking 1993 as a starting point, the Home Office has been working for 10 years on plans to establish a centralised agency to provide criminal record checks. In preparing for the debate, I have learned as much as I can about the extensive programme of research undertaken by the Home Office to develop the business plan and the systems that underpin the CRB.

As the Minister will know, criminal record checks were originally to be available from the CRB from August 2001, 12 months after the private sector partner, Capita, signed the contract to deliver, manage and own the IT side of the operation. Over those crucial 12 months, each stage of the implementation programme suffered delays and setbacks. The CRB finally went live on 11 March 2002, seven months late. The first six months of operation saw a gradual increase in the number of applications for checks. Despite a low volume of demand for CRB checks in the early period, it failed to cope. Basically, the system lacks capacity.

In effect, the CRB was drowning in paper. The decision in May 2001 to include a full-scale, paper-based application route had a serious impact on its capacity. I am not just saying that; all the documentary evidence that I have considered supports that conclusion. It is hard to imagine how that problem occurred. It had originally been envisaged that customers of the CRB would apply by telephone or that an electronic route would also be available to apply for disclosures. As the Minister will know, given that: he has provided an answer to this effect, about eight out of 10 applications are based on paper.

The failure to identify at a much earlier stage such a basic customer requirement as how people would prefer to apply for CRB disclosures is staggering. From the evidence that I have seen and the Home Affairs Committee's consideration of the matter in 2001, I know that the matter does not seem to have been addressed at any stage. Indeed, in an answer to me, the Minister confirmed that it was not the subject of a formal consultation with customers but arose only out of the exercise of informing prospective registered bodies of their role and functions and seeing which bodies would be interested. It then became apparent that a paper route would be necessary.

To compound that omission, the CRB has laid much of the blame for the backlog in processing applications that accumulated last year at the door of applicants and registered bodies for completing forms incorrectly, rather than doing what was really needed and offering further critical examination of the design of the forms and guidance for people completing them. Some new guidance has been issued and there has been welcome progress, although some of it has involved changes such as increasing the size of the paper to reduce the number of pages.

Three months after going live, and under intense pressure to deliver checks on teaching staff in time for the school year, the CRB announced a package of measures to improve performance, which included shifting the initial processing of paper applications to Madras, India and seconding hundreds of staff from the Passport Agency.

Five months after going live, the CRB commissioned an independent review by the French Thornton Partnership Ltd. of the core IT systems provided by Capita. In a written answer, the Minister refused to publish the report on grounds of commercial confidentiality. I have been led to believe, however, that when the consultants lifted the floorboards on the system they found a catalogue of serious defects. Software and applications were poorly documented, poorly coded and not adaptable enough to meet future business needs without major modifications. There is even a question mark over whether the system originally delivered by Capita was capable of coping with the demands of the basic disclosure. If that is true, it is hardly surprising that the Carter inquiry found that, even though the system had already undergone substantial "enhancements and improvements" since its original delivery, it was still in need of significant modification to make it fit for its intended purpose.

To what extent the Home Office's system requirement contributed to the CRB's difficulties must be understood not just in the Department but by hon. Members. Did the system originally delivered by Capita fit the Home Office specification? If so, what went wrong? If not, why was the system accepted?

Six months of poor performance and panic measures ended with the Home Secretary calling in troubleshooters. The independent review team led by Patrick Carter found no evidence that the CRB had the capacity to cope with the levels of demand that were forecast. Initial feedback was given to Ministers in September, and a final report was submitted to them in December 2002. That report has not been published, and only a summary of the main findings and recommendations has been made available.

Eight months in, capacity is still a problem for the CRB. As I mentioned at the start, plans to extend checks to staff working with vulnerable adults from April 2003 were postponed indefinitely. I hope that the Minister will say something about the announcements made last November. Will he tell us when a clear timetable will be published for the introduction of checks on staff working with vulnerable adults? It is time now to get some idea of a date by which people should be expected to have been checked, and for the frail, vulnerable elderly people who rely on obtaining at least part of the safeguarding system through the CRB to know that that is coming on stream.

Will the Minister confirm that the timetable, which I hope he will outline in the near future, if not today, will include a start date for the protection of vulnerable adults list from the Department of Health? In its planning for the delivery of that list, the Department's work must mesh with that of the CRB and the Home Office. The decision to postpone checks was an admission that the CRB was ill equipped to meet the demand anticipated in its business plan, which was only published in March 2002, yet and was then already out of date and in urgent need of rewriting. In fact, in the Select Committee the year before, a promise was made that the business plan would be available in March 2001. A year went by before it was published. When will revised forecasts, financial estimates and performance targets be published? Will they appear as part of the annual accounts, or will there be some separate reporting in the near future in advance of the National Audit Office's investigation of the CRB?

One year after the go live date, the Home Secretary accepted most of the Carter review team's recommendations. The introduction of the basic disclosure will be postponed until the system can reliably cope with all the demand for standard and enhanced disclosures. Perhaps the most telling thing is that just two and a half years after awarding Capita the contract, the Government are to embark on a costly renegotiation to secure a system that is capable of delivering the original business intention—the policy intention behind all this.

In preparing for this debate, I thought it would be useful not only to consider the national context but to take the opportunity of raising constituency issues with the Minister. I had the opportunity to talk to the Sutton Volunteer Bureau in my constituency, which is probably one of the largest of its kind in the country. It runs a wide range of services for volunteers, and it is a registered body. In the past year—the first year of the CRB's operation—it estimated that long delays in securing disclosures cost it one in six of the volunteers who came through its door seeking to work for it and the local community. That is an awful lot of people who did not get to volunteer and provide services volunteers whom the bureau could ill afford to lose. That must be being replicated throughout the country.

Sutton Volunteer Bureau has concerns about the plans to reform the disclosure process. It was surprised that provision had not been made for quality standards to be set on such issues as checking identity, detecting forgery and dealing with inconsistencies of evidence. It does not have that information supplied to it as a registered body; it can make contact with the CRB and take advice, but there is no proper training or guidance available. The bureau is strongly opposed to the 200 applications minimum for applying to be a registered body.

