[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of the Disclosure and Barring Service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I sought this debate because, since being elected last year, I have been approached by a significant number of my constituents who have experienced serious personal consequences as a result of delays in the processing of enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks.
When I asked written parliamentary questions on the subject earlier this year, two things happened. First, the answers to my questions did not provide any comfort or confidence that the problems were in hand. Secondly, many more individuals, voluntary sector organisations, care providers, public sector employers and others got in touch with me to say that they had had problems, confirming my view that there is a significant problem with far-reaching impacts. Today I will discuss the nature of the problems with the DBS, the impact on individuals, the reasons behind the poor performance, the Government’s response, and the key issue of the current non-portability of DBS checks.
The DBS is a vital part of the safeguarding process. The process began under the Criminal Records Bureau established by the Labour Government, and I support it wholeheartedly. It is absolutely right that the checks take place and that anyone who, because of a previous conviction, is not a safe person to work with children or vulnerable adults can be prevented from doing so. However, the service must be run in an efficient and effective way, and it is clear that there are major problems in many parts of the country. Performance levels depend on the DBS itself and on the relationship between the DBS and the police forces across the country that are charged with delivering 25% of checks that come through the police character inquiry centres. The DBS and the police must work hand in hand to deliver a good service.
I will discuss that in further detail shortly, but I want to be clear about the impacts that the current delays in processing enhanced DBS checks are having. In November 2015, I was contacted by a constituent who was a student nurse and who needed a DBS check to be completed so that she could take up her student placement. She made the original application in August 2015. She did not receive her DBS clearance until December 2015, as a consequence of which she missed the first term of her nursing placement.
In March 2016, I was contacted by another constituent, who was seeking to complete six months of clinical experience in hospital and voluntary sector settings before enrolling on a programme of doctoral study in clinical psychology. He had submitted three applications for the three settings in which he was undertaking placements. That is an issue in its own right, to which I will return. The first application was made in October 2015, with two subsequent applications shortly thereafter. In anticipation of beginning his placements six months ahead of the commencement of the doctoral programme, my constituent resigned from his job only to wait several months for his DBS checks to be finished. That happened only in July 2016, far too late for the placements to be completed in time for the start of the course in September. My constituent has been forced to claim jobseeker’s allowance and to delay the commencement of his studies by a whole year as a consequence of the delays.
I have also been contacted by a healthcare worker who was unable to take up a job offer for five months; a parent-run nursery that is in breach of Ofsted regulations because it cannot appoint the required number of trustees until they have all been DBS cleared; a care agency that is unable to recruit a sufficient number of careworkers quickly enough to meet demand; and schools and hospitals experiencing frustrating delays in being able to fill vacant posts.
There are harder cases, including my constituent who is an ex-offender and has found it very difficult to find work. In May 2016, he was offered a job that he was keen to take up. He contacted me about the delay in processing his enhanced DBS check. Despite my office contacting the DBS a number of times and receiving assurances on three occasions that the case had been escalated, my constituent is still waiting for his DBS check more than five months later and the rare offer of employment has been withdrawn. When people are doing their very best to do the right thing and to turn a corner in their lives and move on, it cannot be right that the Government are placing an unnecessary barrier in their way.
The Criminal Justice Alliance—a coalition of 110 charities working across the criminal justice pathway—contacted me to say that, in recent months, the performance of the DBS, particularly in London, has been having a severe impact on its capacity to deliver services, delaying rehabilitation work for many prisoners. The Local Government Association is concerned about the national impact of DBS delays on the social care sector.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is unable to attend the debate, contacted me with examples from her constituency of people who have been forced to claim benefits and use food banks, and who have even been issued with eviction notices, because they have been unable to take up employment as a consequence of DBS delays. In Sheffield, as elsewhere in the country, taxi drivers must undergo annual DBS checks. That is particularly important given the links that there have been between the taxi trade and child sexual exploitation in some parts of the country. However, the DBS is so slow in Sheffield that taxi drivers are sometimes unable to work for a third of every year as they await their certificate.
My point is that the consequences of the poor performance of the service are far-reaching, can be devastating, and can result in additional costs to the public sector and important posts in our public services and elsewhere remaining unfilled. I have sought to illustrate the impact on individuals, but what do we know about the bigger picture? The Government have not published any official data on the performance of the DBS since July, and have published no data at all on the most severely delayed cases, meaning those delayed beyond 60 days.
