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Criminal Records Backlog

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the backlog of unrecorded overseas crimes committed by British citizens abroad. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for the late arrival of the statement. As he probably saw from the papers being passed along the Front Bench, the inconvenience was mutual.

I intend to outline the situation up to May 2006—when the Association of Chief Police Officers became the lead organisation—the current situation, and the further actions for which I have asked today. No hon. Member should be under the illusion that I do not regard the subject as serious.

First, let me outline the situation to May 2006. Since 1959, there has been a Council of Europe convention on mutual legal assistance, which established the expectation that the more than 40 member countries would inform each other of the criminal convictions of their citizens while in another member country. That was the position from 1959 until last year. The system had several grave weaknesses.

First, implementation of the system for exchanging the information was patchy across Europe. Secondly, much of the information was of poor quality—for example, on some occasions, it constituted just a name. Thirdly, the process for handling the incoming notifications when they arrive in the United Kingdom was fragmented and piecemeal. There were therefore fundamental flaws in both the sending and the receipt of information.

It was agreed that this situation should be improved at European level, and in 2005 a European Union Council decision made it mandatory for all member states to have a central authority in each country for receiving and sending such information, to counter the fundamental flaws of the prevailing system. In March 2006, it was decided by my predecessor—in my view completely correctly—that the central authority for this country would be the Association of Chief Police Officers. I think that I am correct in saying that we were among the first in the European Union to appoint such an authority to improve the exchange of such information. A backlog of 27,500 notifications was passed to ACPO, and its team was operational by May last year.

Since then, ACPO has sifted through all the approximately 27,500 notifications and carried out a priority risk assessment on them. This identified 540 most serious offenders on the police’s own definition. All the notifications relating to the most serious offenders that had enough information to be entered on the police national computer and which were not already on the computer as a result of Interpol work have now been put on it. Together, that means that 260 of the 540 serious notifications are on the police national computer. The remaining 280 cannot be entered on the PNC and are the subject of further inquiries to the notifying country to get more details to try to establish the identity of the offender. I should make it clear that the 280 cases are not necessarily notifications received since May last year or, indeed, since this Government came to office. However, we are having their origin checked.

I shall now outline the actions that I have asked to be taken. As the House will know, I regard protecting the public as my highest priority, and I know that that view is shared by the whole House. I therefore consider the past failings in the system to be a very serious matter, and I regard the response of my predecessor to have been a correct response to those failings. However, I also believe that the system now operating puts responsibility in the right place.

I want to express my gratitude to the Association of Chief Police Officers for the action that it has taken and for the assistance that it has given me this morning. I have today met Ministers and my officials, the president of ACPO and the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked ACPO for an assurance that every one of the more serious offenders that it has identified and on whom there is sufficient information has now been entered on the police national computer. I have been given that assurance.

Let me now set out the actions that I have taken as a result of the past 24 hours. I have asked the permanent secretary at the Home Office to set up an inquiry into the Home Office’s handling of these notifications. This will include determining a chronology of events, the practices and procedures in place at different times, whether appropriate action was taken, and the lessons to be learned. I have asked that every effort be made to complete this inquiry within six weeks.

In addition, I have asked my officials, ACPO, the CRB and the probation service, in liaison with any other Department should that be necessary, to ensure that all appropriate public protection steps are taken. In particular, I have asked the CRB to check whether there are any disclosures to employers in respect of the most serious offenders who have been identified that ought to be looked at again in the light of that new information. I expect to have that information in a matter of days.

I have also asked the police and the probation service to ensure that all sex offenders who have been identified through that process are subject to appropriate monitoring in line with the public protection arrangements that would be expected if there had been a conviction in this country.

Finally, I have asked ACPO and the CRB to accelerate the timetable to process the remainder of the backlog—that is, those cases that have not been identified as serious, which involve less serious offenders. As of this morning, that timetable, due to less serious offenders being involved, was envisaged to be 12 months. I have also asked them, with extra resources, to provide that within three months. They hope to complete it within that time scale.

As I hope is now clear to the House, this is a problem that was some years in the making. By May 2006, a better system had been established and was operational. I take full responsibility now for ensuring that that new system operates effectively to protect the public and that the lessons of past failings are properly learned.

I thank the Home Secretary for the advance notice of his statement, although I understand entirely why it came not quite as early as normal.