One of the reasons why the bureau registered with the CRB was the administration charge that it had to pay an umbrella organisation for each application. It was paying El 5 as an administration charge, which is a substantially lower figure than some that I have heard about in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, that was an additional burden on a hard-pressed charity, and it is a serious concern for many voluntary organisations, especially where access to registered bodies is limited. It has led the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to recommend a national network of regional umbrella registered bodies. Will the Minister be working with the voluntary sector to determine the best way to establish such a network with sufficient funding to allow sound databases and processes to be developed to ensure that local voluntary and community organisations throughout the country have equal access to services?

Sutton Volunteer Bureau raised concerns about the idea of prioritising employment groups for different levels of disclosure. It queries whether it will be possible to draw distinctions between different occupational groups that are all in contact with children or vulnerable adults. The NCVO, too, has expressed concern. It pointed out the difficulty in the CRB making decisions about matters on the basis of nationally determined criteria, without the benefit of the detailed and specific knowledge of the job at local level.

There is also a concern about the insurance implications of placing a statutory duty on registered bodies to validate identities. Although that may be a necessary change in the law, it has implications for organisations' insurance liability. What steps is the Home Office taking to review the insurance liability implications for registered bodies following the proposals in the consultation document?

Another point that my local volunteers made related to the proposed electronic application route, which is still being prepared, and the possibility of its becoming the sole route of application for disclosures. There are substantial set-up costs for registered bodies in achieving that means of access to the CRB. Putting in place the necessary IT, appropriate firewalls and other data protection systems is a complex undertaking. That leads me to the final point that was made: the need for more support from the CRB for registered bodies. If an electronic channel is to be opened, it will require training and ongoing support from the CRB. If the CRB is about managing a process from end to end, and registered bodies are an integral part of that process, organisations need to have the benefit of ongoing support from the CRB.

If the reforms of the disclosure process are to work, the CRB needs to implement a more comprehensive package of support and training. The deadline for consultation was 25 April—last Friday. Less than 12 weeks—12 weeks is recommended in the compact that the Government have signed with the voluntary sector, and in the Cabinet Office's code of good practice—was a short time scale within which to respond on an important subject. Given the pressure that his Department is under to table amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, can the Minister give an assurance that full consideration will be given to the responses from all the organisations before amendments are tabled, and can a written statement be provided of the Government's intentions in light of the consultation?

At the meeting that I had on Monday with my local volunteer bureau, concern was expressed about the enhanced disclosure where soft information becomes available. This is how the process works: an individual gets their certificate, which will say that they do not have a criminal record, but the agency that made the application on their behalf gets the form that has the tick to say, "Wait for the envelope that will have the soft information." That presents it with a series of issues. It is a voluntary organisation. It cannot tell the individual that it cannot appoint them because of the existence of soft information, as that would breach the requirements about registration, but it has to make it clear to the person that they cannot be appointed. Having done that, that person can walk away from that voluntary organisation with an enhanced disclosure certificate that has nothing on it.

Sutton Volunteer Bureau has heard of examples when people have done that and then gone to work for other voluntary organisations off the back of the enhanced disclosure certificate. What safeguards are in place to ensure that that cannot happen? It certainly should not happen. People should not have the opportunity to work somewhere else when there is information that should have been made available to those making that appointment decision.

The CRB is meant to be self-financing by 2007. In 2001, the Home Office secured the approval of Her Majesty's Treasury for a five-year cumulative cost recovery plan. That plan has to recover all the set-up costs incurred by the agency and Capita, all their running costs and—I believe—the cost of waiving charges for volunteers.

The unanticipated demand for, and use of, a full-scale paper-based application route an top of significant changes to the capabilities of the IT have increased the unit costs of producing a disclosure. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us today what is the current unit cost. The business plan mentions a figure of around £13, and it would be useful to know whether the figure is higher or lower than that. I believe that it is higher. The estimated loss of £100 million in revenue from the basic disclosure process over the next.three years means that fixed and set-up costs have to be spread over fewer standard and enhanced disclosures—disclosures that are more expensive to administer, leaving less scope for paying off what is in effect a loan from Her Majesty's Treasury and, I believe, from the Department of Health.

Unless the Home Office can strike a deal with HM Treasury—which I imagine is next to impossible—or other Departments, charges for disclosures will have to rise sharply to bridge the funding gap and to ensure that the organisation is brought into financial balance by 2007. Does the Minister agree that the CRB's customers should not be made to pay for poor project planning and incompetent implementation? Can he confirm that fee increases for disclosures will be indexed to prices, or will there be a different basis?

One of the most frustrating things about my inquiries into the CRB has been the refusal to publish key reports on grounds of commercial confidentiality. At times, commercial confidentiality offers a convenient means of clouding questions of accountability. I hope that the Home Office will seek the agreement of Capita to waive commercial confidentiality, and publish the Carter report in full and the parts of the French Thornton review on the core system of Capita. That will help to shed light on many of the issues that I am raising.

Because of the absence of those reports, it is hard to pinpoint whether Capita delivered the system specified by the Home Office. The fact that the system has undergone countless changes suggests a serious flaw in the specification and a breakdown in communication during the design stage.

On 12 February 1997, the current Foreign Secretary, who was then shadow Home Secretary, said: "The experience of setting up new agencies is not happy. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Child Support Agency are the best and worst examples, but by no means the only ones. Agencies set up from scratch and all at once have a habit of early systemic failure that can last for years."—[Official Report, 12 February 1997; Vol. 306, c. 379.] He was right to issue that warning of "early systemic failure that can last for years." Unfortunately, during his watch at the Home Office most of the fatal decisions that set the CRB on course for chaos were taken. The Home Office agreement with HM Treasury that the CRB would recover its costs and become self-financing by 2007 means that Home Office Ministers are now stuck between a rock and a hard place: either they jack up fees for disclosures and court public outcry, or they try to persuade Her Majesty's Treasury to extend the payback period. It seems more likely that the cost of putting the CRB right will fall on those organisations and people who are obliged by law to apply for disclosures, and that is unfair.

