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The police in my constituency have raised several disturbing cases and some potential cases in the past two years. Their view is that something needs to be done quickly. There have been several incidents of convicted paedophiles, known to the police, being identified as acting as host families. Indeed, in one case, a person on the sex offenders register applied to one of the language schools and specified the age and sex of the child whom they wanted to come and stay. In that case, the police could intervenethey found out about it. However, it is not written down anywhere that that is
the polices job. We do not know about the cases that do not come to the attention of the police or other authorities.
In another case, a host was found in bed with an under-age student. I stress that such cases are isolated when one considers the many thousands of foreign students who come to these shores. I do not want to give the impression that there is a massive problem, but it takes only one case to do enormous damage to a young person and the reputation of an excellent industry. The foreign language school industry, when properly regulated and following proper guidelines, is such an industry.
I first raised the matter more than two years ago with the relevant Minister, who, at that time, was the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). I requested and was granted a meeting with her to discuss the concerns of the police in my constituency and I brought an officer with me. She was aghast that such potential for trouble existed in seaside resorts and she promised to raise it with the regulatory body of the English language schools. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, that meeting never took place.
I followed the matter up this year, this time requesting a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). She too was aghast at this potential loophole and concerned that, even if the Bill covered it, it would be some time before the regulations were in place to protect these vulnerable people.
Annette Brooke: I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that this issue was discussed during the passage of the Children Act 2004. Yet again, however, the very good proposals put forward from the Opposition Benches at that time were not enacted, possibly with serious consequences. I hope that action will be taken this time.
I wrote to the then Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) about the Bill, when it was in its embryonic stages. I pointed out that it stipulated that, in order for people to be vetted, they should be remunerated in the course of their work, and that a commercial consideration should be involved. Host families to foreign language students are effectively paid only expenses, although for many of them it is paid work, particularly in a low-wage area such as my constituency. I asked whether this would therefore come under the definition of work and, if not, whether there would be any scope for interpreting the Bill more widely so as to protect those students. This is my question for the Government: will foreign language students be covered by the Bill, and if not, why not? If they will, how soon will it be before adequate protection can be put in place?
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con):
I apologise for not being here for the opening speech of the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes).
Unfortunately, I was delayed finalising a lengthy inquiry of the Education and Skills Committee into special educational needs. If any group needs our support and protection, those with special educational needs are right up there at the top of the list.
As the last Back-Bench speaker in the debateI shall try not to take it personally, Madam Deputy SpeakerI will keep my comments brief and not repeat the points raised by other speakers. I hope that no one would argue that the new vetting and barring scheme for people who work with children and vulnerable adults was not long overdue. Sir Michael Bichards report made a number of important recommendations and it has taken us too long to get to the point at which we can say, hand on heart, that our children are safe in our schools. Recent local experience has made me particularly conscious of this and I should like to take a few moments to explain why.
When the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) confirmed to the House in January 2006 that 88 people with cautions or convictions for sex offences had been banned from the classroom, I immediately wrote to my two local education authorities, and submitted parliamentary questions to the Department for Education and Skills about the issue. In both cases, I was seeking assurances that children in my constituency were not being placed in harms way or at risk.
I immediately discovered anomalies in the system. For example, many teachers in post since before 2002 had not been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, because the legislation in force at the time did not require such a check. Furthermore, schools that checked teachers and classroom assistants often did not share the resulting information with their local education authority. When they did, the local education authority had to destroy the information after a short period of time under the data protection laws.
One of my local authorities, Wokingham district council, explained that it was difficult to offer any assurance about childrens safety, but said that it would spend £60,000 on checking any staff who had not previously been checkedthat is, those who had been employed before 2002. The reaction from Reading borough council was, sadly, very political. Its lead councillor for childrens services accused me of all manner of things, saying that I could have asked the LEAs director of education these questionsas he hadand been assured that there were no sex offenders in Readings schools. He also appeared in the local media to assure parents that no child was at risk. However, when I checked with the director of education, it turned out that the police were still making inquiries, and that those inquiries would show that a sex offender who had received a caution was teaching in a primary school in Reading.