The British public today will be wondering when on earth this catalogue of blunders at the Home Office will come to an end. None of the Government’s excuses, I am afraid, explains why the last three years have been the worst in the 200-year history of the Home Office. That is because the Department has been overwhelmed by an avalanche of legislation, regulation, targets and headline-grabbing initiatives, and by strategic failure on immigration, criminal justice, prisons and a variety of other areas. So Ministers have the major responsibility for this, but the responsibility is even more specific and it means that the Home Secretary can no longer go on blaming civil servants or police officers. Nor does the latest excuse that he has no idea what is happening in his Department auger well for the security of the nation.

This is a database failure. It is the latest in a series of database failures. Five years ago, we had the Soham tragedy, in part because of police and Home Office database failures. There have been failures on the sex offenders register, the police fingerprint database and the CRB—notably, two weeks after the right hon. Gentleman took over as Home Secretary. Did no Minister in the last eight months, as a result of those failures, ask, “Are there any weaknesses or omissions on the police national computer?” That is a straightforward, basic question. If no Minister asked it, why not? I would expect such basic scrutiny from a junior manager working in any business, let alone a Minister working in one of the most important Departments of State.

The right hon. Gentleman became Home Secretary on 5 May 2006. On 21 May, the UK central authority for the exchange of criminal records was set up, as we have been told today, transferring responsibility for those records from the Home Office to ACPO. Ministers will have received a submission on that transfer. Did he not ask the simple question whether there were any problems with it? After he took office, he told us that he had conducted a fundamental review across his Department. Did he ask whether all the databases had complete integrity? How fundamental is an inquiry that misses 27,000 files sitting on a desk for up to six years?

In practical public safety terms, will the Home Secretary tell the House, first, when the transfer will be complete? In particular, when will the 280 serious criminals be tracked down? I could not quite get that from what he said in his statement. Secondly, when will the sex offenders register, the Criminal Records Bureau and other relevant databases have been updated and checked back to see that no one has been missed in the gap since 1999? Thirdly, has he now checked for any other weaknesses in those databases? For example, if people from abroad who are given the right to work in the UK have criminal records, is he certain that those records are on the police national computer? If not known about, that is a serious issue.

I am afraid that the public will have little faith in yet another review led by a civil servant. The Home Secretary can no longer blame his officials, the police or his predecessors. He has been in the job long enough to have had every chance to put the right questions. He has failed to do so. He assures us that he is in charge of his Department. Is he? If he is, when will he start shouldering the responsibility for it?

It is normal to start my response by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for those elements of his contribution that were in some way laudatory; I could not find one today, so he will not mind if I go straight to the heart of the issue.

My statement today was not an attempt to lay blame, but to explain. That is what the House and the public want. It was also an attempt to outline the actions, now that I have been informed of the situation, that ought to be taken.

First, the right hon. Gentleman said that there are failings in the Home Office. That is the least newsworthy item that could be declared today. I do not think that any Secretary of State has been more open about some of those failings. Had I been told about the backlog, I assure him that I would have added it to the other failings about which I told the Home Affairs Committee in order better to tackle them.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman queried whether I had asked about the integrity of systems in the Home Office. Yes, I explicitly asked all the leading officials, in the first week, to tell me everything that needed to be known about systems failures, precisely so that we could address and share that with the public. Why was I not told? That is precisely why the permanent secretary is undertaking an inquiry. Let us now get away from the process points and move on to the substance of public protection.

I would not for one minute like the right hon. Gentleman to give the inadvertent impression that nothing has been done to improve the surveillance, monitoring and registering of people who have committed offences abroad. First, it is a major step forward that a lead organisation—ACPO—was appointed to ensure that the information that we sent to and received from other member states was dealt with in a systemic fashion that had integrity. That decision was taken six months before I became Home Secretary, and I applaud it.

Secondly, ACPO has now worked through and identified all serious cases in the backlog, and every one of those that it is possible to put on the police national computer, without the entry being useless at best or disturbing the system at worst, has been put on that computer.

Thirdly, in relation to the Soham question, the protection arrangements for children and vulnerable people have been improved significantly following Sir Michael Bichard’s report. The Home Office and ACPO are now working on a new IT initiative, IMPACT, which will improve significantly the recording and sharing of information. Under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, we have established a vetting and barring scheme. That is scheduled for implementation in late 2008 and will strengthen significantly the protection of children and vulnerable adults. One of its key features is the continuous monitoring that will be introduced, by contrast with the present arrangements whereby the Criminal Records Bureau is only able to provide what information is currently held in police systems.

