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7.57 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): May I join my hon. Friends in welcoming the Bill, particularly as the Government probably have a proud record of introducing more child protection legislation than any other Government, which is all to the good? I have a sense of déj vu about much of the Bill. Indeed, it completes unfinished business, as I helped to steer the Protection of Children Act 1999 through the House with my friend and colleague, the former Member of Parliament, Debra Shipley. I remember our meetings with civil servants in the then Education and Social Security Departments, the Home Office and social services: simply getting those officials round the table was a task in itself, but we wished to highlight the need for joined-up thinking in child protection. In those discussions and our debates in Committee, many of the issues that we have discussed today were raised, including the need to join up disparate lists—that has been achieved by the Bill—and the need for joint working by Departments to ensure that child protection measures were consistent and effective. We highlighted the risk of inconsistencies between various agencies, such as the police, education authorities and schools, and the inconsistencies that might become
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apparent between police authorities in respect of police disclosures. Tragically, in 2004 Bichard highlighted some of the issues that we had identified in discussions about that Bill, and since then it has been proved that some of those issues could and should have been dealt with earlier.

We are all best with the benefit of hindsight, but it is crucial that after all this time we get it right in this Bill. I will be looking to Ministers for assurances that there will be effective working between the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office. A number of the child protection issues that have been raised in the debate must be dealt with across departmental boundaries.

There is a huge amount to welcome in the Bill. I am particularly pleased about the provisions on employment agencies, which clause 28 refers to as “personnel suppliers”. We discussed some of those issues in the context of the 1999 Act. We know that paedophiles are adept at moving swiftly between employers as soon as there is suspicion about their activities. It is therefore essential that a requirement on employment agencies ensures the disclosure and monitoring of their activities.

I am pleased that the Bill requires school governors to be checked. I have never understood why there has been no formal requirement for all governors to undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check. It is true, of course, that most school governors do not have much unsupervised contact with children. Nevertheless, there are occasions when that happens, and governors have a duty of trust in relation to their role in schools, so they must set the highest standards of child protection. For that reason, we need CRB checks of all our school governors.

I might have misread the clause, but it appears to say that no offence is committed regarding the appointment of a governor that takes effect before the commencement of the Bill. Why will we allow some governors to remain unchecked, but require new governors coming on to school governing bodies to be CRB checked? There seems to be no logical consistency in that.

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but it is worth bearing it in mind that the scheme applies to between 7.5 million and 9 million people, if we include vulnerable adults as well as children. It will not be possible to encompass everybody in one fell swoop, so we are beginning with new employees, new appointments and people who have just changed position.

Margaret Moran: If I have the opportunity to serve on the Committee, we will no doubt continue that debate. We are speaking about relatively small numbers of school governors.

My second question relates to cost. It is not clear to me from the Bill where the cost of those CRB checks for school governors will fall. Thirdly, I share concerns that have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House about the requirement not applying to colleges, given that there are under-16s going through our colleges.

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Ministers will be aware of the concerns of children’s charities. The Bill is a key piece of child protection legislation, following intensive media attention. It is essential that we introduce the checking and monitoring outlined in the Bill, but keeping children safe in schools and other settings requires much broader action than the improved vetting of staff. It requires safe recruitment, pre-appointment checks and a child protection mindset in all cases and venues where there are opportunities for unsupervised contact with children. A clear understanding of roles and expectations is needed.

Some of the children’s charities are expressing concerns that many of us share regarding the decision-making processes of the IBB and accountability. Concerns have been expressed during the debate about under-18s and the need for a commitment to different legislative treatment of those under 18. There are concerns about the complexity of the scheme.

I and many others worry that employers, especially small employers, will not understand how the different regimes in the Bill affect them. There will be a need for good communication and clear guidance if employers are not to fall foul of the legislation inadvertently and allow those who should be checked and monitored to escape because of a lack of understanding. As I asked my right hon. Friend earlier, how will we monitor the extra safeguards required in respect of controlled activity? How will we ensure that the scheme works in practice and that the guidance that she mentioned in her earlier reply is monitored?

