By JENNIFER QUINN, Associated Press Writer
LONDON- Britain's top law enforcement official opened an inquiry Wednesday on how files on hundreds of criminals were ignored instead of being entered into police computers.
The gaffe means that criminals convicted abroad —including rapists, murderers and pedophiles —would not have set off any alarm bells if they applied for jobs dealing with vulnerable people, such as schoolchildren.
Home Secretary John Reid summoned senior officials from his Office, which is responsible for public safety, to an urgent meeting after the Association of Chief Police Officers said the information, contained in more than 27,000 pages, was "left sitting in desk files."
Officials are checking whether any of the more than 500 serious offenders included in the files have eluded detection. Reid told parliament he expected that process to be completed in a matter of days. The broader inquiry into the Home Office's handling of the files was expected to be completed by the end of February.
"This is a problem that was some years in the making," Reid told lawmakers.
The police chief's association said it alerted the Home Office about the problem in October and submitted a bid for funding to correct it. The bid was rejected, and officials projected it would take at least a year to clear up the records backlog, the association said.
Reid claimed he was not informed by his officials when the police association first reported the problem.
Opposition politicians attacked the government's handling of the files _ the second major scandal involving criminal records in less than a year. Reid took over at the Home Office in May after a series of errors led to the dismissal of his predecessor, Charles Clarke. In the most serious problem, foreign criminals were released from prisons without being considered for deportation.
"You've confirmed that yet again the government has failed in its central duty of protecting the public," Conservative Party leader David Cameron said.
Reid defended the government, saying the system for providing information from other jurisdictions was "patchy."
Since the problem was detected, nearly half of the serious offenders' names have been placed in the police computer, Reid said. The rest of the names require more investigation.
"This blunder not only exposes this government's administrative incompetence, it puts the British public at greater risk from these offenders," Liberal Democrat spokesman Nick Clegg said. "Once again Home Office ineptitude has left the police and the public in the lurch.
"I dread to think what other scandals are lurking in the Home Office filing cabinets if 27,000 documents detailing such vital information can be simply left sitting on someone's desk."