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Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is extremely important to ensure that we get the facts right. We must base our decisions on the best possible information on the individual cases and base our improved policy on the facts. The protection of children is our paramount consideration. I took the decision to commission a review so that we could look at the facts in an objective, impartial fashion. I shall return to the House as soon as possible to update hon. Members on my conclusions.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
Why did Ministers give the benefit of the doubt to actual or potential offenders rather than to children? Which Ministers made the decisions to which the Secretary of
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State has referred, and in which decisions was she specifically involved? She has just said that parents are not asking that question. I am asking that question, and I want to know the answer now. Finally, will she immediately drop her disgraceful suggestion that Ministers should no longer be responsible, but that responsibility should be shuffled off on to officials, who cannot defend themselves?
Ruth Kelly: I do not think that, with respect, the right hon. Gentleman has quite understood the point that I made. As Secretary of State, I take full responsibility for all the decisions that have been made in my Department, and I am here to answer questions on that basis. The fact of the matter is that the system for deciding those cases has been the same for decades, with Ministers taking sensitive decisions[Interruption.]including, as the right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, decisions for which he would once have been responsible. List 99 has been tightened, and the sex offenders register has been introduced. The criteria have been broadened, and we now intend to legislate to bring together the lists that we control. I shall see whether it is possible to align more closely new and existing lists with the sex offenders register and other data sources.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I appreciate the great amount that the Government have done on child protection and sexual offences, as I have been working with the internet adviser to children's charities on the specific question of downloading child pornographic images, which, I understand, was the issue in this case. Before I learned that a statement would be made in the House today, I tabled a question asking the Secretary of State to ensure that people who are on the child protection register because they have been convicted of the crime of downloading images or have accepted a caution and have therefore admitted that they are guilty of downloading images, are automatically excluded from working as teachers. I hope that the review will exclude that category. I understand that this individual was caught in Operation Ore, which netted thousands of UK citizens who downloaded images that are only on the internet because children have been abused by tracking their credit card use. I hope that in the review on which the Secretary of State is embarking that category will definitely be excluded from working as teachers.
Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for her sustained interest in these issues, which are, indeed, very serious. Her point about treating cautions and convictions in the same way so that an individual who accepts a caution, thereby admitting guilt, is treated in the same way as someone with a conviction is one on which we intend to legislate under the new system. A conviction for a specified offence leads to an automatic barring from working with children, and in future a caution, too, will lead to automatic barring.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con):
The Secretary of State has just said that child protection is her first priority. If that is true, why does she appear reluctant to condemn the employment of sex offenders as teachers? Does she agree that it is extremely disturbing that anyone on the sex offenders registers could gain employment as a teacher?
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Ruth Kelly: I have just explained to the House why there is a difference between List 99 and the sex offenders register, although I do not think that that is acceptable. I would like to bring the two lists together as closely as possible. List 99, however, does not give approval for an individual to be employed by a school. The head teacher or employer then has the responsibility to check with the Criminal Records Bureau to see whether there are any cautions and convictions. That is an additional safeguard, which was introduced in legislation under this Administration, and it has the purpose of protecting children.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Can I urge the Secretary of State to continue to remain calm, and not be pressurised into releasing any figures until she knows exactly what is involved? I urge her not to listen to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and in her review to look at the question whether it is appropriate for Ministers to continue to be involved in those decisions, particularly when they are the result of police investigations or court or police action, and should not be left to those agencies?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that issue. I would like to consider whether it is possible for Ministers to be removed from decision making on those sensitive cases in future, as that would help to restore public confidence in the system. I shall therefore return to the House as soon as possible to see whether we can make that improvement.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The Secretary of State said that a Bill will be introduced in February, but it will take some time for it to complete all its stages in both Houses and to implement it thereafter. Has she given any consideration to the proposals made by the NSPCC that we need interim arrangements, such as ensuring that all individuals on the sex offenders register are on both the protection of vulnerable adults list and List 99, at least until there is a review of barring restrictions? Will the Government consider that, as it will give a great deal of assurance to many people?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Even though we are progressing the legislation as speedily as possible and will introduce it in FebruaryI hope that it will be passed with the full co-operation of all parties this Sessionwe cannot implement it before 2007 because it demands a new IT system, with full implementation in 2008. That is why I set out both in my written ministerial statement yesterday and in my statement today the interim steps that I would like to consider. That review includes the question of whether Ministers should be involved, or whether they could be removed from the decision-making process. It will also consider the way in which police advice can be incorporated more fully into the decision and, indeed, whether it is possible to bring all the lists together more closely in the interim period.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op):
This unfortunate case has highlighted the fact that we have a piecemeal legislative framework to deal with an issue that is complex and difficult to administer. I welcome the Minister's comments, but may I remind her
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that this is a serious and complex issue that should not be dealt with using the knee-jerk reactions advocated by some Opposition Members? In the review, will she not only ensure that we have simpler legislation that is fit for purpose, but back that up with recruitment processes that will enable schools to recruit people without being strangled in a web of bureaucratic interventions and research?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the seriousness of the issues and their implications for child protection, particularly public confidence in the system. It is my responsibility to put the full facts in the public domain as soon as possible and ensure their accuracy, as well as to establish the whereabouts of the individuals involved and ascertain whether they are considered to pose a risk to children. In the review, I shall look at whether it is possible to tighten the process further and align the registers more closely. I would point out to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that all employers have a responsibility not just to check List 99 if they are a school but to make a CRB check if the individual concerned has not just moved from a previous employer, whose references they have a responsibility to take up. The CRB check will reveal whether there is a relevant caution or conviction that needs to be taken into account by the head teacher, and I very much hope that individuals would not be employed if such a conviction or caution were revealed.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Some of these matters are devolved in Northern Ireland, as the Secretary of State knows, although the relevant Minister is responsible to the House. Has she consulted with her counterpart in the Northern Ireland Office and, if not, will she do so urgently so that my constituents and others in Northern Ireland can be assured that these matters have been taken seriously and addressed in that part of the country, too?
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