In a memorandum of evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in January 2001, the Home Office said: "Delay is clearly undesirable. However, the CRB service cannot and will not be allowed to go live until systems have been fully developed and tested and there is a high degree of confidence in the service being delivered to appropriately high standards." Given the evidence available, it is hard to understand how Ministers or their officials could have had the "high degree of confidence" in the system necessary to authorise going live in March 2002. The system was not fit for the purpose and was not ready to cope: it should not have gone live.

2.20 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing this important debate. On any day other than today, more hon. Members might have been attracted to come and contribute their feelings on the rather sad state that the Criminal Records Bureau is in.

My hon. Friend's broad case is entirely correct. He put the questions that any sane and sensible person would have asked in the circumstances, and those questions demand replies from Ministers. The setting up of the Criminal Records Bureau was supported by all parties in the House, and as is so often the case when something is supported by all parties, we have ended up with serious questions about its implementation. Although the theory behind the idea may have been right, the practice in this instance can only be described as lamentable.

With issues of this kind, we often come back to the subject of project management of IT systems within Government. The subject appears to plague all Government, but especially the Home Office, whose record in this area is far from satisfactory. We all remember the Passport Agency and the immigration and nationality directorate problems. It seems that there is a lack of preparedness and understanding of how to frame admittedly complex matters of procurement in IT. The consequences are almost always systems that fail and enormous costs to the taxpayer—as well as the enrichment of certain IT companies in the process, which I do not accept to be a good consequence of the lack of proper procurement within Government.

The stages of procurement, which all seem to be at fault—my hon. Friend's evidence is clear on the point—re as follows: first, we must identify the task that we want the new machinery to effect; secondly, there must be a specification that translates that task into a contract; thirdly, there must be the development and implementation of that specification on the part of the contractor. On that third point, it seems that the Government often buy what is known in the trade as vaporware: systems that have not yet been developed but are promised on the basis of analogous operations elsewhere. However, when it comes to making the machinery fit the task, IT companies are often incapable of delivering.

Lastly, we must identify whether the system is sufficiently robust to be put into operation. Often, the equation is whether the Department accepts the machinery that has been provided, knowing that it is incapable of delivering in full the task that it has been set, or whether it is prepared to lose face and say, "No, I'm sorry, we cannot implement what we have promised, and we must go back to the supplier and say this will not do, this will not provide what we want."

Let us be fair: the problem is not confined to national Government. We accept that. It happens in the commercial world, and certainly in local government. From my personal experience, I remember finding myself twice arraying my legal tanks on the lawns of IT companies that had failed to deliver systems. On one occasion it was for the county council of which I was leader and on the other it was for the police authority of which I was chairman. In both instances, it was because the companies had failed to deliver the specification that we had required.

Obviously, there is a difference in scale when it comes to central Government. Moreover, there is a view, which the Minister should try to dispel, that too much is done by the Department in-house without sufficient expertise at its disposal to understand what it is actually demanding. I was interested recently, as a member of the Science and Technology Committee, to take evidence from a number of learned societies, and in particular the computer engineers' society, which said that it had never been consulted by the Government and that it would be delighted to be consulted on IT procurement matters, because its expertise is clearly relevant and it could greatly assist the Government. As I said, there is a question mark over the procurement process.

There are several questions over how we arrived at this point in the first instance. My hon. Friend has spelled out some of the essential questions to be asked, including where the assessment of the required capacity was. Was that assessment made at an early stage, and was it then correct or incorrect? If it was correct, why did the systems not deliver that capacity? If it was incorrect, why was that so and what post mortem has been undertaken to discover how a Department of State could make such a massive miscalculation?

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I agree with the comments of the hon. Gentleman and of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). Will the hon. Gentleman consider adding something to his list of what Parliament and the people whom we represent should see? When the post mortem, as he calls it, has been divulged by the Government, should that not be placed, unedited, in the Library of the House of Commons, so that all Members, all constituents and all organisations affected by this shambles can see it?

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that much of the evidence will come from the National Audit Office inquiry and from the subsequent questions that our colleagues in the Public Accounts Committee will ask. That process will of course be open, but I shall be coming later to the question of openness and the cloak of commercial confidentiality, which I find entirely inappropriate where public sector money is involved. Incidentally, if we extend the analogy with local government that I made earlier, such confidentiality would be unavailable there, because the costs would be clearly specified in the authority's annual accounts. If they were not, they could be ascertained by the district auditor or by application to him. There is a clear difference in approach between what is required of local government and what is required of central Government.

Following the failure to deliver and to provide the capacity required, there was renegotiation with Capita. I think that we are entitled to know the basis on which that renegotiation has taken place. After all, Capita is not exactly unknown to Government and local government. It seems to have its finger in an awful lot of pies. I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad or a good thing, but I simply state that, because Capita is a major provider of services across a whole range of government in this country, it is reasonable for the public and the taxpayer to know what sort of terms and value they are getting in the execution of its contracts. It is unacceptable for such things to be swept under the carpet.

The effects of the inability to deliver were disastrous in many ways. There were all the problems with the start of the school term. The start of the school year seemed to come as a complete surprise to everybody associated with the Criminal Records Bureau. I would have thought that any sort of plan of operation would have had marked in clear and large letters the start of the school year, the lead-up to it and the fact that schools were likely to employ many new staff who would need clearance to allow them to work at the start of term. Apparently that was not so, and the start of term was a surprise. There was a completely unacceptable delay in approving school staff. As a result, there was an absurd situation—until the intervention of the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills—in which teachers employed by a school were sitting in the staff room, unable to deal with their pupils, despite the fact that, in some instances, they had taught for many years without any difficulty, and the local education authority and the governors and head teacher of the school were all prepared to accept responsibility for those experienced teachers having contact with pupils.

The same thing applied not only to ancillary school staff and classroom assistants but to parents who wanted to contribute to schools and governing bodies. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the hurt and disquiet that were caused to many people. They were prevented from making their contribution to their own child's school simply because they could not get clearance. Many thought that it was a direct reflection on their character—which of course was quite wrong, but that was the perception.

Now there is an indefinite delay in applications for checks on those working with vulnerable adults. That is clearly wrong, because Parliament has willed that those checks should take place. Most people who are familiar with the area want to see the checks for the protection of vulnerable adults put in place at the earliest opportunity. Again, there has been a deleterious effect on recruitment in a sector that is already finding it difficult to recruit appropriate staff. The position is not sustainable in the medium term, let alone the long term.