I have a particular interest in online child protection issues, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for raising some of the issues on which she and I and many of the children’s charities have worked. I am delighted that one of my ten-minute Bills dealing with online moderation has sprung to life in schedule 3. Moderators are entrusted with safeguarding our children in relation to the online world. When parents know a site is moderated, they assume that it is safe, that their children can chat, as they do, and that moderators are overseeing what is going on in the virtual world. In fact, that is probably one of the least safe environments because parents are not necessarily there to see what is going on, unlike the situation outside the school playground.

Several years ago, I became involved in a project called Kidspeak, which worked with most of the national children’s charities to set up a discussion site for children who have witnessed domestic violence. It follows on from one of the first online parliamentary projects on survivors of domestic violence. In setting up a website where children can discuss safely their experiences of witnessing domestic violence, it is essential that the child’s confidentiality is maintained and their safety is ensured.

I took the view that we needed the best moderators that we could find. I contacted the then e-envoy’s office to ask for a list of approved moderators, only to find that the list contained moderating organisations that had done no checks whatsoever on moderators. In other words, the people ostensibly safeguarding the virtual world and the discussions in which children are involved online had been subject to no CRB checks and, in some cases, were being recruited online, so
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nobody had any idea who the people were. That is important, because we know that adults have many opportunities in the online world to groom children without any intervention or any checking—sometimes such adults disguise themselves as children, but in this case they would adopt the guise of a responsible adult—which can lead to paedophile activity. I am delighted that the Government have seen the wisdom of my ten-minute Bill. More importantly, the safeguards that apply in the real world will also apply in the online world, which is essential.

The Bill introduces safeguards to UK-based moderated sites, but what will happen when the moderators are not employed in the UK? Many websites and internet service providers employ moderators outside the UK, which places them outside the checking and monitoring regime set up by the Bill. That gap might create an issue, because parents might believe that all websites are now safe because all moderators are checked. We should go further, and I therefore ask the Minister to consider whether websites that do not employ UK-based moderators and are not subject to the regime in the Bill should be labelled to allow parents to make an informed choice. At the very least, we should produce guidance for parents on that issue.

We know that convicted sex offenders frequently commit offences not only in this country, but overseas. It is apposite that we are in the middle of the World cup—I am sure that everyone is watching the football on the telly as we speak; they certainly will be tomorrow—because, without any conviction, football hooligans whom the police deem to be unwelcome in a country can have their passports removed. When convicted sex offenders travel from this country to a country in which they deem it easier to carry out their paedophile activities, however, they are not subject to any such restrictions. Convicted sex offenders currently have to notify the police if they travel overseas for three days or more. We should reduce that period, because if someone hops on easyJet at Luton airport, they can be anywhere in three hours, let alone three days. We should include a provision in the Bill to stop such paedophile activity by taking away people’s passports. If such provisions apply to football hooligans, why on earth can they not apply to repeat convicted sex offenders?

This Bill and other Home Office legislation can fill some of the gaps on child protection. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families responded to my earlier intervention, she said that those who are convicted of accessing online child pornography will be subject to barring under the Bill, which is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) has eloquently outlined, such a provision would indicate that we are serious about stamping out online child abuse.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley has said, child pornography cannot be accessed accidentally, and it is vital that we bring those convicted of such abuse—those caught by Operation Ore—within the remit of the Bill.

Judy Mallaber: Does my hon. Friend think that not only those who have been taken to court, but those who have accepted a caution should be barred? Most of
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those caught by Operation Ore accepted a caution rather than ending up in the law courts.

