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Criminal Records: Backlog

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“I would like to take this opportunity to update the House on the backlog of unrecorded overseas crimes committed in Europe by British nationals. I intend to outline the situation up to May 2006, when the Association of Chief Police Officers became the lead organisation. I am treating the subject very seriously indeed.

“First, 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 of the EU convention would inform each other of criminal convictions of their citizens while in another member country. This has been the situation from 1959 to last year. This system had a number of very grave weaknesses. First, implementation was patchy across Europe. Secondly, much of the information was poor quality—for example, on some occasions, just a name. The process for handling these notifications when they arrived in the United Kingdom was fragmented and piecemeal.

“There were, therefore, fundamental flaws in the sending and review of information. It was agreed that this situation should be improved at a 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 systems. It was decided by my predecessor, in my view completely correctly, in March 2006, 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 the first European nation to tender and set up a central authority in the form of ACPO to do this. Its team was operational by May.

“Secondly, the current situation. Since May, ACPO has sifted through all the approximately 27,500 notifications and carried out a priority risk assessment. This identified 540 most serious offenders by the police’s own definition. All the notifications relating to the most serious offenders which had enough information to be entered onto the police national computer and which were not already on the computer as a result of Interpol work have all been put onto the police national computer. Together, that means 260 of the 540 serious notifications are on the PNC. The remaining 280 cannot be entered on the police national computer 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 these 280 are not necessarily notifications from May last year, or even since this Government have come in. We are having these checked.

“Thirdly, the actions I have asked to be taken. As the House will know, I regard protecting the public as my highest priority. I therefore consider the past failings in the system to be a very serious matter. As I said, I regard the response and decision of my predecessor as the correct response. However, I also believe that the system now operating puts responsibility in the right place. I am grateful to the Association of Chief Police Officers for the action it has have taken and its assistance 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 most 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 set out what has been done in the past 24 hours. I have asked the Permanent Secretary to set up an inquiry into the Home Office’s handling of these notifications. This will include a chronology of events, the practices and procedures in place at different times, whether appropriate action was taken and the lessons to be learnt. I have asked that every effort should 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 other departments, to ensure that all appropriate public protection steps are taken. In particular, the Criminal Records Bureau will be checking 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 this new information. I expect to have this information in a matter of days.

“I have also asked the police and probation services to ensure that all sex offenders who have been identified through this 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 set and accelerate the timetable to process the remainder of the backlog, including the less serious offenders. I have asked that the process for these less serious offenders be completed not in 12 months but within three months with the extra resources I have provided.

“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 was operational. I take full responsibility for ensuring that this new system operates effectively to protect the public and that the lessons of past failings are properly learnt”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today by her right honourable friend the Home Secretary. This is indeed a serious matter. It is one which potentially threatens the safety of the public. In effect, the Home Office has been sitting on details of 27,500 British citizens convicted of offences abroad, details that were brought to public attention only yesterday when the Association of Chief Police Officers gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place.

So of course the Home Secretary is right to put in place the inquiries that are outlined today in the Statement. However, it would have been so much better if the Home Office systems operated efficiently and effectively so that this database failure had never occurred in the first place. It is the latest in a series of database failures at the Home Office: the Criminal Records Bureau, the sex offenders register and the police fingerprint system, to mention just the most notorious in the past two or three years.

In response to questions from the Floor, the Home Secretary said earlier today that when he took office he specifically asked his officials whether there were any known dangers of systems failures. He said he was not told of any problems. That is, indeed, alarming.

This morning the Home Office Minister Joan Ryan gave interviews on both television and radio. I watched and listened carefully. She was asked whether Ministers knew of Home Office failures before yesterday. At first, she merely said that as far as she knew the current Ministers did not know of the situation until yesterday. That seemed to well and truly drop Mr Clarke in it. Then, when pressed further, she appeared to say that as far as she knew it was the Ministers who were new to the Home Office last year who did not know of the fiasco. She did not say about the others. That implied that Mr McNulty and the noble Baroness were being put in the frame. I thought that it was rather unfortunate to do that when the noble Baroness did not have the opportunity to reply at that stage.

So I give the Minister the opportunity to put the record straight immediately today. Did she have any knowledge of the matter before yesterday? Has she ever made inquiries regarding the processing of the information received from overseas governments on UK citizens convicted of crimes abroad? Has she ever made inquiries about the robustness of the information systems involved?

The opening sentence of the Statement specifically refers to crimes committed in Europe, and the Minister mentioned the Convention of Europe, the protocol. What is the position with regard to British nationals convicted of crime outside the Convention of Europe area? How are they currently tracked?