In July, of 51 police forces, only 32 had achieved the target of processing 85% of applications within 14 days. At the Metropolitan police, only 14% had been processed within that time. In North Yorkshire, the figure was only 12%, and in Nottinghamshire, it was just 7%. There is enormous variation in performance. Also in July 2016, the average time taken by the Metropolitan police to process an application was 128 days, while the average time taken in Norfolk was 1.8 days.
The Government website acknowledges that there are delays and states that action is being taken to address them but, in my view, the lack of comprehensive performance data, including the absence of any data at all on the most severe delays, combined with the lack of any substantive or detailed information about the plan for recovery, is not acceptable. The Government owe it to the many people suffering the severe adverse consequences of DBS delays to be much more transparent about the scale of the problem and the action being taken to address it.
I have spoken with the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents 12,000 members based in the Home Office, including those working in the DBS, and more than 6,000 members in the Metropolitan Police Service. The PCS told me that, in February this year, the Metropolitan police character inquiries centre had a backlog of 70,000 applications waiting to be processed, with an average weekly intake of 6,000 new applications. That amounts to a 12-week backlog. The problem got so bad that DBS customer services staff were provided with guidance on what to do when they received calls from customers who were suicidal, which were becoming a more frequent occurrence.
The PCS acknowledges that some management action has been taken, including changes of leadership in the Metropolitan police team responsible for the character inquiries sector; increases in staffing; an increase in the number of permanent employees over agency staff; and streamlining of the process. That action led to some reduction in the backlog but it is clear that some of the problems are structural. Those include long-term understaffing and the short-term nature of the funding provided by the DBS to the police, which results in high levels of temporary staff and job insecurity, and means that experienced staff often find more secure work elsewhere. There are also problems with computer software.
Although I am strongly supportive of the role of the DBS, it is important that progress is made towards delivering a fully portable certificate. In my constituency, as across the rest of the UK, people move jobs, often work for more than one employer, or use valuable skills from their day job as a volunteer in the evenings or at weekends. All those circumstances lead to multiple applications that add to the workload of the DBS. I place on the record my support for the many employers and voluntary sector bodies calling for the development of a fully portable certificate.
Finally, I have personally been very disappointed by the responses I have received from the Government and the police when I have raised the issue of the poor performance of the DBS. Although they acknowledge that there is a problem, their responses across the board have failed to reflect the serious impact that the poor service is having on my constituents and on residents across the country. They have failed to convey any sense of responsibility for the failures. It simply cannot be the case that a system designed to protect our most vulnerable residents has the effect of punishing many entirely innocent citizens. That situation must be addressed.
In closing, I ask the Minister to answer the following questions. Will the Government publish full performance data for the DBS, arranged by individual police force, including data on the most severely delayed applications? Will they publish the recovery plan for the DBS, including the performance targets it is working towards? Will they consider bringing the DBS back within the Home Office? Will they review the funding arrangements for the police, with a view to providing a more stable funding environment to enable the police to resource DBS checks properly?
Will the Government commit to compensation for those who have lost earnings as a consequence of DBS delays? Will they publish plans to progress fully portable DBS checks? Finally, will they commit that, in situations where someone’s offer of employment is in jeopardy as a consequence of a DBS delay, their application will be escalated and dealt with within a fixed timescale of no more than three working days to prevent further hardship and cost to the public sector through the benefits system?
I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this debate. This is an important matter and something that we perhaps come across even more in London than elsewhere. I am a barrister and have dealt with a number of cases where the police have resisted challenges to DBS refusals. I have also gone through a DBS check myself as a school governor—I am pleased to say that the check was negative.
Like the hon. Lady, I have received correspondence about DBS checks in my postbag and inbox. Teachers, nursery workers, care providers, charity workers, taxi drivers and even members of the police and the security services have to go through these checks and have suffered delays. Some people, particularly those who have been offered short-term or temporary work, have had their offer of work disappear because they simply have not received their clean bill of health from the DBS quickly enough.
DBS checks and the DBS system are, of course, vital, as the hon. Lady recognises. There are two elements: the DBS has to issue the certificate, and the individual police force has to feed in the information for the DBS to assess. That leads to two potential areas where delay can creep in and, as she says, that is not acceptable for people who make such applications.