Margaret Moran: The fact that someone accepted a caution for accessing child pornography under Operation Ore does not mean that an offence was not committed—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of those cautioned were repeat offenders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley has said, the child exploitation and online protection centre takes that issue extremely seriously. Tragically, a three-month old baby was abused in a recent case in Hertfordshire, which is adjacent to my constituency, and the conviction in that case was obtained through Operation Ore, because the offenders repeatedly downloaded child pornography. As the CEOP knows, all too often and all too tragically offences in the virtual world translate into actual abuse in our all too real world, which is why we must tackle online child abuse as hard and as fast as we can, and I commend the Bill and the comments by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families in that respect.

8.17 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). I support the principle of the Bill, which I welcome as a parent and on behalf of other parents. We need as many measures as possible to help ensure greater protection for children and vulnerable adults, but, like many hon. Members who have spoken today, I am concerned about how we can make the system work. The Government have a history of introducing legislation to protect children and adults, which is laudable, but such legislation is too often not acted upon speedily or not robustly implemented—feet seem to drag.

The Bill has been a long time coming. The then Home Secretary issued an urgent call for measures such as a single central register, which led to a 20-month wait—the supporting computer system is due to go online six years after that urgent call. I know that many members of the public are concerned about the workings of the computer industry. We rely on IT, but we have not demonstrated to the public that we can make the systems work.

Quite properly, parents expect the highest standards from those who care for children at school. They expect assistants to be screened and teachers to be checked in order to weed out those who might wish to prey upon our children. I shall refer to clauses 8 to 17, which specify that it is an offence for a regulated provider—a school—to permit an individual to engage in regulated activities without first making an appropriate check or receiving written confirmation from a supply teacher agency.

I want to focus on supply teacher agencies, because I am concerned how effective the checks will be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) said, the Government recognised that schools must have confidence in the quality of staff whom they receive from agencies in 2002. Some time ago, I worked as a supply teacher and I welcome the checks that have
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been introduced since then, but too many such checks are not taken up as robustly as they should be. In recognition of the need for supply teachers to be regulated, the quality mark scheme was established. However, that scheme, which was designed to help to weed out poor agencies, is not being used properly by schools. It appears that many schools pay no attention to whether agencies supplying staff have signed up to it. The Ofsted report—it has been embargoed but we can refer to it—says:

We do not even know how many agencies we have. That is another fundamental flaw. They must be properly regulated and we need clarification on that.

It is also worrying that anyone can set up a supply agency as long as they comply with the legislation. A recent report commissioned by the Government showed that 90 per cent. of schools ignore the quality mark scheme designed to regulate supply agencies and said that only 8 per cent. of schools felt that the scheme was a “very important factor”. I suggest that there is a marketing issue here. We have heard that information about the Bill must be made available. We also need to get everybody to buy into the need for proper regulation and checks. More than half of all primary and nursery schools and 80 per cent. of all secondary schools use agency supply staff, with 40,000 people a year working as supply teachers. Many work in schools in all our constituencies. Yet Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations has said that she felt, as a parent and a PTA member, that it was “unforgivable” that supply teachers were working with children before checks were completed. A scheme with the best of intentions is not delivering the reassurances that parents deserve. We must ensure that any new schemes deliver a better service.

On a different note, it appears prominently in the media today—as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Luton, South, who is no longer in her place—that under current legislation only three paedophiles have been banned from taking sex trips abroad. That law was hurriedly put in place three years ago following an outcry against people travelling to abuse in other countries and demands that we should stop people with those intentions. Christine Beddoe, director of ECPAT UK, a coalition of children’s charities, described that legislation as

and said that it does not work principally because there is not enough central intelligence and shared information across the police and the judiciary and between countries. People such as supply teachers are coming from abroad to work with our children, but if we cannot get information on, and let people know about, our own paedophiles travelling abroad, how can we have confidence that we will get all these things to fall into place when we want to be able to screen people coming to work with vulnerable adults? The NSPCC has criticised loopholes in the Bill on the lack of vetting for overseas teachers. I understand that the Minister accepts the existence of that loophole and is reviewing the process. However, like Christine Beddoe, I am
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worried that the central intelligence does not exist and hope that robust measures will be put in place to address the deficiencies.

