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Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords] [Ways and Means]

Volume 450: debated on Monday 23 October 2006

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Safeguarding Vulnerable

Groups Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the charging of fees in respect of functions carried out under the Act; and

(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.

The Bill provides for a fee payable by applicants for monitoring in the vetting and barring scheme. The fee must be regarded as a charge on the people for the purposes of the House. That is sufficient to trigger a Ways and Means resolution. The fee may be considered a charge on the people, in part because the fee income will be applied to fund the independent barring board, which will benefit the vulnerable groups and the public at large, rather than providing a direct service to the applicant.

The motion covers functions carried out under the Act—that is, the functions of the IBB and the Secretary of State in operating the vetting and barring scheme. These are the functions in respect of which a fee may be prescribed under clause 21. The motion enables us to charge a fee, as provided for in clause 21. In the conventional way, it also authorises the payment of fee income into the consolidated fund.

We have tabled Government amendments in relation to the fee-setting provision in order to provide flexibility for the Secretary of State in setting the fee and to give the Secretary of State a power to fund the IBB directly. We need that because the fee income will be paid to the Secretary of State, and there must be a mechanism for transferring the money to the IBB.

Can the Minister give the House some indication of how the Secretary of State might use the power if it were granted? What level of fee are we discussing? What are the review arrangements? How will it be set? The House should know how high a fee might be imposed for the purpose.

I thank the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for those questions. We will have a detailed debate about those matters, which are covered by amendments to be discussed over the coming hours on Report. I commend the motion to the House.

I shall not detain the House long, not least because of the enormous number of amendments—some 207 amendments and 23 new clauses have been tabled by the Government, and nearly all were tabled during the past few days, despite the fact that the Bill completed its Committee stage some months ago. The short time available raises questions about the ability of the House properly to scrutinise the radical amendments submitted by the Government.

The Minister has not moved a Ways and Means motion before, but I assume he is able to respond. It would be useful if he could give us some assurances about the extent to which increases may take place. According to the notes accompanying the proposals, the capital start-up costs are likely to be £7.58 million in the financial year 2006-07, and £6.92 million in the financial year 2007-08, which is an estimated £14.5 million in capital start-up costs.

Given the record—the form—of the Government in respect of overshooting by large margins estimates for the sums that they are spending on computer projects across a number of Departments, let alone their inability to stay within set dates, I ask the Minister to give us his view as to how realistic the estimates I have just mentioned are, because they will, of course, impact on the charges that the ways and means motion gives rise to.

In the covering notes, it is stated that the Government anticipate that there will be an operating cost of between £16 million and £18 million per annum over the first five years, on top of the costs of the current work of the Criminal Records Bureau. It is stated that that might lead by 2008 to an increase in the fee charged to applicants, which this motion will give rise to. Can we have some greater clarity as to how likely such an increase will be?

We are told that an extra 200 staff will be required in the CRB and the IBB. We are not told how many of those staff are likely to be retained within the public sector, or how many are likely to be contracted out—using a company such as Capita, which I gather was closely involved in the original CRB contract, only for long delays to transpire and for part of the contract to have to be subcontracted out to Bombay, which caused a number of further problems. Given that the CRB is still operating under a deficit—although it aims to have a surplus in the current financial year—this House has concerns, and it needs to be assured in respect of how realistic the level of fees that are set now will be by the time that this legislation comes into force.

My hon. Friend is right to be circumspect about the motion. Its terms might prove to be innocuous; but, on the other hand, they might prove not to be. On the strength of his perusal of its details, does my hon. Friend think that an increase in fees would necessitate a decision on the part of the Government to pursue the affirmative procedure, or would it be possible for the Government to go about such an increase, possibly of an unspecified character, without further consultation with the House?

The suspicion underlying my hon. Friend’s surmise is true, in that the current discussion is the only opportunity that the House will have to challenge the validity of the fee. The fee can be raised in future years, without it being necessary to come back for further permission from the House.

