Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Jun 2006 : Column 1081

Points of Order

4.13 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the Prime Minister said that changes in the treaty and the rules were needed now. Moreover, he also said that the constitutional treaty required unanimity. However, two countries have said no, which means that the treaty cannot be implemented into English law. In the light of my representations and my question to the Prime Minister, will you, Mr. Speaker, consider whether it is appropriate to maintain on the Order Paper a provision relating to the Second Reading of a Bill which, by the Prime Minister’s own admission, cannot proceed?

Mr. Speaker: No, I will not enter that argument. I think that that was the hon. Gentleman’s way of putting the matter on the record.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, the relationship between this country’s judges and Her Majesty’s Government, no matter who is in power, is important for all our constituents. In the past couple of weeks the Home Secretary lambasted judges and the Lord Chancellor defended judges, before a junior Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs—the Lord Chancellor’s own Department—lambasted judges again. Have you, Mr. Speaker, received any representations from Ministers to come to this House and explain Government policy?

Mr. Speaker: Ministers do not talk to me about these matters.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con) rose—

19 Jun 2006 : Column 1082

Mr. Speaker: Is it on the same point? If so, there is nothing further to be said about it, because Ministers do not approach me on these matters.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House is about to debate the very important Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. May I ask your advice on an important point? The previous Secretary of State for Education and Skills promised us that

She later stated that this was

We understand that that the Ofsted report is currently being circulated to the press under embargo. It is entitled: “Safeguarding children: an evaluation of procedures for checking staff appointed by schools”. Is not this House in a very difficult position if we are debating legislation regarding the safeguarding of children and registers of sex offenders but a crucial document commissioned by the previous Secretary of State, which is directly relevant to our proceedings, is already available to the honourable members of the press but is not available to this House so that we can draw on it as we debate the Bill? Do you have any advice, Mr. Speaker, about how we can ensure that our consideration of the Bill is properly informed by the report that Ministers commissioned specifically as background to it?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I listened carefully to what he said, but I must say to him that the timing of the publication of the report and the arrangements for embargoed copies are matters for Ofsted, and not something upon which the Chair can rule. However, it may be helpful to bear it in mind that today’s proceedings are on the Bill’s Second Reading. There will no doubt be ample opportunity to take account of this report during subsequent proceedings.

19 Jun 2006 : Column 1083

Orders of the Day

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [ Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.17 pm

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Nothing can be more important than ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are properly safeguarded. It is critical that where evidence suggests that an individual presents a risk of harm, they are prevented at the earliest opportunity from having access through their work to vulnerable groups. I know that all Members present agree on that point. That is the primary aim of the Bill, which seeks to improve significantly the current arrangements for vetting and barring.

In putting in place a more robust and tougher system, the Bill is central to delivering one of the five key outcomes of the “Every Child Matters” programme—“Staying Safe”. Equally, it will significantly improve the protections currently in place for vulnerable adults and ensure, as far as we can, that they are safeguarded from avoidable harm at the hands of those who work with them.

In order to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected as fully as possible, safeguarding must become everybody’s business—that of Government, regulators, local safeguarding children boards, and, in particular, employers, who have the ultimate responsibility of understanding and carrying out their respective responsibilities to the full. It is important that we get the detail right. The spirit in which it was examined and debated in the other place was testimony to our commitment to do that.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): As I understand it, the Ofsted report is about whether local authorities and schools have discharged their obligations. Did the Minister use it in developing the policies in the Bill?

Beverley Hughes: No, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the report was not available to us at that point. Ministers would have preferred it be available before today, but as Mr. Speaker rightly said, it was not in our gift to effect that.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The third Bichard report, which the Home Secretary issued only a month ago, clearly refers to the Ofsted Bill. I find it interesting that the Home Office has had sight of it when the Department for Education and Skills has not.

Beverley Hughes: First, there is no Ofsted Bill but a report that the Government commissioned. However, Ofsted undertook it completely independently; that applies to the way in which it was carried out and its formulation. It has not yet been published, and the Home Office did not have prior sight of it a month ago.
19 Jun 2006 : Column 1084
As I believe the hon. Lady knows, it will be published shortly. We shall respond to it as soon as it is published.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is right to say that it is important to get the detail right. The detail of policy, procedure and practice on the ground is important. I have no doubt that the commitment that we witnessed in the other place will be reflected here.

