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I welcome the Bills intention to provide proper arrangements for vetting those working with children and barring those who are unsuitable. Family members of the Deepcut and Beyond group believe that we need a system in which child protection comes first, and that
nothing about the particular nature of the military environment should contradict that principle. It must be a rigorous system, which draws on the best expert advice. There must be absolute clarity about who does what. The system must command public confidence and be accountable.
Incidents of child abuse cases in schools and the outcry about staff not receiving enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks concern all parents. However, Deepcut and Beyond families point out that that problem also exists in military training establishments. Non-commissioned officers and civilian staff do not have Criminal Records Bureau disclosures of any kind.
Mrs. Lynn Farr, whose son, Private Daniel Farr died at the age of 18 at Catterick, has been told by senior officers at the barracks that CRB disclosures are not required because the recruits are in full-time employment. Those young people are in training. They are being supervised by trainers, most of whom are NCOs. Some trainees are taking NVQs. Surely, Mrs. Farr argues, that must put Army recruits in a position that is analogous to young people working on modern apprenticeships. If those young people were working full-time in civilian life and attending college, as is the case with modern apprenticeships, all the training staff and assessors would be CRB cleared to an enhanced level.
For the first few weeks on phase 1 training, young people are at their most vulnerable. They are away from homein some cases, for the first timeand they have a genuine culture shock. Yet, despite the susceptibility of recruits, the trainers and staff involved with them have no CRB clearance of any kind.
The Government place a high priority on staying safe and make it one of the five thematic outcomes of Every Child Matters. Although some recruits may fall outside the target group of children and young people aged between 0 to 19 years, it is already recognised that, when there are special or additional needs, the age range of the at-risk group may extend to 25 years. The closed nature of the military environment, the strict disciplinary regime and the absence of parental oversight make young soldiers especially vulnerable to the attention of sexual predators.
Deepcut and Beyond families point to the conviction in August 2003 of former Lance Corporal and serial abuser Leslie Skinner, who was initially charged with male rape and later convicted of multiple charges of indecent assault committed while employed as an NCO trainer at Deepcut barracks in 1996 and 1997. Officers from Surrey police gave evidence to the Defence Committees inquiry into duty of care that Leslie Skinner had previously been convicted of a sexual offence in Northern Ireland, demoted and transferred by a military court. He was able to obtain employment as a trainer at Deepcut barracks without being subject to any background checks.
Officers also testified that, while Skinner used his rank to secure compliance from young recruits, none of the 13 complainants had sufficient confidence to utilise the chain of command or any of the then existing mechanisms to register a complaint about their abuse.
In my capacity as Chair of the all-party group on Army deaths, I wrote to the then Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig)I am standing next to two Welsh Members and I am sure that they will tell me off for my pronunciation of my hon. Friends constituency. I wrote to my hon. Friend on 13 February. He replied on 9 March that
you are correct that under the Criminal Justice and Court Service Act 2000, CRB checks cannot currently be carried out on Armed Forces personnel supervising or training young recruits, in particular 16 and 17 year olds, because the recruits are in full time employment... We are therefore working, as a matter of urgency, with DfES and the Home Office on new legislation that would allow employers greater flexibility in carrying out CRB checks on employees in the future.
In his winding-up speech, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me an assurance that there is no exercise of Crown immunity in relation to the Bill? Will he tell the House what steps have been taken to ensure that young service recruits are equally protected by law?
The Department for Education and Skills has written to all schools setting out how the checking system will work, and informing them of the change to mandatory Criminal Records Bureau checks. The Home Secretary has written to all chief constables, chief officers of probation and youth justice boards to restate how the present system works, how it will change, and what priorities are involved. Will the Under-Secretary work with the armed forces Minister to ensure that all commanding officers at military training establishments are also made aware of the strengthened protection that should be available to young recruits? In monitoring the implementation of the legislation, will the Under-Secretary also undertake to assist the Ministry of Defence in ensuring that all staff who will be part of the vetting process receive appropriate training, support and advice on child protection issues?
The Army has learned lessons as a result of the tragic deaths at Deepcut and elsewhere. Having the will to address the issues of harassment and bullying honestly and without embarrassment is the first step towards creating an environment free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination. We have learned to our cost that voluntary compliance and good will need to be strengthened through legal enforcement.
