HL Deb 27 February 2003 vol 645 cc49-53WA
Lord Hoyle

asked Her Majesty's Government

Whether they intend to publish the conclusions and recommendations of the independent review team on the Criminal Records Bureau, and the Government's response to that review. [HL1918]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

On 6 September 2002, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced the appointment of an independent review team, led by Patrick Carter, to take a fundamental look at the operations of the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). In particular, the review team was tasked to support the CRB management in the short term and to identify necessary longer-term changes in the way the CRB operates to ensure that it can deliver its twin objectives of providing greater protection for children and vulnerable adults whilst ensuring that the disclosure process does not act as a bar to speedy recruitment.

We have today placed in the Library the main findings and recommendations of the independent review team.

We are extremely grateful to Patrick Carter and his two colleagues—John Holden and Ron Skelly—for their rapid and thorough examination of the situation at the CRB and their recommendations on the way forward. The team has come up with a wide ranging set of recommendations for improvements to the CRB intended to enable it to to meet future challenges as demand for its services continues to grow. The CRB is a vital element of the Government's programme to improve the protection of children and vulnerable adults from those who might wish to harm them. It needs to he put on a sounder footing to meet these objectives more effectively and provide the levels of service rightly expected by its customers.

The independent review team's recommendations build on the steady improvement in the CRB's performance over the past six months which has seen the average number of disclosures issued rise from 24,500 per week in August 2002 to the current 40,000 per week. Some 80 per cent of standard disclosures and 50 per cent of enhanced disclosures are now issued within three weeks. These improvements have been achieved by both the agency and Capita working in partnership to deliver the service that the CR B's customers are entitled to receive.

The Government propose to take forward the 10 recommendations in the report as follows: 1 Ways should be sought of optimising the end-to-end CRB process efficiency, by reviewing and rationalising the management responsibilities and respective roles in the complete chain undertaken by Registered Bodies, the CRB Agency, Capita and local police forces.

The Government agree that the roles of the different parties involved in the CRB process should be strengthened and clarified. In particular, we intend to enhance the intelligent customer function within the agency so that there is a stronger focus on setting standards across the whole operation and ensuring that these are met. There also needs to be better management co-ordination of the CRB end-to-end business processes. This may involve the more flexible deployment of agency and private sector staff and to this end we will take powers in the Criminal Justice Bill to enable the Secretary of State's functions under Part V of the Police Act 1997 to be exercised by the private sector as well as agency staff. 2 The critical role of Registered Bodies in the CRB process needs to be recognised and upgraded. Registered bodies should be unambiguously responsible for validating the identity of those for whom they seek Disclosures and for ensuring the quality and completeness of applications submitted to the CRB. The number of Registered Bodies should be optimised to establish sensible economies of scale and improve proficiency.

The Government accept this recommendation and will legislate this Session to make it clear that registered bodies are responsible for verifying the identity of an applicant. It would, as now, be open to a registered body to delegate the function of validating identity to the prospective employer or other agent while retaining overall responsiblity, as long as we are satisfied in a particular case that delegation provides a reasonable safeguard. To ensure that registered bodies discharge their responsibilities effectively, we will take powers to attach conditions to a registration and to revoke a registration where such conditions are breached. We share the review team's view that optimum levels of efficiency within a registered body can best be achieved by handling a sufficient number of disclosure applications. With the new responsibilities for registered bodies, a number of those currently countersigning relatively small numbers of applications may seek to de-register of their own volition. We will monitor the situation carefully. The Government will take reserve powers to set a threshold for the minimum number of applications to be processed by a registered body each year and to de-register those registered bodies which fall below the threshold. Registered bodies and others across the sectors which use the CRB's disclosure service will be fully consulted before those changes are implemented. We will take particular account of concerns that have been expressed about access to registered bodies and the level of fees charged by some umbrella bodies. As part of the consultation exercise, we will seek views on placing a cap on the fees that may be levied by registered bodies. 3 There shoud be a progressive move to mandate electronic submission of applications by Registered Bodies.

The CRB will introduce an electronic appplication channel as soon as practicable; a pilot will be undertaken later this year. We believe that many registered bodies will want to adopt this channel as their preferred means of submitting disclosure applications. In time, as more and more registered bodies migrate to the electronic channel there will be a diminishing case, on efficiency grounds, for maintaining the existing paper and telephone channels. At that point, consideration would need to be given whether to mandate—by means of a condition attached to registration—the electronic channel for registered bodies to submit applications to the CRB. This will not preclude individuals submitting their applications to registered bodies by paper or telephone channels where mutually agreed. 4 Given that the production of Enhanced Disclosures is significantly more costly and ties up local police force resources, new arrangements should be established for the Agency to set priorities, in accordance with Government Guidelines, on which applications should get Enhanced and which should get Standard Disclosures.