Therefore, without in any way attempting to paint a rosy picture, the position is much better than it was from 1959 to 2005, during which period Governments of all persuasions have held office.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the date of transfer. I do not know whether he meant the date of transfer of the files. It was when ACPO’s role was set up—in the first half of last year, between January and June—that the files would have been established, electronically and physically. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will no longer allude to his colourful but rather misleading proposition that I have been sitting in the midst of all the files since May last year. I have not.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the date of reform. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I cannot respond to remarks made from a sedentary position. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise other issues I will deal with them, but let me make this absolutely clear: I have now asked not only for an assurance that all the serious cases on which we have sufficient information have been entered on the computer, but for a retrospective check to be carried out with the Criminal Records Bureau to ensure that no questions have been asked about anyone who ought to have been registered on the computer.

I am asking the police to accelerate the process of dealing with the other 27,500 cases, and I am asking the Probation Service to give me an assurance that anyone who has now been discovered to have committed an offence as a result of having been entered on the computer will be given the same level of supervision as anyone who has committed an offence in this country. I hope that all that will be done as rapidly as humanly possible.

The Home Secretary and his Ministers seem to have developed a novel doctrine of ministerial responsibility over the past 24 hours. If a Minister is not aware of something, we are now told, he or she can somehow not be held responsible for it. Let us be clear that ignorance is no excuse for incompetence. The British public have a simple question to ask of the Home Secretary: if he is not to be held to account for the work of his Department, who is?

Can the Home Secretary confirm that 27,500 files relate to information collected from Council of Europe countries? Can he tell us what would happen to files on offences committed by British citizens in non-Council of Europe countries, especially countries in, say, Asia or North America where there are large numbers of British residents or visitors? Can he assure us that there are no files from those countries sitting in Home Office filing cabinets?

I do not think the Home Secretary gave us a precise date for the completion of the CRB checks on the most serious offenders. Will he do so now, so that parents and members of the public can have a cast-iron guarantee that none of the offenders are working with children or vulnerable people?

The Home Secretary may be aware that since April 2005 a pilot project has been running, organised by Germany, France, Belgium and Spain—joined recently, I believe, by the Czech Republic—to establish a fully operational criminal records network. We are told that the United Kingdom has been very reluctant to join the project. Can the Home Secretary explain how he will deal with this crisis on a sustainable basis without committing Britain more fully to this type of international arrangement?

I will deal with the last question first. Of course we consider all ways of improving co-operation, but no one should believe that because systems have been established they will work perfectly, even now.

To the best of my knowledge, under the new system, all Council of Europe countries have notified us of all offences, and all those offences are being entered on the computer immediately by ACPO.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that since I became Secretary of State, none of the cases that have come in have added to the backlog. I accept responsibility for sorting the problem out, but unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, what I cannot tell him is that I was presiding over it from 1959 until last May. I was not. I will accept responsibility for sorting out the problem, but it has developed over many years. Even now, with the new system, when I ask how many notifications we have received from Spain, for instance, the answer is none. I find it very difficult to believe that we have had no one convicted of offences in Spain. That illustrates some of the problems that we are experiencing, even with a strengthened system.

We will continue to do what we can, and I accept full responsibility. It is a question of establishing the facts, and I have asked the permanent secretary to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. I hope and expect that we shall have gone through the backlog of 27,500 less serious cases within a few months—three months, I hope, although I cannot absolutely pledge that. He also asked an important question about the retrospective checking of people who are now on the computer but may not have been for a long time. I am also concerned about that, and I have asked the CRB to check and run it through the systems. I trust that the process will not take months or even weeks; I hope to have received the information by the end of this week. I will in any case present a written statement to the House when appropriate, to update Members on what is happening.

The backlog of 27,500 files that built up at some stage between 1959 and 2006—probably from the mid-1990s onwards, but that is part of what I am trying to establish—relates mainly to the 45 or so Council of Europe member states to which the convention on mutual legal assistance relates. That arrangement was even less systematic that the present one. As I have said, there were two flaws. First, the information that came to the United Kingdom was fragmentary, piecemeal and ad hoc, and secondly the system at this end, in the Home Office, was inadequate to deal with that. Had I known about those failings I would have incorporated them in the report that I gave the Home Affairs Committee, along with the other failings in the system.

