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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I wish to present a petition on behalf of the residents of Hockley, Essex, in protest at the proposed closure of the post office at Apex Corner in my constituency.The local residents, led by their councillors, Keith Hudson and Colin and Liv Hungate, are rightly concerned about the
The Petition of the Residents of Hockley, Essex
Declares that the Petitioners are worried by the proposed closure of the post office at Apex Corner in Hockley, as the residents feel there is a need for such a local facility, particularly in an area with a significant number of elderly residents.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons takes heed of their concerns and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to help keep this important post office open.
And the Petitioners remain etc.
The Petition of the Residents of Osbaldwick, York
Declares that the proposed development by the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust of green field land at Metcalfe Lane, Osbaldwick, originally part of the Greater York draft green belt, and owned by the City of York Council, will have an adverse impact on the surrounding area and is unacceptable in its present form because the Trust together with the City of York Council have failed to provide for a proper independent new access road in their plans.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges that the Deputy Prime Minister as Secretary of State for Planning calls in the application and convenes a public enquiry in order that the planning application can be determined not by the City of York Council as owners of the land but by an independent planning inspector whose decision in regard to the application would command greater public confidence.
And the petitioners remain.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay): First, I thank the Minister and the Home Office team for fielding the debate. I am conscious that I am keeping the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues away from the office Christmas party.
The Minister will be aware of the issue that I wish to raise with him, as we have corresponded on the matter. I have recently spoken with his office and e-mailed a summary of the key points that I will be raising this evening in the hope that he will directly address the issues at hand.
My concern centres around the fact that some people on the sex offenders register, particularly those who have been cautioned rather than convicted, are able to offer themselves directly to the general public as home education tutors and to undertake one-to-one tuition without contravening any rules or regulations. What appears to compound the problem is that where tutors are not offering themselves through an agency but advertising directly to the public, parents have little or no ability to check their backgrounds independently of the tutor with any of the authorities.
I am not suggesting for one moment that this is a wide-scale problem, but I believe that it is one of those situations which, should it go wrong, could go wrong in a big way. The issue was first brought to my attention by one of my local newspapers, the Evening Echo, which highlighted the case of a home tutor in south Essex who was still teaching despite having been caught with indecent images of children on his home computer. The individual was not charged but received a caution and was placed on the register for five years. Apparently he has continued to run his private education business through Yellow Pages and a website, and he is still not breaking any rules or laws.
Since then, constituents have written to me about this issue and I have taken it up with the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, Essex police, Essex county council and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The responses from the Home Office and the DFES have, in my view, not been satisfactory. That is why I have asked for this debate and for the Minister to answer a few questions. There appears to be a loophole in the law that needs to be plugged for the sake both of children and of vulnerable adults.
Early written responses to my letters dated 8 September from both the Minister for School Standards and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), dated 5 and 13 October respectively, outline the present position very clearly.
The sex offenders' register has a specific purposeit is an administrative measure intended to aid the police in the monitoring of sex offenders in the community. There is nothing barring someone on the register from a particular type of employment. When society in general tries to protect children and vulnerable adults, it is essentially done through three filters. There is the
In all such cases both the Under-Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards have confirmed that it is an offence for a disqualified person to apply for, offer to do, accept or do any work with children. This is all very well and understood, but the answers from the Home Office and DFES did not address my central concern. What about individuals who are on the sex offenders register because they have been cautioned, perhaps for possessing indecent images, and are therefore not disqualified from undertaking home tutoring? The position of people convicted of an offence is relatively straightforwarda disqualification order can be applied for and obtained, if that is thought necessary. However, people who have simply been cautioned escape disqualification orders, despite the fact that they are on the register. When I put that to both Departments, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department eventually replied that the Home Office believes that the matters raised are the responsibility of the Department for Education and Skills, while the Minister for School Standards, in his letter dated 30 November, simply reiterated the contents of his previous letters. In my view, both failed to address adequately my central concern.