There were problems with the Metropolitan police when the hon. Lady and I were first elected, and the Government posted a statement on their website in October 2015 acknowledging that there were problems and that there was a backlog where the service standard of 60 days had not been met. Steps have been taken to reduce that backlog, and every application that went over the 60-day service standard is automatically escalated. I have seen a reduction in the number of cases that have come to me as a local MP, but the problem plainly has not gone away. The cases are still coming, just not in the same volume. I am sure the Minister will be able to update the House on the steps that have been taken.
A twin-track application process that allows for urgent applications where there is a job offer on the line or where someone is starting work early should be considered, but in most cases the guidance is that people should make their application well in advance, knowing that it will take a long time to process.
There are cases where individuals want to challenge a refusal by the DBS, and they will either make that challenge to the DBS via judicial review or they will try to challenge a police force for providing the information, which can sometimes slow down the process. Overall, this is an important area that police forces and the DBS have to get right because of the potential consequences for the vulnerable adults and children who use the services provided by employees who are required to have DBS checks. The checks are also important for employers of people who want to work in these sectors, and whom we need to work in these sectors, because we do not want people to be turned away by an overly onerous and lengthy process.
This issue has frequently come up in my postbag, and I commend the hon. Lady for bringing it to the House’s attention. I commend the Government for the steps they have taken to expedite the process, particularly with the Met police, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what further steps can be taken and what options there might be for expediting the process, particularly where there is a time-sensitive application.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate on an important issue that probably affects many more people than today’s turnout suggests.
I have a few short remarks—I will not speak for long—about my constituents’ experience of the Disclosure and Barring Service over the past year, which has not been good. The delay in issuing DBS certificates is not just an administrative problem; it can cause people to turn down work or to lose an income on which they previously relied. It is vital that the delays in processing applications are brought under control.
Like other hon. Members, I have had many cases in Manchester, Withington of people who are ready to work but who are left waiting, sometimes for months, for their DBS certificate to be processed. These are people who have worked hard to find a job and have been successful at interview but who find themselves in an administrative limbo that means that, in the worst cases, they cannot take up the job. I will highlight a couple of cases that show the impact of such delays.
The first case is of Nazim Uddin, a taxi driver in my constituency who submitted his DBS renewal application on 4 June, well in advance of the September date when his hackney carriage licence expired. He eventually received his certificate on 28 September, 120 days after his application and after his licence had expired.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate. My constituent had a 94-day wait. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) agree that that is an awfully long time to wait and could have a detrimental impact on this individual’s financial situation?
I absolutely agree. The case is similar to that of Nazim in my constituency. Despite my office raising the issue both with the DBS and with the Government, he became unable to work because his licence expired, which understandably caused him and his family a huge amount of stress and some financial hardship.
The second case is of Angela Gallagher, a constituent of mine who lost a job as an occupational therapist because her DBS certificate was so delayed. She spoke to me about her constant phone calls to the DBS for updates only to be told to be patient and that the DBS was working through the backlog. She could not understand why, after she had been offered a job, the system was putting such obstacles in her way. She described how it affected her family’s finances—at the time, she was forced to sign on to out-of-work benefits—and how her mental health was affected by the stress caused by the delay and by her inability to access the job.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point and an excellent speech. One of my constituents told me how, although she knew there was nothing in her background that could possibly come up, the stress of waiting made her worry that somebody had made something up about her that was going to come to light. Waiting for weeks and weeks for a resolution added to her mental ill health.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is an extremely stressful process for a person stuck in this limbo.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for the DBS to give an accurate estimate of the time the process will take, even if it is a very long period of time, so that people do not suffer the additional stress that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lynn Brown) just mentioned?
I agree absolutely that in principle we should be trying to do that. I appreciate that the DBS itself is not always the cause of the delay, because the backlog is often at the police checking stage, and that the DBS often cannot give a proper estimate of the delay with any real accuracy. Even for people who live in Manchester, the backlog is often down to delays from the Metropolitan police, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood pointed out. Constituents of mine who have lived in London have come to me with real problems with the Met’s performance. Let us face it: the Met does not have a good record on processing the system properly.
