John Reid was under fire from police chiefs last night over a Home Office blunder that could have allowed serious criminals to work with children and vulnerable adults.
In the latest blow to the credibility of the Home Secretary's department, police chiefs disclosed that the Home Office had failed to pass on details of 27,500 offences committed by Britons in other European countries. More than 500 are classed as serious offenders, including five murderers, 25 rapists, 29 paedophiles and 17 other sex attackers.
As a result, detectives were unable to add the criminals' details to the Police National Computer, which is used by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) to check the backgrounds of people who want to work in schools, youth groups and care homes.
An embarrassed Mr Reid, who last year described parts of his department as "not fit for purpose", admitted that he and his ministers only learnt of the mistake yesterday. He announced a "full and immediate inquiry" into how it could have happened. He faced demands to make a Commons statement today.
Last night, he clashed with the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) over whether the 525 serious offenders had now been added to the police computer. He insisted their details had been registered but Acpo said only about half had.
Britain is part of a Europe-wide scheme under which 16 countries exchange information about crimes committed by foreign nationals in their jurisdiction. But Acpo disclosed yesterday that, through incompetence, the Home Office had failed to take advantage of the international co-operation.
A spokesman, Paul Kernaghan, the Chief Constable of Hampshire, told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that information on convictions was left "sitting in desk files" in the Home Office rather than being added to the police computer. Nor were details of the rapists and paedophiles put on to the sex offenders register. He said the mistake was uncovered last May, since when details of offences abroad were added to the police computer.
Mr Kernaghan said: "[Before then] someone could go to, let's say, Germany, commit a sexual offence, be convicted by the German courts and serve a sentence.
"That would not be known to any police officer when they came back to the UK and it would not be known to the British courts when they reoffended in Britain."
"That is a totally unacceptable position professionally and crucially from a public protection point of view."
A total of 27,529 documents were found to contain details of British nationals convicted abroad. As well as the murderers and sex offenders, there were nine people convicted of attempted murder, 13 of manslaughter and 29 of robbery.
The information from 15 countries, mainly states in the EU, had previously been received by the Home Office's UK Central Authority for Mutual Legal Assistance. Its responsibilities were transferred to Acpo on 21 May last year, when it set up the UK Central Authority for the Exchange of Criminal Records.
A Home Office spokesman said Mr Reid was livid when he was told about the blunder and has made tackling it his top priority. He has summoned representatives from the CRB and Acpo to discuss the crisis today. The spokesman said: "This fact was not made public earlier because, to the best of our knowledge, this matter was not brought to the attention of the Home Secretary or his ministers until today. Otherwise it would have been highlighted when he listed the reasons why the department's systems and procedures were not fit for purpose."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "I dread to think what other scandals are lurking in the Home Office filing cabinets."
Not fit for purpose?
April 2006: Charles Clarke admits more than 1,000 foreign criminals have been released from prison without deportation hearings. Within days details emerge of fresh crimes committed by wrongly released inmates
May 2006: A senior immigration officer confesses he does not have the 'faintest idea' how many illegal immigrants are in the UK
May 2006: Five Nigerian illegal immigrants found working as cleaners in immigration office
May 2006: Criminal Records Bureau wrongly labels 2,700 innocent people as criminals
July 2006: John Reid has to abandon plans for enforced mergers of police forces
October 2006: Home Office discloses only 86 of the foreign national prisoners have been deported - and three serious offenders are still on the run
November 2006: Prison population in England and Wales passes 80,000
January 2007: Prison Service says it does not know how many offenders have abscondedReuse content