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23 Oct 2006 : Column 1262

Amendment No. 181 adds data held by the IBB and the Secretary of State in connection with his functions under the Bill to section 56 of the Data Protection Act 1998. It thereby criminalises employers who force individuals to make subject access requests for data under the 1998 Act as a condition of employment.

Amendment No. 73 expands the role of the independent monitor to include reviewing all decisions to withhold police information from an individual under clause 21 and reviewing a sample of the information that is provided to the vetting and barring scheme by the police. The independent monitor’s role, as set out in clause 23, covers only police information in connection with Criminal Records Bureau criminal records disclosures. The amendment adds police information in connection with applications for monitoring. That change responds to some of the points raised in the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

New clause 13 and amendments Nos. 77 and 78 make it clear that a finding of fact such as in court proceedings or in an employment tribunal is not necessary for the purpose of any referrals to the IBB. That is because there may be no such proceedings in all the cases where we wish there to be a referral to the IBB. In the Bill as drafted, that was made clear in some of the referral provisions, but not all of them. The amendments remove any doubt.

The amendments provide for more streamlined flows of information within the scheme and so improve its operation. I therefore ask hon. Members to accept them.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I welcome several of the new clauses and amendments, which, again, give us the mechanics of how the Bill will work. The lack of those details when we discussed the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee made it difficult to be sure that we had got to grips with the Government’s intentions. While we welcome their inclusion at this stage, many Conservative Members wish that they had come a little earlier in the process.

I should like to focus my comments on our amendments Nos. 197, 198, 250, 3, 4 and 5, which address three key aspects that may not have been at the forefront of the Minister’s attention owing to his preoccupation with putting some of the detail into the Bill—the quality of the data that the IBB will use, the communication of the implications for employers, and the important issue of overseas workers.

I thank the Liberal Democrat Members who joined forces with us to support our amendment No. 3, which would establish as a core function of the independent barring board the need to implement a comprehensive communications programme. We examined that matter in detail in Committee. The Bill will affect some 10 million people, and, although we made some progress on the issue in Committee, we seem to have made no progress on getting the Government to address it thereafter.

As a result of amendments passed in another place, the IBB will have to notify by recorded letter individuals who have been barred. A Government amendment that we shall consider today will place a duty on a court to inform people that they have been barred as a result of a court decision. Those are examples of good
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communication of information. Also, the Minister has made it clear that local authorities should inform those receiving direct payments of the existence of the monitoring scheme, so that they can make use of it if required. That, too, is an example of good communication taking place. However, nowhere in the Bill is there a requirement to ensure adequate communication to employers and employees on these important matters.

Amendment No. 3 would place a duty on the IBB to implement a comprehensive communication plan. Given that the Bill makes it a criminal act to apply for a job while barred, if that job is monitored—as a large number will be—we believe that it will be imperative to communicate the implications of the Bill to all those involved. That should be provided for in the Bill. When we raised this matter in Committee, the Minister said that those communications would be made when the individual was barred. However, he has made it clear again today that he fully intends to increase the number of people and jobs being monitored. That will create a fluid situation that will change over time. Surely he must therefore understand the importance of adopting our amendment.

On the matter of the quality of the data that the IBB will be using to reach its decisions, I was surprised that the Government had not decided to take on board the comments that we made in Committee, because they have taken on board many others. The Minister acknowledged that it was an important issue, and we had a lengthy debate on the problems that have been experienced in this area by the Criminal Records Bureau. He rightly pointed out that only a relatively small number of people—in percentage terms—have experienced problems gaining employment as a result of the CRB putting out incorrect information. In absolute terms, however, thousands of people are affected by the problem, and I am sure that the Minister is aware that there are continuing concerns about the quality of the data being received by the CRB, not least because of the problems that police authorities are having in sharing on a broader basis the information that they hold.

To include in the Bill a fundamental role for the IBB to have regard to the quality of the data that it receives would safeguard not only employers and employees but the IBB itself, because its reputation would be undermined if people felt that it was not using data of a sufficiently high quality, or that it did not have the means to improve that data over time.

We examined the issue of overseas workers at length in Committee. I am therefore surprised, as are a number of interest groups, that the Government have made no headway on this matter. In Committee, the Minister acknowledged the importance of this issue, and implied that it would be looked at again on Report. Indeed, he said that more needed to be done in that respect. However, I am not aware that the Government have tabled any amendments or new clauses to deal with the matter.

In Committee, the Minister said that it was reasonable to raise the matter, but that it was perhaps not quite the right place to tackle the issue of foreign offences. In the spirit of being constructive, I went away to see whether we could table an amendment that could appropriately be included in the Bill—rather than something that was more to do with the offences
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of foreign nationals. In Committee, the Government quite rightly said that they have introduced measures so that those convicted of sex offences can sign the sexual offences register in the UK. Paragraph 20 of schedule 2 states that inclusion on the foreign barred list would lead to automatic barring in the UK. Those are welcome elements of the Bill, but is the Minister certain that he has full, open and unfettered access to all the relevant convictions held globally by individuals so that he can be satisfied that the measures that he has outlined so far are adequate? I am sure that the answer to that has to be no. We should return to that matter today, particularly given the issue of gaining accurate information from Asia and Africa.

