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Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC):
I refer the Minister to the point made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about recruitment. Many
organisations recruit overseas. Have the Government made any specific IMPACT assessments of delays in recruitment from overseas? For example, a residential home in my constituency that recruits from the Philippines has experienced such delays. I am sure that there are potential problems.
Beverley Hughes: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place when I responded to an earlier point about overseas workers and foreign nationals coming here to work. I said that the Bill does not discriminate. Exactly the same checks have to be made about foreign nationals as are made about British nationals. However, we recognise that, from some countries, there are difficulties in employers obtaining either full records or assurances that they have a complete record of someones criminal history. We are giving further thought to the guidance that we need to give employers in that situation.
Although responsibility rests firmly in the procedures, practices and judgments of employers, the measures in the Bill will help them by establishing a much more comprehensive but simpler system for them to use. It will greatly improve safeguards for children and vulnerable adults, not least by constantly monitoring those who work with them. The Bill constitutes a step change that measures up to the high demands that Bichard rightly made of us in his report, so I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The most fundamental role of Government is to help to ensure the safety of their citizens, so it is of deep concern to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with children and other vulnerable groups that sometimes the procedures and practices that the Government put in place can seem wholly inadequate.
When the Minister presented the Bill, she rightly said that its background is painfully lodged in our memories, with the tragic murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. But that is only part of the story that we cannot forget as we start our consideration of the Bill: each year, 500,000 older people are abused and 1,400 adults with learning disabilities are the victims of sexual abuse. It is a startling situation that graphically illustrates the need for fundamental change.
Mrs. Humble: Is the hon. Lady aware that sometimes the problem with regard to vulnerable adults and elderly people is that they are reluctant to report abuse, especially if the abuser is a member of their family or a neighbour, but even if it has taken place in an institutional setting? We cannot legislate to force them to report an abuser, so how would she ensure that people being abused feel confident enough to come forward so that they can be part of the process and protected?
The hon. Lady makes a good point: we cannot force people to report those who may be
committing offences against them. That is why it is imperative that there is a robust process to ensure that people working with vulnerable adults or children are vetted sufficiently in advance, and we shall be pressing further to make sure that that is the case.
The Government are good at passing laws but not perhaps always as good at implementing them and looking at the details. In January, the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills was forced to issue emergency changes to procedures after it had been exposed that convicted sex offenders were being given permission to work in schools. She said that she could give the public an
absolute assurance that the process is as robust as possible to ensure that the risk to children is minimised.[ Official Report, 19 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 978.]
Yet we have heard today that the Governments own research shows that 90 per cent. of schools ignore the scheme that the Government set up four years ago to help to stop paedophiles working as supply teachers. Indeed, last week, the Commission for Social Care Inspection exposed widespread failure to vet staff who work with some of our most vulnerable people: 43 per cent. of childrens homes fail to use safe vetting procedures for staff, as do 65 per cent. of adoption agencies and 49 per cent. of care homes for young adults with physical or mental health problems. Those figures show that the problem is widespread.
The embargoed Ofsted report, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) referred in a point of order, identifies widespread confusion in schools about who has responsibility for vetting staff and others who may come into contact with children. Surely that will fuel further concerns that the vetting systems in our schools, as they stand, are wholly unreliable.
Beverley Hughes: Does the hon. Lady accept that it is premature of her to make such a sweeping statementcertainly given that she has not seen the Ofsted reportand to say that vetting procedures in schools are wholly inadequate? I want to check that she understands that, although there is a kite mark scheme for supply agencies, it is a voluntary scheme. All supply agencies have their procedures regulated by the same regulations and exactly the same standard is required. Whether schools choose to use a kite-marked agency should not make any difference to the rigour with which supply agencies carry out their duties.
Mrs. Miller: I am pleased to say that members of the press feel that it is important that Her Majestys Opposition have copies of reports that are pertinent to the debate and that I have been able to read the Ofsted report. I feel that the comments that I made are entirely
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that Erskine May specifically states that no Member of the House can use a document that is not available to other Members. The Ofsted report is embargoed until one minute past midnight. The hon. Lady is using information that is not available to Members.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I understand that the Secretary of State may have misunderstood Erskine May and that that is not the case, although one would hope that organisations would take note of the embargo.