Much has been made today by Ministers, in the media and in another place, of the inadequacy of the information that is sometimes supplied by other governments to the Home Office. We are told that it is just a matter of Mr John Smith with no detail, no address, and nothing more than that. Are our methods any more efficient when we send information to overseas governments about their citizens who have been sentenced in the UK? Let us say it is a Herr Johannes Schmitt; do we give his last known address and sufficient detail to track swiftly his whereabouts?

Can the Home Office’s methods be so rigorous, given the statement in the Prison Service’s Instruction issued in August last year? It states:

“It is clear significant levels of errors are present within the LIDS”.

That is the local information database system that records prisoners’ details.

Finally, the Home Secretary’s Statement refers to the identification of 540 of the most serious offenders from the 27,500 files. Of those 540, 280 cannot be entered on the police computer and are the subject of further inquiries to the notifying country. Of that rump of 280, by the police’s definition, very serious offenders, how many were convicted of murder, how many of rape and how many of other sex offences? What timescale does the Home Office have in mind for obtaining enough information on those 280 to be able to enter them on the police computer? They must surely continue to pose a threat to public safety. I am aware that the whole House is at one in wanting to make sure that public safety comes first in our minds.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why it has taken 48 years for us to begin to approach an efficient system of recording foreign convictions in this country since the 1959 Council of Europe Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance? Does it not expose a shocking lack of co-ordination, both in Europe at large and between the authorities in this country?

Will the noble Baroness confirm that as a result of the facts disclosed in this Statement, public safety has been put at risk in two particular areas? First, is there not a real possibility that people have been employed with close access to children and to the mentally ill, who would have been excluded if proper Criminal Records Bureau checks had been possible? Secondly, does she agree that judges may well have been sentencing British nationals with very serious convictions abroad on an entirely false premise; that is, not knowing of those convictions abroad? Had they had that information, it might have made the difference between a short determinate sentence and an indeterminate sentence for public protection and IPP, which is becoming more common as a result of the policies of this Government.

Why is that described in the Statement as a backlog of unrecorded overseas crimes? Is it not the case that every one of those crimes has been recorded in the country where the conviction took place? Why have not the Government taken steps during their years in office—throughout claiming to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—to find out the records of those crimes committed by British nationals in other European countries?

Will the Minister confirm that the Statement covers only part of the problem: British nationals convicted in Europe? What about the many European nationals resident in the United Kingdom who may have criminal convictions recorded against them? What are the Government doing to ensure that their convictions are available through the Criminal Records Bureau, so that they do not wrongly fall into employment to which they are not entitled or find themselves sentenced on too weak a basis in court?

Will the Minister tell us what percentage of those convictions are recorded with only a name—“just a name”, as the phrase goes in the Statement? Is it a significant proportion or a very small percentage indeed? In other words, is the phrase used to conceal the true failures that have taken place as a result of the inefficiencies described in the Statement?

Will the Minister confirm that the convictions that we are considering include convictions for homicide, including murder, serious sexual offences, other offences of serious violence and dealing in class A drugs? If, as surely must be the case, the answer to that question is yes, can she explain to the House why a simple procedure was not used whereby the most serious offences were matched to what appeared to be the relevant names so that, if consideration of those names occurred either in terms of employment or in court, at least the information went before the relevant authority and could then be litigated if necessary?

Can the Minister explain to us why so many bodies are involved? Why are the Home Office, the PNC, ACPO and the Criminal Records Bureau all involved? Surely there is an overwhelming case for a single body, the Criminal Records Bureau, to deal with the co-ordination of European conviction information from beginning to end. Can she confirm that the Criminal Records Bureau will be given the extra resources needed so that those 27,500 convictions can be incorporated in its database? Will she confirm that the review of three months or six weeks—or however long it takes—will not simply be used as a fig leaf to allow that deficiency to continue for several more years to come?

My Lords, I will seek to deal with each of those issues in order, if I may. First, on the knowledge of the matter under inquiry, none of the Ministers knew of the precise problem identified. What was known prior to May—this is the reason why the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, took the step that he did—was that there was an issue about how we should better manage information that had been coming on an ad hoc, voluntary basis and so he set up a proper system to ensure that that which had gone before was changed and put into proper order. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said, that was appropriate and proper.

To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, when the issue arose as to which body should be appointed to be the central authority, a number of entities were able to tender. ACPO submitted a tender and succeeded in getting this role. The main reason for that, as noble Lords will appreciate, is that the police national computer, on to which information is put, is very much within police control, and it was thought that this was the most appropriate opportunity and that ACPO was the most appropriate agency to deal with it. There is no suggestion that that was not the right decision to take because of the very close working relationship between the police and, indeed, the CRB.

