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23 Oct 2006 : Column 1232

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware of the importance of scrutiny, one of our basic jobs in the House of Commons, so I seek your guidance as to whether there is a printing error in the second item of business listed on the Order Paper. I see that consideration of the amendments on report of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill is to be concluded, according to the Order Paper, at 9 pm, which allows the House less than a minute per item to consider the amendments. Surely, Mr. Speaker, there must be an error.

Mr. Speaker: There is no error. If the right hon. Gentleman has any complaint he should take the matter to his Whip who will take it up with the usual channels.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. On Friday I received a holding answer from the Minister of State for the armed forces to a straightforward question about the payment of separation allowances to our troops. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the very information that I had requested had been given to a Sunday newspaper by the Ministry of Defence. Although I realise that the Government are rightly embarrassed about the fact that at a time when they are keen to announce operational service bonuses to troops, they are cutting their separation allowances by an even greater amount, is it right that that information should be given to a Sunday newspaper, rather than in answer to a parliamentary question?

Mr. Speaker: I hope that when a Member of Parliament puts down a parliamentary question, it is answered, if the answer is available in the Department. From what the hon. Gentleman says, it was available and it was given to a newspaper. I would rather it was the other way round—that the information was given to an hon. Member. Of course, all questions are then put in the public domain for every newspaper to look at.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), I am grateful to him for alerting me to it, albeit in the Corridor a little earlier. I will follow the matter up with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). I do not know the precise circumstances of the point that has just been raised, but I will also follow that up on your behalf, Mr. Speaker, and that of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster).

Mr. Speaker: I thank the Leader of the House.

23 Oct 2006 : Column 1233

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords] [Ways and Means]

3.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I beg to move,

The Bill provides for a fee payable by applicants for monitoring in the vetting and barring scheme. The fee must be regarded as a charge on the people for the purposes of the House. That is sufficient to trigger a Ways and Means resolution. The fee may be considered a charge on the people, in part because the fee income will be applied to fund the independent barring board, which will benefit the vulnerable groups and the public at large, rather than providing a direct service to the applicant.

The motion covers functions carried out under the Act—that is, the functions of the IBB and the Secretary of State in operating the vetting and barring scheme. These are the functions in respect of which a fee may be prescribed under clause 21. The motion enables us to charge a fee, as provided for in clause 21. In the conventional way, it also authorises the payment of fee income into the consolidated fund.

We have tabled Government amendments in relation to the fee-setting provision in order to provide flexibility for the Secretary of State in setting the fee and to give the Secretary of State a power to fund the IBB directly. We need that because the fee income will be paid to the Secretary of State, and there must be a mechanism for transferring the money to the IBB.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Can the Minister give the House some indication of how the Secretary of State might use the power if it were granted? What level of fee are we discussing? What are the review arrangements? How will it be set? The House should know how high a fee might be imposed for the purpose.

Mr. Dhanda: I thank the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for those questions. We will have a detailed debate about those matters, which are covered by amendments to be discussed over the coming hours on Report. I commend the motion to the House.

3.38 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I shall not detain the House long, not least because of the enormous number of amendments—some 207 amendments and 23 new clauses have been tabled by the Government, and nearly all were tabled during the past few days, despite the fact that the Bill completed its Committee stage some months ago. The short time available raises questions about the ability of the House properly to scrutinise the radical amendments submitted by the Government.

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The Minister has not moved a Ways and Means motion before, but I assume he is able to respond. It would be useful if he could give us some assurances about the extent to which increases may take place. According to the notes accompanying the proposals, the capital start-up costs are likely to be £7.58 million in the financial year 2006-07, and £6.92 million in the financial year 2007-08, which is an estimated £14.5 million in capital start-up costs.

Given the record—the form—of the Government in respect of overshooting by large margins estimates for the sums that they are spending on computer projects across a number of Departments, let alone their inability to stay within set dates, I ask the Minister to give us his view as to how realistic the estimates I have just mentioned are, because they will, of course, impact on the charges that the ways and means motion gives rise to.