The amendments that we have tabled take on board the discussion in Committee. We are trying to find a solution to this problem—I think that the Minister has some sympathy with that—and to find a way in which we can highlight to employers that the data being supplied to them from the monitoring organisation may not give them a full picture of the record of the individual, because that individual has not continually resided in the UK. As I understand it, currently the system makes no reference to where an individual has lived and therefore an employer is not able to assess whether the information covers the entire working career of that person.

The issue is important because, as the Minister knows from our debate in Committee, increasing numbers of people who work in our health service and areas that affect vulnerable adults come from overseas. That is to be welcomed because those people add greatly to the human resources that we have available in the sector, but we should not ignore the problems that that creates in terms of monitoring their history, in the same way as we monitor the history of people who are resident in the UK and have been throughout their career. I hope that the Minister will consider amendment No. 198, which increases the duties of the Secretary of State in respect of getting information about non-resident individuals.

Importantly, amendment No. 197 makes disclosure of residency in the UK part of the monitoring process. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, we have a group of people working in our medical profession who do not reside in the UK, although they deliver services here. They are an important group who often offer GP or doctor services over weekend periods, when we might not be able to get adequate cover from people who reside in the UK. That opens up another problem. How do we make sure that our monitoring practices are working in the way that they are intended to work? I hope that the Minister is able to listen more to those points now that some of the basic issues in the Bill have been resolved. Perhaps he could think about how we can address that issue as we move forward.

Annette Brooke: I also welcome many of the Government amendments in this group. I want to address amendment No. 3, which it is important to support. Surely we can all agree that this scheme is going to work only if there is excellent communication to inform employers, workers, parents and other people about the new system.

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5.30 pm

The Bill and all its details are difficult enough for us in the Chamber to grasp. It will be especially difficult for those who have to work with it. I therefore believe that there must be absolute commitment to a good communications system. I envisage, through amendment No. 3, a communications strategy from the IBB, which will be implemented at various local levels. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that he envisages local groups, organisations and local authorities participating in disseminating the information.

Has the Under-Secretary considered a kite-marking scheme, which would integrate the requirements of the law and best practice in communication with some of the other processes that must accompany the Bill? The vetting and barring scheme is only one tool in keeping children and vulnerable adults safe. There needs to be a culture of vigilance and training for staff, good child protection policies, a good system of checking references and so on. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary considered a kite-marking scheme for all the different organisations that might be involved in communication and implementing best practice on all the important matters that will make the measure work and achieve what we want when we look back at the sequence of events, which was greatly informed by the Bichard inquiry.

Focusing on necessary aspects such as communication and the culture of vigilance will be additional to including some protection for overseas workers. If there are strong processes and everyone is looking out to ensure that employees have the training that they claim and references have been adequately checked, that would provide more comfort about the overseas workers’ position. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) but appreciate that it is difficult to devise concrete proposals. We would all therefore like the Under-Secretary to deal with the position of overseas workers. There is no quick fix, but genuine rewards, such as a kite-marking scheme, for implementing the processes on the ground would be useful.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned the quality of data throughout our debates. She has been persistent on that important point and I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that issue.

I want to ask a question that the hon. Gentleman did not answer earlier. How can we communicate with private foster carers when we do not know who they are because there is no compulsory registration scheme? I would be grateful for an answer.

Mr. Dhanda: Amendment No. 198 would require the Secretary of State to ensure that further inquiries were made about individuals who live or have lived outside the UK while they are subject to continuous monitoring. Such inquiries could involve contacting the local police force in the area where the individual resided abroad or checking a foreign barred list, if it existed. It is not clear how the Secretary of State would carry out those inquiries. Employers can already request individuals to produce a certificate of good conduct from their local police force overseas. That will continue. Recruiting responsibly is part of an employer’s obligation and the new scheme does not replace that.

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Amendment No. 197 would amend clause 35, which ensures that the Secretary of State will notify the keeper of a specified register when an individual becomes barred or ceases to be monitored. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to inform an individual—it is not clear whom—of the dates that a monitored person had been resident in the UK. Perhaps the intention is that the information would go to employers. If so, that would not be the effect of that amendment.

Whatever the intended destination, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to gather information about an individual’s residence abroad throughout their life. That would extend the scope of the scheme in a way that is neither practical nor desirable. A lot has been said—in Committee and, indeed, this evening—about the number of people that we need to have information on to make the scheme work. I wonder whether stakeholders, or the public, would be willing to take that on. I would have reservations about such a scheme.

