Children Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Dawson: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course the reports would not identify individual children. The reason for making them so public would be, in part, in response to situations in which institutions have undergone no effective scrutiny whatsoever, and their children have suffered grave abuse.

Tim Loughton: I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's point, and do not seek in any way to exclude the information, to reduce the degree of inspection or, ultimately, to prevent authorities from improving or closing homes. In some of the cases that I cited earlier, I would have liked the inspectors to have stuck their noses in further, and named and shamed. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman at all.

Of course, the children's identity is not revealed in any of the reports, and that should remain the case. However, for a potentially harmful person, be it relative, paedophile or anyone else, to be asking questions about a particular home suggests that the location of an individual has been compromised. Alternatively, a paedophile might just be looking for an opportunity to inveigle himself into the presence of particular young people in the homes. I am concerned about that, and about the fact that no checks are made, in relation to any particular risk, on the identities or motives of those asking for information. The situation is clearly different if the request comes from the police or from local authority representatives with an obvious interest in the home. They may be seeking to place children there, investigating potential abuse or finding out whether things have improved in a home where abuse has happened. However, if an ordinary individual, from the other end of the country, who apparently has no connection whatever with the case, says, ''I ordered a report on the home,'' we should ask questions, and there is no facility for doing so. That is my point.

A briefing from the Family Planning Association states:

    ''All young people are entitled to confidential services when seeking advice about sex, relationships and sexual health. FPA believes that professionals should not share information on young people's contact with sexual health services or where young people are known to be having sexual relationships. Information-sharing should only take place when there are serious child protection issues, or if they have the young person's consent.''

The FPA is concerned that if attendance at sexual health services is flagged on the database, young people will be reluctant to seek the advice and services that they need. I am not sure whether that would be flagged on the database or covered under medical records. Strictly speaking, those data are not medical records; I therefore seek the Minister's clarification.

I hope that I have given clear examples of situations in which there are worries that the protection and welfare of a child could be compromised by a lack of

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proper safeguards obliging disclosure. It would be self-defeating if that could happen, as appears to be possible in the Bill. We are all trying to achieve the same end, so I hope that the Minister will respond constructively and positively to the amendments and to the spirit in which they were tabled.

Mrs. Brooke: I support the amendments, and I hope that the Minister will not find anything objectionable in them. It may be argued that they are unnecessary, but as the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot be careful enough, and no situation should be ambiguous.

We have had briefings from many organisations that support the amendments, and as the hon. Gentleman has expressed their views, I will not repeat them.

Amendment No. 35 refers to anyone who is involved with the database. I discussed the issue with an intern who is now working with me. He was employed on a part-time basis by a social services department, and was given the job of inputting data, but he was not subject to a criminal record check. The opportunity will exist for mistakes to occur unless the amendment, or a similar provision, is in the Bill. That example is probably as powerful as that quoted by the hon. Gentleman.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for that additional example. The hon. Lady may be aware of the recent case of Haringey council. Despite having carried out checks with the Criminal Records Bureau, it employed 18 people who had failed their CRB checks, which had thrown up previous problems, including one conviction for paedophilia. The person concerned was employed by Haringey social services to drive a minibus for disabled children. CRB checks themselves do not prevent such things happening.

Mrs. Brooke: I accept that. We are continually assured about the improved performance of the CRB.

Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before and I ask him to be careful before accepting everything that he reads in the media. When the matter was raised in the media, I took the responsible action of checking with Haringey council, which employs thousands of people in its social services department. I will write to all members of the Committee giving them the assurances that Haringey council gave me. The council undertook CRB checks on all members of staff; it is not that it did not undertake them—

Tim Loughton: But it still employed them.

Margaret Hodge: No. The hon. Gentleman is alleging that those CRB checks threw up issues that made the individuals inappropriate to work with children.

The undertaking that I have from Haringey council is that although a very few of the thousands whom it employs may have had criminal records, none of those records showed an offence that made the individual unsuitable to work with children. I shall write to all hon. Members about that, but I ask the hon. Gentleman not simply to repeat information reported

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in the media. It is often misleading and serves to lower morale among social workers and social services departments, just when we are all trying to have confidence in the work that they are doing.

Mrs. Brooke: I am in a triangle here, which is rather difficult.

10.45 am

Tim Loughton: We will have to have this debate later through the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.

We do not want to do anything that will lower the morale of social workers who are already desperately demoralised. Their morale needs to be improved. However, a local authority took on one individual who quite clearly had a criminal conviction for paedophilia yet was put in charge of a minibus transporting disabled people around north London. If that is not the case, then the Minister should say so, but she did not respond to the point when I tabled my parliamentary questions.

The local authority's appointment strikes me as inappropriate, given that it was subsequent to a CRB check. My point is that CRB checks are not the be all and end all, and when local authorities take on people who have thrown up serious concerns, one wonders exactly what the point of these checks is in the first place.

Mrs. Brooke rose—

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady cannot be beaten.

The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will now have the Floor and that we are now into interventions. It is entirely a matter for the hon. Lady whether or not she wishes to give way.

Mrs. Brooke: I should like to take up the Minister's kind offer to look into the matter and to write to us, because I want to proceed with the point that I was making about 10 minutes ago. I hope that the Minister will be satisfied with the opportunity to clarify the matter for us all.