On the numbers involved, the ACPO evidence to the Home Affairs Committee was that there was a backlog of 27,500 criminal records, and that notifications were received. ACPO has also confirmed the breakdown of the offences. We were told that, among the serious offences, there were 25 rapes, three attempted rapes, 29 paedophiles, 17 other sex offenders, five murders, nine attempted murders, 13 manslaughter convictions and 29 robberies. We are entirely reliant on the information that ACPO gives us, but we have been assured that those figures are correct.

The police are looking very carefully to identify cases in which we simply have a name. I do not at this precise moment have a case-by-case breakdown so that I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, that there are X number of cases in which simply a name was put forward and that there are Y number of cases with an address. We understand that some of these notifications were not made in English, some did not have the full address, and some did not form a part of a tight record. We therefore have a very broad spectrum of information that must be looked at, and I am assured by information that ACPO has given to us that in all those cases where it has been possible correctly to identify the individual concerned, that individual has been placed on the police national computer. As I said when I repeated the Statement, the CRB has made efforts to check whether it has received requests for information on any of those people and whether that has, or would have been, altered by it. Those inquiries are currently under way and, as I indicated in the Statement, we are hopeful that the CRB will be able to give us information on that by the end of the week.

On the other questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, noble Lords will know that we have been pursuing with some vigour with our European partners the issue of British nationals who have committed offences in Europe. We have asked on several occasions how we can better manage data between ourselves and others. Noble Lords will be aware, for example, that only three European members—the UK, Ireland and France—have a sex offenders register, and we are exhorting others to follow our example.

On the information that we give to other EU and Council of Europe countries, we endeavour to give as much information as we can—indeed, all the details that would enable the proper identification of individuals whom we know about—to other member states. One of the points that ACPO made in evidence to the Select Committee yesterday was that we are still receiving inaccurate and inadequate information from many of our partners so that, even now that we have a new central authority, it is often difficult to identify correctly those who have committed offences in another country and who are returned. We are making strenuous efforts to correct that. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he will continue to raise this issue with his counterparts in the Justice and Home Affairs Council.

We have taken these issues very seriously. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, that the three-month review will not be a fig leaf. These issues have to be, and will be, pursued. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken responsibility for so doing.

My Lords, my sympathies are with the Home Secretary, who faces another shambles in his office. When Dr Reid went to the Home Office and found it, in his own words, “not fit for purpose”, did he ask his Permanent Secretary whether the Home Office had the faintest idea of any further skeletons in the cupboard? If Mr Andy Burnham, the then junior Minister in charge of records, was not told of this problem, who knew in the Home Office and at what level were they?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend will know that it is for that precise reason that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has asked the Permanent Secretary to undertake an inquiry to establish what the chronology was, who knew, when the matter came to light and how appropriately it was dealt with, so that we can learn lessons. I am not in a position today, this matter having arisen in the way that it has, to tell your Lordships that I have access to any such chronology. We will discover the full picture once the issue has been properly explored.

I should have said in answer to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that the CRB is taking steps to work as hard as it can with other countries. For example, we are looking at working with a number of other countries to get better clarification. The CRB is seeking to establish reciprocal arrangements with countries outside Europe such as Australia. This is important work and we will continue to pursue it with a great deal of energy.

My Lords, the Minister did not answer the questions which were put to her by my noble friend Lady Anelay, who asked whether she would explain what she knew and what questions she had asked. Will she now answer those questions? Furthermore, will she bear in mind that this is yet another sign of total incompetence from this miserable department? Twenty-five per cent of the Questions in this House which are overdue an Answer are with the Home Office. We have seen a whole series of examples of incompetence. Does the Minister not agree that it is time that we had a debate in your Lordships' House about the incompetence of the Home Office? I know that she will say that this is a matter for the Leader of the House. In view of all this, will she go to the Leader of the House and say that she thinks that it is time to have a debate on the incompetence of the Home Office?

My Lords, the short answer to that question is “no”. Although I accept that errors have been made in the Home Office, it is grossly unfair to refer to it as an incompetent and miserable department. The Home Office shoulders on behalf of this country the most enormous responsibility. In the greater part of the work that it does, through the diligence, hard work and commitment of its officials—and the Ministers who have been privileged to work in it—it would be a travesty so to describe it.

I say in response to the noble Baroness that, as far as I am aware, I have never been directly or indirectly responsible for this issue. To the best of my knowledge and belief, I was not asked at any time to take on that responsibility.