We are remedying those failings now. A huge amount of work is being done by Home Office officials to reform the Home Office, and I praise them for that work. My only regret is that because they did not, apparently, tell me about it at the time, something that happened a considerable time ago is being blamed on officials as if it were happening now. Actually, it is on its way to being remedied now. What has happened is that we have only just found out about a problem that all of us should perhaps have known about some time ago.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Is he aware that when the incoming Labour Government began to set up the Criminal Records Bureau, it became apparent that we could not even be sure that convictions in this country were being entered on the police national computer? Laxity in these affairs long predates my right hon. Friend’s time as Home Secretary, and stretches back over other Governments.

May I point out to my right hon. Friend the real purpose of the Hampshire chief constable’s contribution to our Committee session yesterday? It was not to draw attention to past problems, which he regards as being on the way to solution, but to report that we are continuing to receive notification from other European states that contains too little information to allow individuals to be positively identified and registered on the national computer. Will my right hon. Friend add to his list of priorities a real drive in Europe to sort out the problem of the quality of data, so that we can establish the information on the computer and so that we are not still debating this issue in two or three years’ time?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the information that he elicited yesterday, which is very helpful to all of us. [Laughter.] This is a serious problem, and the information was helpful in spurring further action with the aim of establishing a process of constant improvement.

As my right hon. Friend says, over the past few decades public expectations of this as of other public services have become much higher. The public are entitled to demand more, as is the House, and I will try to respond. It is also the case, however, that we are monitoring, categorising, listing and registering, and through those actions protecting the public better than we were several decades ago.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the evidence given by the police yesterday. I am very grateful to the police for what they are doing. We have a problem that is currently being solved; but in the midst of that solution, there have been revelations about the problem as it existed before and as people had to grapple with it then. That is why I say that whatever happened previously, my predecessors were absolutely correct in taking the steps that were necessary for a speedy response to the European Union directive. We were among the first European member states to tender, and then to set up, a central authority—the Association of Chief Police Officers—to deal with the problem.

Although we are now working on system improvement, it is by no means perfect. My right hon. Friend said that the evidence yesterday was that some European Union member states were still not giving us information in a manner that can be registered on a computer; giving us the name “John Smith” with no address, no background and no identification, along with some general crime is not very helpful in terms of the police computer. Even worse, some states appear to have given us no notification of anybody at all, so I will certainly make that one of my priorities as well.

The Home Secretary, in the usual discreditable way that he and his colleagues adopt, has sought to spread some of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs to the previous Administration, but less than an hour ago the Prime Minister told the House that the voluntary transfer of information commenced in 1999, and I am sure that the Prime Minister was carefully briefed on that matter. Is not the simple truth that, since 1999, thousands of records of this kind have been received at the Home Office, have been put into boxes at the Home Office and have been left to gather dust at the Home Office? Is that not a disgraceful state of affairs, for which this Government are entirely responsible?

I think that the date that the Prime Minister might have mentioned was 1959, as regards the voluntary scheme.

The year is 1959 for the European Council convention on the exchange of information—the mutual legal aid. Information was exchanged from 1959. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is challenging me on the basis that all the files in the backlog are from 1999 onwards. I think that he will find that that is incorrect, and I hope that if he does find that it is incorrect he will be apologetic about what he said about me attempting, in discreditable fashion, to blame somebody. I am not attempting to blame anybody; I am attempting to explain how a problem arose and to address the problem.

I also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the public are less interested in the blame game and party politics than they are in the protection of themselves, their families and their children, which is what I am interested in.

I seek clarification on a small point. Yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee sitting was entirely about home affairs issues relating to Europe. My right hon. Friend mentioned Interpol in his statement; yesterday, we talked about Europol. Can I understand from what my right hon. Friend says that ACPO is now receiving information from Interpol, and therefore from around the world, rather than just from Europe?

Interpol has played an active part. Let me give an example—it is a rather complex one, but Members demand and expect detailed answers to such points. When ACPO received the files—some electronically, others physically—it sifted through them; it conducted what we would call a triage, sorting them into more serious and less serious offences. Of the 540 more serious offences, it transpired that 149 were already on the police national computer because they had been put on it by Interpol. That means that Interpol had already been playing an active role.