We need to get the balance right between adopting a witch hunt mentality and not showing due care and attention in recognising people who are unsuitable and unfit to work with children and/or vulnerable adults, including vulnerable elderly people. We also need to strike a balance between the need to protect children and vulnerable adults and the needs of employers to keep vital education, training and social care services running without getting bogged down in bureaucracy and delay. The Bill does get that balance right, but it will be essential to ensure that the new system is properly resourced, that the independent barring board is adequately staffed and, above all, that those who should know about its work do know about its work, so that the vulnerable people whom we are here to protect can be properly protected.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on raising those important points about military training establishments. I, too, look forward to hearing the replies from the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). I also thank the Minister for Children and Families for her clear explanation of the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, and I should like to place on record the Liberal Democrats broad support for the measures that it proposes. It is vital that we increase the protection of the most vulnerable members of our society. I should declare that I have not had the advantage of seeing the embargoed Ofsted report, so I shall be unable to comment on it in my speech.
Reaching this point today seems to have involved an extraordinarily long process, following the tragedies in Soham and the subsequent Bichard inquiry and its recommendations. The former Secretary of State for Education and Skills made statements to the House on 12 and 19 January, while stories in the press centred on cases in which it was revealed that Ministers had made decisions that certain individuals should not be placed on list 99. One of the cases was in Bournemouth, so there was inevitably a great deal of press coverage in my local area. As I reflect on that media frenzy, it seems clear that the outcome of this legislation must be a system in which the public can have confidence.
The then Secretary of State recognised the necessity for specialist advice for herself in this area, as well as the need for training at all levelsfor example, for school governing bodies when making appointments. The proposals for an independent barring board are generally welcome. Its independence, and the fact that Ministers will not be involved in discretionary decisions made by the board, are also welcome and reflect a fundamental change from the present system. The need for widespread relevant training and, even more, for a whole culture of vigilance regarding risks to children and vulnerable adults are vital if we are truly to improve protection.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has made the point that safeguarding is everyones responsibility, and that was endorsed by the Minister today. Everyone needs to work with that in mind. Age Concern England has stated that public awareness initiatives will be important in informing the public of the existence of the new processes. It is shocking to read examples of the abuse perpetrated day after day on children, older people and those with learning and other disabilities. Some of the examples in the Help the Aged briefing include financial and physical abuse, and remind us of the extent to which many types of abuse remain unreported and undocumented. Campaigns by the NSPCC to encourage children to speak out, and reports from ChildLine, underline the need for vigilance.
I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Voice UK, which aims to bring to the attention of Members of both Houses of Parliament the needs of people with learning disabilities who have experienced crime or abuse, and to discuss redress and reform. We would certainly welcome any Members who wish to
join our discussions. I recognise that the Bill does not cover family and personal relationships, but I hope that it will contribute to real changes in our society. To that end, I look forward to working on it on a constructive cross-party basis.
It was ironic that when the then Secretary of State was placed under such pressure earlier this year, consultation on these new proposals was already well under way. However, time is passing, and I would like the Under-Secretary to give us an updated timeline for the projected introduction of all the proposed measures, and tell us how any interim measures will impact on recruitment for September.
The Minister for Children and Families confirmed earlier that Criminal Records Bureau checks are now mandatory for all newly appointed members of the school work force. I welcome that move, as it is long overdue. Will the Under-Secretary clarify whether work will be allowed to commence pending the completion of a CRB check? In response to a parliamentary question on this issue, I was told that in 2005 the average time for an enhanced disclosure was 31.5 days.
I am worried that a possible upsurge in demand for checks will mean that schools could face difficulties with late teacher appointments. At the very least, clarity is needed, along with a statement on the capacity of the CRB to deal with the checks. I well recall the fiasco when the Government had to retract their requirement for CRB checks for teachers when they were first introduced several years ago, and I am a little worried that we might be heading down that route again as a result of this very welcome initiative. Has sufficient provision been put in place for the CRB? What action will the Under-Secretary take to ensure that it will have sufficient capacity for its enhanced functions as the new procedures are put in place? It will certainly be required to do a great deal more than it does now. It has already been pointed out that the CRB has made some dreadful mistakes, and we shall need to reflect on this matter in Committee.
I should also like to comment on what appears to have been some very successful cross-party working in the other place, and to put on record our thanks to Lord Adonis, the Minister there, who was so responsive to the discussions that took place at all stages. Perhaps we can look forward to similar responsiveness in this House as we probe some of the outstanding issues, mainly on detail. I have to confess, however, that if that were to be the case, it would be an agreeable surprise.