I was trying to make the point that it is not always apparent that someone is working with children if they are temporarily employed to input data, but we should be absolutely clear that working on a database means that almost everyone is on the frontline of working with children, even though they might simply be inputting technical data. I therefore suggest this safeguard for those reasons alone, because it would be very easy not to require a criminal record check if one simply thinks, ''Well, this is just a temporary job. It's just a bit of data inputting.'' The point of my amendment is that such a job is more than that; children are involved. If the amendment is at all what the Minister wants, we need that protection.

Unsurprisingly, I am greatly concerned about the sensitive services. It is obvious that we do not want to deter parents or children from accessing such services. Again, just to give an example from my own experience, for a long time the main upper school

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where I live had a very tough policy on drugs to the extent of instant exclusion. That meant that parents were frightened to go to social services for advice because they were afraid that their child would be excluded from school. It is vital, when parents or children seek advice, that such sensitive information is held and released or published only after due consideration.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, particularly those relating to children living with domestic violence, and forced marriages or even unforced marriages, in which young people are hunted out. There is an enormous amount of concern. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments because they only enhance the Bill and this section on databases.

Margaret Hodge: I shall return to the Haringey issue, because we clearly have a different understanding of it. I cannot recall a relevant parliamentary question, but I will reread the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary questions, because I cannot remember what information he said he had received from me in answer to one. I will write to all Committee members.

On the issue of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised some important issues. I shall write to him when I have read the Hansard report of what he said and had an opportunity to think through the implications, which are complex. We must protect the interests of children. That is paramount.

We share the aims of the amendments, but we do not believe that they are necessary. Access is important. It is one of the issues for our first consultation paper, which we hope to publish next week. We need to concern ourselves with who should be allowed to access the system. That must include those who are delivering services and those who are known to the child. Those are the sort of criteria that are sensible in determining who has access to the database.

On ensuring the appropriate checks, there is a range of considerations. We will have to set minimum requirements before granting any individual authority access to the system. A Criminal Records Bureau check would be an obvious start and we would have regard to anything arising from the Bichard report into the Soham situation. We will have a relevant practitioner level protocol and users will, of course, be obliged to have training on safe and secure use of the system, including compliance with data protection and human rights legislation and, where relevant, the Caldicott principles. We shall have to keep the criteria relating to conditions of access under continuous and close review, and anybody barred from working with children will be barred from access to the database. We are also considering audit trails, user authorisation systems and other such issues, which will add further security in relation to access.

Let me deal with the first amendment and then come on to the issue of sensitive information, whether about particular children or about domestic violence in families. The amendment is unnecessary because clause 9(1) links the express purpose of the database

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provision in the clause to the duty in clause 7 for co-operation arrangements to be made with a view to improving the well-being of children in the authority's areas. It links the database's purpose to the clause 8 duty to make arrangements to ensure that professionals safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to section 175 of the Education Act 2002, which places a similar safeguarding duty on education authorities.

That means that anything that is done under clause 9 can be done only for the purposes of those duties. Anything that does not comply with those duties cannot be done. The comfort that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seeks from the amendment exists and the measure does not need further reinforcement. I give him the further reassurance that in the guidance and directions, which will be subject to full debate, we will emphasise that link between clause 7 and clause 8 and section 175 of the Education Act 2002 with the powers and duties under clause 9.

Amendment No. 36 would limit the circumstances in which the database can be displayed. I recognise the importance of the issues that have been raised; we do not want to introduce a system that is detrimental to the interests of children, particularly where domestic violence or witness protection is involved or where children want to access services but want their access to those services to be confidential. We want the database to provide a tool to help people to act in the best interests of children. I keep repeating that.

However, the amendment would cause confusion because it would mean that practitioners would have to think about whether they should enter the fact that they are working with a child on to the database. The practitioner would have to apply a test whether disclosing the information that they were being asked to disclose would be detrimental to the child's welfare. We want to provide practitioners with certainty about using the database, not uncertainty.

If the amendment were passed, there would be scope for different interpretations by different professionals, leading, in my view, to those gaps in information that can lead to children falling through the net and being abused or subject to neglect. Therefore, while we agree that the amendment raises an important issue, we think that the appropriate place to take account of it is in the regulations and guidance.

The consultation document that we are preparing will start to flesh out some of the issues that Members raised. In the debate on the previous amendment, we talked about the trailblazers and how, on sensitive issues—particularly in relation to domestic violence—they are managing to block out access to information. Sheffield is doing that, as, I think, is West Sussex. Leicester has also developed some such facility.

On the issue raised by the Family Planning Association and others about confidentiality, I completely understand professionals' concern that they need to make that professional judgment to preserve the trust in relationships that they establish

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with children, young people and parents with whom they work. Having said that, however, we need to ensure that professionals are involved in the databases in an appropriate way, not that they are not involved in the databases. The important considerations are around consent, which I talked about, and confidentiality.

We want to make sure that the decision that we take on the issue is one in which everyone has confidence. We do not want to deter young people and children from taking out services. The consultation that we are about to publish will talk about the best way forward in dealing with recording practitioner details in relation to potentially sensitive services. The key issues that we want to explore in that consultation will be the extent of inclusion of such information, the determination of who can see it and how we will try to ensure that the consent of the child and the consent of the parents is sought wherever that is possible, although there will always be exceptional circumstances that prevent gaining that consent.

I am pleased that Members have drawn out those important issues. I reassure Members that we take them seriously and want to bring everyone with us as we determine how we use the database in relation to both sensitive services and to people whose information we want to keep from others. I hope that, in the consultation about the document that I hope to issue shortly, we can bottom out some of the difficult issues and reach consensus. I ask the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to withdraw the amendment because, although its content is important, it is not necessary.

 
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