We will certainly encourage it and other institutions, including the European Union and its member states, to make information available. That is not, however, quite as simple as we would all want it to be. For example, only three countries in Europe have a sex offenders register: the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Other countries do not protect the public in the way that we do; we have a standard of protection that has been built up over the years. I do not make any exclusive claim for that for the Labour Government. Over a period of years, we have built up a system of protection that is in advance of that of any other country in Europe, but it still has major deficiencies, and we are trying to address them.

The Home Secretary referred to the tragedy in Soham in my constituency, and to the fact that if there had been better communication between police forces that tragedy might not have happened. However, although that happened five years ago, the Home Secretary said that the IMPACT—information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking—system is still being implemented. How much longer will my constituents and other people in this country have to wait before there is a system in place that ensures that everybody who has committed crimes that could mean that they are a threat to children in the future are recorded in a manner that is accessible by those who might be considering employing them?

We should bear in mind that at the beginning of this process there was already a system in place in Scotland; the Scottish forces had a system that allowed the kind of communication that has been mentioned. Yet the Home Office ignored that and went ahead; it started to implement an IMPACT system which, as the Home Secretary has told us, is still not fully operational five years later.

We are attempting to introduce such measures as quickly as possible, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and he is correct to be so.

On more general matters, I was invited to say whether I think that what happened is serious and detrimental. I have made it publicly clear that I do think so, and we are attempting to remedy that. However, as I also pointed out, it is not as though nothing has happened since then. What has come out of that tragedy? Apart from IMPACT, we have established the vetting and barring scheme, which is scheduled for implementation in less than two years; it will significantly strengthen the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We are trying to improve the national offenders management system and the oversight of serious offenders. We have the POCA—Protection of Children Act 1999—register for those who might be a threat to children. We have the POVA—protection of vulnerable adults—register for those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults. We also have what is called the sexual offenders register, although it is actually the violent and sexual offenders register. Therefore, a lot is going on in this area.

None of that, however, excuses our inability to handle such matters in a better fashion. The task now is to make sure that we improve that much more quickly, and that we do so much more fully—and that has been under way since last May when ACPO took the lead.

Given that many of the problems that have affected our Government since we came to power have emanated from the Home Department, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is right to give serious consideration to splitting the duties and responsibilities of the Home Department, for example by creating a new department for immigration and migration separate from the rest of Home Department responsibilities?

My arrival at the Home Office was not without a degree of controversy. I identified what I thought were failings that had to be remedied. I said that within three months—100 days—I would bring forward plans for reform. I am sorry to disappoint the House and some commentators, but I did not in fact say that I would solve the problems of the Home Office within 100 days; I said that I would bring forward plans to tackle the fundamental problems.

Those plans were produced. One of them is a reform plan for Home Office systems—the systems and functions, and the integrity of them. Another is a plan to reform radically—and, hopefully, make far more efficient—the immigration and nationality department. We are proceeding with those reforms, but we keep the whole situation under review. The agency status we have proposed for the immigration and nationality department might be a big contributory factor to creating a more efficient organisation, but I have also carried out a study and review of the counter-terrorist side of the Department’s responsibilities. We keep that under review. I never rule anything out, but at the moment we have a plan for the reform of the central systems and the IND, and it is better to try to implement those plans before we devise others.

The Home Secretary has said that he will accept responsibility for sorting this mess out, but he has been Home Secretary since last May. Does he accept any personal responsibility for how this mess has arisen in the first place—any responsibility at all?

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on and take responsibility for things that happened prior to my becoming Home Secretary. [Interruption.] No, I did not say that it was the previous Home Secretary; indeed, I said that I welcomed the previous Home Secretary’s decision to sort these things out by putting the matter to ACPO and being among the first in Europe to take action. All I am pointing out is that I accept the responsibility for dealing with this, but as I said in my statement it is a problem that has been mounting over the decades.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out the reference to 1999. That was made because accurate records began only in 1999. I am reliably informed by my officials that we have no accurate records for the period during which the right hon. and learned Gentleman presided over the Home Office. However, I accept full responsibility. That is why I am in front of the House, volunteering a statement, within 24 hours of the discovering that there was a problem, albeit some time ago.

