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Mr. Hoon: This issue was quite properly raised last week. As I indicated, the Government have been concerned over many years to ensure that appropriate sentences are passed, not least sentences that reflect the concern of a community when a sentence is perceived to be too lenient. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, we have taken action to provide powers to allow appropriate appeals against sentences that are too lenient and to ensure that appropriate standards are set for the guidance of our judges on the way in which sentences are imposed. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the issue and I assure him that the Government take these matters very seriously.
[That this House acknowledges the role played by the Bevin Boys, who served this nation during the period 1943 to 1948; notes that many paid the ultimate price in their endeavour to rid Europe of Nazi tyrants; and calls upon the Government officially to recognise by the way of an award similar to that available to the military veterans the importance of the Bevin Boys to victory in the Second World War.]
The Bevin boys were 48,000 conscripted miners who served this country well with their toil, sweat and lives between 1943 and 1948. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices and speak to relevant members of the Cabinet to investigate the possibility of officially recognising the service that those people provided to this country during the war years and properly and relevantly commending their efforts?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. My distinguished predecessor,
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Frank Haynes, was a Bevin boy. He came from London to Ashfield as a miner and served that community extraordinarily well, both in the war years and, of course, as a long-standing Member of the House. The issue is not something that I need reminding about, and I share my hon. Friend's ambition of finding an appropriate way of recognising the Bevin boys' contribution.
[That this House is concerned that the Home Office has paid £12.5 million in compensation to GSL Ltd because the accommodation centre for asylum seekers at Bicester did not go ahead; is concerned given that GSL was not obliged to purchase land and did nothing whatsoever on the site, that compensation was paid and by the amount of taxpayers' money thrown away on this project, this £12.5 million being in addition to the £18 million the Government has already admitted has been spent on this project; and calls on the National Audit Office to carry out a full investigation.]
We need a debate on Government procurement and on how the Government actually contract. The Government have wasted £25 million on the accommodation centre in Oxfordshire at a time when the NHS in Oxfordshire has a deficit of £15 million. The Leader of the House will realise that local people, whether taxpayers or users of services, are understandably aggrieved about the situation.
Mr. Hoon: I certainly understand those people's concern because it is vital that Government procurement is efficient and effective. Again, the Government have taken significant steps to ensure not only that the process of procurement in individual Departments is efficient and effective, but that there is a joined-up approach across Government. Different Government Departments often procure identical items, so it certainly makes sense to do that collectively. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the efforts that the Government are making to ensure that health authorities that are suffering deficits are given the right assistance so that they can emulate the example of more successful authorities that are in surplus.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the special steel industry, especially in the light of the decision by Outokumpu, a major firm in my constituency, to declare 800 redundancies and to close the coal division due to competition with China? I would then have the opportunity to seek an assurance that officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and from Yorkshire Forward will work with the remaining parts of the special steel industry to try to get them to work more co-operatively so that they can better resist competition from China and other countries.
My hon. Friend raises a matter that is important to his constituency and his constituents and has wider implications for special steel production and for the country as a whole. I take note of his
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observations and am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will take them very seriously indeed.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Yesterday saw the publication of a report by a senior aviation expert that lists between 40 and 50 alleged intelligence flights that landed at Scottish airports, including one dubbed the Guantanamo bay express and another that has been the subject of a diplomatic enquiry by Norway and debate in the Canadian Parliament. I know that the Government are keen to avoid getting drawn on detail, but may we have a debate on those details because it will otherwise be hard to conclude that the Government do not have something to hide?
Mr. Hoon: The Government do not have anything to hide. It has been the practice of Governments over time not to comment on such issues, and I am not going to change that practice. It would not be appropriate to comment. If the hon. Gentleman gave half a second's thought to the matter, I am sure he would recognise that it would not be appropriate to have that kind of debate.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend make time available to discuss Britishness and multiculturalism? A great debate is going on outside the House, but we have never discussed the subject on the Floor of the House. It is important and we should debate it, but in all the years that I have been in the House the subject has not been raised here.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable suggestion. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has set out some interesting and, I think, well received views on how we should more effectively celebrate Britishness. I would want that to include the tremendous contribution made to ethnic diversity in this country by those who have come from, or at least whose antecedents have come from, other countries. That has added to the richness of our nation's heritage.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): In March 2005, the Education Minister in Northern Ireland was to announce a school building programme for Northern Ireland, but the election intervened. Since then, no new school building programme has been announced and our schools are crumbling. Can we have time for an urgent debate on a matter of relevance to our children?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman may be factually correct about the position as far as schools are concerned, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has announced a significant programme of funding for improvements in the public services in Northern Ireland. I am confident that in due course that will deliver the results that he and members of the Government desire.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab):
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we have a debate on the future of the joint strike fighter and, in particular, the STOVL
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version of it? If that is not going ahead, it raises not only a question mark over the future of that aircraft, but a bigger question mark over the carriers and the sheer size of them that will be required for other variants that may have to operate.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Scarcely did Defence questions go by without him raising an aspect of aviation, and he has given me the opportunity to remind myself of those important subjects. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it is crucial that the STOVL variant of the joint strike fighter goes ahead. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has that at the centre of his attention.