My correspondence with Essex county council and Essex police was much more fruitful. Both believe that there is a loophole that needs to be closed. The police do everything in their power in their monitoring interviews to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected, but they accept that there are people on the register who are not barred from home tutoring. In addition, their intelligence-gathering activities are not subject to Home Office guidelines but are left to individual officers, which leads to variation in monitoring between police forces. Essex county council accepts that a loophole exists:
Parents are limited in what they can do to check the background of prospective home tutors. That is particularly the case if a home tutor advertises his services without going through an agency. Parents wishing to make checks cannot gain access to, or check with, list 99, the Criminal Records Bureau or, indeed, the sex offenders register, although I accept that there are good reasons for the latter restriction. The general public cannot even obtain relevant information by going to the local education authority or county council. Indeed, LEAs have no formal or legitimised process to check on parents' behalf, and have no authority to do so. Even the most diligent parent can only rely at present on references supplied by the home tutor.
In response to my inquiries, the Minister for School Standards suggested that parents could safeguard against appointing an unsuitable person by engaging a home tutor through a tuition agency. However, that does not address the fact that many home tutors advertise their services directly to parents without going through an agency. Many parents may, for example, believe that, having advertised in the Yellow Pages, the home tutor is credible and would have undergone various checks by the authorities, whoever they are. It is dangerous to assume that all parents are as aware of the various checks and balances as we are. Even if they are, their power to investigate is severely restricted. That assumption certainly underlies many of the responses from both the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills.
Changes are in the offing to make the CRB more helpful. For example, at present there is only a standard or an enhanced disclosure. Although such disclosures include spent and unspent convictions as well as those on list 99, they cannot be accessed by individuals such as parents or home tutors. After much delay, a basic disclosure will be available to individuals by the end of next year, as I understand it, but the information that it contains will be limited. For example, only current convictions will be included, and list 99 will be excluded. Theoretically, therefore, a home tutor who has served a sentence for previous convictions and has no unspent convictions at present would not show up under such a disclosure.
More promising are the proposals for the establishment of vetting agencies, whereby individuals could get enhanced disclosures. I understand that that will be introduced in relation to disabled people by the middle of next year, with a facility available for those who work with children some time thereafter. I have been informed that such enhanced disclosures would, without question, include all individuals on the sex offenders register. However, with regard to both initiatives, the onus is on the parents to be aware of and to undertake the necessary checks. I hope that, particularly when the second initiative is introduced, the Government will do what they can through an advertising campaign and the like to make the public fully aware of the checks that are available. The checks will have little use if no one knows they exist.
A further consideration would be to introduce a licensing scheme whereby all home tutors would need to register with a reputable body, perhaps the local education authority, in order to teach children. Essex county council believes that that is the right way forward. It states:
The Minister's written response to me suggests that the Government have no plans to license home tutors, however, and goes on to repeat that parents have the option of appointing a home tutor who is employed by an agency. I ask the Minister now to reconsider the position.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that there is a loophole in the law. Non-Government bodies such as Essex county council, Essex police and the NSPCC have confirmed that. Those on the register, having been cautioned in relation to children, can and do advertise themselves directly to the public as home tutors without contravening any laws or regulations. There are insufficient checks to stop that happening.
Parents have little or no ability independently to check the records held by the authorities on potential home tutors, and therefore rely almost exclusively on references supplied by the home tutor. It is accepted that the police have additional powers, but those are not fail-safe for the reasons outlinedfor example, not one sex offenders order has been issued to date.
Changes are being made to the way the Criminal Records Bureau functions, but completion dates, if attained, are some way in the future. Meanwhile, the Government's continued insistence that it is the parents' responsibility to employ home tutors through agencies rests on a dangerous assumption that all parents are fully aware of the various checks and balances that exist and of where the system fails.
As I said at the beginning, the problem is not widespread. Cases are relatively few and far between, but should such a situation go wrong, it could go wrong in a big way. I am concerned about the Government's apparent unwillingness to address the issue properly. Having been unable to get the Government adequately to focus on the issue through correspondence, I look forward to the Minister's reply in the hope that he will adequately address the issue.