What has the response been? The Government have reacted in a number of ways. As I said earlier, the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills made an emergency decision at the start of the school year, which got the Government off the hook temporarily. Clearly, there was still a serious problem to be addressed. The Criminal Records Bureau was swamped in paper and was quite unable to perform the task that it had been allotted.

In August 2002, we had the French Thornton Partnership Ltd. assessment of the position. I have to ask the Minister yet again why on earth that assessment has not been published. It will not wash to say that it is commercially sensitive. We are considering deficiencies in a public system. If that is the way in which public-private partnerships are to work in future—if they are considered to be secret and commercially sensitive, meaning that British taxpayers cannot know what is going wrong with a system that they are funding, for the protection of the public good—there is a serious deficiency in the process. The assessment must be published.

The same is true of the Carter inquiry, which has come up with a series of recommendations, some of which will have been helpful to the Government and some of which will have been helpful but distasteful to the Government in terms of what they have to do to put things right. We would be much better informed were the inquiry available to hon. Members and the wider world, so that we could make cur own assessment of what has happened and is happening. I would like to know why, for instance, no detailed financial forecasts were made by the Criminal Records Bureau in its infancy. Why on earth was an agency of such size and importance allowed to go into operation without doing its sums properly? It did not carry out the financial forecasts that would have told us whether it had the redundant capacity to allow for any miscalculation.

We need to know what the costs of the new contract that must be negotiated to put things right will be, and where they will fall. We need to know how much of the cost is due to variation of contract on the part of the Government, which can be said to be the direct fault of the Home Office, and how much is due to the inability of the contractor to make good its previous promises. We need to know whether it is intended that any of those costs will be recouped from applicants—a point made so well by my hon. Friend earlier.

We need to know what level of performance will be deemed acceptable. When will the backlog be reduced to something that is manageable and appropriate? We are told that there has been a reduction in the backlog from 194,000 to 51,000 and that, because applicants are being dealt with faster than they are coming in, the backlog is still being reduced. Presumably, the Minister now has a clear view of when there will be no backlog and when he can revisit the decision not to extend the scheme to vulnerable adults. Will he share that view with us today?

We are told that the checks are 99 per cent. accurate, which sounds very reassuring—when one achieves a target of 99 per cent. in most matters, one can be well satisfied—but in this area we are dealing with 1 million applications over a period of six months. If 99 per cent. of the checks were accurate, I per cent. were inaccurate, which means that 10,000 people were wrongly assessed. Those people were either certified as no threat when they are, which is extremely serious for the people they are working with, or assessed as being a threat when they are not, which is extremely serious for the applicants and the people who wish to employ them. Either way, I would like to know what level of performance the Minister considers acceptable.

The Minister intends to table amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill. He and I have some experience of the ins and outs of that Bill, and we look forward to resuming our jousting on that subject in the near future. Will he tell us when he intends to make those amendments available? That will ensure that they will receive proper scrutiny from the House, because he knows that we have two days on Report and on Third Reading to deal with a huge number of amendments to and aspects of the Bill, and we must be able to consult properly the organisations outside the House that will be affected, such as voluntary bodies. They must have the opportunity to have their views heard.

Are we going to continue with paper-based applications, or is it the intention to reduce the scale of such applications and return to the original vision of how the CRB will work? If that is the case, how long can we expect to wait for that to happen?

My hon. Friend has already explained the background to the position of voluntary bodies, so I will not repeat what he has said, but there are issues about the umbrella registered bodies, the threshold numbers, the appropriate levels of disclosure—and who decides them—and the insurance liability implications for voluntary organisations. Those are issues of huge importance to people whose assistance we as a country, as a society, desperately need in order to make many of our systems work. We owe it to them to make systems as helpful, not as difficult, as possible to operate.

This IT procurement debacle is yet another in a long list of battle dishonours that this Government and their predecessors have won. When will we learn from past mistakes? When will we have an IT procurement policy that delivers on time and to budget and ensures that the finished product has the capacity to deliver the required outcome? We do not have that at present, and we are not learning from mistakes. For example, the difficulties that the Lord Chancellor's Department is having with the court IT systems show that exactly the same mistakes are being made yet again, and very often for exactly the same reasons.

I make a plea to the Minister that he and his colleagues in the Treasury and other Departments get their heads together and come up with a wider view than that available in the civil service. This is no disrespect to the civil service, which is extremely competent in many ways, but frankly it is clear that it has failed in this area. We need a protocol for delivery of large IT projects that does not result in abject failure almost every time. The situation of the CRB is not a success story, and no amount of spin will project it as one. A little humility on the part of the Government would be very welcome, as well as a commitment to getting it right.

2.41 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Amess. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam on obtaining this debate on this very important subject.

The only thing that surprised me in the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam was that his language was so moderate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome somewhat remedied that by making the sort of savage criticism of the Government that I believe to be entirely justified. Towards the end of his remarks, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam quoted some criticisms of Government projects that were made by the current Foreign Secretary when he was the shadow Home Secretary. Then, of course, this disaster occurred on his watch, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Minister who will respond to the debate today is not one of the Ministers who could be personally blamed for the problem, as he was appointed to the Home Office much more recently. I had hoped that we might have one of my regular sparring partners, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who has been a Home Office Minister throughout this Government's period in office.

Instead we have this Minister, who is known for his emollience. Indeed, whereas his distinguished father used to say the most extreme things in an emollient tone of voice, the Minister is known for saying emollient things in an emollient tone of voice, so it is no surprise that he is with us today. I shall listen with care to what he says. However, I do not want those slightly light-hearted remarks to undermine in any way the seriousness with which Conservatives share the concerns that were expressed in very strong terms, particularly by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, about this disaster.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam helpfully traced the history of the Criminal Records Bureau project and drew attention to his particular concerns, which were aroused list November when Lord Falconer said that the bureau's checks on those who were to work with vulnerable auks would be suspended indefinitely. I have many care homes in my constituency, as most hon. Members do, and there are many retired people in my constituency. I share entirely the concerns of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, and I draw the same conclusion as he does that the reason for Lord Falconer's answer was that not only is the Criminal Records Bureau still a shambles, but no one in the Government seems to have much confidence that they will ever be able to sort it out. Conservative Members support all the criticisms of the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Somerton and Frome.