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): I am grateful for this opportunity to make a further statement on arrangements for vetting those working with children and barring those who are unsuitable. In addition, I am placing in the Library copies of the review of List 99 that I announced last week, which gives further background on this statement. Given the seriousness of the issues, the statement is, as I have discussed with you, Mr. Speaker, longer than usual.
Nothing matters to parents more than the safety of their children, so I deeply regret the worry and concern that has been caused to parents over the past few days. I am determined to do everything that I can to ease their concerns. This is a complex area. There are no easy answers. Child protection has been a top priority of successive Governments. Ministers in this and previous Administrations have made difficult decisions, particularly in maintaining the safety of children while protecting those working in schools from malicious allegations.
The operation of the list is set out in legislation going back to 1926, but attitudes have changed significantly in recent decades. That has led to a greater concentration on the terrible effects of child abuse. Consequently, law and practice has been continually tightened. I pay tribute to the Conservative party for paving the way for the sex offenders register and for beginning the process of automatically barring teachers convicted of sex offences.
This Government have gone further still. From 2000, those included on List 99 on the grounds of unsuitability to work with children have received a full bar. All sex offenders, if deemed unsuitable to work with children, are placed on List 99 and banned from schools indefinitely. In 2003, we passed the most comprehensive overhaul of sex offences legislation since the 1950s. We introduced the Criminal Records Bureau in 2002 to ensure that all schools have full access to the convictions and cautions of the school work force. Sir Michael Bichard's report following the events in Soham made 31 further recommendations, 13 of which are already in place, with the remainder being implemented, but there is more to be done.
Our vetting and barring system, which is a shared responsibility between Government, local agencies and employers, has developed piecemeal over the past 80 years. In additionrightlythe public mood on the issues has hardened. It is time, therefore, to overhaul the system. We need a system in which child protection comes first, above all other considerations. It must be a rigorous system, drawing on the best expert advice. There must be absolute clarity about who does what. The system must command public confidence and it must be accountable. It must also be fair to individuals, giving rights of appeal. There must be no witch hunts against hard-working teachers and there must be protection against false or malicious allegations. Today, I am setting out how we will achieve that.
Public concern has focused on the operation of List 99. I understand that concern, but ensuring that List 99 works properly is only one key part of the current vetting system. The most important check against a
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school unknowingly employing someone with a sex offence is the check that employers do through the Criminal Records Bureau. Those checks show the full record of potential employees, including convictions and cautions, and whether the applicant is on List 99 or other centrally held databases. Criminal records checks allow schools and others to make informed decisions about whether to appoint. List 99 provides a further check, including in the most serious casesfor someone who is on the list because they are unsuitable to work with children, it is a criminal offence for them even to apply to work in a school.
List 99 contains 4,045 names. The vast majority are barred indefinitely from working in schools. A much smaller subset210are subject to restrictions short of a full ban. List 99 goes wider than just sexual offenders and covers those convicted of crimes, such as deception, as well as those who are unsuitable on health grounds. But because List 99 has only ever automatically covered those individuals who are already working in the education sector when they commit the offence, the Criminal Records Bureau, which covers everyone, is the main safety net.
For convictions for 40 of the most serious offences, inclusion on the list is automatic. For other cases, the decisions have been at Ministers' discretion, and the vast majority have always been taken by officials on Ministers' behalf. In those cases, advice may be sought from a wide variety of relevant sources before a decision is takenfor example, from the police, experts in sexual offences, forensic psychiatrists and others.
In 2005, 2,554 cases were referred to the Department, of which 513 resulted in a full bar. In many cases in which an individual is not barred, the evidence considered will have been based on suspicions and allegations rather than firm criminal cautions or convictions, or the individuals referred to the Department will not have previously worked in the education sector.
A preliminary comparison of these numbers with historic data from 1985 and 1995 suggests that the number of decisions reached each year has increased substantially, yet in all three years both Ministers and officials have made a wide variety of decisions on individuals with convictions or cautions or who are subject to allegations that have been referred for a wide variety of reasons, including sexual offences. As I said, these issues are complex, and always have been. Successive Ministers have been required to make the most difficult decisions.
Understandably, recent concerns have focused on discretionary decisions by Ministers not to include an individual on List 99, despite that individual being on the sex offenders register. The review that I set in place has identified 10 cases since 1997. In each case, the recommendations after expert evidence were that those individuals posed no threat to children. As a result, those individuals were issued with a grave warning with the requirement for disclosure if they applied for a job in a school. I can, however, tell the House that officials and the police have examined each case. Current inquiries suggest that none of the individuals concerned is working in a school. I have asked police to visit each of
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those individuals to check whether there is any cause for concern. None is judged by the police to pose a current risk.