Mrs. Miller: Thank you for that clarification, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am astounded that it would be felt at all appropriate to have a debate without using all the information available. It is most important that we get things right and that we do not put any information into the background. We need to make sure that we are looking at the full facts of the matter.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept that part of the reason why we know how many employers are not following the appropriate checks, and why that information is in the public domain, is because the inspection services are reporting that back and requiring providers to carry out those checks? The Care Standards Act 2000, which the Government enacted, brought in such requirements. Previously, those requirements were not in place and many care homes and schools were not checking, but now, thanks to the inspectorate, they are in place and are being rigorously pursued.
Mrs. Miller: That is an excellent point and the hon. Lady is right to say that it is important that we know the figures. My point is that the problem is widespread. The lack of enforcement of vetting is not exclusively a problem in schools. It is also a problem in care homes, adoption agencies and all the other organisations that I listed, which makes me feel that the procedures themselves need some consideration because they are so widely flouted.
Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is still the time that it takes to get information back from the Criminal Records Bureau? We hope that the procedures that are being put in place will not mean that getting a job stacking shelves in Sainsburys is preferable to working in a care home because it takes four or five weeks to get a response from the Criminal Records Bureau.
Mrs. Miller: My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We need to keep the processes and procedures of the Criminal Records Bureau under constant review. I know from experiences that have been forwarded to me by constituents that that problem is widespread.
Schools and authorities must keep up-to-date and reliable records to prove that the necessary checks ... have been carried out.
That is done quite often. However, the problem is not whether the checks are carried out, but that schools do not keep a record of such checks to demonstrate that the safeguarding of children is secure. The haphazard recording system used in schools is thus a problem. Some 58 schools have been surveyed and their records were very patchy.
Mrs. Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and raising the broader issue that we cannot view vetting and barring in isolation. They must be viewed in the context of where they are put in place. Whether in schools or care homes, the systems must be workable and cannot be viewed in isolation.
Mrs. Moon: The House might find it useful to know that, as an ex-care standards inspector, I am well aware of the delays that can be caused in the Criminal Records Bureau. The care standards inspectorate bends over backwards to be supportive. There is a system in place that allows a home to take on a member of staff before a new criminal records check has been carried out, if such a check has been completed in the past, as long as that member of staff is not allowed unsupervised access to vulnerable people. If a person has had a check, which might be a matter of weeks, months or even a year out of date, that person can still work, provided that he or she does not have sole responsibility for providing unmonitored and unsupervised care to a vulnerable person. The system allows people working in the care profession to move between jobs and thus not lose opportunities to work. It also enables employers to take people on. The only time that such a system is not in place is when a person comes into the profession for the first time.
Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady has a great deal of experience in this area and makes a valuable contribution to our debate. I hope that she will serve on the Committee, because it is by teasing out such details that we will make the Bill better and work more practically.
We can never completely protect children and vulnerable people from the possibility of abuse or attack. Our concern is that, in the preparation of the Bill, the Government have listed yet more processes and procedures, but have not made those that are in place work properly. The Bill fails to consider the basic practicalities of implementing an effective vetting system. I want to work with the Government to identify such problems and will try to address them by tabling amendments in Committee. We should ensure that the possible shortcomings in the Bill do not remain as such. I bring three specific matters to the attention of the House.
The concept behind the Bill is that everyone who works with vulnerable groups or children should be monitored to prevent abuse, instead of merely waiting for problems to arise. One of the main aspects of the Bill is the establishment of the independent barring board. The Bill is complex, so I would welcome the clarification of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), about these matters. It appears that the key role of the IBB will be to hold barred lists for children and vulnerable adults and to hear appeals from people who feel that they should not be on those lists. More detail might be planned, but I have summarised the key provisions in the Bill. When the Minister replies to the debate, will he tell us who will be responsible for monitoring the people who put themselves forward to be monitored? Who will deal with the soft data that anyone in the country will be able to send in as evidence of individuals
inappropriateness to work with vulnerable adults or children? Who will monitor the database and decide whether individuals should be considered for barring as a result of such soft data?