The phrase that came to mind about the Government's track record on IT projects was that they show a complete lack of understanding of how the private sector works in negotiating contracts and obtaining the right terms. 1 share the experience described by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he was leader of a local authority and chairman of a police authority. My conclusion is that the Government suffer hugely from the fact that almost no one, at any level of ministerial job, has ever been involved in running a private sector business. The director general of the CBI recently carried out a survey from the biographies of every Minister in every Department and only three had even been involved in running any sort of private sector business. The vast majority of people who have been involved at the sharp end of negotiating such contracts, as I was in my previous professional incarnation, know that when drawing up a contract sensibly, the specifications are not changed half a dozen times midway through the process and stringent penalty clauses are applied to the private sector partner so that if something goes wrong everyone can see that it is the fault of the private sector and that the cost burden falls on that sector to put it right.

I could not agree more strongly with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he said that it is an outrage that the Government use the phrase "commercial confidentiality" to try to hide what has gone wrong with the Criminal Records Bureau. I share the view that he expressed in response to my intervention. When the Public Accounts Committee reports, following the National Audit Office investigation into the disaster, the words of the PAC will almost scorch the paper. Its report will put in the shade all its previous hostile reports on the series of disasters over which the Government have presided. I believe that this will turn out to be the worst. I propose to pass the details of this debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Gains borough (Mr. Leigh)—and I suspect that one matter that the Public Accounts Committee will attack is the Government's attempt to gloss over its failures by not publishing the consultants' report or an unedited, complete version of the Carter report, as the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Somerton and Frome said.

When one looks at some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, one must query whether the Government are wise to keep returning to private sector companies that have presided over past disasters. I know from my experience when my party was in government and I worked—as you did, Mr. Amess—in a very junior capacity in a Government Department that one problem, particularly with such matters as defence contracts but also in other Departments, is that changes are often made while a contract is under way. I recently had discussions with defence contractors in my constituency who said that the trouble with dealing with the Government is that they have no idea of what they really want and they keep changing their mind. I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same response from private sector companies in their constituencies if they have ever talked to them about the problems that they face when dealing with the Government.

I strongly echo what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said about using tine expertise that is available in Parliament. He rightly referred to speakers from a professional body who give evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, of which he is a member. However, there is an even better example in the IT area in Parliament. During my 11 years in the House, I have been on the council of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee. For those hon. Members who are not familiar with it, it is a unique parliamentary committee, as the industry members are treated as full members and can attend regular meetings in Committee Rooms in the House and take part in the discussions, rather than just listening or being witnesses. On a monthly basis, the Committee Rooms are full of the top IT professionals; chief executives and managing directors come to Parliament and use their IT expertise. Anyone who wants to help the Government to get out of their catalogue of IT disasters has only to use the work of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee and the expertise available. I hope that the Minister is listening to the debate and that when he returns to the Home Office he will say, "Don't you think it would be a good idea if we talked to some of the senior officers of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee and arranged to meet some of the industry leaders who come to Parliament regularly, and benefit from their expertise?"

If the Minister does only one thing as a result of the debate, I hope that he will give an undertaking to me and to the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Sutton and Cheam to listen to us and use the IT expertise already available to Parliament, through the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee or the Science and Technology Committee. That would be a positive move.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam referred to his discussions with the Sutton Volunteer Bureau, which entirely mirrors my experience and those of other hon. Members with Surrey constituencies in talking to people in the Surrey Voluntary Services Council; its chief executive, by coincidence, is a lady called Julia Grant who used to work in the same private sector company as I did. The body is in the process of changing its title but I use the title under which it has been known for some years because it will be more familiar to anyone reading the Official Report. I am not a fan of organisations, whether companies or voluntary bodies, rebranding themselves, because it confuses everyone; everyone knew what that body was supposed to do when it was called the Surrey Voluntary Services Council. None the less, I am sure that its valuable work will continue.

Like me, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome had a helpful briefing in advance of the debate from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. I want to highlight one or two matters in order to help that body, which represents voluntary organisations throughout the country. I hope that the Minister will respond. The NCVO spoke of its difficulty with the umbrella registered bodies and with determining the appropriate level of disclosure and said that it would be helpful if the Government provided a back-up network of umbrella registered bodies for the voluntary sector. It stated that there should be much more thorough consultation with the voluntary sector and with others to find the most effective method of delivering such a network, and not a widespread deregistration of registered bodies, as the Government are currently planning. The NCVO also made a point that seemed to me, after discussions with voluntary bodies in my constituency, especially significant: the quality of the service provided by a registered body should be of greater significance than the number of applications that are processed—the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam nods—and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

The NCVO also suggests that registered bodies should not be given the additional responsibility for checking applicants' identities and that voluntary organisations, rather than the discredited Criminal Records Bureau or Ministers, should be able to decide for themselves whether a standard or an enhanced disclosure is needed for their staff or volunteers. Although the NCVO, as a national organisation, supports an electronic option for applications, it feels that it should not be made mandatory.

I shall expand on a couple of the six main points. The NCVO stated that finding an umbrella registered body seems to be fairly haphazard, as voluntary organisations in my constituency have told me. One respondent to a national survey that the NCVO carried out on the difficulties with umbrella registered bodies contacted all the umbrella registered bodies in their area but received replies only from some. Another contacted organisations that they thought might be umbrella registered bodies only to be told that they were not. Another respondent found an umbrella registered body only through personal contacts. Another found that some umbrella registered bodies, listed as open umbrellas, had decided "not to open whilst the system settles down", which is obviously taking rather longer than the Government had expected. That may be the understatement of the century.

More significantly, another respondent to the NCVO survey could not afford the costs of the umbrella registered body that they found. The cost is significant. While we are on the subject of costs, all hon. Members present will know of my heavy involvement in sporting matters. I was particularly glad to receive a submission from the Central Council of Physical Recreation for use in the debate. It says that a number of sports governing bodies have registered with the CRB. Some have reported delays of a few months in getting registrations processed. When we are talking about criminal records a delay of a few months is simply unacceptable.