The Bill builds on a sequence of measures since 1997 designed progressively to strengthen the safeguards for children and vulnerable adults. We have tried to ensure that we learn from tragic events such as the Soham murders and the death of Victoria Climbié. In doing so, we have gone further than any previous Government in introducing a substantial programme of legislation and reform designed to protect children and vulnerable adults—rightly so. I should like to acknowledge that hon. Members from all parties have shown interest and co-operation.

We tightened the vetting and barring schemes for those working with children and adults by making operational from 2000 the scheme under the Protection of Children Act 1999, and effecting the protection of vulnerable adults scheme from 2004. Also in 2000, we published the document “No secrets”, which provided for the first time a framework for local authorities to work with the police, the national health service and the regulators to tackle and prevent the abuse of vulnerable adults.

The Criminal Records Bureau was created in 2002, with the task of helping to protect children—and, from 2004, vulnerable adults—by playing a key role in ensuring that unsuitable people were not recruited to positions of trust. In 2003, we passed the Sexual Offences Act, part 2 of which built on the original notification requirements for sex offenders that came into force in 1997, further to ensure that the police are kept informed of their whereabouts.

The Children Act 2004 further strengthened arrangements to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. It required key people and organisations to make safeguarding arrangements for children and ensured that agencies worked together through the local safeguarding children boards. All 150 boards were established by the deadline of April 2006.

The IMPACT—information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking—programme is another key reform, which arises from Bichard and is in the process of being implemented. It is designed to improve the police service’s ability to manage and share operational information. The IMPACT nominal index has recently been launched, and enables one police force to identify quickly other police forces that hold information about specific individuals. The code of practice on the management of police information was brought into force in November 2005, and a comprehensive set of supporting guidance in March 2006.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Minister will recall that I represent Soham. I am obviously glad that the IMPACT programme is in place, but can she be absolutely sure that it is available to operate between every force in the country? Four years after the event has been a long time to wait for that development, bearing in mind the fact that a scheme already existed for Scottish police forces that
19 Jun 2006 : Column 1085
the Home Office could have taken up, had it wished to do that. My constituents and I would like the Minister’s assurance that the scheme is fully operational between every police force in the United Kingdom, and that the position that arose whereby one police force could not inform another properly of the circumstances of a man such as Huntley could never happen again.

Beverley Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s obvious concern. The IMPACT programme is fully operational across all forces, enabling police services to communicate with one another and find out whether a known individual in one force is known by another police service. However, its capacity in relation to the storage of soft information and intelligence will involve a phased development. It will not be fully operational in terms of its full capacity until 2010. However, the police national computer is now able to hold some of that soft information, including information on acquittals, cautions and reprimands. So the vetting and barring scheme that we are discussing today will be able to draw on that information from the police national computer and progressively use the IMPACT scheme, as its capacity expands. But that has to be done in a managed way.

Following the Secretary of State’s statement to the House on 19 January, we took immediate further steps to tighten the present vetting system in the run-up to the implementation of the Bill. Under regulations issued last month, Criminal Records Bureau checks have become mandatory for all newly appointed school employees. We intend to introduce further regulations to enter automatically on list 99 anyone who is convicted or cautioned for a sexual offence against a child or for a serious sexual offence against an adult. We have established a panel of independent experts, chaired by Sir Roger Singleton, to oversee the whole list 99 process. The Ofsted review of existing vetting practice in schools, which was announced on 19 January, will be published shortly. As I have said, we will respond immediately to its findings.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Minister give us some advice on the position of children, particularly those over 16 but under 18, who commit sex offences against other children? The Bill rightly contains provisions for barring adults with a history of sex offending from being in contact with children. What is the position with children between 16 and 18?

Beverley Hughes: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient, as that will become clear when I get to those provisions in the Bill shortly. I can tell him, however, that there are different levels of protection and different levels of barring decisions that the independent barring board will be able to take. If a person under 18 commits an offence that would, if committed by an adult, cause them to be considered for barring, they will be considered only under a discretionary process. There will be no automatic barring of young people under 18 who commit sexual offences. Each case will be considered on its merits, and not in relation to a list of offences that would involve automatic barring for adults.

19 Jun 2006 : Column 1086

We are only too painfully aware of the specific background to the Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has just referred to it. The tragic deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002 highlighted starkly and horrifically the fact that there were weaknesses in the systems that ought to prevent unsuitable people from gaining access through their work to children and vulnerable adults.