I should like an assurance from the Minister that if we support the Bill it will be robustly implemented and that information will be shared between agencies. We do not want any more cumbersome and unwieldy legislation. The public do not want another great idea or strong headline that in the end does not deliver what we all want, which is to protect our children. We all know that paedophiles will seize every opportunity to abuse children, so we need to deal with the detailed nitty-gritty that stops them from finding the casual camp that operates only for five days, or the Urdd Gobaith Cymru that operates for four days over the festival period of the Eisteddfod. Those are opportunities that paedophiles seize upon. Our children are precious. If the Bill is supposed to deliver robust and effective checks for their sakes, I ask the Government to ensure that that happens. Michael Marsh in my constituency abused, was let out and then abused again, and now may well be let out in 2008. I need to know where such people are and whether they are working with my children and those of others. As has been proved by Age Concern, they may well stop abusing children and move on to work in the adult care industry and abuse elderly adults.

I implore the Government to look carefully at the problems and loopholes that are highlighted in the Ofsted report, which many of us will read in full tomorrow having only glanced at it today. I hope that in Committee the loopholes mentioned by my Friend the Member for Basingstoke will be closed and the terminology tightened so that we do not have another unwieldy, cumbersome, useless, woolly piece of legislation.

8.25 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): The Bill is a welcome framework for safeguarding previously unprotected groups. I want to speak about another unprotected group on whose behalf I have been raising questions and for whom the Bill may be a solution—foreign language students who pay to stay with unvetted host families in this country.

The foreign language school industry is important for many seaside resort communities. The largest areas of activity are along the south coast in constituencies such as Eastbourne, Bournemouth and my own constituency of Torbay. Some 22,000 young students aged between 12 and 18 visit my constituency every year, and some £12 million a year goes into the pockets of host families. The industry is worth a significant amount to our economy, and it is to protect it in the future that I rise to ask some questions about the Bill.

The students mostly come from European countries, although more recently they have been coming from further afield. The industry was built up on Scandinavian, French and Italian students, then moved towards those from eastern Europe, and now students are coming from the far east and South America. They stay for two or three weeks, sometimes more, with a host family. It is a great way for families to get extra income by stretching the family budget to put an extra meal on the table in return for a small amount of
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money—perhaps about £90 a week for a single student or £75 a week for two or more students. The host family is expected to look after those young people, act in loco parentis, take them out, show them around and give them a taste of the life and culture of our country. At the end of a visit of two, three or more weeks, the students will perhaps spend a couple of days in London before flying back to their country.

The students are here to improve their English. The companies that run the language courses are mainly permanent language schools. Most are members of the Association of British Language Schools, but some are not. Those that are members have guidelines on the questions that need to be asked of the host families to vet them properly, but not all companies are signed up to those guidelines.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Does he believe that his remarks about the vulnerability of foreign students apply to the many students, travelling both ways, who go on traditional exchange visits between schools and twinning associations? How far does he want to extend that concern?

Mr. Sanders: My interest is in those who come here for two or more weeks on an English language course. Teachers and others who accompany those who travel on school exchanges will clearly go through the system for which the Bill provides. Indeed, existing legislation already covers them. Our remit is not for what happens in another country with host families that English students who want to learn a foreign language encounter.

David Taylor: My point is that the hon. Gentleman refers to families who receive students from abroad as part of a formal training system or course, but that his comments also apply to families who receive young people visiting twin towns. Those families may need to be vetted. The teachers are okay; I am referring to the families who are earmarked to receive young people from, for example, France or Italy.

Mr. Sanders: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and the Government may well need to respond to it. However, I am considering the number of exchanges that can be quantified in the available statistics.

When there is little or no checking, some establishments recruit host families on the streets. Another loophole is that nothing stops an individual setting up a school and advertising it on the internet. Without regulation, there is a potential problem.

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