The Government agree with the spirit of this recommendation, but it is important that the criteria are set by Ministers, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, on the basis of a risk assessment. Having established the criteria for standard and enhanced disclosures it is important that there is some mechanism to ensure that they are properly observed. It is proposed, therefore, to amend the Police Act 1997 first to enable the type of disclosure for any given occupational group to be determined by regulations and then to enable the CRB to give effect to such regulations. Where necessary, the CRB would be expected to seek additional information from the registered body in order that it could make its assessment in any given case. We will take account of the views of registered bodies and others before implementing these changes. 5 It is recommended that the Police National Computer (PNC) files are "flagged" to denote the existence of intelligence information on any individual held at local force level and not included in convictions recorded on the PNC.

The cost and feasibility of introducing a system of flags on the PNC to denote the existence of local intelligence will be tested in a pilot due to commence in three forces (Metropolitan Police, Staffordshire and West Midlands) in the spring. Decisions about the rollout of such a system will be taken in the light of the outcome of the pilot. 6 It is recommended that the launch of Basic Disclosures be postponed until the CRB systems have been developed to provide a substantially greater capacity. It would be inappropriate the launch Basic Disclosures until higher priority categories of applicant for higher level Disclosures are seeing their needs fully accommodated. It is also recommended that Basic Disclosure applications should be routed through Registered Bodies, with identity validation undertaken by these Bodies, rather than allow direct submission from applicants as currently envisaged by the legislation.

The Government concur that the priority for the CRB is to ensure that demand for higher level disclosures is fully met and that applicants for such disclosures receive a satisfactory service. Basic disclosures will not be introduced until these objectives have been achieved. The Government note the case for routing applications for a basic disclosure through a registered body as in the case of standard and enhanced disclosures, but will want to consult fully with employer organisations and others on the implications before coming to a final view. In the event that the Government decide to proceed, legislation would be needed to implement this recommendation. 7 The Information Technology system built and operated by Capita has been subject to a range of improvements and enhancements since original delivery, as a result of which performance has improved. A further programme of significant enhancement will be required. Additionally, almost all the recommendations set out here would lead to requirements for system change and therefore would have contractual consequences. It is therefore recommended to attempt to renegotiate the contract with Capita to implement necessary technology renewal and align the contract to the changed and evolving circumstances.

The Government accept this recommendation and will seek to renegotiate the contract with Capita so that it reflects the changed environment in which the CRB will be operating. 8 An investigation should be undertaken into the possibility of requiring fingerprints to be submitted by applicants for Disclosures where the sensitivity of the employment role to be undertaken makes this appropriate. This would enable a more rigorous linking of police records (which in turn are mostly linked to fingerprints) and the individuals submitting applications for Disclosures. This investigation will need to look at the balance to be struck between such increasing rigour of CRB identity processes and the cost and convenience of the service to the customer.

The Government will undertake a further study in consultation with registered bodies and others on the case for, and practicalities of, requiring applicants for disclosures in particularly sensitive employment roles to submit their fingerprints with their application. Among the issues the study will need to address is how to avoid any unnecessary intrusion into the privacy of applicants. A decision whether to proceed will be taken in the light of the results of the consultation exercise. Legislation would be needed to implement this change. 9 While recognising the benefits derived from establishing the CRB under the wing of an existing Agency, it is now recommended that an independent Executive Agency is created within the Home Office to carry forward the CRB's changing and increasingly demanding functions. There will need to be a transitional period which will be overseen by a transitional Management Board operating within an appropriate governance framework.

The Government agree that the CRB, currently part of the Passport and Records Agency, should be reconstituted as a free-standing agency. The new agency will be established as soon as practicable. A transitional board has been established to ensure a smooth transition. John Holden has agreed to serve as the non-executive chairman of the board and Patrick Carter and Ron Skelley as non-executive members. A stakeholder group will be established under John Holden's chairmanship to represent the interests of government departments and the police. 10 In order to implement a number of the recommendations, changes to the legislative framework under which the CRB operates (Part V of the Police Act 1997) will be required.

As indicated above, the Government will take forward in the Criminal Justice Bill the necessary legislative changes needed to implement Recommendations 1, 2 and 4.