The Met backlog is a real problem. Government cuts to the police have left the Met unable to cope with the increase in demand; since 2010, it has lost 1,300 staff. That is not as many as the Greater Manchester police—we have lost more than 1,800 since 2010—but it is tough all the same. Those cuts have clearly affected the internal flexibility that the Met needs to deal with changing demands on the force. Ministers have said that the Government are training extra staff to cover the gaps, but there will be a significant time lag before we see quicker turnaround times. In the meantime, people across the country who rely on the Met to process DBS checks will suffer delays, leading to the problems I have outlined. Those problems have shown that cuts to police funding are a false economy because their consequences have been felt right across the public sector. It is not just about police forces; those police forces are struggling to complete the necessary checks on people whose job is to safeguard children and the vulnerable.
Care home associations have said that delays are forcing care homes to recruit expensive agency staff. The Royal College of Nursing has reported students turning down places because of the delays, as we heard earlier in the debate, or losing their bursaries for the academic year. We have all heard examples from schools, hospitals and childcare providers that show that the delays are making already difficult recruitment issues even more difficult. If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is that the Government cannot just cut police numbers without expecting problems down the line, not only for the police but across the public sector, for businesses and services, and most importantly for constituents such as Nazim and Angela who have experienced these problems through no fault of their own.
I ask the Minister to think about several things. First, will she give serious consideration to how to stop these delays? Secondly, we have not fully discussed how constituents can get redress for their difficult experiences; as I understand it, redress is available if the DBS is at fault for the delay, but if the police force is at fault, there is no redress or compensation for the people who suffer. Surely that situation needs to be rectified. Thirdly, I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood about the possibility of a portable certificate; obviously it would need safeguards, but it would be a major contributing factor to a solution. Finally and most importantly, a process must be put in place to escalate cases in which jobs are at risk and to get them dealt with very quickly to ensure that our constituents around the country can access the jobs they need in a timely fashion. I thank Members for listening.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech on behalf of her constituents. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for joining the debate and for again representing his constituents with such clarity and integrity.
As my own mailbag can attest, delays occurring in the Disclosure and Barring Service are making life exceptionally difficult for many workers in this country. Frankly, Minister, we need to sort that out. As we know, the DBS enables employers to make safer recruitment decisions by identifying candidates who may be unsuitable for certain types of job. The service plays a vital role in keeping our young people and vulnerable adults safe. Having access to DBS certificates is essential for people who want to pursue careers working with vulnerable people and groups, and for organisations such as hospitals and schools, which need to recruit staff.
One of my constituents, a qualified teacher working with children with special educational needs, informed me that her DBS check had been stuck with the Metropolitan Police Service for three months, despite the fact that it has a target of 18 days. Since her DBS expired in February, she has been offered a number of roles but has been unable to start work because of the delay. Without work, she is now in arrears with her rent, her car insurance and other monthly bills.
In May 2016, it was reported that 10% of the staff of one primary school in north London were unable to fulfil their roles because of the delays. The headteacher said:
“Under official guidelines you can do a risk assessment based on the DBS from someone’s previous job, but they have to be supervised at all times…In one case we had to wait four months for a check to come through. There’s already a teacher shortage in London so this is a headache we could do without.”
That is the real impact of the delays: schools with teacher shortages are unable to recruit staff, unemployed teachers are falling into debt and employees are left waiting anxiously for months. That is simply not good enough.
These delays cause real anxiety, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington attested. Employees are expecting to hear back within eight weeks, and as the weeks pass they become really anxious that the delays are the result of a complication with their check. The problem is made worse by the fact that application processing times seem to be entirely arbitrary. People in that situation understandably fear that their job offer will be withdrawn. I also know from my constituents that people from the same area who apply at the same time will sometimes get radically different response times.
The hon. Lady will be probably aware that in some of these cases, the fact that an individual has moved a number of times and a number of different police forces have to be contacted can explain the longer delay, even if they have applied at the same time as another constituent. Six police forces having to do checks will involve a much longer process than just one.
I accept that point, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that that is a symptom of living in London. My constituents have not all lived in West Ham all their lives; they have travelled from all over the country, and yet they are still given an arbitrary response time. I would really like the Minister to explain whether there is a system for prioritising some checks over others—or does she have another explanation, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) does, for the vastly differing response times that constituents experience?