I would like to set out the measures that the Government have already put in place to deal with those who have committed sexual offences abroad, whether UK citizens or foreign nationals, and who come to the UK. The notification order was introduced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and is designed to ensure that those convicted of sex offences overseas are made subject to the notification requirements of the sex offenders register in the UK.

Sexual offences prevention orders can also be made in relation to offenders convicted of sexual or violent offences overseas who pose a risk of causing serious sexual harm in the UK. More than 900 sexual offences prevention orders were granted in 2005-06. Breach of either order is a criminal offence.

The Criminal Records Bureau is developing relations and information sharing with other countries on a bilateral basis. However, the UK is well ahead of most countries in this area and some overseas information is simply not available. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Basingstoke is making when she says that we need more and better information, not least from abroad. I also know that serious work is being done with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but in many respects we are at the mercy of the quality of information that exists abroad. We need to be able to tap into that.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I thank the Minister for furthering the debate on the issue. He says that he feels uncomfortable with the amendments that have been tabled, but does not give a reason for that. He might want to elucidate.

The Minister might feel uncomfortable about this issue, but it is causing concern not just among those on the Conservative Benches—I received a detailed briefing on it from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Although he is clearly unable to take the points that we are making fully on board, perhaps he will undertake to meet with the NSPCC to discuss them in more detail. It is making clear the fact that it also has an issue about the matter. Perhaps we have not yet come up with the right solution, but it needs to be addressed.

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Mr. Dhanda: I am always interested in meeting with the NSPCC and am happy to do so, but my concern is the idea of a database logging the time that British subjects spend working or living abroad and having such a record of their lives, which is effectively what the amendment proposes. That is specifically where my concern lies, but I am happy to meet the NSPCC or anybody else who wants to push such changes to the legislation.

In relation to school staff, Department for Education and Skills guidance is being revised and will be underpinned by regulations requiring a mandatory CRB check for all staff, including those who have lived overseas. In addition, overseas staff should not start work until all relevant checks have been completed, including overseas checks. Hence, I ask hon. Members to consider not pressing their amendments.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned communication, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). We had a good debate on amendment No. 3 in Committee, and we now also have amendment No. 200, which places duties in respect of communications on the Secretary of State. As the hon. Lady says, I reiterated in Committee that I was wholly in agreement, as I was on Second Reading, on the need for a widespread and ongoing communications campaign. I appreciate the concerns that stakeholders must understand their rights and responsibilities, that the coverage of the scheme needs to be well known, that inadvertent criminal behaviour must be averted, and that a coherent, co-ordinated communications strategy is needed. We need a scheme that works, and in which people have total confidence. We are committed to instigating a thorough and ongoing communications campaign to create awareness, develop understanding and help employers and employees to prepare for their new responsibilities and rights. The IBB—when it is set up—and the Secretary of State will play distinct and co-ordinated roles in that campaign. I assure hon. Members that stakeholders will also have a big role to play.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole specifically mentioned a kite-mark, which was also an issue raised by the NSPCC, and I would be happy to have a dialogue with both the hon. Lady and the NSPCC about that.

Anne Main: Can the Minister explain to the House again what he means by his statement that inadvertent criminal behaviour must be averted?

Mr. Dhanda: Let me give the hon. Lady a specific example. Where an employer has done the necessary checks on an employee, but not regularly enough to meet the period condition under the guidance, it is important that such employers, who have done their bit to try to ensure that people are monitored and subject to monitoring, and who, inadvertently, have not obeyed the guidelines, are not criminalised for that. Across the board, we must ensure that people are aware of the law of the land and in what circumstances people are and are not subject to monitoring, which will require a great deal of communication.

Anne Main: I think that I am now in deeper trouble than before I asked the question, as the Minister seemed to imply that if the employer had done his bit but
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somehow got it wrong, we did not want to criminalise him inadvertently but to avert that. That seems so subjective that I struggle to see how on earth the provision could be made enforceable. Someone could just say, “I have done my bit”.

Mr. Dhanda: As has been said during the debate, this is a complex piece of legislation. I am the first to admit that. It is important, however, to get across to all employers what is required of them, because that is ultimately for the protection of vulnerable groups. It is pretty obvious that we do not want to criminalise people if they have not broken the law.

Tim Loughton rose—

Mr. Dhanda: With reference to amendment No. 250— [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) does want to criminalise people inadvertently. The independent monitor’s role is to take a view of the provision of information, particularly that withheld from the application in accordance with clause 21(6). That is a specific function in line with the monitor’s role in respect of information provided under part 5 of the Police Act 1997. Oversight of other forms of information such as employer referrals would require different kinds of expertise and focus.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): To go back to the Minister’s previous point, we have tabled an amendment to a later clause that would add the word “negligently”. If the provision were clarified by means of that word, would it not solve the problem raised by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) about the difficulty of making sure that we criminalise only those people who act inappropriately, and do not attempt to put into criminal law something that ought to be dealt with through an employment decision-making process?

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