Over the past 10 days, however, I have been determined to go further to provide a more complete analysis. I have asked officials to look at similar decisions made by officials, and decisions by Ministers and officials on cases since 1997 where the relevant offence was committed prior to the introduction of the sex offenders register. That has identified a further 46 cases. As many of those cases deal with very old offences, and are not monitored under sex offender monitoring arrangements, our information on them is much more limited. Officials and, where relevant, the police, have found the following. For 32 of the 46, there is no evidence that the individuals are working with children. In one case, an individual is working in education, but has been assessed by the police as of no cause for concern. In 13 cases, preliminary checks have shown no reason for concern, but our information is as yet not complete. In two of those cases, inconsistent data need to be reconciled. Further action on all 13 cases will be considered in conjunction with the police on a case-by-case basis.
I am sure that the House will want me to thank the police for their work in following up individuals as part of this exercise. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] In addition, the police have carried out an initial review to see whether there were any further individuals being monitored on the sex offenders register who might be eligible for List 99. Initial investigations suggest that there may be 32 such cases in England and Wales. As a precaution, the police have assessed all those cases. In one case, investigations are continuing. I fully accept that this review of individual cases has identified wider issues about how the vetting system currently operates. Building on Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry, I have identified three key issues that we now need to address including, first, the lack of coherence between List 99 and the other lists held nationally. That is made worse by problems in sharing information and by the fact that, historically, cautions have been treated differently from convictions, despite both being a legal statement of guilt.
Secondly, there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for doing what, locally and nationally and, thirdly, we need to address ministerial involvement in decisions. I have concluded that further reform is necessary. Some of it can be done immediately, and some through the primary legislation that we have already planned. Over the past 10 days, I have considered whether it would be possible more closely to align the sex offenders register and List 99. I have decided that we need to go further than that. After extensive consideration, I have decided the most effective approach is to bar from working with children all those who are now convicted or cautioned for any sexual offence against a child, whether the individual is on the sex offenders register or not. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] First, therefore, I will shortly introduce regulations automatically to enter on List 99 anyone who is convicted or cautioned for a sexual offence against a child. I will also automatically bar individuals for a range of other serious sexual offences against adults. By including cautions as well as convictions the anomaly between offenders who are convicted and those
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who admit their guilt and accept a caution will end. Individuals will have the right to make representations, but they will need to prove that they are not a threat to children before they can work in a school or other educational establishment. I shall consult widely on the detailed implementation of that measure.
Secondly, I will require mandatory Criminal Records Bureau checks for all newly appointed school employees, thus replacing the current strong guidance. That will also require that teaching agencies ensure that their teachers have a Criminal Record Bureau check. That should ensure that all employers make judgments about appointments in full knowledge of the facts, whether or not a potential employee has previously worked in the education sector. Thirdly, Ofsted will carry out an urgent survey of existing vetting practice in a sample of schools, and it will report to me in the spring. Fourthly, I will write today to all schools, setting out how the checking system will work and informing them of the change to mandatory CRB checks. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will write today to all chief constables, chief probation officers and the Youth Justice Board to restate how the current system works, how it is changing and the priority attached to this area.
Fifthly, I will ensure that all Department for Education and Skills staff who are part of the vetting process receive appropriate training, support and advice in child protection issues. Finally, in advance of legislating to remove Ministers from the process entirely, I will establish a panel of independent experts chaired by Sir Roger Singleton, the former head of Barnado's, to oversee the whole List 99 process. His role will be to ensure the quality of the process and advise me on any further List 99 cases that need to be decided. The panel will draw on expertise from the police and child protection specialists. While I will not fetter my discretion on individual cases, I cannot at present envisage the circumstances in which I would not follow its expert advice.
The expert panel will also review cases determined before 1997. It will examine cases that, had the sex offenders register existed, would have resulted in the individual's inclusion on the register, and all cases involving a sexual offence or allegation that resulted in a decision not to include an individual on List 99 or in a restriction or partial bar. The aim of the review will be to establish whether any individual poses a risk of harm to children and if any action should be taken. The permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills will ensure that the relevant former Minister is consulted in any such case. Those reforms will make the current List 99 system work better immediately, but the whole Government are determined to replace List 99 entirely with a new, better system as quickly as possible. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said in his statement today, "good progress" is being made in implementing the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. The necessary legislation that was promised in the Queen's speech will be introduced in February. In particular, that legislation will bring together List 99 and the Protection of Children Act list in a single register of those barred from working with children. I will also use that legislation to make further reforms.
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I will legislate to give independent experts the final decision on who should be barred. This will have the effect of removing from Ministers the responsibility for taking barring decisions. Decision making will be transferred to a statutory body that will be the holder of the new combined register and will take all decisions about who should be barred. Individuals will retain the right of appeal. While I will consult about the exact role of the body, I will ensure that police advice will inform every decision.
Over the years procedures have been strengthened. It is time, however, to strengthen them further. Nobody who is convicted or cautioned for child sex offences should be allowed to teach in schools. We need an independent panel to take decisions. And we must do all this with proper safeguards to ensure that no teacher, subject to claims or allegations that may be strongly contested, should be unfairly condemned. Our task as a Government, my task as Secretary of State and the task of all of us as legislators is to get this framework right. That is what the reforms that I have announced today will do.
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