The DBS states that it aims to deal with 95% of applications within eight weeks. It is currently at 93.8%, which is below that target but not far off. However, that figure masks what is actually a deep problem in some parts of the country: the severe delays that kick in when some police forces get involved in the process. As we know, there are five stages to a DBS check. The majority of delays occur at stage 4, when individual police forces check their records to make sure that the potential matches are not missed.
Police forces have targets to process 85% of applications within 14 days and 90% within 18 days. In July 2016, the Metropolitan Police Service hit its 14-day target just 14% of the time. Things do not get much better for its 18-day target, which it met just 19% of the time. In April 2016, the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), revealed in a written answer that the Metropolitan Police Service took on average 85 days to carry out stage 4 of the DBS process.
Let us recap: the whole process from stage 1 to stage 5 should take eight weeks. However, the Metropolitan Police Service is taking an average of 85 days to do its part of the process—that is just over 12 weeks. In those circumstances, it is literally impossible for the DBS to meet its eight-week target because one of the five stages is taking longer than the total target time. No wonder I, as a London MP, receive so many complaints about the service from my constituents.
Having researched the details, it is of little surprise to me that the Metropolitan Police Service is struggling. Just look at what has happened to its support staff, which have been cut by a third since the Conservatives came to power: down from 14,179 in 2010 to 9,521 in 2016. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood rightly said, those cuts have had consequences. Under the strain of falling staff numbers, a substantial backlog of applications has emerged. All police forces have a target of having no more than 12 days’ worth of work on DBS checks at any one time, meaning that if no new applications were received, police forces would be able to deal with all existing applications within 12 days. The most recent figures available show that it would take the Metropolitan Police Service 60 days to complete the pile of DBS applications it is sitting on, and only if no more came in. That is five times the target.
This is not only a London issue. In Nottinghamshire, the 14-day target for stage 4 of the process is currently being met just 7% of the time, while in North Yorkshire the target for both 14 and 18 days is being met just 12% of the time. In fact, according to the Government’s July 2016 red, amber or green assessment, 17 of the 50 forces were judged to be providing a second-rate service or worse. Something has to be done to improve the situation, and fast. We cannot have potential employees and potential employers waiting for so long. I want to know what the Government will do about it. It is unfair on both sides and it is causing financial damage.
This is not a new phenomenon. Research by the House of Commons Library revealed that the Met has not hit its 14-day target since February 2008. That is more than eight years for which my constituents, and other people living and working in London, have had to put up with a substandard service. For six of those years, the Minister’s party has been in government. A Government press release from earlier this month stated that they have been
“working very closely with the Met to help improve performance and good progress is being made to reduce applications in progress.”
If that is true, it is very welcome, but I am yet to see any evidence that good progress is being made. The most recent figures show a service struggling to keep up with demand, and people having to wait far longer than they should to have their applications processed.
Will the Minister inform the House of precisely what steps the Government have taken in the short term to help police forces to clear their backlogs? Will she also tell us how long she anticipates it will take for the service to return to an acceptable level? Some undefined time in the future is simply not good enough when people’s livelihoods and careers depend on their being able to get these checks carried out promptly.
The police missing their time targets is not the only problem. The DBS has failed to meet its accuracy targets in each of the last three months as well. I am told that the failures are administrative, such as spelling a name wrong or placing an inaccurate date of birth on the form, but that is not clear from the DBS business plan, which explains the performance indicators, because an inaccurate check is not defined. I am not told that it is administrative; I am not told that it is a small issue; and I am not reassured that inappropriate people are not getting DBS certificates, or that people who should be given certificates are not being refused. Will the Minister assure us today that the accuracy failures are largely administrative? Can she give us a figure for them, or a percentage? Can she give us any reassurance whatever? Will she prove to the House that inappropriate people have not been receiving DBS certificates to which they are not entitled?
I do not want to downplay the importance of administrative failures. They need to be rectified because they really do have knock-on effects. Take another of my constituents, who contacted me earlier this year about her DBS check. She informed me that after waiting six months for her application to be processed, her certificate, when it finally arrived, was inaccurately filled in, as it failed to include a previous name. As a result of delays and inaccurate information, my constituent was unable to take up employment as a childminder and has lost significant earnings. These are legal documents and they need to be filled in as accurately as possible so that people can use them.