However, bearing in mind the breadth of responsibility that I hold on behalf of this department and the answers that I have to give to this House from time to time, I have to say to the noble Baroness that I cannot be sure, without looking through all the documentation—and without the department having had that opportunity—whether at any stage a piece of paper has come through my hands which may have so described this issue. Therefore, when I make that statement, I hope that the House understands that, as the Minister responsible for the whole of the Home Office portfolio in this House, it would be impossible and improper for me to assert that there has never been any piece of paper, which may have been in one of the files when I have stood at this Dispatch Box, which might have contained something which I now do not recall.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is some danger of a loss of perspective here? Much of the data, which we are now very concerned about, until relatively recently would not have even been available. Part of the difficulty is the fact that we all suffer, in all sorts of areas of our lives, from a massive data overload, which strains to the limit an enormous number of systems.

While it is understandable, in the political debate that has ensued upon this discovery, that people’s focus is on public safety, would the Minister also agree that it is important to have the perspective that some of the information that has not been properly processed might be about mitigating circumstances? Might it be about rehabilitative activities that have been taking place in relation to particular offenders, or about offences that in this country might be regarded as spent? Therefore, serious as this issue is, it is not only to be dealt with as some kind of new and unforeseeable crisis facing the public and putting the public in danger. Without any wish to be complacent, does she agree that this general problem of the processing of data is one in which good and bad information gets lost from time to time?

My Lords. the right reverend Prelate makes a number of important points. To re-emphasise what he says, in the recent past we have got a great deal better at collating information. Before 2002 and the creation of the Criminal Records Bureau, there was not one entity that collated all this information. This Government have made major advances in order to clarify, control and share data. I hope that many in the House would applaud this, because it has reinforced and enhanced the safety given to individuals in this country, as opposed to diminishing it.

Further, in relation to the steps we have taken on the background, I make it clear that many of the offences to which the backlog refers are not serious. For example, there is a body of road traffic offences included therein. In accepting entirely that for the 540 there are serious issues which we need to pursue, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that a degree of balance and proportion would perhaps be merited.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us a little more about the EU developments? As she says, the system that came into force in May 2006 was better. That was because it ceased to be voluntary—it was an EU decision, which is binding in law. It seems a little curious that, as my noble friend Lord Carlile said, ACPO rather than the CRB was made the designated agency. Does she accept, however, that the system could be even better, because there has been a European Commission proposal on the table for the past year? That would open the prospect of a computerised database, so that information on convictions in the EU at least could be exchanged with much greater reliability and effectiveness, as well as much greater data protection safeguards. What energy have the UK Government put into getting that agreed among EU Governments, given that British Home Secretaries have only attended one-third of JHA councils recently? Since this measure is blocked in Brussels, however, because it is subject to the veto, do the Government look wistfully at the Schengen countries and the seven core countries in the so-called Treaty of Prum, which have much more intensive co-operation and therefore much less chance of convictions slipping through the net? Will the Government make their decisions on Schengen and Prum?

My Lords, during our presidency and at other times—the noble Baroness will know this well—we have worked very hard to persuade our colleagues in Europe to take a more progressive role in the exchange of data—particularly in relation to criminal and other particularly sensitive and difficult issues. We are having some success in that regard. I also remind her that although the Secretary of State is not always able to make these meetings, we have the benefit of Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, who have been very assiduous in their attendance at Justice and Home Affairs meetings. I think that our Europe colleagues feel our bite very clearly indeed when we attend. I assure her that the United Kingdom will continue to try to get these issues very much on the table. As to Schengen, I think I have answered that question for the noble Baroness on a number of occasions; I just say that I repeat what I have said on so many previous occasions.

My Lords, the Home Secretary indicated that most of these notifications arise for the period since the mid-1990s. Is that right? Bearing in mind that most organisations in government destroy paper and files after a number of years, can the Minister tell me whether any of the records have been destroyed in that way, or do we have a complete record going back to when the notifications began?

My Lords, I am not able to help the noble Lord with that matter until, of course, we have a clearer view of the number of cases. He will remember from his Administration that there used to be no record system. We introduced a record system that enables us to identify information, but when we took over government, that process was not in place. We are therefore often unable to verify exactly what the system was before 1997. Obviously, we will do our very best to ascertain precisely the genesis of this issue, and how many cases came from before.

