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First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 29 April 2003
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
Care Homes (Amendment) Regulations 2003
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Care Homes (Amendment) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 534).
I am delighted that the Opposition have secured a debate on this statutory instrument because it highlights the benefits for the Government if more secondary legislation were carried out by the affirmative rather than the negative resolution procedure, as the Minister will know from copious debates that we have had in Standing Committees on health legislation. If these regulations and those that it seeks to amend had had to be made by the affirmative procedure, we might have helped the Government to avoid some of the problems that have occurred during the past 12 months.
As the Committee is aware, the regulations postpone the requirement under secondary legislation made under the Care Standards Act 2000 for existing care workers to be screened by the Criminal Records Bureau before 31 October 2004. As anyone who is familiar with such procedures will remember, the Government initially proposed that all care workers, both existing ones and new ones coming into the profession, would have to be screened from 1 April 2002. Given the problems in the early months of the CRB, which the Government fully recognise, they made a concession last summer whereby they postponed the need for existing workers in the care homes sector to go through the CRB procedures until this September. Unfortunately, the CRB's problems have not been fully remedied during the past 12 months, so the Government are now postponing that requirement for a further 18 months from the date on which the regulations were published.
What worries me is that the Opposition warned the Government during consideration of the Care Standards Bill in Committee and during the Committee proceedings on the original regulations last January that they were being over-ambitious in seeking to introduce the requirements from 1 April 2002. The sheer number of people working in the care homes sector was so great that the CRB was not going to be able to handle the number of people needing to be screened.
Ministers, both the current one in her place today and her predecessor in that portfolio, pooh-poohed those ideas and fears, but they have been proved to be more than correct. On 30 January, during the proceedings of the Standing Committee that considered the original regulations at the request of the Opposition, I said of the provision to require criminal checks:
''In principle, that is an excellent provision, because it is essential that people with criminal records should not be employed in such a
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sensitive area. That is especially the case with regard to certain kinds of criminality that would have a devastating impact on clients, and on the smooth running of a care home.''
I went on to say:
''However, there is a flaw in the way those regulations will be introduced. They will come into effect on 1 April 2002, and the Criminal Records Bureau will start operating at the end of March. Therefore, they will be introduced almost simultaneously. How will care homes be able to meet the requirements of the regulations from 1 April? The time scale is too tight.''—[Official Report, Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 30 January 2002; c. 21.]
That was our view then. In response, the Minister said:
''Under the current system, checks can take 12 weeks or more to be processed by local police forces. The Criminal Records Bureau will reduce that to 10 days for a standard check and to three weeks for an enhanced check. I am aware that some providers are concerned that the requirement will affect their ability to recruit staff, but we are committed to the principle that such checks should be undertaken before people provide intimate care to vulnerable adults.''
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. She continued:
''However, there is concern about the extent to which the Criminal Records Bureau will deliver the timings set out from the start. I reassure hon. Members that the Home Office advises us that it is confident that the CRB will be operational on 2 April. However, we have introduced transitional arrangements for providers, managers and staff in case of further delays to the commencement of the CRB. Additionally, existing staff in care homes will not be required to undergo checks until April 2003. Those are significant concessions.''—[Official Report, Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 30 January 2002; c. 32.]
Fortunately, because of pressure from the Opposition and the industry itself, the Government were wise enough at that stage, although it was late in the day, to make a concession for existing workers in care homes. Surprisingly, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) thought that that was a bad move, and I am sorry that she is not in her place. As it happened, the Minister was right to take our advice and that of the industry to make that concession.
What has happened in the intervening 12 months will be familiar to both Government and Opposition Members, who will have experienced this in constituency cases—I have certainly experienced this in West Chelmsford. New trained applicants to work in the care home sector have had to wait far longer than the 10 days that the Minister anticipated for the checks to take place. In some cases, particularly in autumn last year, it was taking weeks and weeks to get a decision. Not unnaturally, that caused problems for the care homes, which needed the staff, and for the individuals who wanted to work in the care homes.