Will the Minister inform the House of the steps the Government have taken to make sure that the accuracy of barring decisions improves in future? I really would like to be reassured that she takes this matter seriously. My hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood and for Manchester, Withington asked a number of pertinent questions in the course of their contributions. They asked for detail, and I hope the Minister will be able to provide it today, but, if not, will she commit to answering us in writing within the next week or so?
Let us face it: the longer delays to DBS checks are the result of cuts to our police services. The Metropolitan Police Service and other struggling police services are simply overburdened with the number of applications they are receiving. They do not have the resources they need. We know that since 2010 the Met has seen police support staff cut by 33%, and today we have heard about the reality of those cuts: poorer services and people missing out on jobs. That is, I am afraid, the Government’s record on the DBS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate. There is no doubt that the Disclosure and Barring Service is vital, but we have heard powerful speeches about the impact on people’s lives and on employers if it is not right. I welcome this opportunity to address the issues that have been raised and I hope that, by the end of the debate, Members will be assured about the progress we are making. If not, and if I am not able in the time I have remaining to address all the points that have been made, not only will I of course agree to answer them in writing, but I am happy to invite Members into the Department to meet me and my officials and go through in more detail the important issues that have been raised.
Protecting the public is certainly a priority for me and for the Government. We will not compromise on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The DBS plays a vital role by enabling organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors to make better-informed and safer recruitment decisions. It provides proportionate access to criminal record information, allowing employers to determine whether an individual is unsuited to certain kinds of work. It also manages two lists of those barred from working with children or vulnerable adults.
I maintain a close interest in the DBS’s performance and receive regular reports. I visited the DBS office in Liverpool earlier this month, and it was clear to me that the staff are professional, effective and passionate about their role in protecting the public. I saw an organisation with a culture of continuous learning and improvement that seeks to put its customers, and protecting the public, at the heart of everything it does.
On the barring side, the DBS makes complex, evidence-based decisions, weighing a person’s rehabilitation against the need to keep the public safe. More than 61,000 people are now prevented from working with children, vulnerable adults, or both.
Most people come into contact with the DBS when it issues disclosure certificates, which have been the subject of most of the discussion in the debate. Certificates can be applied for by people in a range of occupations, including teaching assistants, doctors, taxi drivers and social workers. Last year the DBS issued more than 4 million certificates, with nearly 95% provided within the eight-week timeline. It is important to focus on that.
The DBS asked customers how happy they were with the service, as we would expect of any arm’s length Government organisation. In the year to May 2016, 89% reported that they were satisfied with the service they had received. However, I am aware from the letters that I have had, and from today’s debate, that some people have experienced very long delays in receiving their enhanced disclosure checks. I do not underestimate for one minute the impact that that has on the lives of not only those individuals but the organisations affected, and I agree that it is totally unacceptable.
Although I recognise that disclosing criminal records information is complex and that checks must be thorough, I am clear that delays absolutely must be addressed. The DBS works with various partners, particularly the police forces that provide the data on which checks are based and assess what non-conviction information from their locally held information should be disclosed as part of the enhanced check. That may require the DBS to send search requests to more than one police force. The vast majority of checks should be completed within two to four weeks, and the DBS monitors performance closely, assisting any forces that are not meeting their targets.
It is important to make it clear that police disclosure units are fully funded by the DBS, so the issue is not about the general funding that police forces receive. Each year the DBS agrees budgets and expected numbers of disclosures with police forces and funds them. Where police forces run into difficulty, as the Met indisputably has, the DBS will provide extra resources.
The issue that has been raised by the PCS and others is that of annual funding settlements, which mean that there is a great deal of insecurity for staff working on DBS disclosures within police forces. Temporary contracts and insecurity are part of the problem. What is needed is a fully staffed, professional service with some continuity and longevity in the length of time people stay in their jobs.
I completely understand that if there is job insecurity, that makes it difficult to retain good-quality staff. I visited the Metropolitan police unit only a few weeks ago and witnessed the training process. The decision-making process is complex, and it takes time to train staff. Even when the DBS sits down with the Met or any other police force that is having difficulty and agrees extra funding, it takes at least six months to train someone so that they can carry out the checks.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood is right that the PCS union has acknowledged that there has been a change of leadership at the Met. The Home Office has provided considerable support to help improve processes, and the DBS has funded more than 100 new staff, so there has been a huge amount of effort. The hon. Lady understands, as I do, that more of the staff have now been given full-time contracts. The DBS sits down with the police forces each year and agrees the contracts based on the anticipated number of checks. If the number of checks requested goes up, more staff have to be recruited. Sometimes it is efficient and right to have temporary staff; on other occasions we need more full-time staff. Such contractual decisions are made between the DBS and the police forces. I have also seen that no stone is left unturned. The Met has asked for support from other police forces that have a surplus of staff with the right expertise to help. So I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that every effort has been made between the DBS and the police forces to get the necessary resources in.
