» Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Home Office/criminal records backlog

When asked if the Prime Minister believed that the Home Office was not fit for purpose, the PMOS answered that John Reid would be making a statement in the House at 1230, and people should wait for that statement and for Dr. Reid to set out the position. The problem had arisen because of the circumstances the PMOS had set out yesterday.

Asked if the Prime Minister was as surprised as John Reid appeared to have been about the situation, and also, was the Prime Minister surprised that John Reid was surprised, the PMOS said that John Reid would set out the situation. The Home Office had made it clear that Ministers, as far as we were aware, were not aware of the problem, and that was partly why there was an investigation going on in the Home Office. The PMOS said again that it was better that people waited for the Home Secretary’s statement at 1230. 

Asked if Charles Clarke knew about it when he was Home Secretary, the PMOS replied that in terms of the overall policy of giving control to ACPO, that was something that Ministers were aware of. In terms of the particular problems about the backlog, the PMOS said that he was not aware that Ministers were aware of it. The PMOS explained that in November 2005, the JHA decided that we needed to rationalise across Europe the process of giving information on convictions, and this was an area where European co-operation made common sense. We were very much in favour of that. It was as a result of making ACPO the leading authority in the UK for this process that this problem had come to light. It was being addressed, but in the process of addressing it, we had uncovered the problem.

Asked if Ministers, the Home Secretary at the time or the Prime Minister were aware, or had it suddenly jumped up, the PMOS said again that people should wait until 1230. However, there was nothing to suggest that Ministers knew about the problem of the backlog. What they were aware of were the policy discussions about transferring authority to ACPO as part of the European co-operation, but that was policy, rather than the issue of the files.

Asked if the Home Office should be broken up into smaller units, the PMOS replied that as the Prime Minister had said, it was a question of turning over stones and discovering what lay underneath them. The important question was: were the problems being dealt with as they were discovered? Answer: yes, as with this case, we had taken action over a year ago. The issue was being dealt with, but of course it would be far better if the problems had not arisen in the first place. The PMOS said that the Home Office was a complex department, but there were synergies between the various elements of the department, and that was why the Home Office had a range of issues it had to deal with.

Put that there had been a series of issues, and yet no-one had taken responsibility for them, and no-one had resigned, despite John Reid’s suggestion that that may have to be the upshot, the PMOS replied that it was not for him to get into the management of the department. However, the important thing was to re-establish the facts.

Put that presumably, we would take a "dim view" of any Minister who was aware of this problem, but had not brought it to the Home Secretary’s attention, the PMOS said that the question was a hypothetical one, and there was no basis for him answering it.  The journalist said that the PMOS had been extremely careful to say that he was not aware as far as he was aware, the PMOS replied that given that there was an investigation going on, people might think it wiser to wait for its outcome.

Asked if it was the government’s view that it was too early to make this statement and did it regret having to address the House halfway through the day, the PMOS replied that this was not the case.  John Reid had held meetings with his officials and ACPO this morning to find out what the situation was, and what he would be doing was updating parliament on his understanding of the situation.  There had been situations in the past, both in the Home Office and elsewhere, where parliament had been updated on the state of knowledge at a certain point, and then updated at a later time when that knowledge was more complete.  Given the public concern it was important that the government provided an update in this case.

Put to him that some well informed people, including former Ministers, had said that this was known about last year, that the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke did know about this, and did this mean that he had failed to tell the Prime Minister, the PMOS replied that he was not aware of anything that suggested that Ministers were aware. 

Put to him that it was difficult to understand how John Reid, having arrived at the Home Office, having said the department was dysfunctional and having set out what he was going do, was still not told by officials about such a significant failure, the PMOS replied that the person best able to reflect and communicate that point would be standing up in the House at 12:30, and no doubt he would do so in his own inimitable style.

Asked to confirm that the agency of the Home Office that was responsible for this was the UK Central Authority for Mutual Legal Assistance, the PMOS replied that he was deeply impressed but he did not have an answer to this and pointed the CH4 journalist to the Home Office.

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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