There is little specific provision in the Bill on the monitoring role of the IBB, even though a strong case can be made that monitoring and barring are part of the same process and that, if the IBB is to be effective in its barring role, it must play an effective part in the monitoring process or, indeed, be responsible for that process. How the monitoring database will work is unclear. The IBB has a tremendous role to play in supporting safer employment practices in a broader fashion than is currently articulated in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will share his thoughts on that.
I hope that we will also hear more detail on how the IBB will reach its decisions. Nothing in the Bill specifies how the IBB will do that. Issuing a code of practice to ensure greater transparency was discussed in the other place, but there is nothing on the face of the Bill.
Finally, the IBBs accountability to Parliament should be clarified. It will be an important body dealing with highly sensitive issues and I feel strongly that we should ensure that it is accountable to Parliament, not a Minister. There is an opportunity to broaden the IBBs role to make it work much more effectively in providing safer employment practices for people working with vulnerable groups.
My second point has already been touched on. Concerns were expressed about overseas workers in the post-Bichard consultation, so it is surprising that they have not been picked up and fully addressed in the Bill. In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills asking for assurances in respect of overseas workers in schools, but we have not yet received a reply. Is the DFES still considering its views on the issue? Earlier, the Minister for Children and Families said that she felt that further discussion would be beneficial.
It is worth bringing the scale of the issue to the attention of the House to show that it is not a peripheral matter. Growing numbers of overseas workers work in the key sectors that deal with vulnerable groups and children. Almost one in five nurses and one in three medical practitioners come from overseas. Some 18 per cent. of social workers and 15 per cent. of care assistants, who work with some of our most vulnerable people in almost domestic settings, come from overseas. We are therefore talking about a large number of people, yet the Bill contains no provisions on how to deal with them. It is important that the matter is discussed further in Committee and is not put to one side.
The majority of overseas workers who come to this country come from countries in Africa and Asia and from India, which do not necessarily have similar recording systems to ours for criminal activities, so it is difficult for us to access data from them. When the Bill was debated in the other place, Lord Adonis said that the matter could be covered through regulations, but that fails to grasp the issue. We need to make sure that employers know how to deal with overseas employees and that they understand that a different approach is needed. The Bill must provide a robust mechanism for dealing with that group of workers. My hon. Friends
and I will table amendments that require specific activities on the part of employers who employ overseas workersfor example, pre- and post-appointment checks to ensure that any issues are properly covered. This is not a unique problem. There are other professional organisations that have to deal daily with professionals who are coming into the country to work. They have found processes to be able to deal with this and it is important that we do too.
Mrs. Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which was raised earlier. It is important that we ensure that, however people come into employment, there is a robust process in place to scrutinise their background and appropriateness for the job for which they have applied.
There is a third area in the Bill where we would benefit from further detail. In his report, Sir Michael Bichard said that effective vetting depended on information, much of which inevitably comes from the police. At present, the only provision in the Bill on data collection is that it can be outsourced by the independent barring board to the Criminal Records Bureau.
Data is the IBBs lifeblood. It has been at the root of many of the concerns in the reports produced in recent years by Sir Michael Bichard, Chris Kelly and Ronnie Flanagan. To be effective, IBB data must be of the highest quality. Those who are monitored need to have confidence in the way in which the data are collected, stored and updated. The IBB needs to have a quality control role on data, which it does not have at present given the way in which the Bill is constructed.
That is particularly important when we consider the scale of changes that are happening to data collection, particularly in respect of the police. Hon. Members will be aware that the CRB has been criticised widely in the press for wrongly categorising 3,000 people as criminals since it was set up two years ago. That is a concern and I know the CRB that has been working on it. Given the volume of applications that it works with, it is perhaps in some ways inevitable.
In terms of the data that the IBB will be dealing with, who will be weeding soft data? Many of the advances in the Bill concern the fact that the IBB can accept soft data that is not necessarily connected with a conviction or caution. Yet there is little clarity in the Bill about how that data will be dealt with, especially when perhaps soft data that are received are not felt to be information required to be kept on a persons record.
Who will monitor the reliability of the new PLXpolice local cross-checksystem, which is the police flagging system to which reference has been made? It is new and I have heard that it has questionable reliability at times.
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