In response, we commissioned the inquiry chaired by Sir Michael Bichard to investigate those weaknesses. We welcomed the publication of his report in 2004, and had no hesitation in accepting all its 31 recommendations. Well over half of them have already been put in place, and the remainder are being implemented. It is recommendation 19 that we are concerned with today. It proposed new arrangements requiring those who wish to work with children or vulnerable adults to be registered. We have given a great deal of consideration, in conjunction with many key stakeholders, to how best to implement that recommendation. The new vetting and barring scheme that will be introduced through the Bill is the culmination of that thinking. It represents a step change in the safeguarding arrangements required to meet the Bichard inquiry recommendation.

The Bill is the centrepiece of our overhaul of the present system for vetting and barring, and it is underpinned by four key principles. The first is that the interests of the child and the vulnerable adult are paramount. As we said on 19 January, we need a system in which the protection of vulnerable people is the first consideration. Secondly, everyone has a responsibility for ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are safe. All must play their part, including the state and employers, as well as parents and families.

The third principle is that the new vetting and barring scheme is focused specifically on the world of work, both paid and unpaid. It does not intrude in family relationships.

The final principle that underpins the Bill is that the reform system needs to be proportionate. We intend the breadth of the bar to be proportionate to the risk, and the Bill establishes different vetting requirements for different work contexts, as I shall explain in a moment, in proportion to risk.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady explain the rationale behind there being two barred lists? There will obviously be a great deal of concern that somebody barred from working with children can work with a vulnerable adult, and vice versa. That will be difficult for the general public to understand.

Beverley Hughes: I know that there is a lot of concern about this. Indeed, an amendment has already been made in the other place, as the hon. Gentleman might know, to ensure that when the IBB receives a referral and starts to collect information about an individual about whom there is concern, it is required to consider that information in relation to both lists.

There might be circumstances—for instance, where somebody had caused financial harm to an elderly person by exploiting their financial interests—that do
19 Jun 2006 : Column 1087
not necessarily automatically translate to concern about a person working with children, but the IBB will have to consider the individual in relation to both lists and, if appropriate, put him or her on both lists.

I can give the hon. Gentleman another assurance. If he looks at list 99 and the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the protection of vulnerable adults list, he will see that there is already considerable cross-referencing.

To deal with inconsistencies in a variety of arrangements, the new scheme will integrate list 99, POCA and the disqualification orders regime to create a single list of people barred from working with children. There will be a separate, but, as I say, aligned list of those barred from working with vulnerable adults. In the light of the debate in the other place, we have made it clear that the IBB is under a duty to consider information in relation to both lists.

As clause 2 makes clear, the barred list will be established and maintained by the IBB. Using its expert members, the IBB will take all discretionary decisions about whether to include an individual on a barred list, as well as receive representations as part of that process. Ministers will not be engaged in discretionary decisions by the IBB on individual cases in any respect whatsoever. That delivers on the commitment made on 19 January, and I think represents a fundamental shift and improvement on current systems.

The IBB will work closely with the Criminal Records Bureau, which will provide the administrative function enabling the scheme to be operated effectively. It will receive applications from individuals to be monitored by the scheme, as well as gathering and monitoring that subsequent information on behalf of the board. The board and the CRB will work closely together to deliver on key reforms of the current system and the need for vetting and barring decisions on an individual’s application to work with children and vulnerable adults.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is going to elaborate, but will she explain the rationale behind the need for one list for people working with children and a separate list for people working with vulnerable adults? I am not clear why we need two lists. It may be that I ought to declare an interest; I did not check beforehand. I have a 33-year-old son who has severe learning disabilities. He has the mind of a four-year-old—the mind of a child—but the body of an adult.

Beverley Hughes: I am very aware of my hon. Friend’s personal interest in the matter and why she raises the question. I responded to a similar point from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and explained that the IBB will now be required to consider the information in respect of both lists. On the basis of current practice—which I imagine will continue, given the expertise of the board—people will be placed on both lists when appropriate, but, as I have said, there might be some cases, perhaps involving financial abuse of adults, in which people would not necessarily be disqualified from working with children. That is why there are two separate lists. They will be aligned, and the board will have to consider whether individuals should be on both lists when it makes its assessment.

Next Section Index Home Page