In the covering notes, it is stated that the Government anticipate that there will be an operating cost of between £16 million and £18 million per annum over the first five years, on top of the costs of the current work of the Criminal Records Bureau. It is stated that that might lead by 2008 to an increase in the fee charged to applicants, which this motion will give rise to. Can we have some greater clarity as to how likely such an increase will be?

We are told that an extra 200 staff will be required in the CRB and the IBB. We are not told how many of those staff are likely to be retained within the public sector, or how many are likely to be contracted out—using a company such as Capita, which I gather was closely involved in the original CRB contract, only for long delays to transpire and for part of the contract to have to be subcontracted out to Bombay, which caused a number of further problems. Given that the CRB is still operating under a deficit—although it aims to have a surplus in the current financial year—this House has concerns, and it needs to be assured in respect of how realistic the level of fees that are set now will be by the time that this legislation comes into force.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to be circumspect about the motion. Its terms might prove to be innocuous; but, on the other hand, they might prove not to be. On the strength of his perusal of its details, does my hon. Friend think that an increase in fees would necessitate a decision on the part of the Government to pursue the affirmative procedure, or would it be possible for the Government to go about such an increase, possibly of an unspecified character, without further consultation with the House?

Tim Loughton: The suspicion underlying my hon. Friend’s surmise is true, in that the current discussion is the only opportunity that the House will have to challenge the validity of the fee. The fee can be raised in future years, without it being necessary to come back for further permission from the House.

It is also worth pointing out that the costs of CRB checks have been increased by an inflation-busting £2, with effect from 6 April 2006, so that a standard check now costs £31 as against £29 last year, and an enhanced check costs £36 as against £34 last year, which in themselves are very large rises on the original sums charged for CRB checks. I am raising many issues that I had not intended to raise.

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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I have some concerns that if there is not a degree of transparency in terms of the fee structure, so that it is perfectly obvious what the applicants are being asked to pay for, this could end up being a tax on job applications.

Tim Loughton: This is another form of tax by different terminology, because the sums will all go into the Consolidated Fund for the Chancellor to do with as he wishes. I do not wish to prolong this debate, but it must be said that there is some opaqueness in the language used in new clause 2 and amendment No. 109, which form the basis of the ways and means motion. New clause 2(2) refers to the costs that the Secretary of State

I am not entirely sure what that means either.

Before we proceed in nodding through this motion, the House is entitled to further clarification in respect of realistic assessments of the amount of money involved at this time—let alone the Government’s ability to be able actually to complete such a project so that it comes into force on time. Is this going to be another opportunity for the Government, and particularly the Chancellor, to increase the figures disproportionately, compared with the increase in inflation? It would be useful if the Minister provided further clarification, because there is very little to the basic motion.

3.45 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I have declared my interest in the Register of Members’ Interests; I am a company director, but I am obviously not pursuing its interests in this debate. I am worried about the resolution’s proving to be a tax on jobs—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). It is a great pity that the original system has not worked as well as planned, and that we now need this expensive new one to try to ensure that people are properly protected.

Given the phenomenal improvements of modern technology, in most parts of the world and in most cases the application of such technology cuts the cost of doing things and makes it easier to do them. But in the case of this Government, we often seem to find that the application of new technology makes it more difficult to do things, that they are done less well, and that a large amount of money has to be spent on remedial action. Indeed, I find it disappointing that the Minister did not give us some financial information when initiating this short debate. This is not an aperitif to the main meal: it is a very important subject in its own right.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans said, in effect, we are talking about taxing institutions and people who are trying to do their best in public service,
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for example, and it is very important that the Minister and his colleagues have proper controls over the setting up and efficiency of this operation, how it controls its costs and how it uses new computing systems to lower those costs. There should be no automatic assumption that when the costs and fees are reviewed in subsequent years, they are going to go up. It would be quite nice to have an assumption that they will be coming down because computing and efficiency measures will be applied to reduce them, as happens in the competitive market in comparable service areas outside this Government’s dream world, in which they can always claim more money from the taxpayer to do such things.