Will the Home Secretary separate out some of the questions about whether Ministers knew about this or would have had cause to ask about it in the past, because MPs clearly did not know about it or have cause for concern? Would the offenders concerned have had any reason to know that they were not on the national computer, or can we hope that they were living and behaving under the assumption that they were? Does the Home Secretary feel any unease about the fact that the new information becoming available, including that about countries that have not passed on information, might come as some comfort to those offenders? We all need to address that issue, not the political spat about who knew what, when.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who addresses the practical problems and the protection of the public. That is what the public are interested in, and it is what I am interested in. I cannot guess, and it would be a guess, at the attitude of some of these offenders or whether that attitude was shaped by a realisation that their names had not been placed where they thought they might be.

The hon. Gentleman has hit on a serious point. Even if these names are now being put on the computer and we are tackling the problem as a result of the decision of the previous Home Secretary to pass the matter to ACPO, there was a gap. Can we be sure that during that time people did not get positions that they ought to have been prevented from getting because their name should have been on the computer? I spoke this morning to the Criminal Records Bureau, and said that I wanted it to check with utmost speed that there is no one in a job or position of trust who would have been prevented from getting it had their name been on the police computer and various registers more speedily. I have asked the CRB to give me the answer to that question by the end of this week, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep the House informed of these matters.

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. There is still deep concern about this matter and a fear that proper checks and disclosures may not have been carried out correctly on a number of these people, who may now be employed back in the UK. I welcome some of what he said, particularly about the fact that the records have now all been sifted and a priority assessment carried out to identify the 540 most serious cases. I welcome the fact that there is now notification of whether data exist concerning those on the PNC.

I remain very anxious, however, that 280 of the most serious cases—more than half—cannot yet be notified and are subject to further inquiry. To allay public fears, particularly in Scotland, can the Home Secretary assure us that as notifications to the police national computer are carried out, comparable and parallel updates are made to data held by the Scottish Criminal Records Bureau, where appropriate? That would at least put some minds to rest in Scotland that as data are found and notification is completed, comparable Scottish records are updated in parallel.

That is a very important point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about what has been achieved so far. He is quite right to ask about the gaps. I asked the CRB this morning to give me advice and to try to ensure that this information goes on all the various registers that should have it. I will make sure that that includes the Scottish CRB, too. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have a list of, for instance, football hooligans, those who might be a threat to children, those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults and those who might be violent and sexual offenders—ViSOR—as well as the police national computer. He correctly points out that there are parallel or separate organisations in Scotland, and I will ensure that what he requests is done.

Given that part of the problem is the poor quality of information, is the Home Secretary seeking meetings with his fellow Interior Ministers in the European Union to address the problem? Does he feel that if we improved our system of identification and registration of residency, he would be greatly helped?

I entirely agree on both points. If European Union members act co-operatively on certain major subjects, for the practical benefit of their populations, we will greatly enhance the status of the European Union in the eyes of our public. If they spent more time doing that than they do attempting to harmonise where harmonisation is not necessary, we would all benefit in practical terms in this country and in the EU more widely.

I turn to my hon. Friend’s second, and most important, point. In a spirit of constructive engagement I ask Members in all parts of the House to consider that one of the most fundamental flaws of the last few decades in the exchange of all this information is the inability to identify the offenders from country to country, and nothing would be a bigger boost to our ability to protect the public than some form of identity management. ID cards are an important consideration in the future of the protection of the public, and quite frankly it ill behoves people to stand up and demand the ends that they say the public want and then on every occasion oppose the means of achieving those ends.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the responsibilities that have been given to ACPO are very demanding and go a long way beyond anything that it has previously been responsible for? What resources has he made available to ACPO? How much has it cost? Are ACPO staff now satisfied that they have adequate resources to fulfil the task that he has given them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for a very important point. I should point out that ACPO—which has been helpful this morning as ever, and I pay tribute to it—is not a conscript. It has not had this task imposed on it. As a result of the European directive at the end of 2005, which said that every country should have a lead body for sending out and receiving the information, we put the job out to tender, and ACPO put in a bid and won. That is why I say that even though we are discussing a historical problem with current ramifications, a solution is already under way because ACPO has taken on the role of lead body and is working through the problem. As for doing things a little quicker as a result of my perusal of the situation, if more resources are necessary, we will discuss that with ACPO. We started those discussions this morning.

The House is grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement. He has explained that there are 280 serious cases that cannot be entered on the police national computer and are the subject of further inquiries. Is there any sort of deadline for entering those 280 cases and, if so, will he inform the House what it is?