It is apparent from the regulations that are before us that the Government have yet again had to face the reality of the situation and postpone for another 18 months the rules and regulations embracing the Criminal Records Bureau and existing care home workers. In that respect, I welcome the regulations because they are a relaxation that is both pertinent and relevant. I understand that the Government have said in what are best described as ''informal guidelines''—if this is wrong, no doubt the Minister will point it out—that it is up to the care home managers to take a
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decision on existing staff, rather than new recruits, who work in their care home.
Given the scale of the problem faced in that sector by the original requirements, that is a sensible way to proceed because the managers will be familiar with existing staff and their backgrounds, in so far as they can be, and will be able to make a reasonable judgment on the safety and effectiveness of an existing staff member continuing to work in a care home. That raises the question why Ministers were not more attuned to the problems, which could have been anticipated, that many people warned were going to arise, if only because of the hundreds of thousands people who worked in the care homes sector. On top of that, it is not only care home workers who are being screened by the Criminal Records Bureau, but others, such as teachers of young people in schools. It was therefore quite obvious to anyone who was prepared to think it through rationally and logically that the sheer amount of work that was being demanded of this new organisation on 2 April last year was far too great for it to be able to cope in the first instance with the demand for all these checks.
It has also become more than apparent over the past 12 months that it was pie in the sky for Ministers to say as recently as last January that in the case of checks with no problems and where an enhanced check was not needed, it would take only 10 days to check out an individual and notify them that, to all intents and purposes, they had passed their CRB check and were free to work in the sector. I regret that more forethought was not given to that, and that Ministers did not listen more to the sector and to the Opposition, who had raised these concerns earlier.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister some factual questions. If she cannot answer them today, will she be kind enough to write to me as soon as possible? That is not a criticism: I fully accept that she may not be able to answer all of them today. In the guidelines that the Minister and her predecessor gave when the Bill was being considered in Committee, it was anticipated that the non-enhanced checks would take about 10 days. Enhanced checks would obviously take longer because potential problems would have to be looked into and dealt with.
Will the Minister say how long checks are taking to be completed on new applicants who do not need an enhanced test? Any rough idea that the Minister can give us about how long enhanced tests are taking on average would also be very welcome. It would also be interesting if the Minister could tell us how many checks have been carried out in the first year of the new system, and how many individuals have failed them. Those questions relate to the current system and, as the Minister may tell us, there is now in effect a two-tier system, although one of the tiers is, I assume, rapidly being reduced. I understand that the current system is running far more smoothly than the previous system did last year, but there is still a problem with the backlog of checks on people who got caught up in the bureaucracy, delays and problems last year.
Will the Minister say how many of the people who are part of the backlog are still waiting for their checks to be completed? What is being done to expedite their
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checks? Does she have figures on the sheer scale of the problem during its height last autumn when considerable numbers of people were caught up in the system and had to wait for six to eight weeks? I would be grateful if the Minister could supply a figure for the average time that checks took, say, six months after the introduction of the scheme, and how many people were waiting for their checks to be completed on 1 September last year and on 1 January and 1 April this year, if those dates are not too close together.
The official Opposition do not propose to force a vote on the issue because we accept that the situation demands that the Government do something to relax their intentions for the second time to ensure that the system is running smoothly and properly and carries out the intended functions. That would minimise the inconvenience and in some cases the financial loss and the frustration of people either working in the care home sector or seeking to do so.
Finally, the Government are intent on so much important secondary legislation being carried out through negative rather than affirmative procedures, which we constantly argue for in Committees on primary legislation. They should have been prepared to listen to our arguments about the potential mess that could and did happen because of the sheer volume of work and the inadequacies of the staffing levels of the CRB. Had they subjected the original regulations to the affirmative resolution we might have had a greater opportunity to try to impress upon Ministers that this was not simply a whinge but a valid concern that would help them to avoid a problem that has caused considerable difficulties for many of our constituents.