So although the Opposition do not wish to detain the House unduly or to stop the benign intentions behind the underlying measure, the Government should take much more seriously the question of how much all this is going to cost, how they are going to ensure that this board keeps its costs under control, and whether it could surprise us all in two or three years’ time by announcing that it has got better at doing these things and could have a fee cut, rather than an increase. I fear, however, that we are going to have more of the same. We have had an inflation-busting fee increase recently and unless the Minister gets a grip, we will have the same again in a few years’ time. So I hope that he will look again at this issue.

Mr. Dhanda: This motion has initiated an interesting debate. It would be impolite of me to initiate now the debate on the funding and establishment of the independent barring board, because we will have that debate when we consider the second group of amendments and we will be making the same points then. However, I am happy to take on some of the issues that have been mentioned. The intention is that the scheme will pay for itself over the next five years through the fee. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) say that the existing system has failed. It has not; however, the system being set up will be stronger and better and will introduce online checks, for example.

I do not want to go too far now into the debate on the scheme, but I should correct what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said about the need for 200 additional staff. The intention is that the IBB will have some 120 staff to help it with its work. It will not be a profit-making organisation—the money coming in from fees will be put back into it to make it work.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham made an interesting point about advances in technology and whether they could make the scheme more efficient. I am sure that he was referring to identity cards, which he will doubtless support to help make this system more efficient.

Mr. Redwood indicated dissent.

Question put and agreed to.

23 Oct 2006 : Column 1237

Orders of the Day

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [ Lords]

As amended in Committee, considered.

New Clause 1


‘(1) Despite section 43, this Act applies to activity that is regulated activity by virtue of paragraph 1(5C) of Schedule 3.

(2) Subsection (1) does not affect the operation of this Act in relation to any other activity that is carried out in connection with a foster child.

(3) Subsection (4) applies if a person (P)—

(a) makes arrangements for another person to foster a child as a private foster parent, and

(b) has power to terminate the arrangements.

(4) P is, if he would not otherwise be, a regulated activity provider in relation to fostering carried out by the foster parent in pursuance of the arrangements.

(5) The following provisions of this section apply for the purposes of this Act.

(6) A person fosters a child if he is a foster parent of the child.

(7) A person is a foster parent if—

(a) he is a local authority foster parent within the meaning of section 23(3) of the Children Act 1989;

(b) he is a person with whom a child has been placed by a voluntary organisation under section 59(1)(a) of that Act;

(c) he is a private foster parent.

(8) A person is a private foster parent if he falls within subsection (9) and looks after a child—

(a) for reward, or

(b) in pursuance of an arrangement made by someone other than a member of the child’s family.

(9) A person falls within this subsection if—

(a) he fosters the child privately within the meaning of section 66(1) of the Children Act 1989,

(b) he would be so fostering the child but for subsection (2) of that section (minimum period of 28 days), or

(c) (in the case of a child who has attained the age of 16) he would fall within paragraph (a) or (b) if the child were under the age of 16.

(10) A person’s family includes—

(a) the person’s foster child;

(b) the foster child of any member of the person’s family;

and references to a family relationship and family member are to be construed accordingly.’.— [Mr. Dhanda.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 21— Crown application.

Government amendments Nos. 206, 207, 20 and 21.

23 Oct 2006 : Column 1238

Amendment No. 192, in clause 6, page 3, line 34, at end insert

Government amendments Nos. 22 to 25 and 32.

Amendment No. 258, in clause 16, page 6, line 16, leave out ‘has reason to believe’ and insert ‘suspects’.

Government amendment No. 40.

Amendment No. 259, in clause 10, page 6, line 20, leave out ‘has reason to believe’ and insert ‘suspects’.

Government amendment No. 41.

Amendment No. 260, in clause 10, page 6, line 23, leave out ‘has reason to believe’ and insert ‘suspects’.

Government amendments Nos. 44 to 47 and 50.

Amendment No. 193, in clause 14, page 10, line 12, leave out paragraph (h).

Government amendments Nos. 51, 58 to 63, 65 to 67 and 76.

Amendment No. 194, in clause 35, page 24, line 41, column 1, at end insert—

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