There is not a deadline because it would be artificial. The cases cannot be entered not only because it would not add anything to put in a name and very little else, but because it would damage the existing system if there were hundreds of cases that were nothing but a name. The problem is that we are moving from a system that was completely piecemeal and fragmentary—quite frankly, it fell into disuse—to one that is meant to involve the systematic and organised transfer of information, although it is obvious that people are not keeping to the basic format for the necessary information that should be exchanged. We have to try to ensure that we go back through the cases with the countries. Some of the files are indecipherable—they just cannot be read—not because they are in a different language, but because of their scribbled manner. The records are not all typed case files; some are written notifications. There is thus a real problem. We will do that work as soon as possible. As soon as the information is in a fit state to go on the computer, it now goes on it. There is no backlog for perusal, other than the remainder of the 27,500 cases, which are the less serious files. I have asked that there should be an attempt to deal with them in the next few months, rather than in a year, as was originally planned.

Does the Home Secretary agree that there is an urgent need to reassure the public that convicted child sex offenders are not working with children at present? Is he in a position to make a statement in the very near future on the child sex offenders who have been identified already—I believe that there are 29 of them—and what process he will follow regarding others who may be revealed?

The hon. Lady has a long-standing interest in this and served on a Committee that considered a Bill concerned with these matters. She is absolutely right. That was why I met this morning not only the police and officials, but the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked the bureau to run through all the information that has now been passed to it. I have asked for the 280 names to be given to the bureau and for it to go through its computer files in the next three days. By the end of the week, I hope that I will be in a position to give such confirmation, or to be able to identify anyone about whom an inquiry was made before information was received from the national computer. If there is someone in such a position who has been appointed, I will tackle that problem when we discover it.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to initiate an inquiry to determine what has happened and how that should be dealt with, rather than making assumptions about who was at fault. Will he not just take the weasel words of the Opposition on this issue, which are never substantiated by any action to deal with—

Order. It is totally inappropriate to use such language, especially when we are considering a subject such as this. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about the words that he uses.

If the permanent secretary, on the conclusion of his inquiry into the matter, identifies the official who did not give the correct information in reply to the specific question posed by the Home Secretary, will that official be sacked?

The hon. Lady makes several assumptions, one of which is that the relevant people might still be working in the Home Office. All I can say without prejudging the inquiry is that one of the reasons—not the only one—why I asked for it was that I found it inexplicable that such a backlog had not been brought to my attention when it was pretty obvious to everyone else, including hon. Members, that I wanted to identify the problems in the Home Office that we needed to address quite openly and then deal with them. Although I do not wish to prejudge the inquiry, we will deal with that when it comes out.

I thank the Home Secretary for his full statement and for initiating the investigation. Will he assure the House that he will ensure that this item will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU so that our partners are aware of the deficiencies in the provision of information? In respect of countries outside the EU, will he meet the Foreign Secretary to determine whether there is any way in which, through the posts abroad, she can help to lobby other Governments to ensure that they provide adequate information?

I can say yes to both my right hon. Friend’s points. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who has been dealing with the matter with me over the past 24 hours or so, will be attending the next meeting in the near future and will raise both those points with colleagues formally and informally.

The Home Secretary outlined the situation up until the time of the agreement in 2005 in the European Union and tried to reassure the House that the stricter regime put in place after that, with a single national authority in each member state, would lead to the problem being much easier to control. The original situation occurred under a Council of Europe convention involving 46 member countries. The European Union has only 27 member states, which means that 19 countries, including large ones, such as Russia and Ukraine, and others with a large British expatriate population, such as Norway and Switzerland, are not covered by the arrangements. How many cases in the backlog involve us seeking answers from countries that are not required to have a single national authority and from which we are thus unlikely to get answers?

We can approach several institutions and we can carry out work through Interpol. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman in advance how many of the 27,000 cases that have not yet been examined in detail are of a particular nature. I would hazard a guess that around half of them might not be sufficiently detailed for us to enter them on the police national computer because about half of the 540 more serious ones were not. If that pattern is repeated, it might well be that many of the cases involve pieces of paper with notifications that are in no condition to go on the computer. However, we will pursue every avenue.

The hon. Gentleman makes the simple point that while things might have got better under the new system, they are not perfect. I have not claimed that we have perfection. We have the European Union, beyond which there is the Council of Europe. Beyond that we have the world, so a couple of hundred countries will be sending us information that is not as perfect as it ought to be. I merely say that the system is a lot better than it was before and that it is among the best in Europe, along with the systems in France and Ireland.