Only two police forces are not meeting their timeliness performance targets: the Met and Surrey. In the case of Surrey, a relatively small number of people are affected and a recovery plan has been agreed with the DBS, which is going well. I can share that information and be certain about it because the DBS regularly publishes the data on its own website. That addresses one of the issues that the hon. Lady raised, about the transparency of data. Opposition Members have quoted extensively from performance data, so there is not an issue of transparency here. Those data are on local police force performance as well as the DBS’s own organisational performance, and the next data will be published later this month. I look at such data on a daily basis.
I am struggling with what the Minister is telling us. First, we know there has been a problem in the Met since 2008, which is a long time. We know that the delays in the Met are massive. If the DBS has been placing money in the Metropolitan Police Service so that it can get the checks done, then it must have been significantly underpaying the Met for several years in order for us to have got to the current situation. I am afraid I cannot accept what the Minister is saying about that.
The Minister also tells us that only two police forces are not meeting the timescales, but in the Government’s own assessment, on the red, amber and green scale, 17 of the 50 forces were judged to be providing a second-rate service or worse. It is not only two police forces; by the Government’s own admission, it is more.
The hon. Lady raises a couple of points. The data I am referring to are the most recent. We will get another tranche of data this month, so she will be able to see for herself what the information is.
On how the Metropolitan police or any other police force is funded, the fact is that the DBS funds police units to do police checks. Whether they have received adequate funding over a certain period of time is a fair question. I have been to Liverpool and had conversations with the DBS, and I am monitoring the situation on a weekly basis. I will go back to the DBS to make sure that all the recovery plans we have discussed are implemented. I can say no more to reassure the hon. Lady about how seriously I take this issue. I and my officials are focused on it, and I am regularly involved with the DBS to make sure we tackle it.
As I have said, I visited the Metropolitan police unit recently. The hon. Lady has acknowledged that significant extra resources and changes in leadership have been put in place, and the unit is processing 20% more applications than it receives. That gives me some confidence that it will reduce the backlog over time. If the unit was processing only the number of applications that it was receiving, we would not have any confidence that it was dealing with the backlog, but it is, and 20% is significant. I am therefore confident that it will make significant progress.
It is important that the DBS continues to work closely with the Metropolitan police and any other police forces that are having difficulties to make sure that they are given the necessary resources to do the job. I know that the Metropolitan police take the matter seriously. I have been to Sidcup and spent time with the team there, and they talked me through what they were doing about it. They know full well that I will be back again to personally check up on their progress.
I will go through the range of other questions that hon. Members asked me on issues from portability to escalation and redress.
Although DBS checks are clearly a weak spot for the Metropolitan police, I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing personally to ensure improvements. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that, over the past six years, we have seen a sustained fall in crime in this country, largely due to the fantastic work of our police forces, particularly here in our capital, including in Kingston, which is now the safest borough in London.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Getting the checks right is an incredibly important crime prevention measure. The top priority is to deal with the possibility of people doing harm to vulnerable children and young people. Frustrating as delays can be, the safety of individual people must be uppermost, and it must have played its part in those cheering results showing a drop in crime.
To return to the questions that were put to me, employers and individuals are encouraged to use the update service. An online subscription service allows individuals to demonstrate that their DBS certificate is up to date. That would prevent their having to make multiple re-applications. With the applicant’s permission, organisations can check a certificate online, free of charge, which allows them to see whether any relevant information has been identified since the individual’s certificate was last issued. There are more than 800,000 subscribers to that service. I encourage the hon. Lady to ask constituents to register for the online service at the same time as they apply for DBS checks. If they move jobs, they will not have to go through repeated checks, because once they sign up for the service the employer, charity or wherever they were working could freely go online to see whether any information needed updating.