This is the fourth Bill with which I have been involved in this Session. Ministers have come and gone, but I welcome the new Under-Secretary to his position. I also thank him for his recent courtesy in meeting me, and others involved with the Bill [ Interruption.] I can hear by the response from Members on the official Opposition Benches that they agree that the success of Opposition parties in persuading the Government to accept amendments has been rather limited, to put it mildly.
As with the other Bills I have served on, there is great reliance on future regulations and the issuing of guidance. I welcome the information notes already published, but inevitably, there are outstanding concerns about many of the issues covered, further areas of promised guidance and questions as to why certain matters cannot be included in the Bill. I concur entirely with the way in which the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) expressed those concerns.
There will be a great deal of detail to cover in Committee, so for now, I too would like to highlight concerns in a number of key areas. First, I want to consider the principle relating to the creation of the lists and the operation of the IBB. As we have heard, the Bill originally proposed two quite separate listsone for people who pose a risk to adults and one for people who pose a risk to children. However, in the light of the important evidence supplied by the Ann Craft Trust that one in five of those who sexually abused older people had also sexually abused children, I was pleased that the Government proposed an amendment that the IBB should have an automatic duty to consider someone for both lists. I am not sure whether the amendment adds up to automatic cross-referencing. We will have to tease that out.
As we know, there are four types of behaviour that may or may not, or must, require inclusion on the barred list. Those include cases where there has been a caution or a conviction, which may result in automatic inclusion, or inclusion subject to representation, and those where there is not a conviction or a caution, but the basis is behaviour and risk of harm.
Specifying the precise types of behaviour that will result in automatic inclusion and inclusion subject to consideration of representations is reserved for secondary legislation. Concern has been expressed that automatic inclusion will not allow any representation to be made, and is exempt from the appeal process in clause 4. Liberty suggests that the absolute nature of the bar might raise issues under the European convention on human rights. I shall be interested in the Ministers comments on that.
There are two issues here, which have a compound effect that concerns me: the automatic bar without representation and the limited parliamentary scrutiny offered to us of which offences will be included on the respective lists. I understand that the proposed list of offences will not be amendable, even through the affirmative resolution procedure. At some time, we shall therefore have to vote for or against a whole list. As we are all so concerned about the issues, it is clear that we would have to vote for the whole list even if we were worried about one or two offences on it. That, together with the lack of a right of appeal on the automatic bar, gives me cause for concern.
On the other types of behaviour that can lead to an entry on the barred list, the IBB will have greater discretion. That is clearly appropriate, but as we have heard before, it relies on soft information. There is a balance between information that should be passed on and that which perhaps should not. In the Ian Huntley case, data had not been stored. Obviously, we can look
back on the tragedy of that information not being passed on, and something not being picked up that should have been. On the other hand, should we pass on, for example, information about a teacher which might clearly be established as malicious, or is it up to the IBB to do the sifting or weedingor whichever term hon. Members want to use?
It is important to establish the procedures. Who should be passing information on to the IBB? The police and social services, we assume. Will there be a duty on public offices to inform the IBB of revocation of appointeeship or attorneyship due to abuse? There are a lot of issues to consider.
With reference to risk of harm, there are clearly issues about the precise criteria, and I am pleased that the Government are committed to publishing guidance in this area, but will the IBB publish any criteria that it establishes, thus ensuring transparency, openness and clarity, and also reference to any risk assessment model that it uses?
We welcome the Government amendment that widened the right of appeal beyond a point of law to include the ability to appeal on the finding of fact. I am not clear whether an appeal to the tribunal may be made on the basis of facts not available to the IBB at the time of the original decision. I would be grateful for clarification.
Like other Members, I am concerned about the lack of definitions of certain terms in the Bill. The four obvious ones are frequent, occasional, harm and incidental. I want to refer to the Governments information note 1(iv), as I find some of the sentences there quite the reverse of reassuring. One states:
The approach that has been adopted in relation to these expressions is that they will take their normal meaning...Broadly speaking we believe that the terms should be interpreted in the following ways...we broadly consider anything more than once a month or any contract that lasts longer than a week to be frequent.
We have already heard of the example of the short-term play scheme, perhaps operating for five days. I might ask the Minister for Children and Families, while she is still here, about a crèche that operates for less than two hours a day, perhaps on four successive days. I would be concerned about what could happen over that period. I am sorry to have made that particular point, but as people know, I have a concern about crèches that operate for less than two hours a day.
Harm should take its normal meaning for a range of reasons specified.
In both these cases we believe that harm should take its normal, commonsense meaning so that a special definition is not required on the face of the Bill. We are clear that the normal meaning of the word covers our original intentions for the scheme.
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