The CCPR states: "Once registered a governing body must meet the ongoing administrative burden and the costs in terms of staff time, training, processing applications etc." The CCPR has estimated that the basic administrative costs of processing a check should be £3 to £7. But costs impact greatly on smaller governing bodies, which typically have few full-time staff. The costs also impact on larger bodies, which must deal with a greater volume of applications. Governing bodies can seek the services of the so-called "open umbrella bodies" to process checks on their behalf. However, according to the CCPR, "these are often commercial organisations that can charge up to £30 per check." It should cost £3 to £7and yet commercial bodies charge £30. Those fees must be seen in the context of the intention to provide disclosures free for volunteers.

The limited amount of the Carter review that was published—I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the full report into that disaster must be presented to Parliament—did not fully address the issue of cost-effective access to the CRB for voluntary bodies. Instead it focused on the processing efficiency, or rather inefficiency, that we have all experienced with the CRB. Proposals to deregister organisations that process fewer than 200 checks a year could make access even more difficult. That brings me back to what the NCVO said. The quality of service rather than the number of applications should be the crucial factor.

The effect of deregistering organisations that process fewer than 200 checks a year will be to reduce the number of umbrella bodies and remove the option of registration for some smaller organisations. The CCPR is asking for specific detailed consultations not only with the wider voluntary sector, but specifically with sporting bodies. I hope that the Minister will agree to have a meeting with the CCPR. I am perfectly happy, as deputy chairman of the all-party sports group, to go with the CCPR to see the Minister about this. Having been involved in voluntary sports clubs all my adult life, I know that this has been a huge extra burden. The effect, as the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Somerton and Frome have pointed out, has been to deter people from volunteering. That is tragic.

The Government say that we have huge problems with obesity and with the health of young people, and that they want to get young people involved in healthy activity, such as sport, to take them out of the drugs subculture. However, through this CRB shambles they are deterring adults from volunteering. Those adults are the backbone of all the voluntary sports clubs, and if they do not volunteer, those sports clubs cannot be run.

Bagshot cricket club, for example, which is in my constituency, and with which I and two of my now adult sons have been involved, has managed to set up a successful colt structure, despite the difficulties of the CRB. However, it has found that a number of people who wanted to work with young people have been deterred from getting involved because of the CRB bureaucracy. That point has been made to me at meetings, and I know that that is replicated throughout the country in sports clubs and other voluntary bodies. The decline in volunteering is no surprise, because the Government have presided over this complete shambles.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome rightly said that we in Parliament are entitled to know on behalf of our constituents the basis of any renegotiation with Capita. That is vital, and I have no doubt that the National Audit Office will agree. We must see the Government's proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill relating to the CRB as soon as possible. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a danger that other Departments, such as the Lord Chancellor's Department, will make the same mistakes if we do not learn from this shambles.

There were problems with IT procurement in health and in defence. There was the complete disaster of the skills issue in the Department for Education and Skills. Only a day or two ago, in the Chamber, the shambles of the Treasury and the child tax credits was highlighted. Almost everything that the Government touch concerning IT and national schemes has been a disaster.

Although this Minister is always emollient, he must accept that his own Department, perhaps before his time, presided over the complete disaster of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the shambles in the asylum system and the Passport and Records Agency. The Government must finally learn the lessons from all those disasters. I hope that we will hear something positive from the Minister, who at least escapes personal blame, although the same cannot be said of his ministerial colleagues. They caused this disaster—it happened on their watch—and that is not good enough.

3.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on having secured today's debate, and on the genuine and close personal interest that he takes in the work of the CRB. I also congratulate him on the full description that he gave of the process through which we have gone in trying to make the CRB work successfully. It:.s an important issue, and I am grateful that he has given us the opportunity for the debate, and given me the chance to respond to the points that have been raised.

I am sorry that my presence is not what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was hoping for. However, I shall, emollient or otherwise, do my best not to disappoint in responding to his remarks.

Everyone accepts the case for the establishment of the CRB and the need for the service that it provides. It was set up to provide an important new service, which is part of a larger range of measures designed to improve the protection of children and other vulnerable persons. That is why it exists, why it is important to ensure that it works effectively, and why we are having this debate.

It is important to note, in passing, that since the introduction of the CRB, many private sector employers and voluntary organisations have, for the first time, been able to access information from police records and other data sources, and many staff in the statutory sector whose posts did not meet the criteria for the old police checks system have been brought within the scope of checks conducted by the CRB. As ever, the information that the CRB provides is intended not to be a substitute for the other good practice that employers should undertake in deciding whom to recruit, but to assist in safe recruitment decisions in the interests of the people to whom those employed will provide a service.

Let us be honest: everyone—including the Home Affairs Committee, following the short review that it undertook in 2001▀×recognised that the task of establishing the CRB would be complex and challenging. In recognition of that, in advance of the commencement of live operations, additional phases were built into the timetable to try to test the arrangements fully.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam described very fully what happened in the event, and I do not need to dwell on that. Suffice it to say that there were problems in getting the information from application forms efficiently. The output was below expectations and there were backlogs of accumulated forms. There were delays. We have heard about the particular problems that occurred towards the end of the summer and around the start of the new school year, and I acknowledge the disappointment that those waiting to get on with the job, to whom the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred, felt when they could not do so because the system was not responding as it should.

In one sense I have been here before, because the first debate that I undertook as a Home Office Minister was on the Criminal Records Bureau, in this very Chamber. I remember that the first thing that I said in that debate, having familiarised myself with what had gone on, was an apology for the fact that the system was not working correctly and was not good enough. We needed to make that apology. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary also made that clear last September when he said that the performance of the CRB up I o that point had been unacceptable. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made a very fair point about the problems with IT systems that the Government have experienced in trying to make large-scale projects work. I would observe in passing simply that that is not unique to the current Government elected in 1997. The problem has been going on for much longer.