I may have got the wrong impression, but the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) seemed to be telling me that the certificate of one of her constituents had expired. It is simply not possible for certificates to expire because they do not have a set period of validity. If that constituent were signed up to the updating service they really would not be affected. It is important to set the record straight.
When there are delays, employers can, during the wait for DBS check results, consider whether it would be appropriate for an individual to begin work, with appropriate safeguards, depending on the nature of the role and the assessment of potential risk. For example, DBS Adult First can be used in cases where, exceptionally, and in accordance with the Department of Health terms, a person can be permitted to start work with adults before the certificate is obtained. There are appropriate ways of safeguarding while people are waiting so that they can avoid the dreadful situations that have been described today, where they cannot take up jobs, and where they incur financial hardship, and where organisations miss out on good employees.
Customers can track their application online and call the DBS helpline for support. There were questions about how the DBS prioritises applications. It does so in date order, but if an applicant can make the case that there will be undue hardship and they will suffer in some way, the DBS will do everything it can to expedite an application. It will contact a police force and do all it can to reduce the time.
I want to clarify the point about redress, which was mentioned. The DBS will consider cases. If there has been hardship and the DBS can be proved not to have acted appropriately, there is a system of redress. There is not a nationwide system for the police, but individual police forces can be held accountable. If they have not acted in a timely and appropriate way, redress can be considered.
I hope I have covered all the questions. I am not at all complacent. Getting the service right is central to protecting the most vulnerable people in society, and I am determined to do that. I understand that we need an efficient process to enable people to take up the sorts of jobs we need them to do. I shall continue to monitor what happens on a regular basis. As I have said, if any colleague wants to come into the Department and go through the matter with me in more detail, they are welcome to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for their contributions to the debate. I am also grateful to the Minister for her response and for the interest she shows in the matter. She has clearly set out the steps she is taking to address the problem.
I should be grateful, however, if the Minister could follow up in writing on my questions. I do not consider that all of them were fully answered today. I was in particular a little disappointed that I did not hear much from the Minister in acknowledgement of the distressing cases I raised, and the serious impact of delays on my constituents and those of my hon. Friends. We brought up several specific examples of shocking hardship and distress as a consequence of delays in the service. The Minister set out some aspects of the service that are in development, and steps being taken to deal with the problems, but I do not feel that she properly addressed the seriousness of the consequences. I should be grateful for some further information in response to my questions.
My hon. Friends’ points about cuts in police resources were pertinent and well made. There is more work for the Minister to do to make certain that the police are being resourced on the necessary basis for them to undertake their important work. On the question of annual funding settlements from the DBS to the police, the context in which, as the Minister explained, it takes six months to train someone to do the job when they may have job security only for another six months, sounds like a false economy in the public sector. It also sounds like a context in which it is difficult to recruit and retain high-quality staff. I welcome assurances that the Minister is considering the issue, including how more staff can be put on a permanent, secure footing in their employment, and how the DBS and police can plan for the longer term.
The advice that the Minister gave about the helpline for employers, and steps that employers can take, puts too much emphasis on employers in the process. It is the Government’s role, through the DBS, to undertake the checks, and employers should not have to take steps to compensate for delays in a process that should work efficiently and effectively. Finally, the Minister did not address my point about the need for rapid escalation to a secure and committed timescale for individuals whose employment is at risk as a consequence of DBS delays.
I am sorry that I did not adequately communicate how seriously I take the impact on individuals. I thought I had. This is a further opportunity for me to underline the fact that the cases I heard about are clearly very distressing for the people concerned. However, I pointed out that individuals as well as employers can call the DBS, which will make every effort to deal with a case. If there is hardship, distress or concern, that service is available.
I am grateful to the Minister. As I pointed out, my office called the DBS on behalf of a constituent on several occasions. On at least three of those occasions assurances were made that the case would be escalated and dealt with, but that did not happen until the offer of employment had been withdrawn. Processes may be in place, but they do not always work—I assure the Minister of that. There is a need for a service standard in the DBS, guaranteeing that, if an offer of employment is contingent on receiving a DBS disclosure in a given time, the DBS will meet that requirement. We cannot continue with people’s employment being put at risk as a consequence of delays in the service.
I am grateful for the interest that the Minister has shown and the work she is doing on the matter, and I look forward to following up on it in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the performance of the Disclosure and Barring Service.