The director of education said that he could not assure anybody or any councillor that children were completely safe in local schools, and only last week, Reading borough council was forced to admit that the department was in chaos. Urgent action is being taken to deal with the deep-seated and deep-rooted problems in the local education authority.
I raise that example because it is important to understand that, no matter how good the legislationas we have heard from many people tonight, this legislation is far from perfectits implementation is key to its success. In Reading, the lead councillor for childrens services has shown himself to be unfit for public office. Assuring parents that there was absolutely no danger to their children when he knew that that was not the case is unforgivable. He played politics and put children at risk in the most diabolical way.
This legislation will only be as good as the councillors and officers who implement it. My experience is that most councillors do not play politics with the lives of children and let us hope that Reading replaces its lead councillor for childrens services as soon as possible so that we can have confidence in the Bill and that it will be implemented properly in my constituency. It is a real test of local public confidence.
That said, I support much of this long overdue Bill. In particular, I support the integration of the various lists in one place and the removal of decisions from Ministers to a new independent body. Giving employers access to real time checks on prospective employees is also a step in the right direction, but I must sound a note of caution: the success of the legislation will also rest heavily on the IT systems that lie behind it.
We all know that the Government have form on IT systems, so I seek assurances from Ministers about the successful implementation of this IT project. I am also concerned that it is not expected to be operational for four years. If this IT project goes like many of the others, we can add at least several years to that. What assurances can the Minister give on the timely implementation of the IT project? What impact will not having the IT systems in place have on the rest of the legislation and its implementation?
I have two further concerns. One has been raised by Baroness Buscombe in relation to an adult list and a child listI shall leave it for now as we are short of time and the Government have said that they will deal with itand there is a long-standing worry about checking overseas workers.
In recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of overseas workers in the care and education sectors, but there is clearly a concern about getting access to the records of those potential employees. I would welcome the Ministers thoughts on how that issue will be resolved by the Government.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on her debut in responding for the Opposition to the introduction of new legislation. Secondly, I anticipate the contribution of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills,
the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who is also making his debut in his new role. I offer him my congratulations, and I am sure that we will see much of each other in Committee considering this and other legislation.
As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, we all welcome the Bill. Some of us would have welcomed it being introduced rather soonersooner after the publication of the Bichard report on 22 June 2004, which is two years ago this Thursday, and sooner after the conviction of Ian Huntley back in December 2003. However, this is important legislation that takes up, as the Minister has said, recommendation 19 of the Bichard report, which is to set up a single, consistent national registration scheme for those working with children and vulnerable adults, with a single protocol and a single set of arrangements for the inclusion of names on two lists.
It is worth pointing out, as hon. Members have done already, that the Bichard report resulted primarily from the horrendous murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham, Cambridgeshire, at the hands of Ian Huntley. It is right for the Bill to receive cross-party support if it can make a major contribution to the averting of further such outrages. In that context, it should be seen as a fitting and lasting tribute not only to Holly and Jessica but to all the children who have gone before and since, dying or suffering at the hands of paedophiles and child murderers when more could and should have been done to keep them away from children.
It is our responsibility to ensure that we get the Bill right, not forgetting that the other important part of it deals with vulnerable adultsthe elderly and infirm, those with mental illness and those with learning disabilities. Various Members mentioned the close link between those who abuse children and those who abuse vulnerable adults.
The opening speech from the Back Benches came from the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who made the relevant point that it is important to communicate the thrust of the Bill and what is expected of people. As she said, that applies especially to smaller care homes. She was the only speaker to mention Army training establishments, and the need to ensure that new recruits are not subjected to abuse. She rightly said that we must avoid the witch-hunt mentality, while also ensuring that vulnerable people who need and deserve our support receive due care and attention.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is no longer present, spoke from her experience as a former care home inspector. She gave telling and lengthy details of elder abuse that she had seen with her own eyes while inspecting care homes. With the system as it was, she was unable to secure a police prosecution because of the nature of the service users in the home who could have given testimony. We hope that the Bill will remove that deficiency.