It is also worth pointing out that the costs of CRB checks have been increased by an inflation-busting £2, with effect from 6 April 2006, so that a standard check now costs £31 as against £29 last year, and an enhanced check costs £36 as against £34 last year, which in themselves are very large rises on the original sums charged for CRB checks. I am raising many issues that I had not intended to raise.

I have some concerns that if there is not a degree of transparency in terms of the fee structure, so that it is perfectly obvious what the applicants are being asked to pay for, this could end up being a tax on job applications.

This is another form of tax by different terminology, because the sums will all go into the Consolidated Fund for the Chancellor to do with as he wishes. I do not wish to prolong this debate, but it must be said that there is some opaqueness in the language used in new clause 2 and amendment No. 109, which form the basis of the ways and means motion. New clause 2(2) refers to the costs that the Secretary of State

“thinks will be incurred, by him before the end of that period (taking one financial year with another)”.

I am not entirely sure what that means either.

Before we proceed in nodding through this motion, the House is entitled to further clarification in respect of realistic assessments of the amount of money involved at this time—let alone the Government’s ability to be able actually to complete such a project so that it comes into force on time. Is this going to be another opportunity for the Government, and particularly the Chancellor, to increase the figures disproportionately, compared with the increase in inflation? It would be useful if the Minister provided further clarification, because there is very little to the basic motion.

I have declared my interest in the Register of Members’ Interests; I am a company director, but I am obviously not pursuing its interests in this debate. I am worried about the resolution’s proving to be a tax on jobs—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). It is a great pity that the original system has not worked as well as planned, and that we now need this expensive new one to try to ensure that people are properly protected.

Given the phenomenal improvements of modern technology, in most parts of the world and in most cases the application of such technology cuts the cost of doing things and makes it easier to do them. But in the case of this Government, we often seem to find that the application of new technology makes it more difficult to do things, that they are done less well, and that a large amount of money has to be spent on remedial action. Indeed, I find it disappointing that the Minister did not give us some financial information when initiating this short debate. This is not an aperitif to the main meal: it is a very important subject in its own right.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans said, in effect, we are talking about taxing institutions and people who are trying to do their best in public service, for example, and it is very important that the Minister and his colleagues have proper controls over the setting up and efficiency of this operation, how it controls its costs and how it uses new computing systems to lower those costs. There should be no automatic assumption that when the costs and fees are reviewed in subsequent years, they are going to go up. It would be quite nice to have an assumption that they will be coming down because computing and efficiency measures will be applied to reduce them, as happens in the competitive market in comparable service areas outside this Government’s dream world, in which they can always claim more money from the taxpayer to do such things.

So although the Opposition do not wish to detain the House unduly or to stop the benign intentions behind the underlying measure, the Government should take much more seriously the question of how much all this is going to cost, how they are going to ensure that this board keeps its costs under control, and whether it could surprise us all in two or three years’ time by announcing that it has got better at doing these things and could have a fee cut, rather than an increase. I fear, however, that we are going to have more of the same. We have had an inflation-busting fee increase recently and unless the Minister gets a grip, we will have the same again in a few years’ time. So I hope that he will look again at this issue.

This motion has initiated an interesting debate. It would be impolite of me to initiate now the debate on the funding and establishment of the independent barring board, because we will have that debate when we consider the second group of amendments and we will be making the same points then. However, I am happy to take on some of the issues that have been mentioned. The intention is that the scheme will pay for itself over the next five years through the fee. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) say that the existing system has failed. It has not; however, the system being set up will be stronger and better and will introduce online checks, for example.

I do not want to go too far now into the debate on the scheme, but I should correct what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said about the need for 200 additional staff. The intention is that the IBB will have some 120 staff to help it with its work. It will not be a profit-making organisation—the money coming in from fees will be put back into it to make it work.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham made an interesting point about advances in technology and whether they could make the scheme more efficient. I am sure that he was referring to identity cards, which he will doubtless support to help make this system more efficient.