Steps have been taken, such as the establishment of the Office of Government Commerce and the gateway process, to try to address the points that the hon. Member for Somerton and Front made so forcefully about learning from experience. Thinking of my other responsibilities in the Home Office and my direct experience of the work of the OGC process and the gateway system, I can say that I hope that that work is helping us to deal with some of the legitimate questions that have been raised about processes and systems. No doubt when the National Audit Office inquiry reports, there will be much for us to consider as a Government and as Members of the House.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked whether the original system met the specification set out by the Home Office. The answer is no, but that was not apparent from the tests prior to the launch, and we learned then what the consequences were.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the revised targets and business plan would be published. The CRB business plan for 2003-04 will be published in May and will include performance targets. The question of insurance liability has been raised with us, and we have invited the voluntary sector to provide further information on it. I am advised that we are still waiting for that. That will enable us to examine the matter with the Association of British Insurers.

The question was raised of enhanced disclosure certificates in cases where soft information that led to non-appointment had not been disclosed. In the vast majority of cases in which there is soft intelligence, that will appear on the face of the disclosure and so will be available to the individual. Only in very rare and exceptional cases—where showing the information or disclosure would be contrary to the interests of crime detection and prevention—will such information be provided separately to the registered body. However—I hope that this offers the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam the reassurance that he seeks—the advice produced by the CRB is very clear: an employer should never rely on an existing enhanced disclosure offered by an individual but should always check with the previous registered body whether there was other information. That is the clear guidance given to employers, and if they follow it, the situation about which the hon. Gentleman rightly expressed concern will not arise.

Mr. Hawkins

The Minister, before moving swiftly on, suggested that when the Government set up the contract with Capita, there was no requirement for any performance targets at all. How can it be possible, given all the experience of several previous Governments of both parties, that in this day and age there could be a contract with a private sector provider without any performance targets? Will he look into who on earth made such a daft decision?

Hilary Benn

I do not recollect saying that when the CRB was established there were no performance targets at all. Indeed, performance standards and other things were part of the arrangements. I was trying to answer the specific question that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked, which was about when the revised targets and business plan would be published.

Mr. Burstow

Will the Minister confirm that when those are published, they will include a recasting of the financial forecasts and the demand forecasts for the next few years?

Hilary Benn

I will need to check before I answer that specific question, as I would not like to mislead the hon. Gentleman, but I will write to him.

On the Carter report, the Government have published its recommendations and our response. The simple reason why the rest of it has not been published is that it came in the form of advice to Ministers, with a range of options. As all hon. Members know, advice to Ministers is not published. The essential elements of the report, however, have been set out, both in the summary that was published and the written statement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary laid on 22 February 2003. However, I will undertake to investigate whether there is any possibility of the French Thornton report being released in part or in whole.

We intend to table amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill as soon as possible—that is not a fatuous but a factual answer. We will carefully consider responses to the consultation paper. It is perhaps not desirable that the end of the consultation period and the opportunity to make legislative change are so close together, but we will take on board what we can from the consultation process and let hon. Members know as soon as possible the nature of the amendments.

Paper-based applications will continue for the time being. However, as we have said, in the longer term we hope to migrate to the electronic channel, and it will be a matter of judgment as to how that process is undertaken.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath echoed the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the importance of drawing on the House's expertise in IT. I gladly undertake to pass that on to my ministerial colleagues who lead on IT procurement. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would meet representatives of the Central Council of Physical Recreation. If that would be helpful, I would be delighted to meet them and have discussions, which for understandable reasons are of great importance to him.

I shall turn to the improvements that have been made since we had the opportunity to debate the CRB in July last year. They have demonstrated the benefits of the close working that has taken place between the agency and Capita, registered bodies and police forces. In September, a plan was put in place to increase staffing, and to introduce longer operational hours and revised operating procedures. As I suggested when we debated the CRB last time, one of the major problems had been the need to return some application forms to those from whom they originated, because they had not been fully or accurately completed. Changed arrangements were introduced under the improvement plan to enable those cases to be identified at a much earlier stage so that applications could be returned to obtain the information and then sent back to the CRB. The problem that had arisen through inefficient capture of the data was resolved by outsourcing work to a company in India. That was carefully done, visits were paid, and it has proved to be successful and of great assistance. The real test, however, is that it led to improvements in the CRB's output.

Mr. Hawkins

I wonder whether the Minister will tell us what discussions he has had with trade unions about the outsourcing of some of the work. Various Opposition and Government Members recently attended an all-party insurance and financial services group meeting at which we spoke with union leaders, who were concerned about call centre and IT outsourcing and about the fact that this country is losing jobs that are going abroad. That is clearly of great importance to UK citizens, and perhaps he could shed some light on the matter.

Hilary Benn

The answer to the specific question whether I have had any discussions with trade unions is no. On the wider point about employment in the UK, more people are at work in this country than at any other time. I spent 23 years of my working life in the trade union movement, and I have to say that the Government's record on employment, the creation of jobs and the reduction of unemployment bears comparison with that of any Government in a long time. We can be proud of that.

The key point, and what has changed since I last responded to a debate on the Criminal Records Bureau, is that since October the average number of disclosures issued each week is. 40,000, compared with a weekly average of 24,500 in August. That is more than double the weekly average number of police checks made under the previous arrangements by the 43 forces in England and Wales. For all the difficulties, of which we are aware, the CRB is performing now at twice the rate of the old system. Many more checks are being done and much more reassurance is being offered about the suitability of people who are being given jobs. That is undoubtedly an improvement on what happened before. The total volume has increased markedly.

To date, more than 1.5 million disclosures have been issued, new applications are dealt with in less than five weeks, on average, and currently more than 90 per cent. of standard disclosures and more than 70 per cent. of enhanced disclosures are issued in three weeks. That is a real improvement and there has been real progress since we had a debate in this very Chamber in July last year. It would be wrong, not to say churlish, not to recognise the problems that were faced and acknowledge the hard work that was done by all the people who tried to do something about the situation.

For all the points that have been made about how we got to where we were—those are important, and we must learn from them—the most important thing is that, having established the CRB, we should work hard to ensure that its performance improves. That is precisely what has happened through the work of the past few months.