My Lords, while I admire—I think that the whole House admires—the spirited loyalty with which the noble Baroness defended her department, I find it somewhat difficult to accept her theme. First, is it the normal requirement that a foreign policeman or foreign court, charging somebody for a serious offence, takes down the number of that person’s passport, or of some other identification document? Secondly, if so, is the problem that they do not give us that information in answer to our request, or that they do not have it at all. If so, what are we doing to cause them to take it? Thirdly, if, as I suspect, part of the problem is that they do not really bother to answer our questions, would it not be a good idea if some member of the department travelled to these countries and visited the offices where these records are kept, and asked to see them, rather than merely sending a fruitless series of unanswered telecommunications?

My Lords, we would then probably have our officials constantly on aeroplanes and very rarely at home. There is, however, a real need to get some conformity as to the nature of information that we are entitled to receive from each other. The truth is that many countries have totally different systems on how they collate information, what information they transfer, and the form in which they transfer it.

We hope that our work with our EU partners to introduce a central authority and set out clear protocols will greatly enhance our ability to get accurate information. As far as I am aware, not all countries take down passport details or other verifications. Many would say that if we had a proper ID card, many of these issues would be far simpler than they are now.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s commitment and diligence are certainly not in doubt in this House, but can she not agree that, viewed from the outside by the ordinary person, the Home Office seems a disaster-prone area? That is even more significant to everyone because of the very sensitive and important things the department deals with. Can the noble Baroness guarantee that at the end of this investigation someone will be held accountable—a person not a system?

My Lords, I know of the noble Baroness’s fairness and that she would want only those who are responsible to be held as such. To be open and fair, we must first scrutinise properly what happened, how it happened and whether any individual could or should be held responsible for it. We must bear in mind particularly how the system operated in the past, when it was ad hoc, when all legal assistance was on a voluntary basis and there was no basis on which we could compel people to send us information in a prescribed form. As I understand it—I must emphasise that this is as I understand it—we have a broad spectrum of information, some of it not translated, some handwritten and some typed. It is very difficult at this stage to see whether this is a part of history or something for which one or more individuals were properly to blame. That is one of the things that the review and the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office will have to look at.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, can the noble Baroness give the House some idea of when notification was made of the 540 most serious offences and what happened to those notifications under the old system?

My Lords, I cannot assist the noble and learned Lord with when those offences were notified. When the backlog of 27,500 was transferred, ACPO did a sort of triage, looking through the documents and identifying those which tended to indicate a serious offence. As I indicated, there are less serious offences, such as road traffic offences and others of a relatively minor nature. ACPO identified that 540 cases fell into the category of those that it considered serious. It then went through them to see whether it had enough information to positively identify the individual. It recognised that many of the cases on which there was specific information had already been notified through Interpol and were already on the system. It was able to check those off and then to look at those that had not been put on the system by Interpol but which should have been on it. As we understand it, since ACPO took over in May last year, all the cases that can accurately be identified have been put on the system. It is now looking at those other cases, going back to other countries and inquiring whether it can get accurate data to correctly identify information before putting it on the PNC.

Noble Lords will know that there would be nothing worse than to have people put on the PNC with inaccurate, fallacious information. That would not inure to the advantage of the system or to the protection of people, and it could be quite dangerous. We are trying hard to prevent such a situation. I can assure the House that as soon as further information is available, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has indicated, we will of course seek to make it clear.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the more she praises the Home Office and says what an excellent department it is, the more we will be inclined, perhaps in both Houses of Parliament, when the Home Office suggests that proposals for legislation are bad, that this view comes not from its accumulated wisdom but from its in-built arrogance? The noble Baroness will know that I have tabled quite a lot of Questions for Written Answer over the past few years on the Home Office’s performance. Some of them are extremely relevant to this question, so perhaps she will very kindly look at them. For example, it appears that the records of prisoners, unless they have been sentenced for life or specially selected, are kept for only six years. The number given to a prisoner on being sent to prison applies only on that occasion; the next time that individual is imprisoned they get a new number. The Passport Office is never told about the committal of someone to prison, and as far as I know—perhaps the noble Baroness will tell us—British diplomatic missions overseas do not routinely report to the Foreign Office and thence to the Home Office the passport numbers of British citizens who have been arrested.

My Lords, I hope that the House will not misinterpret anything I have said in relation to the Home Office as arrogance. I was responding to an unjust assertion that the Home Office is incompetent and a miserable department.

My Lords, I hear the muttering of “not fit for purpose”; I do not agree. I accept absolutely that there are areas where there have been serious flaws and inadequacies that need to be addressed with vigour. But the fact that one has a flaw does not mean that one is not worthy of respect and acknowledgement of the other aspects of one’s character—even in the case of a department—that are worthy of applause. I hesitate to say it, but those of us without sin perhaps find it easier to throw stones.