Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 45 of Session 2003-04, dated 28 October 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that it is important that the Criminal Records Bureau sets its priorities to ensure that proper protection is extended to all vulnerable groups. More than two years following the launch of the Bureau, it still not providing the standard or range of services originally envisaged.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 45th Report of this Session, which examined whether best practice was followed during contract procurement and implementation; and whether the Criminal Records Bureau has improved the protection of vulnerable children and adults.

The Criminal Records Bureau was initiated in 1999 to improve protection of children and vulnerable adults by widening access to criminal records, so that employers and voluntary organisations could make better informed recruitment decisions. It was set up as a public private partnership, initially between the Passports and Records Agency, an Executive Agency of the Home Office and Capita plc, although the Bureau is now a separate Agency in its own right.

The Bureau went live from March 2002, some seven months later than planned, and the computer system encountered serious problems straightaway. Backlogs in processing applications for Disclosures of criminal records soon built up, peaking at nearly 300,000 by October 2002. The Agency and Capita were not sufficiently effective in working together to address the problems which had started early on with ambitious and overly optimistic timings for development and implementation. An effective partnership between the Agency and Capita was not established until the crisis was underway.

The consequences of the Bureau's problems were far-reaching. Employers could not recruit, voluntary organisations lost potential volunteers and delays occurred for those applying to adopt or foster. The Bureau and Capita took steps to address these problems but even now, more than two years after being set up, the Bureau is not yet providing the standard or range of service originally envisaged. The expected cost to the taxpayer over the ten year life of the contract has increased significantly from £250 million to £395 million.

According to the Committee, timetables for the development and implementation of new services should provide for sufficient in-depth consultation directly with potential users of the service, and for the outcome of consultation to be reflected in service design. The Agency's problems stemmed from an over ambitious timetable, with inadequate time dedicated to identifying and taking action on the preferences of potential users of the service at an early stage of the project.

In developing services to promote electronic government, departments should first establish that potential users will wish to use, or be equipped to use, the planned service in this way. The Agency assumed a largely telephone based service with some online access. Users' preference, however, was for paper based applications, and for applications submitted in bulk by potential employers rather than by individuals.

Adequate time for piloting new services is fundamental to successful introduction. In the Bureau's case only a limited pilot was planned initially, and that was squeezed as significant changes to planned business processes became necessary. Launching a service which does not work may be more inconvenient for users than delaying service introduction to get the system right.

Rejected bids should be scrutinised carefully for signs of possible weaknesses in the tender specification, and the successful contractor's bid. The Agency took action to obtain independent assurance on the successful candidate's bid, but did not adequately heed the warnings signs within other contractors' bids.

If business assumptions change fundamentally during service development, departments should consider whether to continue with their current contractor or test the market again, balancing the potential delay to service introduction with the risks to value for money of a single tender in such circumstances. Capita, the successful bidder, quoted a price of £250 million, around £100 million less than the other bidders, but the changes to business processes and the timetable needed to accommodate users' preferences means that the contract value is now £395 million over ten years, and hence more expensive than prices quoted by other bidders.

The Home Office and the Bureau should better facilitate the checking of identity, which has now been made the responsibility of employers and voluntary organisations.

The Bureau has achieved significant improvement in the turnaround times for handling Disclosures, with the majority now dealt with within target times. The turnaround target times were, however, less onerous in 2003-04 than for 2002-03, and the Bureau should look to improve the speed of service delivery now that its activities have stabilised.

Disclosures should be extended to staff already employed as well as new recruits to enhance protection to vulnerable adults in particular. Due to the Bureau's initial problems the Disclosure service is not as comprehensive as planned, with the result that some categories of vulnerable people are not receiving the protection they deserve. For example, existing health and social care staff are not currently subject to checks. This situation should now be remedied.

In furnishing Disclosures to employers, the Bureau should emphasise that, while every effort is made to secure their accuracy, they can only be as good as the basic data provided both by the applicant and the Police National Computer. The employer is ultimately responsible for recruitment decisions, and should be cautioned against placing absolute reliance upon a Disclosure.

The range of vulnerable groups includes both old and young and it is important that the Bureau sets its priorities to ensure that proper protection is extended to all.

The Home Office and the Bureau should commission research as to whether the Bureau's more comprehensive and consistent means of access to criminal records is contributing to a reduction in the number of crimes and abuses against the vulnerable.

Mr Leigh said today:

"The serious problems surrounding the launch of the Criminal Records Bureau were a direct consequence of weaknesses in planning. If a new service is to be successfully introduced, then sufficient time must be left for it to be properly piloted and tested. The price of the contract with Capita has turned out to be higher than the prices quoted by other bidders, because business processes had to be fundamentally changed during system development. In future, Departments under such circumstances need to consider whether they should test the market again, even where that delays service introduction. I am especially concerned that the Bureau is still not providing the standard or range of services originally envisaged. The protection given to vulnerable adults in particular needs to improve: with checks being made on existing staff as well as new recruits, for example, among health and social care staff; and priorities being set to ensure that the old, as well as the young, receive proper protection."

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