There was also a problem with old applications that had become lodged in the system. Those were a source of frustration to everyone: the Government, the CRB and customers. That is why the CRB has been giving those as much priority as possible. In the past three months, the number of outstanding applications that are more than six weeks old has been reduced from more than 70,000 to about 16,000—that is a huge backlog clearance. The CRB aims to eradicate by June the backlog of applications that are more than six weeks old; that will amount to enormous progress and it will be the result of much hard work.

The independent review team was established by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider what further steps might be taken. Its report was published in February, and a summary is in the Library, together with his written statement.

Mr. Heath

On the areas of the report that the Minister is not able to publish, he said clearly that that was because options were presented to Ministers. I accept that principle, although I do not agree with it. Will he give an assurance that there are no areas in this sad and sorry tale that will not be made public solely because of commercial sensitivity assumed on the part of Capita or Her Majesty's Government?

Hilary Benn

No, I cannot give that assurance, because there are commercial confidentiality clauses in some contracts; that is nothing new. I hear the question that has been asked about how we balance those requirements—which are standard in both Government and private sector contracts—with the legitimate point made about the need to understand what has been going on. In response to the specific questions asked by the hon. Gentleman and others about the contract, the Government's position has been that commercial confidentiality prevents us from providing that information.

Mr. Hawkins

I have a slight scepticism about this subject. When the Minister responded to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, he said that he could not produce some information because it had been put in the form of advice to Ministers. I have a dark suspicion that those doing the review might have been asked to put it in that form so that the Minister had an excuse for not publishing it. Am I being too sceptical?

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great regard, is being a bit too sceptical. As he will know, Ministers seek advice all the time on a wide range of issues. That is how Governments—not only this one—operate. It is widely recognised that one needs the space to think about various options put before one before reaching decisions, without everything being exposed to the public gaze. The essential point in relation to the Carter review is that the recommendations were published. The Government, having considered and weighed up the various options, have made clear what they propose to do.

On the deferment of the mandatory checks, the honest answer, as hon. Members will know, is that when one is in difficulty, one should not add to it. That is why the decision was taken—sensibly, I think—not to add to the work load with the considerable additional work that those mandatory checks would require. Everyone recognises the importance of returning to the mandatory checks as quickly as possible. We are now completing double the number of checks made under the old system. That is an improvement, but we want to do more.

It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took the decision to defer the checks, as everyone will be aware. Clearly, we regret that it was necessary to do that, but it was undoubtedly the right thing to do, because in all truth one cannot on the one hand say that the Criminal Records Bureau is not able to deal with its work load as efficiently as we would like, and on the other add to that load at the very time that we are trying to sort it out. The sensible thing to do was to defer those checks, as we have done, and to put in place the measures that we have introduced in order to improve the performance. The benefit of that has been demonstrated in the figures that I have just reported; there has been real improvement.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stressed at the time of the deferment that it was a temporary measure. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked what the future prospects were. When the Home Secretary announced the deferment, he said that checks on existing staff in care homes would be required during 2004—that remains our intention—and that other mandatory checks would be instituted as soon as possible. We are now working with colleagues to plan the phased introduction of mandatory checks as soon as we are confident that the Criminal Records Bureau has the capacity to carry them out. It is important that I place that on record, because the point was raised by more than one hon. Member.

Mr. Burstow

It would therefore be helpful, as the Minister cannot elaborate on a timetable for the institution of the checks, if he could give some idea of the timetable for ensuring that the system has the capacity to allow the Department to bring on stream the extra checks. We need to know the timetable for the implementation of the Carter recommendations—both those that refer to legislative matters, and those that refer to the IT fixes that still clearly need to be made.

Hilary Benn

We have already discussed the legislative changes, and as the hon. Gentleman will know, we are seeking to make those changes as soon as possible, using the currently available legislative vehicle. I cannot say at this stage exactly what the timetable will be, because it will be the outcome of the process that he described of weighing the capacity and the work load and fitting the two together. The clear objective is to get back on track, having had the necessary interval—if I may use that word—to enable the CRB to improve its performance. which is exactly what it has done, as should be recognised.

We are working on several changes that have arisen from the Carter report. An important point was made about the role of umbrella bodies in the process. We must recognise that a balance needs to be struck between, on the one hand, the capacity of those organisations to undertake the checks sufficiently and, in particular, to pick up the additional requirements that we have consulted about placing on them—a result of the independent review—and, on the other hand, the throughput. That is relevant to the amount that has to be charged for the amount of work that they will be undertaking, as hon. Members will understand.

I heard the arguments about not wanting small organisations to be part of the system. I think that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made a reference in passing to availability. When I responded to the debate in July last year, there were 1,075 umbrella bodies, and now there are 1,474. The number of organisations to which people can turn to enable checks to he made has increased substantially, and that is a testament to the success of the concept of umbrella bodies, but a balance must be struck if we are to deal with cost.

Having listened to the debate, I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that, notwithstanding the difficulties of which we are all aware and which have been highlighted today and in the previous debate, real progress has been made in sorting out the problem that arose. It is important to acknowledge those people who work hard day in, day out to ensure that the system works effectively. They do not want to go to work each day and consider that the service that they provided in the past to their customers was not of the standard that they would want.

We must recognise that the sensible steps that we have taken have enabled real progress to be made. It is important that that approach is maintained and sustained. The experience of the past six months has demonstrated the Criminal Records Bureau's capacity

to increase its output to meet the requirements of the service improvement plan. Having instituted the Carter review, considered the recommendations and decided on the way forward, we hope that further improvements will be made so that the CRB can look forward to the future with confidence.

Mr. Burstow

May I press the Minister further on how the costs of putting the CRB right will be met? There is now a real fear that there will he a substantial increase in the charges. A figure of £35 has been mooted as a possible level for the fees for disclosures in future. Can he confirm that that is nowhere near what it will be, but that the figures will be around the level of the retail prices index, and not substantially more?

Hilary Benn

I cannot confirm figures now because they are currently under review. The cost recovery framework and the objectives under which the Criminal Records Bureau operates are clearly laid down, and the hon. Gentleman described them accurately in his opening speech. We are currently considering what the fees will be, and our decision will be based on the volume of work, the timetable, the need and so on. We will have to await the outcome of that process.

In conclusion, I must say that I have appreciated the opportunity to respond to the debate. It is an important issue. We have made real progress, but more must be done.