As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)I am glancing around the Chamber, but I do not think that he is here eithermade some telling points, not least when giving graphic descriptions of what dogs do with their umbilical cords after giving birth to lovely furry puppies, as happened in his household during the past
few days. He said that this was a well-intentioned Bill that attempted to draw lines in shades of grey, and made the pertinent point that it should not interfere with families who were trying to do the right thing by their members.
The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber)who, I am glad to say, is presentspoke about a subject that is dear to my heart: abuse over the internet. I have been to Scotland Yard, and have seen the paedophile unit and the extraordinarily graphic images that are downloaded and exchanged on the internet. As the hon. Lady rightly said, every one of those images represents the abuse of a child for profit somewhere down the line. The Bill, and other legislation that is needed, must clamp down on that abuse of technology. She also raised the interesting question of whether the vetting provisions should apply to potential councillors and Members of Parliament. I am sure that someone will bring that up in Committee.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) reminded us that abuse also happens in Wales. He too brought previous experience in social services to the fore. Like many others, he asked how thoroughly we could vet workers from overseas. Earlier, the Minister had helpfully told us that they would be subject to the same requirements as any domestic applicant for a post. The problem is, how sure can we be of the veracity of some of the documentation and the authenticity of some of the qualifications that overseas applicants claim to have? How much communication will there be between our police forces and police forces in those peoples host countries?
Let us remember that paedophiles can be the most devious and ingenious of people. These are people who go out of their way to get around the system, and it will be rather easier to do it in this country if they have come from another country. The vast majority of people who come to our country, work in public service and come into contact with children and vulnerable adults are absolutely genuine and have the best intentions; butjust as with some in this countrysome do not, and they should be subject to the same rigorous checking as everybody else. We must find new methods of making sure that the system is up to muster.
The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), who is also not present, discussed the issue of online child abuse, which is particularly relevant. I am especially pleased to have been present for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), whom we welcome back after her recent spell away. Her absence has certainly done nothing to diminish her forcefulness, as the points that she made in this debate showed. She spoke from personal experience about the need for the proper vetting of supply teachers, given the laxity in the monitoring of supply-teacher agencies and the apparent failure of the quality mark scheme to address that issue. She also mentioned sex tourism.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)he, too, has disappeared before my winding-up speech; I will take that terribly personallyraised the subject of English language schools and exchange students. Will
families who play host to exchange studentsthat happens a lot in my constituency and in other south-coast constituenciesbe subject to the checks mentioned? Is it necessary that they be subject to them? We need to investigate that matter further.
Typically, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) had done his homework following pronouncements by the former Secretary of State about what will be required of schools. My hon. Friend made the telling point that implementation will be crucial and will only be as good as the people doing the implementingbe they councillors, council officers or other professionals in the field.
The Opposition will pursue all the points mentioned, and others, constructively, so as to provide positive scrutiny and to ensure that this legislation does what it says on the tin. However, I should point out that we witnessed some posturing from Government Front Benchers at the beginning of the debate. It would have been useful if all Members had had all the information available to ensure that our debates were as well-informed as possible. An Ofsted report that is very germane to our debate is to be released at one minute past midnight tonight, and such timing must be down to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Embargoed copies of it were sent not to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmenneither my partys nor the Liberal Democratsthey were sent only to the press. However, the Government have been hoist by their own petard, because the press has leaked that report back to us.
The Government have form in this regard. On Second Reading of the Children and Adoption Bill a few months ago, the Minister for Children and Families mentioned, to further her case, a report that had been released that morning on the internet. That report had not been given to the Opposition or to any other Members of this House, yet it was essential to the matter that we were discussing. Such things must stop. Why is the Ofsted report to be released just after this debate has taken place? Does the Minister not agree that it would have been beneficial to the debate if all of us could have shared in its contents? I do hope that, if any other germane documents come out, they are made available to all members of the Committee as we scrutinise this Bill.
Beverley Hughes: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that when I made my opening remarks, I said that Ministers would have preferred the report to have been in the public domain before this debate, but that that was not in our gift? I suggest that he talk to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), his partys spokesperson on education, who will then inform him of what he was told this morning by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the efforts that we did in fact make to ensure that Ofsted published the report before now. Ofsted decided, however, not to do so.
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